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l’a travels | havana

l’a travels | havana

Our city ‘cheat sheets’ are versions of the notes I send to friends when they are going to a city I know and love. x laura aviva

Updated: 2018

My favorite thing we did in Cuba was visit a couple of organic farms. Food is an especially interesting prism through which to view the endless complexities of Cuban life, and visits to the farms (FINCA MARTA and VIVERO ALAMAR) provided really fascinating insight. The owners of the farms, Fernando Funes, and Miguel Salcines and his daughter Isis, respectively, were super compelling. (The honey from Finca Marta was my single favorite thing I brought back with me from Cuba.)
FABRICA DEL ARTE (FAC) is multi-media, multi-everything: part art gallery, part performance art space, part concert venue, part bar, part restaurant, part cultural hub. Located in a sprawling old warehouse, you’ll see young and old and Cubans and foreigners and everything in between. Arrive early to avoid the ever-growing line at the door (Thursday-Sunday, doors open at 8), and watch the space morph over the course of the eve.

(There is a restaurant attached, EL COCINERO, that is a good stop pre-FAC for drinks and snacks. It’s a good idea to book in advance.)

A stroll through the NECROPÓLIS CRISTÓBAL COLÓN, Havana’s sprawling cemetary, also provides a really intriguing glimpse of Cuba’s history via insanely ornate mable structures and religious iconography.

FINCA VIJIA, Hemingway’s old home, is about a half hour outside of the centeral Havana. It’s of course so super touristy, but it’s pretty fascinating in a voyeur kind of way. (Especially to see the boat that he allegedly used to smuggle rum back and forth to Florida.)

See THE NATIONAL BALLET (in either practice or performance).

Galleries abound, and the Cuban art scene is really dynamic. It’s worth connecting with a guide who really knows the ins and outs of the scene. LA LAVANDERIA is a compelling collective space in MIRARMAR.
Take in live music — on the street, in a bar, at a club, anywhere you can…
I found many of the ‘iconic’ places like HOTEL NATIONAL (where you can have drinks in the garden overlooking the MALECÓN) to be very skippable, even though they were highly recommended.
THE MALECÓN is the heartbeat of Havana. Go for a stroll along the ocean or sit on the seawall and watch daily Havana life in action.
For a quick, easy day trip, the PLAYAS DEL ESTE are a series of beaches just outside of Havana with pretty views (white sand, turquoise waters), bare-bones amenities (you can rent chairs and umbrellas), and places to snack and cocktail.
There’s endless design inspiration interspersed between crumbling buildings and decaying facades all over the city, and the juxtaposition is mind-blowing. A few favorites include the lobby of the HOTEL RIVERA HABANA, the facade and elevator bank of the BACARCI BUILDING, and the building that houses the restaurant LA GUARIDA (more on this below).
The food scene in Cuba is ever-changing, with paladares (private restaurants) really leading the charge. Access to ingredients changes daily, so there’s a good bit of overall unpredictability. Advance reservations are recommended (and often necessary) for many places.
LA GUARIDA This restaurant — one of the original paladares — is maybe the best known. (Cubans love to relate the story of it being featured in the movie Fresas y Chocolate.) It sits inside a beautifully dilapidated building, with the inside of the restaurant being stunning in its own right. The food is good (especially the carpaccios, like the octopus). It’s worth checking out the kitchen, which is a serious operation. There’s also a rooftop bar which is a bit more casual, with great views — especially at sunset.

Other notable paladares: LE CHANSONNIER and ATELIER (reserve for outside on the rooftop terrace.)

EL DE FRENTE Great place for a drink and a snack in OLD HAVANA. (The same owners also have O’REILLY across the street.)

DOÑA EUTEMIA A Havana institution which is maybe a little heavy on the hype. But there’s something kind of great about being tucked inside the two cozy rooms. Order lamb ropa vieja and mojitos.

SANTY PESCADOR On the outskirts of Havana, in a spot that’s not easy to find. Super fresh ceviche and surprisingly good sushi in a very casual setting on the water overlooking fishermen’s boats.

Also: AMIGOS DEL MAR (quirky little place on the water, best at the end of the week, good vibe), ALIJIBE for a roast chicken lunch (also a good spot to buy cigars, on the ground floor here), and SIÁ KARÁ, a great bar that also serves snacks.

ROMA is a bar in OLD HAVANA that feels like a secret discovery accessed from street level via a ramshackle elevator.

Cuba is by no means a shopping destination, with ‘retail’ still being almost non-existent. A few exceptions to the rule:

ALMA is a small boutique housed inside a mansion in MIRAMAR. The owner, American Alexandra Oppmann, has done a really strong job pulling together Cuban artist- and artisan-made goods, along with recycled wares. This is the place to shop for gifts (skip all of the market stalls in OLD HAVANA).

ANTICUARIA BELKIS is situated in a former mansion in VEDADO. It’s floors and floors of knickknacks and antiques piled atop one another, and it can be a real treasure trove for a serious hunter.

CLANDESTINA is a cute, small, trendy graphics-driven store, with t-shirts and other miscellanea. They’ve also put together and printed their own Havana guide, available in the store and worth picking up.

I was really charmed by the perfume store HAVANA 1791 (the name points to the founding date). The interior of the space is gorgeous (very old-school apothecary), and perfumes are all made from natural ingredients.

Net net, by far the best bet is to stay in casa particulares (private homes, Cuba’s answer to b&bs) which are sleuth-able via Airbnb. The neighborhoods you want to target are OLD HAVANA and VEDADO. MIRAMAR (an essentially residential neighborhood with houses, former mansions, embassies, etc.) should be skipped only because it’s a bit too far out.
Top choice: LA RESERVA is a charming boutique guest house in VEDADO. Also, HOTEL PASEO 206.
And while I would say to avoid hotels altogether (they’re shockingly overpriced and hugely underwhelming), HOTEL SARATOGA is, for now, the best of the bunch.
Update: Kempinski has just recently opened up the GRAN HOTEL MANZANA in central Havana, which looks like it hold potential on the hotel-front.
Bring British pounds to change into Cuban pesos (CUC). You’ll need cash for the whole time you’re there (there are no ATMs), and they charge a 10% conversion fee if you use American dollars. Also, bring more cash than you think you’ll need; anything connected to the tourist economy is much more expensive than you think it should be.
Plan on not having any wifi while you’re there. While you can sometimes cop a signal, it’s more often than not soooo slow that even when you do, it’s as if not.
Download for a map of Havana (and anyplace else you go on the island), which you can then access while you’re there when offline.
LA HABANA is an online Time Out-esque Havana guide. It’s maybe most helpful for sussing out live performances.
Chat people up! Things change at the same time both uber-slowly and uber-quickly in Cuba. And more so than almost anywhere I can imagine, it’s super key to have an in-the-know local friend or two.
I brought a bunch of sharpies that I gave to people as gifts, especially kids, as pens are in super short supply. (My favorite purchase was a crocheted poncho I bought for $10 and two sharpies.)
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