Cuba holds a special place in my heart ever since I visited for the first time in 1996. I fell in love with the country as a whole that first time and with Havana in particular. The faded beauty of its colonial architecture, the magnificent beaches and the people’s open-heartedness charmed me and I’ve since been back numerous times. I am extremely happy with the new political developments that will allow for the 50-plus year embargo to be lifted and for Cubans to be able to live an easier life from now on. I do worry that the country will lose some of its charm but that’s a small price to pay for freedom and I’ll be happy to have visited as many times as I have.
There’s a saying that goes something like “one doesn’t go to Cuba to eat well”. Although Cuban cuisine is delicious, the lack of ingredients on the island has contributed in the necessary creation to bland, “resort” food that doesn’t do it justice. However, all that is changing! I was in Havana in March of 2015 and I am here to tell you that you can now eat well in Cuba’s capital! Below are some of my favourite spots to save in case you’re heading there this winter.
La Guarida is probably the most famous of Havana’s paladares. Open for 20 years now, it’s located inside a magnificently grand building in Havana Centro. The faded beauty of the building with its peeling paint and rusted grand wrought iron staircase only adds to the charm of this beloved establishment. The menu is a mix of international and Cuban cuisines and includes dishes such as which included dishes such as a green lobster ceviche, cochinillo lechal (suckling pig confit with an orange and honey reduction) and grilled lobster with pernod.
Doña Eutimia is a busy Havana Vieja restaurant where reservations are a must. This family-run restaurant specializes in Cuban cuisine and their rope vieja, a typical Cuban shredded beef dish (here made with lamb) is a one of the best I’ve ever had and an absolute must have.
Café O’Reilly is a hip café on O’Reilly street, just around the corner from Plaza de la Catedral in Havana Vieja. It’s a great spot for a drink or a snack, especially if you manage to score a seat on the second floor balcony for some people watching.
La Bodeguita del medio is the quintessential Cuban bar in Havana. This is where Hemingway had his cocktails and this is also where you’ll find hordes of tourists looking for theirs. Yes it’s touristy and pricey but it’s an institution that must be seen and tasted. La Bodeguita claims to be the birthplace of the Mojito so one must be had there.
Paladar San Cristòbal is located in the courtyard and first floor of the chef’s residence and serves traditional Cuban fare. The lamb stew and fresh fish are both excellent options but beware, Cuban portions are very generous!
Atelier is located on the second floor of an old mansion in the Vedado district of Havana and expands onto its lovely rooftop terrace. The menu changes daily and if you’re a meat lover, this is a good spot to have some as it’s not always available (or tasty) everywhere in Cuba.
Heladeria Coppelia is where everyone in Havana goes for ice cream, whether you’re a local or a tourist. The line ups are huge, especially the ones dedicated to Cubans and at the end of which you pay in moneda nacional (Cuba has two currencies, read all about it here), but do join those lines so you can chat up some locals while waiting.
Hotel Nacional for its old world charm. You can imagine the hotel’s hall field with 1950s movie stars and gangsters. The outdoor patio is a great spot to grab a sandwich or a drink and watch the majestic peacock waddle around with the deep blue sea as a background.
Read all my other articles on Cuba, including a great three-day itinerary in Havana highlighting its best monuments, museums and restaurants and another one on what to know before you go.