Food and Drink in Havana
Until fairly recently, eating in Havana could be a bit of a challenge, because of the lack of quality and inconsistency of ingredients. Most restaurants were state run (and were generally pretty awful both in terms of food and service). The few privately run restaurants (known as paladars) were subject to a slew of red tape that made them almost as bad as the state-run ones.
All of this changed in January 2011, when President Raul Castro's new privatization laws allowed paladars to seat up to 50 people (previously it was 12), and, more crucially, serve entrees beyond the traditional Cuban food of roast pork, black beans, rice and plantains.
Today, there are paladars popping up all over the city offering cuisine and service to match any restaurant in the Caribbean. The older ones are often quirky in terms of hours and service (they are often family run, with older members cooking and waiting tables). The post-2011 paladars are modern, hip and funky.
La Guarida: The most famous paladar in Havana , was featured in the popular Cuban film "Fresa y Chocolate," and much of its reputation rests on this. Half the fun is getting there: It must be reached via three flights up a poorly lit, steep staircase in a building that anywhere else in the world would have been condemned by now. Signature dishes include ahi with sugar cane glaze, mutton braised in papaya juice, seafood risotto and more. (Concordia 418 e/ Gervasio y Escobar; open noon to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight daily)
El Templete: A few blocks from the cruise terminal, just off the Malecon, is El Templete, one of the oldest restaurants in the city. This eatery offers fine views over the bay. It's known for the freshest seafood and shellfish in the city and offers an impressive array of appetizers, as well as a wide variety of main dishes, but it's not cheap. (Avenida del Puerto, no. 12-14, esq. Narcisco Lopez; open noon to 10:30 p.m.)
Dona Eutimia: One of the best-known restaurants in Havana is this paladar that serves up reasonably priced, generously portioned traditional Cuban dishes, with great service (and very attractive staff) in a prime spot opposite the Cathedral. (Callejon del Chorro, Plaza de la Catedral)
Azucar: This swanky snack bar and lounge (punctuated with three explanation points in its official name) offers a stellar view to the plaza below and proves that Havana eateries have gotten trendy. Nosh on Cuban charcuterie plates while a bartender with a drink trolley makes you a custom gin and tonic -- in perhaps the largest individual drink glasses we've ever seen. It's a tad pricy, but worth it for the location, the ambiance -- and did we mention the G&Ts? (Mercaderes 315 Teniente Rey and Vieja, Muralla)
Waoo: If you fancy venturing further afield to the Vedado area, then you'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to places to eat. One of the standouts is Waoo, which offers fresh, simple food from just 2 CUCs, including empanadas as well as larger dishes. The venue is lovely: a wooden house with shuttered windows and a large L-shaped bar. It's located right in the heart of hip, happening Vedado. (Calle L, no. 414, cnr. Calle 25; open noon to midnight)
As for the best cocktail in Havana, it's a toss-up between three of Cuba's famous rum concoctions: the Cuba Libre, the daiquiri and the mojito. The Cuba Libre is basically rum and cola and is rumored to have been created by U.S. Soldiers during the war of independence in 1898. Note that, although Coca-Cola products are not common in Cuba, there is a local "Kola" that is available both in regular and diet versions. The daiquiri is a frozen drink that's made with rum, lime, sugar and maraschino cherries. It was invented by miners in the Cuban port town of Daiquiri. The mojito combines rum with sugar, muddled lime and mint and is served over ice with sparkling water.
The most popular local beers are the relatively light Cristal and the stronger Bucanero.
Hemingway, who made Cuba his home for a time, has created mystique around numerous island bars. At one end of La Calle Obispo is El Floridita (Avenida de Belgica esq. Obispo 557; open 11 a.m. to midnight), one of his legendary haunts; he developed quite the taste for daiquiris there, and there is an oft-photographed statue of the American author at one end of the bar. (El Floridita claims to have perfected the recipe and calls itself the "cradle of the daiquiri.")
Near the cathedral in Old Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily), another Hemingway haunt, is regarded as a temple to the mojito and is probably Havana's most famous restaurant. Its walls are covered with photographs, graffiti, drawings and people's signatures (you can add yours if you find space). It's usually crowded and touristy, but it's great fun and definitely worth a visit.
While serving up a perfectly tasty drink, these popular Old Havana bars are generally overpriced when it comes to offering fairly average food and mediocre service; El Floridita's entrees range from 35 to45 CUC. La Bodeguita del Medio is more moderately priced, but also serves simple meals.
Beaches in Havana
Havana's beaches start just 11 miles from the city center -- but these are no nasty city beaches -- Las Playas del Este (the eastern beaches), about 20 minutes by car outside of Havana, are a series of exquisite white sand beaches fringed by aquamarine seas and small towns that stretch for nearly 30 miles. Just note that before you head to dig your toes in the sand, a full-day group tour is required by U.S. law. Maybe save the beach for your second morning in port if you are docked overnight.
Best for Relaxing: Locals flock to Playa Guanabo, which can be particularly crowded on weekends. This is the more authentic Cuban end of the strip, which has thus far escaped development.
Best for Active Types: The most popular beach for tourists is Playa Santa Maria del Mar, with its pine- and palm-lined beaches, hotels, restaurants and water sports.
Best for Kids: From Havana, Bacuranao is the first beach you arrive at and is a quiet family-friendly spot.
Best for Resort-Lovers: Varadero, Cuba's renowned beach resort, lies about two hours from the city and sits on a 12-mile-long peninsula jutting deep into the Straits of Florida. It boasts an airport which caters for direct flights, mostly catering to international package holidaymakers who never leave this stretch. It's about two hours from port, and it's best visited on an organized tour.
Don't Miss in Havana
Near the Cruise Port
Havana's Plazas: Among those on the must-visit list is Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, which is chockfull of excitement, musicians, booksellers and arts and crafts vendors. Touts, beggars and more gather in this atmospheric and shady plaza, which is flanked by historic buildings and museums. Plaza Vieja, also in the old city, was laid out in 1559 and served as the main square of Havana until the 19th Century. It now houses restored examples of architecture that span the centuries, as well as several cafes and bars that offer Cuban music -- including Cafe Taberna, a favorite spot of the renowned Cuban musician Benny More, known as "the barbarian of rhythm."
The Malecon: On stormy days, the seas crash over the walls of the wide breakwater that lines this four-mile, winding promenade. It attracts a hodge-podge of people: families, couples, fishermen, tourists, those out for a stroll and more. Architecturally, the wide boulevard is lined with numerous attractive and important buildings, many of which are now faded from the sun and sea air.
La Habana Vieja
Palacio del los Capitanes Generales: In this old Havana neighborhood, you can visit the Palacio, a classic example of the city's baroque architecture. Formerly the home of the Spanish colonial rulers, captain generals, and briefly the presidential palace, today it houses the Museo de la Ciudad and features a comprehensive history of Havana. (Plaza de Armas, calle Tacon e/ O'Reilly y Obispo; open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily).
Other neighborhood attractions include the Catedral de San Cristobal. Havana's Baroque main cathedral towers over the Plaza de la Catedral and its 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings. (Calle Emperador 156; open 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Sunday)
La Calle Obispo: This pedestrianized street, though crowded, narrow, bustling and very touristy, will give you the best sense of old Havana and its architectural styles. At one end is the classically colonial Plaza de Armas. At the other are buildings from the more modern Art Nouveau period. The restored buildings include hotels, shops, cafes and Farmacia Taquechel, a pharmacy that sells cosmetics and natural and homeopathic remedies. Its picturesque shelves are lined with an impressive collection of antique Italian and Majolica ceramic pharmaceutical jars. Also on Calle Obispo is the lively and restored Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is famous for its literary past. Ernest Hemingway began writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in room 511.
Museo de la Revolucion: This museum is dedicated to the revolution and is housed in the former presidential palace. This neo-classical building was built in 1920 and was decorated by New York's Tiffany & Co. It served as the home for 25 presidents,so it's no accident that Castro chose it to house the museum of his revolution. Check out the Salon de Espejos (Hall of Mirrors), which was meant to resemble the room of the same name at the Palace of Versailles. (Calle Refugio 1, e Avenida de las Misones y Zulueta; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: The national fine arts museum is contained in two buildings. One is dedicated to Cuban art (colonial, academic and 20th-century art), and the other, two blocks away in the Palacio del Centro Austuriano, focuses on international art, especially European painting and sculpture, as well as ancient art. There is a 5 CUC charge for entry for visitors 14 and older. (San Rafael, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate and Calle Trocadero, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
Paseo del Prado: Take a stroll down, the quintessential Havana boulevard, with its gracious central promenade made of marble. Originally laid out in 1772, the street remains popular for locals, especially in the evening. Marble benches, wrought-iron street lamps and eight bronze lions line the avenue. Some of the buildings along the avenue have been restored and painted bright, pastel colors. Often, there are street musicians along the central walkway.
Parque Central: The heart of the city center, this park has a small statue at its center to the revolutionary martyr, Jose Marti. It is lined with palm trees and provides a welcome relief from the chaos all around. This area is lined with monumental 19th- and 20th-century buildings, including the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana's oldest hotel and a classic spot to have a drink on the terrace and watch the world go by. The nearby Centro Gallego began life as a social club for Galicians (Spaniards from the far northwest portion of the country, many of whom, like the Irish, emigrated to foreign shores) and was built round the existing Gran Teatro de la Habana.
El Capitolio: Diagonally opposite from one corner of the square is Cuba's Capitol building,, which was inspired by the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. (and actually slightly larger). It was once the seat of the Cuban Congress, and in 2013 Raul Castro announced that it would return there (the building is still being restored). It currently houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology. (Paseo de Marti esq. a San Jose; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
A prestigious neighborhood where wide boulevards, gardens and grand residences grace the tree-lined streets, Vedado was once home to single families. These dwellings now house several residents on different floors and offer a fascinating glimpse into how the elite of the city once lived. Several of the mansions have been restored and are used as embassies and offices for foreign corporations. This is also the home to the University of Havana, the massive Necropolis de Colon (the city's most impressive cemetery) and several important museums, including the Museo Napoleonico. This museum boasts the largest collection of Napoleonic artifacts outside of France, gathered together by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo. (Calle San Miguel, esq. a Ronda; open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday)
Plaza de la Revolucion: Also in El Vedado, the vast expanse of the Plaza de la Revolucion has been the heart of the Cuban government and politics since 1959. Fidel Castro renamed the square, formerly known as the Plaza Civica, and it has been the site of many important events, ranging from Castro's famously long speeches to a mass given by Pope John Paul II in 1998. But it's perhaps most famous for a sculpture of the iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, with the words "Hasta la Victoria, Siempre" (until victory, always) on one side of the Ministry of the Interior building.
Hotel Nacional: Overlooking the malecon, one of history's most important hotels sits atop a cliff. This would be the Hotel Nacional, once a playground for celebrities, presidents, dignitaries and American mafia bosses. In 1960, Fidel Castro set up his headquarters here during the Cuban Missile Crisis, closed the casino and nationalized the hotel. Today, people from all over the world can stroll through the hotel's grand lobby, and sit on the stunning terrace for a cafecito or a cocktail. An exhibit on the military history of the grounds is available for public visitation. (Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Plaza, La Habana)
Finca Vigia: On the outskirts of Havana is, Ernest Hemingway's farm. He purchased the home in 1940 and lived there, off and on, while in Cuba. The home was made into a museum in 1962 and remains, essentially, as Hemingway left it. It features his 9,000-book library, hunting trophies, photos, artwork and even his fishing boat, the Pilar. The Finca Vigia Foundation in the United States is working to preserve this historic home, and its efforts have led to rare U.S.-Cuban co-operation, including the digitalization of Hemingway's private documents. (Calle Vigia y Stheinhard, San Francisco de Paula; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday)