Havana has been frozen in time for many years due to the American embargo and the subsequent withdrawal of Soviet sponsorship and is just beginning to open up to travel by Americans. Now is the perfect time to visit Havana before the influx of tourists and the import of global brands change it forever. During your weekend in Havana, you experience the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people, the beauty and charm of its crumbling colonial-period buildings and a slower pace of life that defines life in Cuba today.
For this Ultimate Weekend Getaway, you should not expect to find the level of luxury that you will find in Paris or New York. Instead, you will find an authentic, exciting and vibrant city with a rapidly changing hotel and dining scene. In a few years, you will likely be able to stay at a five-star hotel, but today you will find a city on the brink of modernization that has not yet been overtaken by global brands and fast food restaurants.
Your home for this ultimate weekend getaway will be the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The Hotel Nacional opened in 1930 and is considered the grande dame of Havana. Although there are more “modern” hotels, there are none that have the character and history of the Hotel Nacional, which has been host to many famous celebrities over the years, including Winston Churchill, Nat King Cole, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra and even the heads of the notorious (American) Costa Nostra crime families. Since the hotel has retained its classic elegance, the true appeal of the hotel is being able to imagine being there during the go-go days of Havana and imagine a cast of colorful characters passing thought the lobby. The hotel sits on a bluff with extensive the grounds and gardens, so there is nothing better than sitting in a wicker chair on the covered veranda overlooking Havana’s harbor and seawall with an icy mojito or Cuba Libre and, if you are so inclined, an authentic Cuban cigar. The standard rooms are nothing special so consider a suite which are larger and have fabulous views of the Bay of Havana. The appeal of the Hotel Nacional is its character and history.
As an alternative to the Hotel Nacional, consider the Hotel Florida in Old Havana, which has a tremendous amount of charm and the rooms are reported to be nicer.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba // Calle 21 y O, Vedado// Website
After getting settled at the hotel, it is time to get your bearings and a feel for Havana. In front of the Hotel Nacional, there will be a number of taxis, including classic American cars from the Fifties that are available for hire. Look for an classic American convertible to make the most of this excursion and negotiate a price for the driver to give you an overview of Havana.
We recommend that you should start by heading to Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), the old colonial district. To get there, you will follow the Malecón, which is the seafront promenade along the Bay of Havana. During the day, the Malecón will be filled with fisherman and children playing in the water and at night it will be filled with friends and lovers sitting on the seawall and listening to music from the many performers that come out to play. The seawall is often referred to by locals as “the Great Sofa” since it serves as an open living room where people come to socialize, listen to music, snuggle or just experience to gorgeous sunsets. The neo-classical and neo-Moorish buildings in the Central District (Centro) along the Malecón are picturesque with crumbling facades and pastel color schemes.
Eventually, you will reach the edge of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), which is filled with fabulous old colonial buildings and squares and is the most picturesque part of Havana. You will only get a taste of this beautiful area now since you will have a chance to explore it in depth tonight and tomorrow morning.
Have the driver head to the Central (Centro) District, where you will pass the Capital (el Capitolio), which was modeled after the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC and the Pantheon in Paris. The building was the home of the Cuban legislature until the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
The next stop will take you to a barrio of Havana. In neighborhoods across Havana, creative artists have found outlets for their talents through street art. One of the most extensive street art projects is Proyecto Muraleando, which began in 2003 under the direction of Manuel Diaz Baldrich and grew into an art collective, painting the neighborhood and providing workshops in all forms of art, including ceramics, theater, dancing and music. The creative expression of these talented artists is definitely worth a visit.
From there, head to the Miramar District, which is a residential district and, prior to the Revolution, was the most affluent residential area of Havana. The district is filled with beautiful early 20th Century villas, some of which now house foreign embassies and businesses, as well as modern hotels, restaurants and an active nightlife. One of the unmistakable features of the district is the Russian Embassy, which is a tall (and ugly) concrete structure that typifies Soviet Constructivist architecture (not exactly a high point of Russian architecture). Finally, it is time to head back to your hotel.
We suggest that you return to the Hotel Nacional before sunset so that you can have a drink at their outdoor terrace overlooking the Malecón and the entrance to Havana’s harbor, including the lighthouse and fortress (El Morro) on the other side of the harbor. As you sip your drink, you can reflect on the fact that you are visiting Cuba at a truly historic period with the transformation of Cuban-American relations.
Until recently, with few exceptions, all of the restaurants were state-run. Enterprising Cubans have filled the void by opening restaurants out of private homes, which are known as paladares. The number of paladares have grown rapidly in the past few years and new ones are opening every day. These private restaurants generally serve the best and most creative food in Havana and it is well worth seeking them out. The restaurants described below are excellent and have been around for a number of years. Prior to visiting Havana, it is worth researching the “hot” new paladares as possible alternatives.
For tonight’s dinner, we suggest heading into Old Havana. You can take a taxi to the Plaza de la Catedral, the main square of Old Havana, which is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristóbal. We recommend a quick visit to La Bodeguita del Medio, a tiny spot filled with a collage of photographs and graffiti on the walls and tables and is claimed to be the bar where Ernst Hemmingway started his evening with a mojito. Unfortunately, it is usually packed with tourists and the mojitos are expensive and weak so it does not warrant more than a quick look inside.
La Bodeguita del Medio // Empedrado // Website
Ropa Vieja , which means “old clothes”, is a national dish of Cuba consisting of shredded beef cooked in a tomato-based sauce with vegetables and is usually served with yellow rice, black beans and fried plantains). A trip to Cuba would not be complete without trying it.
After leaving La Bodeguita del Medio, continue your stroll through Old Havana and eventually work your way to El Floridita, which is the most upscale of Hemingway’s hangouts and is self-described as “The Cradle of the Daiquiri” (La Cuna del Daiquiri). It has a long bar in front (with a life-sized (and rather cheesy) statue of Hemingway) and a number of small tables in the front room and a more formal dining room beyond the bar. Although also a popular tourist spot, it retains the feel of years-gone-by and so it is worth having at least a daiquiri (they are pretty good but make sure you request it to be on-the-rocks, not blended) at one of the tables in the front section. Since the seafood is decent by Havana standards, having dinner at El Floridita de Cuba is certainly an option. However, one of the best of the new paladars in Old Havana is reported to be Doña Eutimia, which is very welcoming and is reported to have excellent traditional Cuban dishes, including ropa vieja.
El Floridita // Obispo No.557 // Website
Doña Eutimia // #60-C, Callejon del Chorro // Facebook
After dinner, you can wander around Old Havana. As you wander through the alleys of Old Havana, you will likely come across lively bars filled with locals (and tourists), live music and laughter. Pop in one (or more) of these bars for a nightcap.
Since breakfast isn’t considered a main meal in Cuba, keep your expectations low. Avoid the large and mediocre breakfast buffet at the Hotel Nacional which is usually filled with tour groups. Instead, visit the Hotel Nacional's standalone “luxury” restaurant or you can just get a coffee and some fruit on the veranda of the hotel.
We suggest you spend the morning wandering through Old Havana. Old Havana was founded by the Spanish around 1519 and, by the 17th Century, had become one of the Caribbean’s main ports. It is filled with narrow streets and old colonial buildings with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards. It is fascinating to explore the area since many of the old buildings have been restored to their former glory, while right next door will be a building with crumbling exteriors.
You will have worked up an appetite from your morning of exploring Old Havana. A recent addition to the restaurant scene, and conveniently located in Old Havana, is El Templete. The location along the bay is beautiful and the restaurant focuses on fish and seafood dishes, including local fish prepared Spanish style (the chef is from the Basque area of Spain). In addition, the service is professional and the staff very friendly. As with all Havana restaurants, it is worth checking reviews before you go since the quality of restaurants in Havana sometimes slips and some recent online reviewers have suggested that may be the case with El Templete.
El Templete // 12-14 Ave Carlos Manuel Céspedes, Habana Vieja // 53 7 2048164 //
Ten miles east of Havana is Hemingway’s Cuba house-- Finca Vigia, meaning “lookout house”. It is a modest house surrounded by trees and flowers and now is preserved as a museum. Hemingway wrote two of his most celebrated novels at the house -- For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. The museum just recently received a major donation to help preserve it but, for now, the inside of the house is not accessible due to thefts of the memorabilia and artifacts (but you can see the different rooms through the opened windows). It is definitely worth a visit!
For tonight’s dinner, we highly recommend La Guarida, one of the first paladars and still considered by many to be the best in Havana. La Guarida is located in a shabby apartment building in a somewhat rundown neighborhood of the Centro District. You will climb up a grand marble staircase to the third floor where a door will open to this atmospheric restaurant filled with candles, old film paraphernalia and eclectic displays lining the walls. The restaurant has been around for decades and was featured in the Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate). The restaurant consists of three small rooms but the best spot is on the balcony with views of central Havana. The inventive and delicious dishes may include lobster, tuna steaks, roast pig and decadent desserts.
La Guarida // Concordia No.418, Centro Habana// Website
After dinner, a perfect way to end the evening is to take a taxi to the Malecón (seawall), which on a Saturday evening should be filled with families and young lovers enjoying the party-like atmosphere and sea breezes from the ocean. Enjoy the warm evening air and cooling sea breezes as you stroll along the seawall back to the Hotel Nacional.
Much of the charm of the Hotel Nacional is the atmospherics and there are few better ways than to have a post-dinner drink at the Churchill Bar at the Hotel Nacional.
Today, we suggest getting a taste of the Cuban countryside by travelling to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled areas of Cuba – the Valle de Viñales. The Valley is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site located near the western end of the island of Cuba and is known for its surreal landscape dotted with spectacular dome-like limestone outcrops known as mogote. In the valley, you will find cultivated farmland with tobacco, taro and bananas and scattered peasant houses. You can also visit a tobacco plantation and see cigars rolled. If you are the active-type, the area is filled with limestone walls and many cave systems, making it a popular spot for climbers and cavers. For this trip, have your hotel arrange for a driver and car to take you there for the day.
If you want to visit one of the new “hot” new restaurants, recent visitors rave about El Cocinero, which is located in what was once a cooking oil factory. The restaurant is reported to have excellent food and filled with trendy Cubans, expats and tourists enjoying the roof-top location. Alternatively, if you are a chicken-lover and are looking for simple Cuban food (yes, more beans and rice), consider El Aljibe, which is very popular restaurant located in the Miramar district. The restaurant is very large (it often gets tour groups) but the semi-open air atmosphere is nice (though rather plain); however, their special roast chicken is legendary and considered the best in Havana.
El Aljibe // Calle 7ma, Miramar, Havana // 53 7 2041583
Although the United States opened an embassy in Havana on July 1, 2015, tourist travel to Cuba for Americans is still officially prohibited. Recently, the Obama Administration eased the travel restrictions considerably and is pushing Congress to lift them altogether but, for now, in order to visit Cuba, Americans need to participate in sponsored “people-to-people” programs or certify that are visiting in one of 12 categories, including educational, religious and humanitarian projects. Prior to these changes, it was necessary for the tour operator to obtain a license from the government to travel to Cuba. Now, no license is required so it will be much easier to book a trip.
Until recently, banks and credit card companies have been prohibited from doing business in Cuba. Although those restrictions have been lifted, you are not likely to see ATMs or businesses accepting Amex, Visa or MasterCard or American Express immediately. While large hotels are likely to be the first businesses to accept credit cards, it will likely take much longer for small businesses. Consequently, for now, plan on bringing a lot of cash.
Upon arrival at Jose Marti International Airport, you will feel like you have stepped back in time. The parking lot is filled with classic American cars from the fifties. If you are on your own, bypass the standard taxis and negotiate a price for one of these classic American cars to take you to your hotel. There is no better way to travel in style.
There are plenty of taxis in Havana so getting around the city should not be an issue. In addition, in Old Havana, you can hire a horse-drawn carriage for a more leisurely option.