As a way to defer admitting the end of the Summer season, I recently paid a visit to Havana. With restored diplomatic relations and tensions between the US and Cuba slowly easing, it seemed like the perfect time to familiarize myself with the once elusive isle. For many the lure Havana rests in their curiosity of seeing contrasting time periods colliding before their eyes. Although everyday life continues as normal, the city is very much a time capsule of an era long gone. Though some airlines have been approved to make direct flights, traveling to Cuba is as simple as incorporating a layover in Mexico into your travel plans and picking up a $20 visa before boarding a flight to Cuba.
Food is often my favorite talking point when traveling to a new place. Unfortunately for us we were told by many that the best place locals can go to get authentic Cuban food was in the comfort of their own home. Eating out here doesn't seem like it's as prominent a part of their culture as it is here in The US. But a girl's gotta eat and I was determined to find my way around this culinary dilemma.
So how it works is that there are two types of restaurants in Cuba, the first being the state-run restaurants which have little appeal as they often serve very bland food. Second, are the new privately run restaurants known as paladares that have been opening up all over Havana. These new eateries have provided an alternative to the traditional government-run model of eating out, and have allowed chefs to garner more accountability when getting creative in the kitchen. Below I've listed some of my most favorite spots we visited.
Where to Eat/Drink:
Located within Centro Habana, La Guarida's food is just as fascinating as it's history. The old mansion that it now calls its home was once owned by a wealthy doctor, later when the property switched hands it was turned into a hostel for international students. During the revolution, the mansion became subdivided into individual living quarters and distributed to Cubans as permanent housing. You can still see traces of ordinary life taking place amidst the reconstruction as you make your way upstairs to the beautiful paladar.
Situated inside one the many resplendent old colonial mansions you'll find sprawled across the neighborhood Vedado, Atelier is another paladar that provides a beautiful upscale dining experience and a fresh take on Cuban cuisine. Albeit a very traditional dish compared to the other items listed on the menu, the Ropa Vieja is not to be missed!
You can find La Barraca at The Nacional Hotel de Cuba. The food here is without a question delicious but that's not why this place gets my vote. The piña coladas are simply the best I've had, not only in Cuba but truly ever! Unlike the traditional syrupy sweetness the cocktail is known for, this rendition is a breath of fresh air, made with coconut flakes and topped with a dash of cinnamon and a slice of pineapple. The ocean view coupled with the occasional peacock sighting make it an even sweeter respite from the busy streets outside.
Honorable mentions: La Chucheria, Heladería Coppelia
Things to Do:
FABRICA DE ARTE
It's hard to encompass in only a few words what exactly Fabrica is, other than to say that if you're in Havana it's mandatory that you go! The old factory has been converted into part art gallery, club, cafe, screening room, bar, lounge.. it goes on. You're guaranteed to find something within its many rooms to spark your interest, and to top it off the entrance fee is only 2CUC!
CALLEJON DE HAMEL
Sundays around noon are the best time to head to Callejón de Hamel to catch a glimpse of Cuba's Afro-Carribean culture. The entire street is an outdoor art installation, created by Salvador González, is enlivened by the sounds of live rumba performances, bbq grilling and hoards of people dancing.
Honorable Mentions - La Rampa, Casa de la Musica
Things to Consider
As Cuba is still mostly a cash economy, and many places do not accept credit cards. That being said, its best to bring all the cash you may need with you, and preferably in Euros, as there is a 10% transaction fee for converting American dollars.
There are two currencies in Cuba: The National Peso (CUP) for locals and the Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourist. Though most items will be priced in CUC, it's likely to be the only currency you will have to deal with, it's important to keep in mind when visiting less touristy areas that roughly 24 CUP equal 1 CUC.
To put it plainly, the wifi in Cuba is horrible. On top of that it can only be accessed after purchasing an internet card, and then making your way to one of the several hot spots in the city. Essentially, plan ahead!