Centro Havana might not be as touristy as Havana Vieja or as charming as residential Vedado but it will still manage to surprise you. The streets are a bit more battered and tourists venture less in this part of town but that’s no reason not to get lost in this working class neighbourhood and explore its nooks and crannies. We encountered colourful streets, farmers markets and a glimpse into every day life in Havana.
WHAT TO DO IN HAVANA CENTRO
Although El Capitolio is not officially in Centro Havana, it was part of my itinerary on my second day in the capital city. It is said that Havana’s El Capitolio is a replica of the one found in Washington. It was being renovated when I visited so we couldn’t go inside but the whole area around it is worth exploring. It is one of the most touristy spots in the city and as such, is teaming with interesting characters, buildings and photo ops. Around the Capitol building on Calle Industria is where you will find the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás. If you’re a cigar aficionado, then I don’t need to explain that a visit to this tobacco temple is in order. The fábrica has been functional since 1845 and was instrumental in establishing Cuba as a world leading cigar manufacturer. If you’re a lover of Partagás cigars, you can stock up on all your needs at their gift shop.
Walk around the Capitol until you get to Paseo de Martí (or Paseo del Prado), the street that effectively separates Havana Vieja from Havana Centro and where you will encounter some of the city’s most beautiful vintage cars and prestigious buildings in various stages of maintenance. You will walk past the Gran Teatro de la Habana, a stunningly intricate monumental building where you can catch a show by the Cuban National Ballet. You can inquire at the ticket office for current shows. If you continue your stroll along Paseo del Prado, the street eventually divides into two with a grand promenade in the center dotted with mature trees that provide shade, ornamental street lamps, fierce sculpted lions, symbols of the city of Havana and marble benches. The Paseo is lined with prestigious hotels such as the Inglaterra and the Parque Central as well as some of the most lavish mansions in Havana. This is where the city’s wealthiest residents lived. It is a lovely walk to take. It just happened to be a Sunday when I was there and it allowed me to walk among families congregating there with kids rollerblading or biking along the polished floor of the Paseo. I imagine it would be a great stroll to take at sunset especially since the Paseo ends at the Malecón.
The Malecón is Havana’s sea front wall that runs along the city’s coast, from the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in Havana Vieja to Vedado. Cubans flock to this part of town to take a stroll, hang out with loved ones or fish. On a hot day, you can watch kids and young adults hurl themselves off the ledge into the water below. It makes for a great people watching spot. Tourists flock to this 8km stretch because it’s lined with some of the most interesting architecture in Havana, from the colonial houses of Havana Vieja (between Paseo del Prado and Calle Belascoain) to the more modern, mid-century constructions of Vedado (between Calle 23 and Calle G). Unfortunately, the sea air and winds haven’t been kind to these architectural gems and only a few have been renovated.
Just on the other side of El Capitolio is Havana’s Barrio Chino or Chinatown. I bet you didn’t know that Havana has an active Chinese population? I admit that it’s a bit strange to see some of the commercial façades adourned with dragons and Chinese calligraphy but if you are so inclined, you will find a large concentration of Chinese restaurants in this neighbourhood.
WHERE TO EAT IN HAVANA CENTRO
If Chinese food is not your thing, paladar San Cristobàl is just a short walk west from Barrio Chino through the beautifully shabby streets of Centro Havana. Hidden away on an unassuming street lies this gem of a restaurant serving authentic Cuban food. Open since 2010, this paladar is also the actual residence of the chef. The downstairs has been transformed into the most charming of restaurants, including a series of indoor rooms as well as a covered outdoor patio. A dentro (inside), the rooms are decorated with collection upon collection of knick knacks spread out on every available surface, including vertical ones. Art, artifacts and crafts fill out every nook and cranny and contribute to the restaurant’s charm. The tables are set with mismatched tablecloths, china and cutlery. We sat outdoors and enjoyed a great spread. Beware, Cuban portions are very generous! We started with the mezedes de la casa, a generous tray filled with a variety of house tapas that included among other items imported cheeses, Spanish ham, ceviche and tiny, crunchy malanga fritters. The fresh fish was excellent, so was the lamb stew and the caramel flan for dessert. This is a very popular spot and reservations are a must.
La Guarida was hands down the best restaurant experience I had while in Havana. When I was researching Havana paladares (privately owned restaurants), it was on the top of almost every list I looked at and they all mentioned the fact that the Cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate was shot here. Located on a battered street, it was hard to believe there was a restaurant anywhere around. The building feels like you’re walking into a movie set, complete with a dilapidated yet still grand marble and wrought iron staircase, peeling paint, crumbling walls, classic mouldings and columns and an overwhelmingly aching sense that you’re bearing witness to a long gone era of opulence and grace. This used to be a great mansion at some point in its history and one can only imagine the kinds of soirées that took center stage in the sprawling reception area on the first floor. Several families live here now while La Guarida takes up the entire third floor of the grand old building. We arrived early for our reservations and were sent up to the outdoor rooftop bar where we had great cocktails with an even greater view of Havana. We were finally seated on the balcony to enjoy our meal, a mix of Cuban and international cuisine which included dishes such as a green lobster ceviche, crunchy mini smoked marlin tacos, cochinillo lechal (suckling pig confit with an orange and honey reduction), grilled lobster with pernod and a delicious deconstructed lemon and almond tart. An eight-course tasting menu with welcome cocktail and coffee is available for 50CUC with an option of adding a “puro” (Cuban cigar) and a digestif for another 20CUC. La Guarida is one of the oldest and most popular restaurants in Havana so reservations are absolutely necessary.
OUR MAN IN HAVANA
I couldn’t have planned my trip to Cuba without the help of Raúl Rodríguez of Suite Cuba. Raúl was instrumental in providing long distance transport (from Trinidad to Havana), airport transfers, restaurant reservations when I couldn’t make them on my own and most importantly, outstanding accommodations. We stayed in a 10th floor apartment with breathtaking 360-degree views in the heart of Vedado, a beautiful residential neighbourhood. Cuba is unlike other countries and it can still be difficult to book everything via the internet. Raúl is your man if you’re in need of anything and he can help you customize your trip in order to make the most it stress free. I really cannot recommend him highly enough.
I am convinced that Havana must be one of the most photogenic places on earth. I can only fir so many photos in one blog post. To see more photos of my Cuban trip, click here.