We kissed against their decrepit buildings, stood under waves of sea water, walked through controversial art galleries, danced on their cobblestone streets, drank ten cent cappuccinos and waited 5.5 hours to board our plane back to the land of the free. Havana was…interesting, lively and chaotic. If we had stayed just a few days I think we would have left with our rose colored glasses on, sparkly and clean. But we demanded an introduction to the real Cuba; if we had known that would involve hustling, food poisoning, lost money and an overall bleak view on the political state, past and present…we’d gladly do it all over again. Their companionable people and strangely captivating scenery left us feeling welcomed and appreciated. Hopeful. Granted, many of them thought we were anything but American which, we learned, was a good thing…and admittedly, it was pretty fun to be perceived as a different nationality to every passerby. I paid attention while there and would have loved to have the advice I’m now eager to share. If you plan on going...do take note.
We stayed at Casa Alta Habana in Old Havana. It was absolutely lovely, run by a hospitable, charming family. Beware, you have to climb five flight of stairs (which we welcomed...exercise!). They have a television...but if you truly immerse, you won't watch it. They also have wifi, you'll just need your ETECSA card (see below). The space is lovely and Spanish style, very green. Our room had extremely high ceilings and was super spacious, clean and bright. Hot water, air conditioning and a comfy bed...what more could you want? The rooftop is the highlight though; adorned with gardens filled with roses, fresh herbs, fruit. Breakfast is just 5 CUC (and its a spread), coffee is free and the drinks are the best we could find in the whole city - especially their caipirinhas. We salsa danced with Joy and got to meet other friendly foreigners. The view, though not traditionally beautiful (just because Havana isn't) was lovely, vast and eye opening.
Finding good, authentic restaurants was a challenge and the drinks...well, they weren't always strong. We arrived to the city late at night and were starving and annoyed (after getting ripped off by our taxi driver who charged us double what he should have). Hence, we fell into a tourist trap restaurant - over priced and simply...gross. This made the gems so much better:
Somos Cuba was absolutely delicious. It's a hole in the wall located on San Ignacio just down the street from Plaza Vieja. It won't seem like much but it's the best dinner we had. Make sure you go up the concrete stairwell which is second, right after the one that looks like it might collapse. It'll lead you straight into a family's kitchen where you'll meet Ivan - your chef. There is a large display of beautiful, fresh produce and the ambiance is quiet, simple and original. The walls are covered with compliments from past guests, Cuban pride and vintage posters. It might take 30 minutes for Ivan to make your meal (he does it from scratch) but it's so worth it - flavorful, nourishing, incredible.
Arc Angel Cafe on Concordia between Galiano and Águila was quaint, lovely and timeless. It smelled like incense; the staff were gentle and sweet; the coffee nutty and strong. Fresh squeezed juice, robust breakfast and little, Cuban sandwiches and salads. They had live music sporadically throughout the week as well and they were located just a few blocks from the sea wall.
304 O'Reilly and El Dandy were other good hot spots though Jack got food poisoning at El Dandy. It came highly recommended so I'm thinking just don't get the pork ribs? Or maybe it was a fluke? I'll let you decide. It's near the capital and has great, fun ambiance. 304 O'Reilly is located on O'Reilly; it was crowded even during the week so expect a possible wait. Lobster tacos and empanadas were on point.
We didn't make it to Chancullero since their electricity went out (3rd world country, am I right...) but we were told it was one of the best restaurants in Cuba (so you can imagine how bummed we were) with incredible drinks and Spanish style tapas. D'Next and El Cafe were other highly rated suggestions.
La Floridita, the cradle of the daiquiri, lived up to the hype. Best frozen daiquiri I've ever had and the Hemingway will put you on the floor. It was crowded and chaotic and simply wonderful. We had a blast.
We were told Bertal Brecht and Efe were great, lively bars with live music from popular bands but unfortunately we didn't make it to either.
Get ready for a messy, inefficient, slow, wild, entertaining, boisterous environment filled with music, dancing, debauchery, art, old, Spanish style architecture and of course, vintage cars. The people are smiling and engaging; alas, beware of hustlers as they are abundant. The poverty is striking and the communist government unavoidable. You will be tempted to buy cigars off the street. If you choose this route, I advise discernment as not all cigars are alike and they know you don't know this. Government shops are your safest bet! So much to do and so little time; make a list before you go. Just don't expect to cross everything off of it...
The four plazas: Plaza de la Central, Plaza Vieja (la Camara Oscura), Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de Armas (city museum/naval museum). All are absolute must sees.
Ride in a vintage car and make sure it's a convertible - as long as there's no foreseeable rain. Everything is negotiable. Do not accept the first price. Doctors in Cuba make an average of $64 A MONTH so keep in mind, every dollar you spend is incredibly valuable.
Otherwise, walk as many places as possible. It's the best way to see.
Check out Central Park and Parque Almendares.
If you run out of clothes and are a diva check out Clandestina. Neither of us encountered these issues but again, we heard good things.
Fusterlandia is an artistic quarter. The mosaics are inspired by Gaudi and Picasso. We didn't find it very vast and spent about 10 minutes there...but how involved you get really depends on your style and artistic taste. You'll need a taxi to take you there. Consider checking out Vedado and Miramar on your way.
Museo de Ballas Artes is their Fine Arts Museum located in the Cuban section.
Walk along Malecón. You'll run right into Hotel Nacional de Cuba where you can have a (super decent) drink while looking out over the sea. We decided to ask a fellow tourist for a picture in front of the wall...and of course, just before he hit the shutter, a huge wave drenched us completely. The lady across the street shook her head and gave us a towel before a strict lecture. "¡Gracias, mama! ¡Somos tontos juntos!"
Watch Cuban Olympic boxers train at Boxeo Rafael Trejo (Calle Cuba 815, Old Havana). You won't be disappointed. Say hi to Nardo for us. :)
And PLEASE, go to Fabrica de Arte Cubano. It's like Art Basel in a multilevel converted warehouse. Exhibits, dancing, food, music, drinking, shopping: all in one place. It was the most modern place we went to in all of Havana and it had us swooning.
Some tips that might save you...
1. A cab from the airport to old Havana should be no more than 25 CUC. We got messed over and were charged double. They will tell you their cabs are 'metered'...they're not.
2. There are two currencies in Cuba: the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). Tourists are given CUC and for the most part that's all you will use and receive. However, on rare occasions, when eating at certain restaurants or purchasing items on the street, locals will ask for CUP or give change in that currency. 25 CUP is equal to 1 CUC.
3. WIFI is an antiquated thing. You can find it in most parks and very few establishments (La Floridita being one of them). You will need to purchase an ETECSA card. You should only pay 1 CUC for 1 hour however the line at the actual ETECSA building is about 3 hours long. There will be locals loitering trying to sell cards for more. Save your time and pay the extra 1-2 CUCS more. Just make sure the number isn't scratched or affected in any way as many of the cards are faulty.
4. Don't take shortcuts. We learned this the hard way as Jack loves them. Havana however is not quite the grid we thought it was...
5. Old Havana may be touristy but it's the safest, most 'tranquilo' area of Havana. If you want some mayhem, venture out. Just make sure you know how to get back. :)
6. For your return flight, go to the airport three hours early. Expect long lines, few representatives and a high risk for a delayed flight. You can drink anywhere and everywhere so a bring a few beers for the ride!
Feel free to shoot me an email or DM on Instagram should you have any questions. I'm always happy to share.