Guide to Havana
WHERE TO STAY
Old Havana is the center of tourism and a great place to start if you want to stay close to most city attractions. There are many hotels to choose from, such as the Hotel Saratoga, where Beyonce and Jay-Z made an appearance, and the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway wrote Where the Bell Tolls. One great new hotel to mention is the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, which officially opens to the public June 6th. Right now, it's Havana's only five star option, so if you're aiming to explore in luxury, look no further. To see a more detailed look at the Kempinski's interiors, click here.
Walking around Vedado, you can see how the locals live while being transported to a previous era of Cuba in the 1950s. The houses are all reminiscent of the Garden District in New Orleans, with many lively bars and shops lining its streets. We chose this Airbnb for the duration of our stay, and it was very satisfactory home base for our exploring purposes. Our Airbnb host, Jaime, was extremely helpful the entire time, coordinating private transportation to our various destinations and making sure we were able to get around easily and safely.
WHAT TO EAT
RANCHO LUNA - old havana
Everyone going to Cuba must try one of their most popular dishes, the ropa vieja. We actually stumbled onto the patio of Rancho Luna because the more popular paladar across the alley, Doña Eutemia was booked solid. I'm very thankful for that because we had the best ropa vieja in Havana and grilled marlin with garlic that absolutely melted in your mouth. Rancho Luna was a no-frills option for trying authentic Cuban cuisine; think fresh fish, shrimp, brown rice, and beans. For $15, your meal includes a main entree, rice and beans, salad, and a beverage. Our advice: grab a frozen mojito to go (no public drinking laws!) from Doña Eutemia and sip it at Rancho Luna while awaiting the best ropa vieja in Havana.
ATELIER - vedado
We climbed up a set of staircases in a private courtyard to a wonderful outdoor terrace in the lovely Vedado neighborhood. Atelier was a beautiful place to enjoy some Cuban favorites over dinner in a more refined, sophisticated setting. They have many lovely specials to choose from, including fresh lobster, and one can relax here before a long night out.
EL CAFE - old havana
This small cafe located near Plaza del Cristo is the best place to try most mouthwatering pan con lechon, or pork sandwich, in Cuba. This sandwich constructed upon homemade sourdough bread, slow-roasted pork neck, yuca greens, and an amazing orange-marmalde spread will stay on you mind long after you've left the island. The owner hails from a coffee bar in East London, where he learned and perfected his surprisingly strong espressos. To see more photos of El Cafe's interiors, click here.
AL CARBON - old havana
This new edition to Havana's diving scene does not disappoint. It's always packed so if you don't have a reservation in advance, I would suggest making an appearance during off hours. The drinks here are stiff, the service is excellent, and the food from the grill melts in your mouth. Try their pork tacos; they will not disappoint. If I was ever to catch feelings for a piece of meat, it'd be here at Al Carbon.
LA GUARIDA - central havana
The ramshackle 19th-century building that houses La Guarida boasts some of the most expertly prepared food in the city. You do need to reserve a spot through their website here before your trip as it books up fast. Make sure you order the green ceviche, it's definitely a hit! Don't forget to visit the secret rooftop bar on your way out, accessible through a winding staircase located across from the bathrooms for the most amazing view of both Old Havana and the sunset.
helad'oro - old havana
This cute ice cream shop is distinguisable from the street because of its yellow walls. Once inside, there is a large variety of fresh options to choose from, including mango, strawberry, and even mojito! It's a great place to cool off for a break during a long day of exploring Old Havana.
WHERE TO PARTY
FABRICA DE ARTE CUBANO
This art gallery by day/warehouse party in Brooklyn by night location is one of the coolest spots in Havana. If you want to experience Cuban nightlife with the millennials of Cuba, definitely make a stop here. They have dancing that goes well into the night, and it's a awesome place to experience a more local side of the emerging nightlife scene.
This bar was Hemingway's favorite for a strawberry daiquiri. For that reason, it is frequented by tourists from all over and a drink will run you $6 (high for Cuba). However, the ambiance is lovely and the band playing will transport you back to simpler times. It's definitely worth checking out and staying for a few drinks.
This place has the most "Miami nightclub" vibe in Havana. It's frequented by both Cuban locals and tourists alike, with a heavy focus on the most popular American music at the time. There's an extremely extensive cocktail and bottle list for party-goers looking to dance until the sun rises in the morning.
SLOPPY JOE'S BAR
If you're missing America, this bar will transport you right back into a scene at MacLaran's in How I Met Your Mother.
KEMPINSKI HOTEL ROOFTOP
The Kempinski Hotel's new rooftop boasts a breathtaking view of the capital building, which can be taken in from its beautiful pool or the numerous lounge chairs surrounding it. This is a great place to lounge on a hot night with a cool drink in hand, while enjoying a birds-eye view of Old Havana and socializing with your fellow elite travellers.
WHAT TO SEE
Everyone ends up walking the Malecón at sunset. It's the place to post with friends after a long night out or to try out some dirty Spanish words with your current fling. There are many mainseros along the way, selling homemade peanut candy, batido de mamey (smoothies made from local seasonal fruit), guarapo (sugarcane drink), guava pastries, and little doughnuts if you get hungry. Late at night, the walk is filled with music and dancing; it's a great place for the end of a wonderful evening.
The bacardi building
For just 1CUC, you can climb 12 stories of this skyscraper, formerly home of Bacardi Rum, and take in one of the best 360-degree views of the city. I would suggest sneaking into as many Havana rooftops as possible since security is very lax.
Modern Cuban art is housed in this large lovely building in Old Havana. Come for the historical significance and grandeur of the house alone, as a Cuban private society was once located here. The building boasts a grand ballroom, marble staircases, and ornate stained glass ceilings that you must see, even if art is of no interest to you.
christ of havana statue
At 66 feet high, this statue towers over the city of Havana on Cabaña Hill. It's situated across the water from Old Havana, so if you're up early watching the sunrise, make your way over to this spot. It will definitely remind you of a smaller version of the Cristo Redentor in Rio.
WHERE TO SHOP
hostal conde de villanueva
If you can't make a trip out to Viñales, which I strongly suggest, this is a great place to find a Cuban cigar to bring home
galeria comercial comodora
This is your best bet for locating shops that you left back home. If you simply cannot live without your Lacoste sunhat for the next week, look no further than the Galeria Comercial Comodora.
almacenes san josé
Havana's largest crafts market is the Almacenes San José, which is a great place to find local items and trinkets to surprise your jealous friends back home. It's open daily from 9am until 5pm.
rules for success
Make sure you bring enough money to cover the duration of your stay. Cuba does not accept North American credit cards at this time, a debacle you can read about in my Varadero article. It is easier to exchange euros to CUC at the airport in Havana, so exchange your cash before you depart the United States. It's always better to bring too much than to run out of money halfway through your trip.
Staying in touch with loved ones in Cuba is not difficult, but it is also not as accessible as it would be stateside. One can purchase a wifi card, good for an hour of usage at around 2CUC. You can purchase these cards at most major hotels and stores and use them at any public wifi hotspot. The speed of the internet is good for iMessage and checking Instagram, but to FaceTime family and check work emails you might have to wait until you're back home.
Definitely check your bill before leaving any restaurant; I cannot stress this enough. A service fee is often included, and I would always ask what the additional charges are for because you could end up paying for something you did not order. Make sure to set a firm price with your drivers as well; it is possible and encouraged to haggle in this Caribbean country. For example, a taxi from Old Havana to Vedado shouldn't cost more than 10CUC, but an average ride could range between 5-10CUC, depending on your driver and choice of transportation.
Keep everyday items with you on your trip. Most bathrooms in public areas will not have toilet paper, so bring some folded in a ziploc bag with you. We brought soccer balls for local children as a gift from Charity Ball; the people there are very appreciative of any donations. Many simple items we take for granted are not available in their country at the moment, so give back while you're over there!