Discovering Havana, Cuba
Discovering Havana, Cuba
When we first landed in Havana, we didn’t quite know what to expect. I mean the old cars, the colonial buildings and what we had seen in pictures, we knew…but we had no idea what it would actually be like. The people, the sights, the sounds, the food we were so curious about, that we couldn’t wait to start discovering Havana, Cuba for what it really was.
For starters, Havana, Cuba is divided into three basic neighborhoods: Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Centro Habana, and Vedado. Each has their own distinct personality, each is worth your time, and each is full of vibrant Cuban life.
We chose to explore on foot through the different neighborhoods, and walking through the streets were the times I felt most immersed in Cuban culture. Here’s where we watched as families who lived on the third floors used pulley systems to raise up groceries. Or gazed on as lovers flirted with each other, unaware of the world’s presence. Or witnessed men fixing their cars while their sons watched on and learned. The best thing about Cuban streets? There’s always something going on.
Side Note: If you are planning on traveling to Cuba, definitely bring a map of the different cities, or download maps.me before you leave. We forgot and it was devastating and you won’t be able to download it while you’re there.
As we made our way more into the tourist sector also known as Old Havana, the buildings got nicer, the restaurants got more expensive and the cars were more well kept.
The casa particulares here were more boutique hotel rather than someone’s home, and the colonial grandiosity is hard to miss. What once was, still is, in parts of Old Havana. Restoration projects making sure to not let the history go to waste. And while some parts of Havana may seem to be crumbling, Old Havana is not.
The Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Vieja are unmissable. Each cobblestone plaza has restaurants, cafes, and bars inhabiting the first floor of the outer buildings. Listen to Cuban rooted live music, eat delicious European inspired pastries, and drink a coffee creation that is sure to jolt you awake. We spent a good amount of time in the plazas, simply enjoying the moment and people watching our days away.
The Havana Catedral is open to the public, but they understandably ask tourists to be respectful. Cover your shoulders, wear respectful pants, and take off your hats if you are entering the place of worship. The building with the tall archways in the corner of the plaza is the beautiful Casa del Marqués de Arcos. During the daytime hours, it is open to the public with no charge. Wander around the grand halls, taking in period art and a peek into the past lives of Havana’s elite.
Our favorite place to hang out in Old Havana was a place on Plaza Vieja. And you guessed it…it was a brewery! If you’re like us and got a little bit tired of Cristal and Independente, this was a nice change of pace. It’s also a great restaurant, with fantastic chicken skewers and a bomb looking burger.
If you’re ready for some more touristy fun, head down Obista Street. Full of markets, bars, and shops selling more Che items than you ever knew existed, it’s a fun walk through although extremely hectic.
At the end of Obista, you will find La Floridita. While the drinks here are $6 rather than the usual $3, this place is an experience. Famous for inventing the Daiquiri, and being the regular hang out of the one and only Ernest Hemingway. Someone told us that Hemingway’s personal record was 12 double daiquiris in one sitting. That’s damn impressive! Good luck finding a seat in here though, because it’s always crowded.
Veer away from the tourist traps a little bit, and you’re likely to find yourself entering Centro Habana. Much more laid back, much more local feeling, and much less kept up, Centro Habana is sure to entertain all five senses.
Havana’s Chinatown is located in the midst of Centro Habana, which is funny because there are very few Chinese people. We saw one, to be exact. However, the restaurants dole out huge portions of low mein and chop suey, are mostly located in air conditioning, and are pretty cheap for what you’re served. Plus if you love vegetables as much as I do, the Chinese restaurants were the only places I got generous helpings of greens.
Sociedad Cheng Restaurant was a great place we stopped in to. This place offered up excellent service and even better food. Order a Limon Clarete– it’s lemonade with wine and it’s delicious! Avoid the Chinese restaurant mentioned in Lonely Planet…it’s overpriced and tacky.
Of course, any trip to Havana should incorporate a sunset on the Malecon. Our favorite portion of the Malecon was the stretch belonging to Centro Habana. Sit on the wall, stare out at the ocean, and watch the sun fall behind the city. There’s no better way to end the day.
Head even a little bit farther west, and you’ll reach the neighborhood of Vedado. This is where our casa particular was located, so we became pretty familiar. It’s a decent distance from Old Havana, but it’s still walkable if you have the energy. If anyone is wondering where we stayed, we found it through Hostels Club in a place called Casa de Oralia. Oralia was as sweet as could be, and her apartment had a gorgeous terrace to enjoy as well.
Vedado was the most “real” version of Havana we witnessed. We walked alongside men going to work, children playing in the streets, and in general people just going about their lives. No one cared about tourists. There weren’t any annoying people in your ear trying to sell you this or that. People were just living.
Walking around in Vedado near the University was where we found some of the prettiest houses in Havana. We were strolling Avenida Paseo and just stumbled upon the most gorgeous little houses with these overflowing patio gardens. How could this beauty be so close to the narrow and dark alleyways of Old Havana?
Of course, the famous Riviera Hotel is in Vedado. From the outside, it doesn’t seem like anything special…but from the inside it’s magnificent. Not to mention, good old Frank Sinatra played a concert here for the mob once. Quite the history!
We stopped in what ended up being my favorite place to eat in Havana while walking around Vedado. La Casona de 17 served up some of the biggest helpings of food I’ve ever seen, and it was delicious. Due to a tiny bit of miscommunication on our part, we both ended up with giant heaping bowls of yellow rice, chicken, and peas, with a creamy sauce that was to die for. I forgot about everything while just immersed in my delicious food.
The Plaza de la Revolución is located on the very opposite side of Vedado than the University, and I’m not really even sure if it’s worth a visit. Not my favorite place, but if you’re trying to find the iconic building with Che’s face on it…here it is. If you have to pay for a taxi to get out here, just know it’s a “take a selfie and leave” type of situation.
Also located in Vedado, but somewhere we weren’t able to go is Fabrica de Arte. This is a super cool art gallery/bar/trendy hangout place for both locals and tourists. They have wonky hours though, and are only open on weekends. If you’re in town while it’s open though, we have heard only fantastic reviews.
That about sums up our advice on discovering Havana, Cuba. My advice: get out and walk around! That’s how you’ll find everything you think of Havana as having.