Havana in 48 Hours: A Guide to Cuba’s Capital City
Havana is a city dressed faded finery, it’s wild heart pulsing with heavy guitars and honking horns, it’s heat rising from the asphalt and pressing down from the atmosphere. Havana doesn’t do halfway — you’re either all here or outta here. It’s a juxtaposition of grandeur and deprivation, a place where even the most rigorous sanctions can’t keep down an enterprising spirit. It’s flashy, it’s fast, and if you’re not careful, it’ll steal your heart and your wallet. We talked about how to get to Cuba. Now here’s Havana in 48 Hours: A Guide.
Havana in 48 Hours: A Guide
If you want a true Havana experience, then book a casa particular. This is the equivalent of a bed and breakfast in the home of a Havana native. For about $25 USD/night you’ll get a room and a bathroom in an apartment somewhere in the city. For an extra $5 USD/person, your host will cook you a meal. I recommend booking something in Old Havana, or Habana Vieja. This will put you within walking distance to most of the sights recommended in this guide.
Some casas worth checking out:
Casa Ofelia — The rooftop deck of this penthouse apartment alone makes it worth finding. Eat your breakfast in the sunshine and take in the view of the city from above.
Casa Zule — For something a little more upmarket, you can’t beat the location and nice touches of this casa.
Many complain about Cuba’s food. Some call it uninspired, lacking the depth and variety of it’s Caribbean and Mexican neighbors. While spice may be conspicuously absent, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few culinary gems worth seeking out. Here’s where to find the best:
This place has a few things going for it. 1.) The location is right on the Malecon. On a Friday or Saturday night, you can kick back in the open-air dining room, nosh on the seafood rice, and people watch to your heart’s content. 2.) The prices are good. Many of Havana’s finer institutions will charge you much more than a budget price for a meal. Not so at La Abadia. 3.) The Arroz La Abadia is pretty damn good. It’s a take on Cuba’s famous arroz con pollo, but this time with chunks of shrimp, lobster, calamari, and other seafood delights. Even better? It’s $5 USD. Link.
Nao Bar Paladar
This spot is tucked into a laneway right by the waterfront. It offers two dining room options: Tables set out on the street with a live band crooning in the background, or a quieter (and air conditioned) dining room upstairs. The ambience in either is lovely, and service is excellent no matter what you choose. You can splash out and get an excellent lobster, just make sure you are very hungry. The portion is huge! This is one of the few Havana restaurants that has presentation nailed. Link.
This place does spectacular Cuban classics… unfortunately, the word is out. You’ll need to secure a reservation at least a day or two in advance in order to get a table. But if you manage to finagle it, consider yourself blessed. Tucked at the very end of a laneway of cafes near the Cathedral in Habana Vieja, you’ll need to run the gauntlet of jinteros (aggressive hawkers desperate to make a buck by pushing you to another restaurant) to find your way to the door. Once you’re parked at your table with a frozen mojito on the way, you’ll be all smiles. Their ropa vieja is made with lamb instead of beef, and it’s worth a try. Their appetizers are also unique takes on Cuban classics, so come hungry and try a few. Link.
Esto No Es Un Cafe
If you happen to be one of the unlucky few who don’t get a table at Dona Eutimia, Esta No Es Un Cafe is your saving grace. This is the only other paladar (other than Dona Eutimia) in the alley that doesn’t use the aggressive jinteros. They present their food with an eye for beauty, and their technique and creativity is a departure from most Havana restaurants. Plus, the service is unbeatable. Our server, Guillermo, ended up chatting with us all evening between tables. He happily made menu recommendations, rum recommendations, talked politics with us, and told us about his childhood in Havana. This one is a hidden gem well worth a stop for lunch or dinner. LINK.
It’s impossible to visit Havana without getting a little rum-soaked. Ask Ernest Hemingway, he spent 20 years pickling his liver with Havana Club and fishing off the coast. There are a few spots where the rum is only part of the show, and the experience takes center stage. Here they are:
Beautiful women sing their hearts out to the guitar and horns, cigar smoke wafts through the air, and round after round of frozen mojitos are slung across the bar as quickly as the barmen can make them. If you want to step back in time, step into El Floridita. Plush red-upholstered booths line the room, tables are crammed with cigar-wielding tourists, the lights are low, and the drinks are strong. This place was made famous as one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts, and it’s easy to see why. Though it gets crowded, there’s usually enough turnover to get a seat relatively quickly. And those mojitos… yum!
Bodeguita del Medio
If dancing in the street is your kinda night, go no further than Bodeguita del Medio. It is another Hemingway classic, and it boasts the best mojito in Havana (a pretty bold claim). Just around the corner from the Cathedral in Habana Vieja, this bar and restaurant is a celebrity favorite. Photos are plastered on the walls of the many actors, singers and politicians that have passed through. The band blares in the front bar room, and the crowds get so intense they often spill out into the laneway outside.
El Chanchullero de Tapas
If you need a break from the uber-touristy spots, try out this hole-in-the-wall spot in Old Havana. It’s tiny, so odds are good that you’ll have to wait a little while. It’s growing reputation doesn’t help matters much either. Once you’re inside though, you’ll be treated to drinks and food worthy of the wait. And despite Bodeguita’s claims, El Chanchullero might actually have the best mojito in Cuba… but you’ll have to decide for yourself. LINK.
Buena Vista Social Club
It’s mega-touristy, but it’s kinda a must-do. This former private club from the 1940s is a dinner-and-dance show that celebrates all the great things about Cuban music and dance. Somehow, the beats that pump out of the drums, horns, and guitars can get even two left feet to find some sort of rhythm. It’s a dazzle of lights, color and sound, and it’s on Monday and Wednesday nights in Old Town Havana.
Cruise in a Classic Car
You have to work pretty hard to avoid doing this in Havana. Everywhere you go, jinteros will ask you if you want a private tour of Havana. After the 100th time, you might actually give in. Yes, it’s an intensely Instagrammable moment, but if you get the right driver you may also have a pretty good experience seeing the sights. It’s more expensive than, say, the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, but it’s so much more stylish, it’ll be worth the cash.
Walk the Malecon
If you manage to arrange your visit over a weekend, don’t miss a chance to wander the Malecon with a bottle of rum. It’s one of the cheapest and most fun ways to fully immerse yourself in the daily life of Havana. Local packs of high-schoolers roam the broad sidewalk, looking for a little trouble to cause. Young lovers passionately make out at various points along the wall. Music starts, stops, starts again. Families cruise the street, hand in hand. And the chorus of the sea crashing into the seawall behind you creates a sleepy rhythm that perfectly compliments the warm Havana night.
Have you visited Havana yet? Is it in your 2017 travel plans? If you have any questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments!