HAVANA, Aug. 19th Romantic yet cynical, simultaneously gritty and glamorous, Jurassic but oddly zeitgeist, Havana constantly delivers contradictions and curveballs in a layered identity that endlessly fascinates travelers. At every turn, unexpected moments await — a graffitied courtyard leading to an opulent restaurant; a private house in the leafy Vedado district filled with antiques for sale; a fabulous selection of rare cigars on the grounds of a state-run chicken restaurant.
I spent more than a month in Cuba’s cinematic metropolis, getting properly aplatanada (slang for “plantainized,” meaning Cubanized) while researching a book on paladares, private restaurants that have been allowed to exist since the 1990s and have flourished because of changes in business laws.
My only regret? That I didn’t have an ultimate city guide from a plugged-in insider before I arrived — which is why I’m thrilled to share my lowdown on the best restaurants in Havana, along with where to shop, stay, and explore between meals.
Those frozen-in-amber moments travelers seek in Havana are all here, from the mid-century Chevys to the sight of an octogenarian marketeer selling farm eggs from a baby carriage. But the economic liberalization reforms launched in 2011 by Fidel’s younger brother, Raúl, also let the entrepreneurial genie out of the bottle.
For travelers, that means a chance to stay at charming bed-and-breakfasts and see how young chefs creatively circumvent shortages to deliver delicious meals in exuberantly personal settings. Mixologists whir their blenders at bars hidden away in plain sight, and even shopping has improved — if you know where to look.
Cuba’s tech-savvy, outward-looking creative millennials know that rules, indeed, exist to be bent and re-bent. Go to Havana with an open mind and a generous heart, and don’t forget to bring plenty of cash, plus perfume and chocolates for the hospitable Habaneros you’ll meet along the way.
Where to eat
Visiting yumas (Cuban slang for Americans) who gripe that Havana is no world-class dining capital might pause to consider the challenges of running a paladar in a country where basics like potatoes or butter have a way of suddenly disappearing, and government bureaucracy snares entrepreneurs in Kafkaesque quagmires.
And yet — improbably — Havana’s dining options have become more abundant and delicious. In feats of ingenuity, many paladar owners defy the odds — cultivating informal networks of farmers and fishermen; copying furniture from international design magazines; smuggling in spices and olive oil in their suitcases — to turn their spaces into beacons of great food.
A prime example is Otramanera, the creation of local Amy Torralbas and her husband, Álvaro Díez Fernández, a Spanish sommelier. The couple met in Madrid, married, and returned to Havana to open an intimate gastro-bistro like the spots they adored in Spain.
Today, their white-walled spot in the Playa borough serves some of the most sophisticated contemporary food in the city. Try the Andalusian gazpacho; the whole-roast snapper dressed with gingery coconut vinaigrette; and the creamy arroz con leche. Don’t leave without asking them about their secret mozzarella purveyor.
In the elegant Miramar neighborhood, the vivacious, cigar-puffing Spanish ex-pat Pilar Fernández runs Casa Pilar like a lively dinner club for fellow Iberians, Cuban moguls, and diplomats.
In her former house appointed with African artifacts and tropical greenery, everyone orders croquetas oozing the Cabrales cheese she brings back from her native Asturias and the frothy-pink salmorejo, a soup made of misshapen but insanely flavorful Cuban tomatoes.
Want fish? Good luck explaining to your taxi driver how to find Amigos del Mar, a nautically themed hideaway with a view of pescadores repairing their fishing nets on the Almendares River. Owner Fernando Cabrera Valle is an avid fisherman himself.
When he recommends a ceviche of spanking-fresh pargo (snapper) and lightly cured emperador (swordfish), trust him. Follow that with meaty deep-water pez perro (hogfish). Instagrammers rejoice: There’s even Wi-Fi.
In Old Havana, where pickings are slimmer, the grill-centric Al Carbon is always packed, incredibly fun, and fueled by stiff drinks. The old vinyl Cuban records serving as place mats reflect the cosmopolitan style of Iván Rodríguez and Justo Pérez, the chef-owners who previously both cooked for the government (yes, that means Fidel).
The highlights of their Creole menu include refreshing ceviches, soupy arroz con pollo, and a majestic, crispy-skinned lechoncito (piglet).
Rib-sticking Cuban classics — picadillo, vaca frita, sweet fried maduros — shine a short walk away at Doña Eutimia, a casual restaurant tucked into the buzzy Callejon del Chorro. Regulars order the saucy ropa vieja reinvented with lamb (those darn beef shortages) and ask for (free!) refills of the velvety black beans.
Caffeine awaits at El Café near Old Havana’s 17th-century Plaza del Cristo. Having worked at a hipster coffee bar in East London, owner Nelson Rodríguez Tamayo repatriated, intent on hooking Habaneros on healthy breakfasts and the serious espresso he brews in his vintage La Pavoni machine.
Behold his pan con lechon, an epic pressed pork sandwich constructed from housemade sourdough bread, slow-roasted pork neck, yuca, greens, and a genius orange-marmalade mojo. Afterward, cleanse your palate with ice cream at the yellow-walled Helad’oro, where the tropical seasonal flavors include mamey, mango, and mojito.
Where to drink
You may miss fresh yogurt and wince at the outrageous prices of imported beef, but one fine thing we can promise: You’ll never go thirsty in Havana — not with the oceans of mojitos and daiquiris, and the really good, really cheap, and really aged rum sold even at gas stations.
Come dusk, the young local cocktail farándula (clique) gathers on the roof terrace of übercool El Cocinero. In 2014, when the owners borrowed money to open a place in an abandoned cooking oil factory, they didn’t expect to be turning away thirsty revelers without reservations — or to host Michelle Obama.
Settle into a faux-Panton chair (knocked off by local artisans) and order cheesy fried empanadillas and mini gratins of boniato and crab to ballast the icy cocktails. After, pick up the rum trail at one of the bars inside the adjacent Fábrica de Arte Cubano (one of the most exciting art spaces in the Americas, if you ask me).
Or follow El Cocinero’s owners to El del Frente in Old Havana. Here, in the dim glow of Edison bulbs, artist José Carlos Imperatori presides over a posse of models, musicians, and visiting DJs.
Sexier than Imperatori’s pioneering O’Reilly 304 across the street, EDF takes an equally irreverent approach to mixology with fantastically decorated rum drinks served in glass jars (previously containers for imported Spanish potatoes) and outré gin and tonics that resemble mini aquariums. Order many plates of frituras (fritters) to dunk into the addictive chunky house salsa of guavas and chiles.
On the southern edge of the happening Plaza Vieja, La Vitrola occupies the city’s most musical corner. Claim an outdoor table at this retro, ’50s-themed spot to take in competing for musical grupos outdoing each other with charangas and boleros while you decide whether the house drink — a bottle of Crystal beer overturned into a vast goblet of frozen mojito — is weird or wonderful.
Or just hide from the tourist hubbub at cult boho gastropub Siá Kará Café, behind the capitol. Here, arty Habaneros discuss politics over crispy malanga fritters, and visitors sip Cubanitas while surveying the Parisian-inspired flea-market-cool decor of vintage posters, old clocks, and eclectic art.
Finally, in Central Havana, La Guarida is famous as an early pioneer of the paladar movement and as the picturesquely distressing setting for the dissident classic Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate. Insiders skip the overpriced restaurant and head to the new rooftop bar to sip tiki cocktails as the setting sun flares orange over the panorama of Havana and the Straits of Florida beyond.
Where to stay
Staying at a state-run hotel in Havana often means paying robber-baron prices for boxy, charmless rooms. Instead, stay at casas particulares, affordable B&Bs bursting with personality and increasingly featuring the most fervently desired amenity: Wi-Fi.
At the 10-room Paseo 206, housed in a 1930s mansion on tree-flanked Avenida Paseo, the polished service, sleek decor, and C.O. Bigelow and Hermès toiletries in the Carrara marble-clad bathrooms could compete with any boutique hotel in Miami.
La Reserva is yet another treasure, located in a gracefully renovated neoclassical mansion by a trio of local architects. The 11 rooms blend vintage styles with eye-popping art. Portería, with four plush guest rooms and museum-worthy pieces, is owned by a prominent Havana antique dealer.
Those seeking Old Havana’s ramshackle, colonial ambiance should book a suite at boho-chic Casa Vitrales, where owner Osmani Hernández has filled three airy floors with striking Deco pieces and Murano glass chandeliers.
If you must stay at a hotel proper, opt for the 246-room Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, which was Cuba’s first five-star hotel when it opened in 2017 and still excels in delivering a luxurious experience in the heart of Old Havana.