Decadent Breakfasts Made Fresh on the Spot
After six years of living and working in restaurants and cafés in London, Nelson Rodriguez Tamayo returned to Havana to open up a place of his own, simply named El Café. This trendy spot, set in a beautiful Spanish colonial building that took eight months of sweat and tears to renovate with tables, chairs and a coffee machine brought by container ship from London, is the spot for everything fresh and local.
Coffee from Café O’Reilly, freshly squeezed juice, be it guava, pineapple, carrot, ginger, beet or a combination, and decadent breakfasts with fried eggs (Cuban eggs are hands-down the best I’ve ever had), toast with homemade marmalade and artisanal bacon brought in from Baracoa on the western edge of the city. And why not read a book and stay for lunch and have their fantastic homemade hummus, veggie-sandwich with grilled eggplant on their homemade sourdough bread (a rarity in Havana!) and moist chocolate chip banana bread brought in by their German baker for dessert? Heck, stay for a late afternoon snack and try one of the best mojitos in Havana, made with special attention by Nelson and his dream team. The limes are squeezed with pure love and equal attention goes into muddling the hierba buena (mint) and the very emphatic rum pour! Open until 6 p.m. Amargura 358, btw Aguacate and Villegas.
Where the Diplomats Dine
Café del Oriente is an opulent state-run restaurant in Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. Here, tuxedo-clad waiters serve filet mignon and smoked salmon, accompanied by fine wines, and classical musicians perform piano concertos.
This is formal dining, Cuban-style, so dress the part and be bathed in old-world luxury. You never know who you will run into. Raul Castro invited Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, to share a meal here in 2016. Don’t miss the stained glass skylight on the second floor; it was created by Cuban visual artist Rosa Maria de la Terga of Hotel Raquel fame. Oficios 112, corner Amargura.
Home of the Mojito
The hub for mojitos and genuine Cuban grub since 1942, and I love it despite the fact that it is a major tourist destination. I return to La Bodeguita del Medio on every trip to savor Havana. Like an assembly line, glasses are lined up on the bar, unremittingly filled with Havana Club rum, soda, cane sugar, Angostura bitters and well-crushed mint. Salud!
I always go for the platanos fritos (fried plantains), frijoles negros (black beans) and the pork loin in tamarind sauce is exquisite. Sit at the bar and hear a trio wholeheartedly sing “Comandante Che Guevara,” and for the full effect, look up to see a photo of Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway shaking hands, a testament to their sole encounter. Notables who have frequented La Bodeguita are Pablo Neruda, Chilean President Salvador Allende, Marlene Dietrich and Gabriel García Márquez. Sign your name on the wall … if you can find a spot. Soulful service in guayaberas guaranteed. Empredado 207, btw Cuba and San Ignacio.
Ice Cream Gold
When Hector from Havana and Françoise from France fell in love, they moved to Paris. Françoise’s son Sasha went off to culinary school in Italy and learned to make gelato, among other things. When restrictions loosened up in Cuba under the leadership of Raul Castro – allowing more private enterprise – all three decided to move to Cuba and open a business in 2015.
If ever there was a city that needed ice cream, it was Havana. With its average annual highs of 29 C, Helad’oro was a godsend. And as it turned out, their idea was a gold mine. Helad’oro, a play on words meaning “ice cream gold,” arrived at the right place and time; tourists and locals alike are lapping it up!
The ice cream is all made in-house, using 100-per-cent natural ingredients with Cuban flavors such a mamey and guayaba – my personal favorites – and mantecado (cookies and cream), which is Hector’s favourite. They have dozens of flavours and homemade waffle cones. Try the affogato, which is a shot of Cuban coffee gently poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a small cup. Aguiar 206, btw Tejadillo and Empredado.
The Quintessential Stroll
Take a walk along the Paseo del Prado (simply known as el Prado), the eight-block-long promenade running north-south from the Malecon to Neptuno; it divides Centro Habana and Old Havana, and runs along the former fortification wall. It is a stunning marbled and tree-studded pedestrian esplanade originally designed in 1772 and remodelled in 1925 by French and Cuban landscape artists, who added the iconic bronze lions, marble benches and iron streetlamps. The bourgeoisie lived along el Prado before moving westward to Vedado and Miramar in the 20th century.
Paseo del Prado was the site of the famous 2016 Chanel fashion show; it turned the street into the grandest catwalk in the world.
On weekends, you can buy paintings, photographs, hand-knit clothing and souvenirs at an arts and crafts market. I love the exuberant vibe when walking along this tree-canopied sanctuary with families wandering, kids playing soccer, men playing chess and life happening.
The Essential Paladar
Part of the La Guarida restaurant experience is just getting there: walking up the battered grand marble staircase, past the Cuban flag painted on the crumbling wall, through the pristine white sheets hanging on clothespins and up another staircase past the headless statue of a broken goddess.
The czar of all paladares, La Guarida, founded by Enrique Nunez in 1996 in his family home, is legendary for many reasons: It was the setting for Cuba’s most iconic film, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), by Tomas Gutierrez Alea; the food has always been top-notch and innovative (try the fish tacos and Cuban ceviche – and my favorite dish, the sensational and visually stunning octopus carpaccio), and the restaurant is in constant evolution.
Along with its labyrinth of funky colorful rooms filled with fantastical sculptures, paintings and photographs, it has a gorgeous outdoor terrace as well as two rooftop bars.
I can never get enough of this place; it doesn’t cease to amaze, and the vibe is always stellar. If you can only go to one restaurant on your Havana tour, this is it – but don’t forget to book. Concordia #418, btw Gervasio and Escobar; +537 866 9047.
A Place to be Mindfully Blissful
Cuban author Leonardo Padura says the locals proudly call El Malecon the largest park bench in the world. This seven-kilometre-long seaside promenade extends from Old Havana to the western tip of Vedado, and if it is not flooded by seaside spill, it is flooded with humanity every single night.
Taking a stroll on the Malecon, or sitting on its concrete edge, is one of life’s simplest pleasures. Whether, as Padura says, you are sitting with your back to the sea and watching the ebb and flow of life, or facing the sea and looking inside yourself, this is the number one thing to do in Havana.
If someone is chanting Mani and is clutching a bunch of white paper cones, they are selling homemade roasted peanuts. One CUP per cone (about four cents). One of the biggest challenges in Havana is getting the last peanut out of the cone!
King Bar is best known for what is described as its “open-minded” atmosphere, as it hosts an array of LGBTQ-friendly parties for both the local and international community. The name King Bar is a play on the Cuban slang word quimbar, which means “to have sex.” The atmosphere here is positive, upbeat and lively. Enjoy blaring pop and indie music late into the night and be ready for one of the best dance parties in town. Retreat from the music and dancing and take a break on the large outdoor terrrace. Weekend nights get packed quickly, so show up early or bring your patience! Calle 23 #667, btw E and D.
Factory of Fabulous
There is always a lineup around the block to enter this great venue that is still the hippest place in Havana. Imagine a mix of Bauhaus and a hot avant-garde Caribbean vibe, set in a number of galleries and performance spaces, all housed in a former cooking oil plant near the Rio Almendares. Seen as the beacon of Havana’s modern cultural revolution, Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is visited by locals and foreigners with an increasing number of trendsetters from all over the world wanting to emulate this unique and groundbreaking experience.
It is so big you can get lost in this multimedia labyrinth that takes you step by step into a different dimension. Lounge, chill, think, drink, eat, meet people, shop, dance, watch movies, concerts, symphonies on top of the ever-changing art exhibits or just hang out and let yourself be blown away by the place itself and the unexpected. Calle 26, corner 11; open Thursday through Sunday, from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., fac.cu.
With a seating capacity of only 30, Tierra (Earth) is a culinary oasis within the crowd of about 2,000 that frequent the FAC. A clever strategy to avoid the inevitable lineup is to book a table there, which automatically gets you in.
The menu is designed to send you on a “trip around the world” as much as provide a culinary art experience. Set in converted metal shipping containers, you can sit inside, with its atmosphere that feels like a comfortable country kitchen – or outside, with its edgy decor that includes an Astroturf floor and a funky bar. Either way, you will find an enchanted sanctuary within a chaotic universe. Reservations are essential. +535 565 2621.
Urban Beach Club
In the 1950s, beach clubs lined the coast of Miramar and the Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club was one of the most spectacular. It even had a golf course and a baseball diamond. Now it is called Club Havana, and it still has the pomp. The gated entrance leads to a grand 1920s mansion that opens onto a beautiful quiet beach with chaises longues, umbrellas and a tiki-like bar. Right beside it is a huge pool with bar service.
There is also a restaurant, a café, a gym, tennis courts and even a cancha court. The complex is also home to a number of diplomats and members of the business community, who live on the grounds.
For 25 CUC, you can have access to this swanky private beach club for a day. It’s a great place to take the kids. Avenida 5, corner 188.
Excerpted with permission from 300 Reasons to Love Havana by Heidi Hollinger (Juniper Publishing, 2018).