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An essential guide to Havana, Cuba: Things to do, Shopping & Restaurants

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Things to do in Havana


1. Walk along the streets of Old Havana

Throw out your detailed itinerary and just aimlessly wander through the streets of Old Havana town. Well..not aimlessly because there are no sidewalks so it’s about constantly dodging cars, bicycles, etc. using the same road. We crisscrossed streets in Old town and loved the beautiful facades, cobblestone stone streets and plenty of restaurants and bars.

Cobblestone 2

Facade 3 with man

We arrived at Plaza Vieja around 11.30 am and loved the vibrant square. We saw artists performing on stilts and were swept up with the kids performing salsa to the highly contagious tunes.

 

Plaza Vieja 1

We hired a guide for a few hours who showed us around old Havana and we talked to her about the historical and current political landscape. It was nice to hang out with a local and immerse ourselves in the culture for a day.

Grafitti

 

2. Walk along the Malecon

Malecon is a long stretch of promenade on the harbor where locals and tourists come to hang out. It’s a great place to people watch and see the restored classic cars drive by. You can also go for a long walk along Malecon at sunset from Old Havana to Vedado and then end at Hotel Nacional for a drink or snack.

Malecon 2

Malecon is basically just the sea front, but you immediately understand that it represents so much more than that, and that is why you will see so many Cuban people hanging around the Malecon at night. The freedom of the sea, thoughts of distant lands, Florida relatively close by and the previous inability to travel made the Malecon a wistful location for so many. It’s liberating and relaxing to stroll while watching and smelling the sea as it crashes down against the rocks – just make sure you don’t get soaked!

3. Classic taxi tour

Let your hair loose and take a ride in a restored vintage convertible car to feel the spirit of Havana. You will find many cars lined up along the Malecon or near the capitol building and the drivers will actively pursue you to take a ride. Decline politely and firmly if you are not interested or negotiate the price if you are so inclined.

Car 3

Car 2

4. Take a salsa class

It is said that every Cuban knows how to dance salsa. Book one of the many salsa classes to learn a few moves and embrace this fun, intoxicating activity during your trip.

Kids dancing

5. Day trip to the beach

Playas del Este, also referred to as the Havana Riviera is only 30 minutes away from Havana central. We didn’t have enough time to visit but we heard that the white sandy beaches are very nice. If you go between December to April, you won’t see many locals because they consider this time to be a little cold.

playa este

6. See the Tropicana show

The flamboyant cabaret show is fast paced – full of gymnastics, juggling and flamenco. It is almost reminiscent of the 1950’s in Hollywood or Vegas. Reserve in advance. Ticket costs vary – and the top tier shows include a bottle of rum, dinner and tables with the best view.

7. Have a drink at the historic La Floridita

This place is packed every single day and is famous for their daiquiris. You will also see the statue of Hemingway at the bar where he used to spend a lot of his time drinking daiquiris. You can go to dine or just for drinks – either way you’ll enjoy the live music and boozy frozen beverages during a relaxing evening.

El Floridita

8. Day trip to Viñales

Vinales is 3 hour (one way) car ride away from Havana. With pretty valleys, cigar factories, and horseback riding tours there is so much to do. It is a perfect get away from the hustle and bustle of Havana and gives a view into more suburban life in Cuba. If you are not strapped for time, it is better to spend a night in Vinales so you don’t spend 6 hours of the day in transit from Havana.

You can get to various other towns such as Trinidad or Varadero from Havana by arranging a short flight or private car transfer. We were looking for a relaxing trip so we decided to stay in Havana and visit other towns on another trip.


Shopping


It would be a shame to go to Cuba and not get some of the fantastic vices that it is famous for. Here are our recommendations for buying Rum, coffee and cigars.

1.Cuban Cigar

Handmade Cuban cigars are known to be the best in the world. I am not a big proponent of smoking but I will try it to see what the big deal is all about! Buying cigars seems a little intimidating at first when the locals claim to know a source that is legit and cheap and you see so many brands that run through the gamut of prices. After some research and analysis, it is not as difficult. Here’s the breakdown –

  1. Cost – The government regulates the prices of cigars so for the most part going into a government run store with regulated prices is your best bet for getting genuine cigars. Yes, locals may have contacts directly in the factories and figure out ways to get better deals by smuggling cigars and not paying high government taxes. But unless you are an expert it is very difficult to tell whether you are getting a deal or not.
  2. Varieties – The 3 main brands of cigars are Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Cohiba. Romeo y Julieta are the lowest on the spectrum of price and strength and Cohiba is the most expensive and very strong and Montecristo is in between. The strength of the cigar actually depends on the position of the leaf on the plant. The ones on the top receive the most sunlight and hence are the strongest compared to the leaves on the bottom which receive the least sunlight and are the lightest.

Cigars2

You can buy boxes for gifts or can even buy singles just to sample. We went to a couple of stores before finally landing on the store next to La Floridita.

Cigar store

2. Coffee

Cafe El Escorial in Plaza Vieja is a great place to buy delicious Cuban coffee. Unless you get there as soon it opens, you will see a long line of mostly locals waiting to get their coffee. It took forever for the line to move because they only roast and grind a certain amount of coffee at a time. If you want whole beans, you can just head to the counter and don’t need to wait! We found this out after 20 minutes of waiting. Just remember to mention “no molido (not ground)” and walk away with your coveted goodies. We absolutely love this coffee and have been having it every day since we got back.  I would take a trip to Havana just to buy a big batch of this coffee, and I am not even a big coffee fanatic!

Coffee

3. Rum

Our favorite was the 11 Year Santiago de Cuba which unlike other aged rums, was drier. The cost in all the stores should be the same because the government regulates the pricing.


Restaurants


  1. Dona Eutimia

This authentic Cuban restaurant is rated as one of top 5 restaurants in Havana so forget about showing up without a reservation. The food was great (not mind blowing great) and the service was fantastic. We were seated right next to the stairway which was a bit annoying since it was difficult to pass by without touching us. Arrive on =time otherwise you will lose the reservation.

Dona Eutima 1

 

2. San Cristobal Palabar

After being visited by the likes of Obama and Beyonce, it was a little difficult to get reservation at this restaurant but we managed to snatch one up a month in advance. The ambiance and the setting is absolutely fantastic with lovely decorations adorning the walls and making it feel homey and classy at the same time. The food is authentic Cuban fare. Just be prepared for slow service because they still haven’t mastered the art of managing large groups. It was quite chaotic and we had to wait 20 minutes each to order, get our food and even to get our check due to a busload of 25 Germans dining at the same time.

San Cristobal 1

San Cristobal 2

San Cristobal 3

3. 304 O’Reilly

This fantastic Cuban food is laid-back but you still need a reservation. The décor and the service was great and the drinks and food were fantastic. The drinks looked so beautiful that I just kept staring at them and the tacos were to die for. The plantain chips that they bring out before a meal were VERY appetizing. Get their homemade salsa on the side – delicious!

304 oreilly 1

304 oreilly 2

304 oreilly 3

4. El Del Frente

After a great experience at 304 O’Reilly, we thought that we would try their sister restaurant across the street and made a reservation a day before. We arrived on time for our dinner reservation and were excited to be seated on the terrace because the weather was perfect. To our dismay, we were taken to a 12″ table right outside the bathrooms – yikes! Thankfully we got a table on the lower level indoors instead. Unfortunately, this dining experience paled in comparison to the wonderful lunch we had across the street. Suffice it to say, we caught them on a bad evening.

El del frente

5. El Dandy

This brunch / lunch place is a hidden gem! It is conveniently located and is perfect to get a bite during the day.  Everything that we tried was freshly made and delicious. If you arrive before noon, note that only a small portion of the restaurant is open for seating so you may have to wait at the door for some time.

El Dandy 1

 


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