A Guide to Old Havana, Cuba
Things Todo in Old Havana
During my time in Cuba, I explored the city of Old Havana which is one of the most touristed areas in the country. Old Havana, unlike many places I have visited on my travels, has retained its heritage over the decades. Sometimes by government mandate but seemingly more by the lack of the forces of modernity that permeate the rest of the world. While aspects of the modern world have touched areas of the city, the vast majority of locals live a simple lifestyle with limited access to modern day amenities.
As you wander the streets, you won't see children playing on their tablets and only the very rare Audi prancing down the dusty roads. Instead you'll see people queueing around the block to get a card to allow them to access internet for a few hours, stray animals scavenging for food, bicyclists under the open sun, and the parade of ancient cars with colourful facades.
There is something so beautiful and yet so tragic about this place. When you scratch beneath the surface of quaint buildings splashed with bright reds, blues, greens and the charming little side streets; the locals tell stories of their struggles to earn enough money to make a living, how their turbulent political history continues to affect their lives and the reality for most that they may never leave to explore the world. While this is a similar story for many around the world the most unsettling part is that there doesn't seem to be a movement of change yet. There are few visible ripples and while internet is still a luxury the landscape is changing slowly. For the better, we still have yet to see.
But there are many beautiful things about this country. Once you get out of the hustle that is Old Havana everything seems to slow down and people smile more. Some of our favourite experiences were queuing with the locals to get internet cards in a thunderstorm, buying fake cigars from a taxi tour, and eating at food markets where access to fresh ingredients was evidently scarce.
Here are a few tips for Old Havana which will help you make the most your time there!
Ivan Chef Justo
Chef Ivan Justo is situated in an old 18th century building with a retro-inspired interior decor, this restaurant is one of the best Cuban dining experiences we had in Old Havana. On a quiet street just off the main road you'll be led up a quaint staircase leading to the dining room. We were seated at a cozy corner table on the rooftop terrace, with a view of the Museo de la Revolucion.
The mixed tacos starter was superb, despite the avocado flavour being somewhat muted, the soft yet robust tortillas were filled with an array of ingredients, such as lobster, pork, beef, tomatoes, onions, chilli etc. The real standout was the lechoncito (suckling piglet) which was tender and full of flavor with a crisp shell of skin as any proper lechon should have.
Pro Tip: If you want to dine on the rooftop terrace, you'll need to ask for it. They also make a mean Pina Colada!
From the people who brought us Chef Ivan Justo, Al Carbon is the equally successful love-child paladar next door. Opened in 2015, this paladar specialises in cooking traditional Cuban dishes over charcoal. Here, as with Chef Ivan Justo, you'll pay a premium for the freshness and quality of the ingredients, but it is well worth the cost.
I knew I had to try the lechoncito and boy did it deliver! Compared to the stove-cooked version at Chef Ivan Justo, this one was markedly better in that the skin was smoky and much crispier thanks to the charcoal grilling. This happens because charcoal is able to cook the meat at a much higher temperature. As the heat radiates into the meat, the fat, oils and proteins begin to liquefy and drip down onto the bed of coals below.
As the liquid strikes the coals it vapourises and infuses the meat with flavour.Other notable dishes are the fondue appetiser and chicken breast plato principale.
Restaurant Van-Van apparently uses the same decorative formula used by the owners of Chef Ivan Justo and Al Carbon. That said, their lively assortment of miscellaneous signs, trinkets and paintings, coupled with the hum of traditional cuban music create a lovely atmosphere. No trip to Cuba is complete without sampling the famed national dish - ropa vieja.
The literal translation of ropa vieja is old clothes, this is descriptive of the stringy appearance of the beef. The cut of beef that is used in this dish is the flank, which is characteristically very flavoursome while quite tough. For this dish, the beef is cooked in a tomato sauce and the moisture from the sauce helps to break down the connective tissue in the meat, making it tender and juicy. The meat is accompanied by black beans, yuca (root vegetable), plantains and rice.
We tried a a few versions of this dish at multiple restaurants in Old Havana and Restaurant Van-Van was undisputedly the best.
For the most part, the food here was average, which is symptomatic of many restaurants in Old Havana. However, I did enjoy some pretty tasty empanadas with fiery salsa picante, so if you have a hankering for a decent empanada, O'Reilly 304 has got you covered.
I am firm believer that empanadas should be fried and crispy, although sometimes it's nice to try the pastry variety for a change. These empanadas, with their gently-fried surface and slightly doughy insides, were our gastronomic-Treaty-Grounds.
Nevertheless, these empanadas were 'pretty tasty' by Old Havana's standards, they're certainly not earth shattering.
La Bodeguita del Medio is claimed to be the birthplace of the Mojito and is famed all over Cuba, even the world. While Ernest Hemingway may have frequented the place, they don't make the best mojito in the world.
Nevertheless, this renowned bar is an essential for any visit to Old Havana, as it's now a part of its rich cultural history.
Pro Tip: The upstairs bar is quiet and has a more chill vibe than downstairs. Ask to be seated upstairs!
Iberostar Parque Central is said to make the best daquiri in town, being one of the Manc's favourite cocktails, she made it her prerogative to try as many as she could. After being served mostly syrup flavoured daquiri's, she was delighted to get one made with fresh fruits from Parque Central.
We'd recommend the pineapple and banana flavours.
Lamparilla Tapas & Cervezas, while their food was dire, they mix a solid michelada.
Originating in mexico, the michelada is a cerveza comprised of beer, fresh lime juice, tomato juice and hot sauce in a salt-rimmed glass. Lamparilla makes a bold, sapid and acidic michelada that's definitely worth a try!
Things to do
Apparently we make friends with the right people! While in a queue, the Manc had managed to strike up a conversation with a friendly American guy (with an extremely patient wife), who was a cigar enthusiast having travelled to Cuba multiple times with the sole purpose of buying cigars. He was kind enough to share his top tips on scoring some of the best Cuban cigars. Firstly, you don't need to schlep to the other side of town if you'd prefer not to, as most hotels do a nice selection of reputable cigars. For those wanting to venture out of the city, there are day trips to cigar plantations in Vinales.
The Partagas Factory offers a tour for $10 on weekdays between 9am-midday and is a short 15-minute taxi drive out of Old Havana centre. These tour places can be booked at the Information Desk at Hotel Plaza, where they instruct you to buy your ticket before 9am on the day you want to visit the factory.
La Casa del Habano (15th and 16th Avenue, 5 y Calle 16, Miramar) is a high-end cigar shop, one can be found in Miramar which is less than 25 minutes drive from Old Havana (we incorporated a visit into our 2-hour classic car tour).
La Casa del Habano, Club Habana (Avenue 5, entree 188 y 192, Miramar) is the place to enjoy a custom rolled Monsdale with a pigtail cap (or curly head) with caramel and butterscotch flavour components.La Casa del Habano, Hotel Habana Libre (Calle L, entree 23 y 25, Vedado) houses the largest selection of boxes of cigars in all of Havana.
Pro Tip: People near El Capitolo may approach you and ask you where you're from, pretend to have seen you earlier that day or be staying at the same hotel as you.
They'll try to persuade you to visit their friends who sell cigars nearby, when more often than not they'll turn out to be fake cigars. We just said 'no thanks' and after a while they left us alone.
Almacenes San Jose Artisan Market
Almacenes San Jose Artisan Market contains an array of posters, jewellery, crafts, clothing and paintings and its just a short walk from the harbour. It's a lively market that's nice to explore. While many of the stalls offer similar large-scale manufactured souvenirs, there are a handful of stalls where you can find genuine, unique paintings or handmade goods.
Museo de la Revolucion
The exterior of the building itself is beautifully imposing (perhaps intentionally) and houses a summary of the key events of the revolution. With an entrance fee of $8, I expected the Museo de la Revolucion to present an opportunity to learn more about Cuba's turbulent political history.
Unfortunately this was not the case, as the exhibits were sparse, unimaginative and propaganda-heavy. Where you really get the bang-for-your-buck is admiring the majesty of the building itself, which features intricate frescos depicting various religious scenes and striking sculptures.
Pro Tip:The museum staff ask that you store your bag in the cloakroom, so perhaps consider keeping valuables in your pockets.
Playa di Santa Maria
Cuba is famous for it's pristine, unbroken coastlines. Playa di Santa Maria is a quiet, local beach about 25 minutes drive out of town. It cost us $20 to get a taxi (round-trip), it's a good idea to organise a round-trip because taxis are not easy to get out there!
The beach itself was flawless, with the warm ocean water of varying shades of blue and green. The waves were soft and gently crawled up the beach to where we sunbathed, the only noises I could hear were the sounds of the local children playing in the water and the lapping waves.
Pro Tip: You won't find sun-loungers or beach hustlers selling water out here! Take your own towel and plenty of water. Mi Casita de Coral is a restaurant nearby that does a lovely shrimp and rice dish.
Things to know
Getting from the Airport
I was fortunate enough to be able to organise my transfer from the airport with the AirBnB host. I did look at some websites that offer an advanced booking service, however you will pay over the odds for this. I paid the taxi driver $30 (one-way), whereas the online taxi service had quoted us $120.
The exchange rate is 87CUC to every $100 and they don't accept USD in Cuba. You can exchange at the larger hotels (we did a hassle-free exchange at the Iberostar Parque Central) and get a decent rate. You can also get a good exchange rate at the banks, however we experienced long waiting times as a result of an antiquated queueing system at the banks. The exchange booth at the airport offered a very poor exchange rate.
Access to the Internet
If you're staying in a hotel, it's likely that you'll have access to a standard wifi package. Your foreign phone will not work in Cuba and the only way to access the internet is to buy a Nauta card. You will need to connect to a wifi network (hotel, restaurant) and then enter in your username and password from the Nauta card.
The max time allotted per card is 5 hours to stock up accordingly. The internet in the Iberostar Parque Central was fast and the staff there made no opposition to my sitting in the lobby while surfing, while other hotels asked me to leave as I wasn't their guest.
Old Havana is a walkable city, I had no problem getting around to most of the areas that I wanted to visit on foot. Although I was eager to explore some of the areas outside of the city so I negotiated with a driver stationed outside the Hotel Plaza for a 2-hour ride in a classic car for $60. The driver did end up persuading me to buy some cigars, which turned out to be fakes, but it was an adventure!
Money and Gratuity
Generally the expectation is that you'll tip a minimum of 10% at restaurants. Due to the exchange rates the prices of items in Cuba are not cheap. However, Cuba does seem to work with two different economies - CUC and Cuban pesos. For example, the buses only accept pesos and is incredibly cheap but generally most transactions will be in CUC.
Access to pesos and use of pesos by tourists is nearly impossible as no one will accept pesos from you, although some establishments may give you change in pesos. Keep in mind that many establishments will not accept credit/debit cards so it's best to always have some CUC on hand.
Old Havana is said to be the city that time forgot, and I would agree with that to an extent. There's still something so precious about how the city has maintained some of its heritage. Some of my favourite things to do in Old Havana was relaxing in the many cafes and bars that lined the squares, or exploring the dozens of streets that radiate out of its historic centre.
But if you have the time get out of the city and explore the beaches, go fishing, and meet some locals who aren't just looking to make their daily living from the streams of tourists - including you.