The first thing we thought of when landing at José Martí International in Havana, was what kind of changes we’d be seeing since we last visited in 2002.
Since the gates opened between the US and Cuba, there are now over 100 direct flights into Havana from North America. That means one thing. A lot more tourists.
And with the embargo lifted, does that mean we’d be seeing a McDonald’s or Starbucks filling some of the stunning old buildings in Habana Vieja?
Well thank god there are no American multinationals to be seen in Cuba’s capital, yet, but there have been some definite changes since our previous visit to the country. The immediate one was the significant increase in cars on the roads; not those vintage cars that are a Cuban signature, but models from a few decades ago. The city was feeling a tad busier.
Home for us was in Centro Habana, a gritty, mostly residential neighbourhood located between Habana Viejo and Vedado. The streets are lined with classic old buildings where many have been well and truly beaten up by the elements. Even if they could afford it, it’s still impossible for ordinary Cubans to get their hands on modern building materials, hence the state of the city.
The good thing is, there are signs of restoration throughout the city.
Kids tear around the streets, scantily clad teenage girls strut the broken pavement and adults sit in doorways, socialising with neighbours as music blares from somebody’s home.
Thanks to internet now being available in Cuba, booking accommodation is vastly easier; compared to having to make phone calls or relying on word-of-mouth from a Casa Particular owner, or private rental, in a family home.
They now even have Airbnb in Cuba.
We reserved our first place in Cuba through booking.com prior to getting there, a property that was with My Casa Particular, an organisation that makes reserving a home stay room much easier for travellers.
For any onward travel, your current casa host will make the booking for you. It’s as simple as telling them where you’re travelling to and they’ll make a reservation for the next stop.
One thing we learned is that if you’ve rocked into a town or city after previously stayed in a My Casa Particular property, and found another My Casa Particular property that so happens to be fully booked, the owner of the casa is obliged to find you another casa that’s registered within the organisation. All you need is the original leaflet you were given from the first booking. That’s basically your ticket to the organisation.
Restaurante Castas & tal – corner Galiano & San Lázaro
The Havana food scene seems to have stepped up a notch or two, a far cry from the beige government-run restaurants we endured fifteen years ago. Centro Habana doesn’t offer the same choice as the much more touristic Habana Viejo district, but if you look hard enough, you’re bound to stumble upon something.
Castas & tal is one place that’s stepped away from what the government says it should dish up, and instead has its own takes on local cuisine. Plus there’s a bunch of tapas-style plates, seafood and a few desserts.
Try the picadillo a la criolla (6.55), a savoury mince of beef, peppers, olives, capers and sultanas. Or go for a ceviche de pescado or shredded creole lamb. For dessert, go for the Cuban classic – flan de leche (1.95).
Casa Abel – San Lázaro 319
One block away from Castas & Tal is Casa Abel, a fairly swish restaurant and cigar bar located one level up from the street. The prices are slightly higher than average, but if chugging on a quality puro (cigar) in either the restaurant, smoking room or roof terrace takes priority, go loco.
It isn’t all about the cigars here, either. You can comfortably kick back with a rum, cocktail, vino or beer, soak in the ambience and even chow on hearty Cuban fare.
This 8 km roadway spans the seawall from Vedado, through Centro to the northern tip of Habana Viejo. Aside from being one of the city’s major thoroughfares, the Malecón is a place for residents to hang out and catch the cool ocean breeze in the afternoon.
Lazy walks in the waning sunshine, fishermen lined up on the seawall awaiting a bite, kids running around and even the occasional working girl trying to make a buck.
You’ll even see a familiar sight in one or two of the small plazas that face the Malecón – locals peering into smartphones just as they do around the world today.
Wifi is only available in Cuba in designated hotspots and many of the hotels. You simply purchase a data card from one of the grocers or telecommunication providers like ETECSA, enter your special code and you’re good to go; even if the signals are generally weak and hotspots limited. One hour of credit costs CUC$1.50.
Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, is where the bulk of visitors to this colourful, lively and charismatic city flock to. Historic plazas, cathedrals, museums, narrow streets and lanes make up the fascinating historic heart. It goes without saying that this is the city’s colonial masterpiece, and with some thanks to UNESCO stepping in back in the early 80s, this is where you’ll see many of the city’s restored buildings.
It’s a treasure trove of architectural gems – from colonial, neoclassical to Baroque. There’s even some good old Brutalism thrown in for good measure, but you’ll see more of that over in Centro.
The best way to see Habana Vieja is to simply dive in and get lost in it all. You may be busy wandering down a gritty laneway peering into quirky shopfronts or restaurants, then emerge into one of five plazas that are surrounded by architectural stunners.
It’s difficult to ignore the tourists in many parts of the historic district – gaggles of walking tours or streams of humans fresh off one of the enormous cruise ships that can now be seen anchored on the east side of Habana Vieja. You didn’t see those fifteen years ago, I assure you.
The gate to this country is well and truly open.
El Escorial Café – 317 Mercaderes
El Café – Amargura 358
The café scene may not match what’s going on in Western countries, but there are some venues worth hitting up for a hot or cold drink and something to nibble on.
Many claim the coffee at El Escorial is the best in town. Maybe because it’s only tourists that go there to perch on Plaza Vijeja, people watch and fork into one of the fluffy sponge cakes that are on offer. Personally we found the espresso a tad ‘rough’, as was the service.
My pick would have to be El Café, possibly the closest you’ll get to a hipster café in Havana. This little joint is straight from the streets of London, New York or Sydney; nothing overly showy, just a minimalist set-up with a simple formula. And some drop-dead gorgeous Spanish tiles on the floor, too.
Locals seem to have taken to this relatively new café almost as much as foreigners have, whether it’s for the locally grown and roasted coffee, cooling frappés, homemade sourdough bread or epic sandwiches.
One thing for sure is you have to sample their signature pulled pork sandwich with yuca (5). Wowsers.
El Dandy Bar – corner Brasil & Villegas
Pollo frito at El Patchanka Bar – Bernaza (opp Parque Cristo)
The bar scene is one you could easily immerse yourself in, from drinks on a hotel roof terrace, in a bar overlooking the Malecón, a traditional salsa club or some local’s beaten-up drinking hole.
Down on Parque Cristo is a corner establishment that has a great vibe and oodles of charm. People flock to El Dandy for their coffee, extensive cocktail list, Cuban, Mexican and Spanish-style tapas and their rather addictive sweet potato fries.
You may even want to try their signature coffee – a combination of espresso, condensed milk, cinnamon and Havana Club Reserve.
At the other end of the parque is another popular drinkery called El Patchanka. Enjoy the live music, their very strong and cheap cocktails (including Cuba’s signature mojito), sandwiches, seafood, pasta and local fare.
This predominantly residential neighbourhood is made up of a tree-lined grid of lettered and numbered streets and avenues. Grand old mansions sit alongside 1950s apartment buildings, and clutching its main thoroughfares you’ll find more commercial areas and landmark hotels like the Nacional, the Capri, and the Riviera from that same opulent era.
This is a vast, affluent neighbourhood that lacks the same grit as Centro and tourist hoards as Old Havana, but has just as much local character. It’s a hub for nightlife, the city’s tiny gay scene, jazz clubs and innovative restaurant scene.
Waoo!!! – corner Calle 25 & Calle L
Pa Comer y Pa Llevar – corner Avenida 23 & Calle H
We didn’t spend a great deal of time in Vadado other than our final night in the city, so we didn’t get around to visiting some of the neighbourhoods attractions.
Lennon Park, mojitos at Hotel Nacional, a visit to Plaza de la Revolucion and the city’s zoo, to name a few. Instead we revisited the city’s iconic ice cream store, or sodería – Coppelia.
Fifteen years ago we queued with locals in the blistering sun just to sample the famous ice cream. This time around it seems to be a shell of its former self; the occasional local or tourist and five uninspiring flavours that won’t even come close to rocking your world.
Opposite the towering 1950s Hotel Havana is a small bar and restaurant called Waoo!!! Ignore the overly energetic name and instead relax in its cooled interior with a CUC$12 set lunch menu, dinner spread for CUC$20 or a simple drink from the bar. Other edibles to be enjoyed are ceviche, carpaccio, burgers, pasta and risotto, and whether you waoo or not, it’s a nice little spot for a relaxing drink.
Heladeria Coppelia – 358 Avenida 23
Restaurant Iraní Topoly – 669 Avenida 23
Up on Avenida 23 is the breezy Par Comer y Pa Llevar (To Eat and To Carry), a café and bar that offers a mix of Cuban and International dishes, plus any kind of tipple you may desire as you lounge on its breezy terrace.
When we learned of an Iranian restaurant in the neighbourhood we immediately jumped on it. Just down from the recently opened gay night club King Bar is Topoly, an easy-on-the-eye restaurant in a stunning mansion.
Here you can chug on a hookah pipe and sip on mint or cardamom tea, rather than a Cuban cigar and weak black coffee. Settle inside or on the wrap-around terrace beneath a beautiful colonnade, admire prints of iconic world figures and tuck into the likes of khoresht gheimek (lamb, peas, preserved lemon, rice 7.9) and zereshk polo (baked chicken, rice, dried fruit 7.9).
The menu is extensive and herbivores are well looked after here, as well.