As soon as Americans became able to travel directly to Cuba last summer, I knew I wanted to go check it out quickly. It didn’t take long for airlines, cruise lines and tour companies to start offering trips to the Caribbean’s largest, and arguably, most intriguing island, and something tells me it won’t be long before the hotel chains and cheesy restaurants that American tourists love move in.
I personally have no desire to eat at Senor Frogs when there is incredible food being cooked in paladares- privately-owned restaurants that are often in people’s homes, or in preserved areas of old buildings that are crumbling yet stunning. I wanted to see Havana for the archeological and historic World Heritage site that it is, with all of its pre-revolutionary structures, unadulterated local culture and colorful classic cars.
We decided to go to Cuba by ship, on the Norwegian Sky, which offers cruisers two days in the Cuban capital. Although two days is not nearly enough to experience everything this fairly large city has to offer, I look forward to going back and trying more. In the meantime, here are the restaurants and bars I loved most on my first Havana trip.
Where to Eat in Havana
Located on the third floor of an old dilapidated building with a lobby that’s filled with rubble and headless statues, La Guarida had the best food I tried in Cuba. I went with three other people for dinner, tasted about a quarter of the menu, and it was so good we decided to go back the next day for lunch. Nothing we tried here was less than delicious, but I highly recommend the smoked marlin tacos ($9), octopus carpaccio ($9), suckling pig ($18), yuca with mojo (the best $2.50 you’ll ever spend) and do NOT skip the chocolate tres leches ($7.50) no matter how full you are.
For a tasty lunch with amazing views of the sea and city, check out Café Laurent near the Malecon. Located on the fifth floor of a 1950’s apartment building with a really scary elevator, this paladar is a hidden gem that serves up Spanish-Cuban fusion dishes and specializes in seafood. I tried the pan cooked lobster and shrimp, served over super smooth mashed sweet potatoes and I will have dreams about it for years to come. Expect to pay about $45 per couple.
Where to Drink and Party in Havana
A great place to start your day is at Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja. They serve all types of coffee, from Cuban coffee, to lattes to coffee daiquiris. They also serve little pastries and delicious chocolate bonbons!
A pretty place to day drink is the back garden of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which is probably the island’s most famous hotel. Built in the 1930’s, it reminds me of a smaller version of The Breakers in Palm Beach, with it’s palm tree lined entrance, massive double tower structure and water views.
Any time after 1 p.m., stop by El Floridita on Calle Obispo to discover why Ernest Hemmingway loved it so much. The bar staff is efficient and smart, the bright red décor is classic, and the daquiris that they’re famous for are strong, tasty and inexpensive ($6). On the random Tuesday night that we visited, there was a live band performing classic Cuban tunes.
After El Floridita we took a cocotaxi to La Bodeguito del Medio, another Cuban institution Hemmingway favorited. Don’t expect a drinks menu- the only thing you need is a mojito made with Havana Club rum. This tiny bar is about the size of a master bedroom, and it gets really packed. Luckily we showed up toward the end of the night so it had cleared up a bit, but the band was still going.