A Traveler’s Guide to Havana
“Time gives poetry to a battlefield,”
~ Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana
The pulse of the country introduced itself as how I thought it would be, frozen in time, chaotic yet charismatic. While the city met a lot of my expectations, there were still surprises. I had mixed emotions about Havana, it was fascination and frustration all wrapped into one confusing ball of feelings. Here’s a traveler’s guide to Havana to make sure not to miss out on the musts and to navigate through all the emotions.
Finding your ‘hood
There are some distinct neighborhoods in Havana, even if you aren’t aware of the invisible lines through the city, you can tell which sections belong to which neighborhood.
We stayed in the Centro our first night in the city and upon exploring the next morning, we quickly realized we were in everyday Havana. It’s the smallest of the municipalities in the city but the most populated. Removed from the tourist zones, Centro feels the most neglected and most dilapidated. It’s a great view into Cuban life and maybe a more realistic version of city living instead of the cleaner kept streets in historic area.
El Barrio Chino, or Chinatown of Cuba. Yes, there is a Chinatown in Cuba. Contracted workers arrived in the late 1800’s and then another wave of Chinese immigrated to Cuba avoiding discrimination in the United States. At one time, there were over 40,000 Chinese working in the sugar cane industry, but today the number is closer to 500. I happily stumbled into Cuban Chinatown on an early morning photo walk, not knowing about that part of Cuban history.
Viejo, or Old Havana was our favorite place to stay in the city. This is where all the good stuff is, the visuals that enticed you to come to Cuba are all within these few blocks. Vintage cars, architecture, parks and culture, this area is jam packed with people watching, building gawking, food noshing and Mojito drinking.
Vedado is a more residential area that has a lot of the beautiful, old mansions and this is where more of the affluent Cubans reside. It’s the more modern of the neighborhoods and a lot of the bars, clubs and restaurants can be found in this area.
Finding your dish
Food here is complicated, not in a complexity of a dish, but in the politics behind what is available and affordable for the people.
El Atelier, a paladres (or private restaurant) in an old mansion with an ever changing menu offers an excellent entry into the Cuban food scene. Surround yourself with as many unique dishes as Havana antiques.
Osteria was our little home away from home. It’s an Italian style restaurant with Cuban influences located in Old Havana. The owner is Italian and when you rent a room you will not leave the building hungry, EVER.
Sloppy Joe’s was our go to burger joint. This place is twofold; corny as hell but intriguing as ever. You know that only tourists frequent here, the food is all western (which was a bonus for us, welcoming a sure thing on a plate). When it comes to a touristy diner, Sloppy Joe’s has been slinging drinks for foreign visitors, after a almost 40 year hiatus, in 2013 they reopened again in the same building, with many of the same photos of old clientele on the walls.
The O’Reillys. There were 2 places we loved going to while in Havana, so clearly O’Reilly street was one of our staple locations. Both Cafe O’Reilly and 304 O’Reilly came recommended but they are two totally different restaurants. 304 O’Reilly is probably one of the hippest places in the city with a menu of craft style cocktails and a truly delicious, unique nibbles. The place itself is really small so I suggest going to grab a bite at an off hour or stop in and make a reservation. Cafe O’Reilly was our local hang out for the week, heading there for coffee or Cokes and ham & cheese sandwiches that were perfect for a good, quick lunch. We watched a couple of soccer games here too, the upstairs has a little bar where you can smoke cigars & look out onto the balcony.
Findng your beach blanket
Playa Santa Marie is a short drive outside of the city therefore is a popular location on sunny days. It’s the biggest beach, we were there on a Sunday and there were tons of families and so if you are looking for a little slice of quiet paradise, this may not be the beach for you. If you want to just take an afternoon to soak up the sun and mix with the locals, this is the spot.
Finding your inner Hemingway
“Hemingway drank here, come, have a drink!” You’ll hear this around every corner and even though I knew it to be a tourist trap, I couldn’t help but fall for being sucked into the writers past boozy haunts. One place Earnest for sure had a few rum cocktails was Finca La Vigia, his lookout house. Read more about keeping Hemingway’s house preserved, a wonderful story of how American & Cuban relations begin to work together again HERE.
Venturing outside of town for the afternoon was one of our highlights of our time in Havana. Hemingway picked a serene vantage point in the town of San Francisco de Paula and the house is full of his books, artifacts and artwork giving you the feeling that you’ve driven up to a place he still occupies. Head up to the look out tower for a spectacular view of Havana in the distance and be sure to take a peak at the pool area where Pilar, his famed fishing boat sits.
Want to get tipsy like the novelist without leaving the city? Like a moth to a rum soaked flame, I was instantly attracted to La Bodeguita del Medio before I knew its history. This hole in the wall bar has graffitti on the walls, photos hung throughout and Mojito drinkers spilling onto the street. It’s energy is contagious and you really feel the essence of Havana in a glass. Street sipping isn’t your thing, retreat to the AC & grab a daiquiri at La Floridita, another of EH’s spots.
Finding Havana’s Attractions
Take a walk with the locals along the water on the Malecón, learn more about Cuban history at the Revolution Museum, take a joy ride in a vintage car or take a walk to absorb all the wonderful old architecture throughout the city. There’s truly something for every traveler here and it’s easy to fall in love with the city that gives so much. Be sure to check out my friends at howtotraveltocuba.com to plan for the ultimate Cuban vacation.