Mexico and the Caribbean

The Beginner's Guide To Havana, Cuba

By , January 29th, 2015

Welcome to Havana! With the revival of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, now is the perfect time to explore sultry Havana. While there are still travel limitations and restrictions, the sheer possibility of visiting without all the red tape makes it a tangible option. Find yourself reveling in immaculate classic cars posed against a backdrop of faded pastel colonial buildings and a friendly population who will want to show you what a good time this city can offer you day and night. While many tourists never make it outside the gates of their all-inclusive resort, follow this guide to Havana and prepare to be charmed!

Guide to Havana

Classic Havana facade. Photo by Alfredo Miguel Romero CC BY

Where to Eat

Guide to food in Havana

Bring on the bowls of delicious black beans and rice. Photo by Stacy Spensley CC BY

Los Nardos

Most locals and visitors alike agree that this traditionally Cuban restaurant is one of the best in town. While you may have to wait outside, in a slightly dilapidated building, to get a coveted spot, it will be well worth it for their assortment of specialties like black beans, rice and pork as well as seafood dishes and some classic Italian pastas and pizzas. Bonus: it’s astoundingly cheap!

Mama Inés

Wouldn’t you want to grab dinner from the man who prepared Fidel Castro’s food? Meet Tomás Erasmo Hernández, the charming owner of Mama Inés, a relaxed unpretentious restaurant. As one of the few privately owned restaurants in Cuba, you’ll be delighted by their handwritten menus, cheery decor and the classic Cuban food like the pulpo al ajillo (octopus with garlic) and camarones al gratin (shrimp gratin).

Ivan Chef Justo

Housed in an 18th century colonial building, the slightly raggedy interior features vintage movie star photos and a line of eclectic, market fresh Creole dishes being run out of the kitchen. You’ll never know what the menu will be for the day but expect the unexpected. Tip: This is one of a rare few restaurants where you can sample a baby eels salad so be sure to order it if it’s available when you go!

What To Do

The Malecon

Local guide to Havana

Hanging out at the Malecon promenade is popular with locals. Photo by escalepade CC BY

Stroll along Havana’s Malecon promenade where Cubans go for leisurely walks with friends, family and lovers. Take a lean against the sea wall and enjoy the simplicity of being splashed by the surf as the sun beats down. This promenade is a window into the simple yet beautiful Cuban life, complete with crumbling buildings, salsa music and people in love.

Plaza de Armas Book Market

Book market Havana

Reading through Cuban history at the book market. Photo by boonkia CC BY

Don’t miss the Plaza de Armas Book Market whether you’re a bibliophile or not. A setup of colorful stalls around one of the loveliest old Havana squares offers a selection of vintage books, magazines, postcards and posters from both Cuba and the US. The market takes place every day but Sunday. Havana is well known for its immaculate and colorful squares alive with music and dancing, most within walking distance of each other. Take a walk around to the Plaza Vieja,  the Plaza San Francisco de Asis, the Plaza de Armas, and the Plaza de la Catedral.

Capitolio Nacional 

Guide to Havana

Havana and the Capitolio Nacional. Photo by Jaume Escofet CC BY

If the Capitolio Nacional doesn’t look at least a bit familiar, do a double take. This giant 300 foot high neoclassical building is Havana’s most famous landmark and its architecture was more than just loosely inspired by the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas

Cuba cigars in Havana

Cuba’s cigars are prized worldwide. Photo by Adam Lerner CC BY

While we don’t endorse smoking, just around from the Capitolio is one of Havana’s most famous cigar factories, the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas. The Fabrica offers tours where you can watch the cigar rollers hard at work. The tour finishes with a visit to the deliciously musty cigar shop where you are finally free to purchase the most coveted of Cuban souvenirs.

Revolutionary Museum

Guide to Havana

Havana’s revolutionary artwork. Photo by Bruce Tuten CC BY

The slightly decrepit, bullet-hole-marked Revolutionary Museum is a great visit. The former presidential palace was decorated in more sumptuous times by Tiffany’s but is filled today with accessories of the Revolution– flyers, posters and blood stained garments from before and after 1959. The museum’s treasures, including the SAU-100 tank driven by Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs and the yacht that carried Castro and his 80 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba are closely guarded by the military 24 hours a day.

Where to Drink & Dance


Earnest Hemingway bar Havana

How about a drink with Earnest Hemingway? Photo by Franck Vervia CC BY

Ernest Hemingway’s former hangout will bring you back to the golden days of Havana. Grab a Papa Hemingway Special (daiquiri made with grapefruit juice) and sit back to enjoy the live Cuban music in this cozy atmosphere.

304 O’Reilly

Keep your eyes peeled when looking for 304 O’Reilly. This discrete gin bar/restaurant is in a former warehouse converted by the “new” Habana Vieja hipster José Carlos. The gin and tonics, as you would expect from a gin bar, are really delicious! This place is an excellent way to see the new wave of Cubans re-invigorating the city scene.

El Chanchullero

Giant portions of cheap and delicious tapas means that El Chanchullero is always densely packed with a local crowd. Its graffiti scrawled all over the walls and tables gives it a relaxed air and while this drinking joint is not “typically” Cuban, it’s where you’ll find a more authentic local Habana experience.

Club Tropicana

Legendary nights at Club Tropicana. Photo by GuestyGrrl CC BY

Club Tropicana is one of Havana’s most famous cabaret clubs. Established in 1939, this outdoor cabaret is in a lush tropical garden where you are handed a cigar upon entry and your ticket gets you a quarter bottle of that delicious Havana Rum that keeps this party going till well into the morning.

Where to Sleep

Casa Verde

Hotels in Havana

Get a real taste of local life in Havana at Casa Verde. Photo courtesy of Casa Verde 

Casa Verde is a charming guest house owned and operated by a Cuban-German family. Located in the heart of Havana, all four rooms are equipped with air conditioning and private bathrooms. A delicious breakfast is included.  The friendly owners are always available for a chat!

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Hotel Santa Isabela

Hotels in Havana

The blue shuttered hotel in Havana. Photo by Victoria Imeson CC BY

Located on the Plaza de Armas, this former Spanish colonial palace has been remodeled into the chic Hotel Santa Isabela. The iconic blue shutters of the building open onto crystal chandeliers, a stately marble staircase, antique furniture and a a tropical courtyard. All 27 rooms have balconies overlooking the square or the harbor, a rarity in Havana where many rooms don’t even have windows. Breakfast is served every morning right on the plaza!

Hotel Nacional

Hotels in Havana

Hang out with the stars at the Hotel Nacional. Photo by vxla CC BY

The Hotel Nacional is probably Havana’s best known hotel. Perched above the Malecon, this hotel has played host to some famous players like Churchill, Sinatra and more recently, supermodel Naomi Campbell. As the preferred lodging for any important Havana visitors, this old Dame is surrounded by beautiful gardens, two pools and even a nuclear bunker! You can request to stay in certain rooms that were occupied by famous guests.

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Feature photo courtesy of Nick Karvounis, Unsplash

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