Havana is a complex city that continues to reveal itself year after year. Founded in 1515, it’s replete with Renaissance, Baroque, Neo Classical and Art Deco architecture, reflecting its wealth and energy over time. Modern buildings reflecting the austere ideals of the Revolution sit side by side with elaborately decorated historical facades, but everything is patched and held together in the face of decay and economic troubles.
Havana is dynamically changing as trade relations warm up and NGOs pour in with UNESCO, restoration and heritage interests. At its heart, Havana is a passionate, positive city, pulsing with music and creativity while also acting as the seat of the Cuban government. We only had 24 hours on the ground – not nearly enough time to see everything, but a great sample of this gorgeous city. Here’s a short outline of our adventures in Havana as U.S. Citizens.
Mornings in Habana Vieja
We arrived around 11am on a Monday, the Fathom Adonia docking right in the heart of Habana Vieja, near Plaza San Francesco de Asis. Having established a general orientation before departing our cruise ship, we were happy to wander Habana Vieja, targeting each of the five main squares and having a photo safari along the way. We started with Plaza del Cristo, and then made our way to Plaza de la Catedral.
For lunch, we ducked up a shady side street and enjoyed lunch in a Havana paladar. Paladares are privately owned restaurants, which were just recently permitted to operate (as opposed to government-run establishments.) Cuban Paladares reflect the interests and skill of the owners: typically operated by a family, they may be housed in a private home or in a traditional restaurant setting. There are a number of unique and lively paladares, including Dona Eutemia, El Frente, Nazdarowie, and Nao. Enjoy a cocktail, sit back and watch the street life dance by.
Strolling Havana in the afternoon
After our lively lunch, during which we were serenaded by street musicians, we enjoyed more visual exploration. Havana can oversaturate with its dynamic street life. Take time to walk the various blocks, popping into artisan shops and discover interior courtyards of the classic palazzo structures that make up the city.
The heat of the afternoon called for chilled coffee on a shaded terrace. There is very little if any air conditioning in Cuba. Finding a shaded terrace, however, is quite simple. Known as the city of columns, all buildings flanking large squares seem to be colonnaded, offering lovely shade and a nice breeze. Kick back and revive with a powerful Café Cubano – perhaps served over ice cream, or spiked with some whiskey. We found a lovely respite at Café El Escorial in the lively Plaza Vieja.
Sunset drive in a Havana classic car
After a little rest, we opted for an evening drive through the city in a vintage car. The vintage cars are a must – the ingenuity with which these cars are kept running is marvelous. They are practically an icon of Cuba. A 60-minute tour will cost somewhere between 40-50CUC – feel free to barter if you wish.
The drivers are justifiably proud of their city and generally have a set series of monuments they take you to, including a drive past the National Assembly, the Museum of the Revolution (ironically housed in a splendid palace), and Revolution Square. Most drivers are friendly and happy to take you to any destination you may choose, and will strive to help you get the photo you may desire. Be sure to tip accordingly.
Dining al fresco in a Cuban Palador
After our ride, we walked some more before discovering a hip modern paladar for dinner – El del Frente on Calle O’Reilley. A steep, narrow flight of stairs took us up from the unassuming whitewashed door at street level to a lovely dining room, and then further up to the roof deck, which had a bustling bar and great music. Mojitos served in a pint jar, steak and lobster tacos served with rice and beans, a lovely young multinational crowd enjoying the warm evening breeze – this was a perfect discovery.
The nightlife in Havana is fabled throughout history – from famous clubs such as the Tropicana and Shangri la, to small bars and cafes featuring live bands nightly – the music pours out into the streets. Monday eve was relatively quiet, so we enjoyed a dessert and a nightcap at Azucar, a very modern tapas restaurant on the 2nd floor overlooking Plaza Vieja. We enjoyed the music pouring out of another venue on the plaza while watching residents and tourists mingle below. After closing around 11pm, we decided to turn in, in anticipation of another day.
Waking up in Havana Cuba
Tuesday morning, we woke early and had breakfast at the completely unassuming Santa Domingo bakery and café on Calle Obispo. The coffee shop was thronged with Cubans taking their morning café before heading in to work – standing at the bar, jostling for their café, it looked as much like an Italian coffee shop morning as anything. There’s only one item on the menu: café, $1CUC.
We didn’t check if there were other options available, as the lovely scents wafting from the bakery next door drew us in. Upstairs, a small café offers breakfast at extraordinarily reasonable rates: ham and eggs with toast for $1.50CUC, French toast for the same – we added a café, a cappuccino and 2 pastries from downstairs, filling up for less than $7CUC between two people!
Discovering the history of Cuban art
Well fueled by breakfast, we continued our walk around Habana Vieja, heading towards the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Arte Cubano) – part of the national art museum, housing exclusively Cuban art. A modern building, complete with air-conditioned galleries, this was a superb museum to explore the overall zeitgeist of Cuba through the ages. From Colonial exploration through the revolution and contemporary art incorporating salvaged industrial components, Cuban art always has a voice and an opinion about the current state of affairs and island life. The museum itself is laid out a little confusingly: there is a long ramp that takes you to the top floor where the galleries are arranged in consecutive eras. Follow the map to makes sure you catch each of the galleries.
We spent about an hour or so in the museum, and then stepped back out into the street to wander back around Habana Vieja. Walking past the army vehicles at the Mueso del Revolucion, we contemplated the idea of tanks and military trucks filling these very streets just a few short decades ago – the electric energy the revolution must have brought, and the confusion and adjustments of its aftermath. Back in to the warren of Habana Vieja, we wandered up Calle Cuarteles, discovering a few gloriously well-kept intersections: clean and polished, flanked with a church and some outdoor seating at a café, I was momentarily disconcerted – it had the same scale, vibe and energy of a small corner in a city like Rome or Paris.
Treasures found at Havana’s book market
We walked back towards Plaza de Armas, where I discovered, packed amongst the leather-bound Spanish and French books, an English language 19th century guidebook to Italy. After chatting with the vendors and dodging some rain, we walked over to Casa de Café: a government approved shop offering coffee, rum and cigars to take back to the US, with a small café in the mezzanine above. With only an hour before our ships departure, we ducked in to the adjacent Paladar Nao for a bite to eat, and we were thrilled we did. Our last meal in Havana was a mouthwateringly tender lechon platter: spit roasted pulled pork, served with black beans and rice, with a final order of mojitos. Perfection.
Camera cards packed with photos, hearts and minds filled with the smiles and friendliness of the Cubans, legs exhausted from 20 miles of exploring cobblestone streets, we boarded our ship again. Twenty-four hours is far too short a time to experience Havana, and we agreed – next time, we will have a longer stay, preferably on a lively Friday or Saturday night.
Where to eat in Havana Cuba
- Azucar Café and Lounge, Plaza Vieja. Mercaderes, 315 | Plaza Vieja, Habana Vieja, Havana 10100, Cuba
- Café Santo Domingo, Obispo No 159 btwn San Ignacio & Mercaderes, Havana, Cuba
- Casa del Café, Baratillo, corner of Obispo.
- Paladar Dona Eutemia, Callejon del Chorro # 60-C | Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba
- Paladar El Del Frente, O’Reilly 303, La Habana, Cuba. +53 7 8630206
- Café El Escorial, Mercaderes No 317 Plaza Vieja | Old Havana, Havana, Cuba
- Paladar Nao, Obispo No 1 e/San Pedro y Baratillo | Old Havana, Havana, Cuba