La Habana In Two Days
Havana is a fitting capital for the 20th century’s most iconic island. The beauty of the colonial architecture, the Caribbean music, and the friendliness of Havana’s people evoke the feeling of an unforgettable love, the sensation of an evanescent dream.
By Juanjo Herranz
Photos: Claudio Pelaez Sordo
09:00 a.m. – Good morning, Havana
Life in the tropics awakens placidly. At Old Havana’s Color Café, which comes complete with a textile workshop, you can savor a local, seasonal breakfast and purchase handcrafted dresses. The arts of eating and dressing come together in one place.
11:00 a.m. – La Plaza de la Revolución
Previously named Plaza Cívica (Civic Square), this square was renamed Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square) after the triumph of the revolution in 1959. It is the epicenter of political power in Cuba and a mandatory stop for anyone hoping to understand the exceptional nature of this country’s history. The statue of José Martí, a leader of the Cuban independence movement, dominates the Plaza in front of the Council of State building. Across the way, the Ministry of Communications features the silhouette of revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos above the slogan, “You’re doing well, Fidel.” Next door is the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where the image of Che Guevara looks out toward the horizon above the famous phrase, “Always toward victory.” After absorbing the history lesson and feeling the rising heat, there’s nothing better than stopping at a street vendor to grab an ice-cream sandwich, Havana’s most well-known, refreshing, and traditional sweet street snack.
02:00 p.m. – Cuban Cuisine and Cuban Literature
Plaza del Ángel is home to the Jackeline Fumero restaurant, where a cool, serene patio sits in the shadow of the Santo Ángel Custodio church. The statue of Cecilia Valdés—heroine of the eponymous novel by Cirilo Villaverde, one of the most famous Cuban writers of the 19th century—stands watch as you make a difficult decision: the Cuban sandwich, tropical ceviche, ropa vieja (shredded beef), or enchilado de camarones (Creole shrimp)? Don’t sweat the decision too much; everything is delicious.
06:00 p.m. – A Stroll and Sunset on the Boardwalk
Known as “Havana’s living room,” the boardwalk brings together Havana residents and tourists, poets and fishers, lovers and loners. People take a seat to admire the sea and the stars that begin to dot the sky. The crashing waves remind us that Cuba is an island, with water on all sides. Musicians lay down chords; the vanishing sun and the waning wind signal a respite from the heat and the cares of the day. The boardwalk is the best place to imbibe the atmosphere of Havana. The patios of Habana 5 or Malecón 633 are also excellent places to watch the evening sun dip into the sea.
08:00 p.m. – Dinner with Music
The La Vitrola restaurant, on a corner of Plaza Vieja, is decorated in the style of the Cuba of the 1950s. The menu is extensive and varied, and the live music always gets guests moving. Even Madonna celebrated her birthday here in 2016; her signature is still visible on one of the bar fridges. If you’re looking for something more tranquil, Pizza Retro (right next door) serves the city’s best pizza.
10:00 p.m. – The Night is Young in Havana
A daiquiri at Floridita, following in the footsteps of Hemingway, is the best way to kick off the night in this literary city. A bronze statue of the U.S. writer shows him leaning on the bar, still claiming what was always his spot. From there, it’s on to Yarini, Havana’s bar of the moment. A little green neon hat over a doorway on San Isidro Street indicates that you’ve arrived. Upstairs, a little closer to the Havana sky, Yarini’s patio is the ideal place to relax. Thick with plants, the rooftop offers a panorama of the capitol and good DJs who play for the culturati of Havana. Another more salsa-tinged option is Pasillo’s Bar in the Vedado neighborhood.
09:00 a.m – No Need to Get Up Early
The Fonda al Pirata offers traditional, vegetarian, and vegan breakfasts, along with a fine selection of juices and fruits, and particularly friendly service. If you had a long night and need to sleep in a bit to recover from the dancing and the drinks, tucked away in the Antojos restaurant on Callejón Espada —where the lunchtime croquettes are famously good—is the shortest and most revivifying brunch in Old Havana. Only one hour: from 11:00 to 12:00. Be bold and try it.
12:00 p.m – Mojitos at La Bodeguita
You can’t miss taking a stroll around the Plaza de Armas, perhaps the prettiest and leafiest plaza in the city. It’s a chance to take a break from the Havana sun and pass the time until Bodeguita del Medio, Cuba’s most illustrious bar, opens its doors and the musicians begin to tune their instruments. Don’t skip the mojito, and what with the rhythm of salsa, son cubano, guitar, drums, and maracas, one mojito just might not be enough.
02:00 p.m. – Flavors and Customs
Calle de los Mercaderes, one of Havana’s few pedestrian streets, is packed with shops and restaurants. On the second floor of a lovely colonial mansion, Los Mercaderes provides one of the city’s best culinary experiences. The black rice with lobster and the Santiago de Cuba-style seafood casserole are peerless. We suggest a table on the balcony, where you can end your meal with a rum and a cigar, as the owner’s grandfather used to do in this very spot.
05:00 p.m. – Spirit Street
To walk down Hamel Alley is to visit the heart of Afro-Cuban religion, or santería. In the Cayo Hueso neighborhood, murals and colors reign: “Songs of my drums, songs of my white clothes,” reads one of the walls. There will be dancing and celebrations on Sundays, but it’s well worth a visit on any day. The bar is always open and you can chat with the locals and enjoy a good drink: “A daiquiri at Floridita, a mojito at Bodeguita, and a negrón (rum and lime cocktail) in the alley.”
08:00 p.m. – La Guarida
La Guarida, in downtown Havana, is hot right now. Ensconced on the top floor of a lovely colonial house with high ceilings and white sheets fluttering in the wind, is Havana’s most celebrated restaurant. This house was once the home of one of the stars of Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), the only Cuban film to have been nominated for an Oscar. The restaurant opened shortly afterward, and began its meteoric rise in 1999 with the visit of Queen Sofía. Robert de Niro, Beyoncé, Mick Jagger, Steven Spielberg, and innumerable other celebrities have dined here. The food, the service, the patio…everything merits ten out of ten as a place to conclude a visit to Old Havana. We bid farewell, remembering the film: “Welcome to La Guarida, where not everyone can get in.”