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Havana, Cuba ~ Mixing the Old World with the New

Havana’s passionate people and their vibrant city

Havana, Cuba is a thriving, vibrant city of over 2 million friendly, welcoming, passionate people. The architectural influences are old with colonial, French and Greek inspirations – yet new and art deco hotels are popping up as the city evolves. State supported restaurants are transitioning to private restaurants with a foodie flair (although you still have to look hard to find Havana's architecture and vintage cars (click any pic to enlarge) those gems) and the rich Cuban cultural influences are very alive in the dance, the live music and the Cuban island cocktails (Mohito’s, Daiquiri’s and Cuba Libre’s). The transition is still in its early stages, but with the art, music and food scenes growing, the momentum will be fun to watch over the next decade.

This November (2019) Cuba celebrates it’s 500th birthday and is embarking on a month-long party to ring in the next 500 years. If you really want to party in the glorious Havana sunshine, this 500th birthday will give you a celebration like few others!

When everything that’s old is new, but still vintage

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention early about Cuba’s Vintage cars – a car lovers fantasyland! Due to the 50-year embargo on trade with the US and generally the wider world, the colorful, take-a-step-back-in-time vintage cars are a real treat to experience. From among old Pontiac Chieftains, Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Bel-Air’s (even a few 1940’s Ford Model T Jalopy’s), these cars are an important cultural representation and as such are lovingly maintained and polished for eye-popping enjoyment.

We found Havana a very safe, walkable city with so much history and culture to explore. Havana’s neighborhoods are distinct - Havana's historic San Cristobal CathedralOld Havana holds the centuries old fortifications, cathedrals and architecture, the Malecon district of La Rampa is the waterfront scene and Prado is the new part of Old Havana – the commerce and political center. Havana’s many neighborhoods help sculpt the vibrant character that makes up Havana. Especially in the Old Havana area, pedestrian closed streets and its otherwise narrow streets and alleys make getting around by foot pretty easy with minimal traffic getting in the way – although the cobblestoned streets offer periodic challenges for footing, strollers and wheelchairs.

How to Explore Havana

GoGirlfriend likes to get a wider view of the entire city to begin and home in on areas to revisit later by foot. What better way to tour the city than in a vintage convertible – our treat for the tour was a violet 1958 Pontiac Chieftain – a pretty sweet drive! 

  • Havana's Vintage cars - 1958 Pontiac Chieftain (click pics to enlarge)Touring the city in a vintage car is pretty easy as they are abundantly available for rent on any street corner in the heart of the city. We pre-planned our tour with Old Car Tours for a 3 hour city tour and added an extra hour for a cigar factory tour. Our driver Carlos owned the beautifully restored 1958 Pontiac Chieftain and we added an English-speaking guide (Nacho was amazing in the stories that brought the city alive) to tell us about the city sights as we toured Havana’s neighborhoods.
  • Havana has 2 cigar factories within the city. We toured the Romeo Y Julieta factory to see the process from the start to the hand rolling of the cigars. Tours are $10 CUC (Cuban Convertible pesos) per person for the 45-minute tour and cigars are available to purchase at the factory store. Alternately is the Partagras Factory with tours flip-flopping between the two factories.
  • El Cristo de la HabanaCross the canal (by car or via the ferry to the Casablanca terminal) to get a hillside view of Havana from the Forteleza de San Carlos de la Cabana or the 45’ statue of El Christo (Christ of Havana). This artistic rendering of Christ of Havana by Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera is cultural referring to the city’s historic roots. We were told the statue has full pouting lips like an African, a strong forehead and nose like the Europeans and slanted eyes like the Chinese – roots of the city’s ancestors. Based on the way its hands are positioned, we were told it seems that it’s only missing the cigar and the Mojito as proper tribute to the Cuban people!
  • Havana (and Hemingway's) famous El Floridita BarWalk the UNESCO designated Old Havana from the 16th century Castillo de San Salvadore on Malecon south through the 16th century city walls to see cathedrals, squares and the old architecture influencing the centuries old buildings. Walk the restored and unrestored streets to see the slow revitalization.
  • Have a daiquiri at the famous El Floridita Bar with Ernest Hemingway.

How to Eat your way through Old Havana

Cuba is certainly not known for its food. Being embargoed for 50 years with limited import opportunities, you’d think fresh fruits and vegetables would be abundantly grown – but alas, no! For a vegetarian, this is a real challenge if you don’t seek out the diamonds in the ruff.

Cuba's cobblestone streets to walk and exploreThe good news is that the food scene in Havana is transitioning and there are quite a few diamonds in the ruff emerging as local chefs are opening restaurants and delivering some new flavors to the Cuban assortment. Let me say that restaurants are plentiful, but the majority are state sponsored restaurants serving the simple traditional fare. And being behind technologically, many restaurants do not have web sites to assist your searching ~ your efforts will be right at ground level. If you are watchful and persistent to scope out those private restaurants with robust menu’s, you will be rewarded with some great food options ~ with Italian, Cuban and Russian as inspirations.

Here are a few of the gems we sussed out in Old Havana:

  • one of our faves - O'Reilly 304O’Reilly 304 (on O’Reilly) – a fantastic recommendation of Nacho (our vintage car guide). Great little place on O'Reilly that we visited for lunch while touring Old Havana. Great taco's (and delicious veggie tacos), delightful salsa and good size drinks to refresh on a hot day! Enjoyed ourselves so much, we came back a second time a few days later. Also consider the rooftop bar across the street at 303 O'Reilly (same owners I'm told) for an afternoon or evening drink.
  • La Calesa Real - We wouldn't have found this on our own except by menu viewing along Obispo, but it was one of the best meals we had that week. Walking down the quiet Rue Compostela away from the busyness of Obispo, we walked into this great restaurant busy with guests enjoying their meal and live music (that night). Service was exceptional with little touches adding professional flair and the food was hearty, artful and flavorful. Including wine and cocktails for 4, our meal came in under $90 CUC - I recommend you get off the main Obispo path and seek out La Calesa Real!
  • Cuba's Il Rustico pizzeriaIl Rustico (on San Juan de Dios) - Great little find in the hub of Old Havana. Amazing wood fired pizzas with lots of selections for about $10 CUC each. Creative, fun décor with pallets and wood spindles to make it stand out. Very busy place for lunch and as we walked by later in the evening. A sure winner as a place to relax with a drink and an amazing pizza!
  • 5 Esquinas Trattoria - We found 5 Esquinas our first night visiting Havana. A good first sign was that the tables were full inside and out - definitely popular. After a few moments, we were seated and enjoyed drinks, wonderful pizza (with fresh vegetarian options) and pasta selections. We sat outside on the pedestrian street and people watched as we acclimated to the warmer Havana temperatures. Service was great, food was excellent - a great place to stop while walking Old Havana!
  • amazing artistic finds as you explore HavanaTaBARish (on O’Reilly) - Excellent dinner option - Russian inspired! Sat upstairs and listed to the live Cuban music as we enjoyed our meal. Fun décor and busy bar complement the great food and drinks. The Paella for two was huge and tasty as was the shrimp and chicken enjoyed by the others in our group. Not far off the main Parque Centrale hub makes this a quick and delicious option.

Cuba – Rum, Cigars and Coffee

While the food is NOT what Cuba is known for, it’s rum, cigars and coffee ARE what Cuba has to offer the world – and these vices are note-worthy! Instead of vegetables, it seems sugar cane, tobacco and coffee are the crops of choice. And with some of the best soils in the world, these crops are excellent quality producing some very fine by-products. It’s clear that Cuban pride in these products has made it part of their cultural identity.

Rum, cigars and coffee ... yum!Rum – that sweet, fermented, grassy-molasses sip of delight begins with raw sugar cane, abundantly grown given ideal Caribbean growing conditions, being pressed to extract the cane juice. That juice is boiled into molasses and sugars mixed, blended and fermented and barrel aged to create the iconic rum spirit. With Havana Club by far the popular leader, Cuba has many rum distilleries for the relative size of this Caribbean island. It’s white rums are excellent for the island’s rum punches and Mojito cocktails, while the barrel aged darker rums (Gold and Dark) are best enjoyed sipping or in their Cuba Libre drink.

Cigars – probably one of the most famous cigar-producing countries in the world, Cuba’s cigars are made by hand using only one ingredient – cigar tobacco – from one dominant area of the country – the western region of Cuba. With only a few Cuban cigar factories that make the cigar completely by hand, a tour of these factories will take you through the steps of separating and choosing the best raw leaves to the art of hand-rolling by practised experts, the QC and color controls delivering an exceptional product and the finishing touches (like hand decorating the boxes and specialty packaging) to celebrate this earthy pungent delight. Cuban cigars for saleHand rolled cigars (versus machine rolled) are prestigious and command a healthy price at home. In Cuba, at ¼ the home price, the cost of the popular Cohiba’s, Romeo y Julieta’s and Montecristo’s range from $5-20 CUC. Buy them from an official shop or in your hotel, do not buy them from a vendor on the street if quality is what you are looking for – you never know what you get outside the state channels.     

Coffee – with three prime growing regions with mountainous terrain and excellent coffee-growing soil conditions, the lack of knowledge and consumption of Cuban coffee has been evident since the trade embargo of the 1960’s. Despite the centuries of production, this lack of awareness makes even more special the treat of fresh coffee in Cuba. While Cuban’s enjoy their Café Cubano’s strong like an espresso, the beans brewed fully into a pot make a hearty, slightly sweeter, bold cup of java. Purchase coffee in 1 kg bags ground or as beans to take home and enjoy. A bold Cuban start to the day that you can round out with a share of rum to end your day.

Some Tips for exploring Havana

Touring Havana (and Cuba) is like taking a walk back in time 50 years. It’s a different time and a different way of life given the communist era of Castro’s time in power. Economically, the trade embargo of the 1960’s stalled development and slowed the economy. Culturally, Cuban people have a vibrant joie-de-vivre supported with a universal health care program with quite low infant and maternal mortality rates and free education and university. But to understand the differences while visiting, here’s a few tips:  

  • beauty of Havana at nightSafety – not unlike any other tourist center where smart practices will keep you safe, I must say we felt safer walking the streets of Cuba than we have in Las Vegas, Rome, New Orleans and other major centers around the world. People are very friendly, and tourism is a major source of income for the island.
  • Cuba is not a shopping destination! While there may be some shops along the streets and a number of markets for hand-crafted goods, Cuba is not your typical Caribbean island cruise stop. There is no Effy Jewelers, Diamonds International or shopping malls but a few independent local shops to peruse as you explore the history and architecture.
  • beautiful architectural influences in HavanaDrop 2 stars to compare to North America – for your hotel or resort accommodations, we recommend you drop 2 stars from the rating to find your comparable amenities. A Cuban 5-star is a North American 3-star. Facilities may be modernized and the service friendly, but the little finishing touches and maintenance extras make that expectation difference.
  • Language – with it’s trade European and Russian for 50 years, so too are the influences of language to the Cuban culture. We found everyone very friendly and polite and while seeking to communicate the bridge between English and Cuban Spanish. Cuba's growing liberal arts sceneWe did find the extra effort to understand and communicate pretty easily with the added hand gestures and thinking of different ways to get the message or questions across.
  • Cuba is more than simply the little island 90 miles off the US coast of Key West. It’s more than it’s export of great baseball players, it’s political maneuvering and salsa dancing, or it’s rum, cigars and coffee! Cuba is a beautiful country with amazing beaches and great resorts. Cuba is a vibrant country with passionate friendly people hoping you will visit and explore its rich history within the Americas.

For more information on Cuba:

Have you visited Havana, Cuba and explored the history and culture of this Caribbean island? We’d love to hear about your favorite locations. Drop a comment below and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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