We only had a day and a half in Havana, so we squished a lot in! I found that it was completely possible to have a great time on a short trip to Havana, without it seeming stressful!
Photos of me taken by Kyla.
Coming in via taxi from Pinar del Rio province, we got a little city tour on the way in. We passed the Plaza de la Revolucion. Though we didn’t have a chance to venture back, it was neat to see how big the José Martí memorial was, and it gave some more context to the reading we’d been doing about Cuba’s history.
There was a potential bedbug situation at our casa particular in Viñales, so we arrived at our Havana casa with trepidation. Turns out we had nothing to worry about; “Casa Best Views” really did deliver the best views (and no extra friends on our mattress)! Our private ‘penthouse’ apartment had a Santorini-style balcony with views of the Malecón (seawall), the fortress, and city rooftops. It was perfect for watching classic cars whiz by, spying on the odd perro on a nearby rooftop, and watching the sun go down at night.
When we arrived, one of our hosts handed us a city map and gave us helpful tips and recommendations. His wife arrived shortly afterwards with bags of groceries, and proceeded to cook us a delicious lunch of chicken, black bean soup, and rice!
We were staying on the edge of the more modern Vedado neighbourhood, but were technically in Central Havana, a slightly crumblier part of the city. Havana was already fragile when Hurricane Irma hit last September and, understandably, is still recovering. Like most big cities, Havana’s a little dirty and smelly; if you’re looking for quiet, pristine streets, this probably isn’t be the city for you, but you’ll miss out if you miss it.
From Vedado/Central Havana, you can flag down collective (shared) classic car taxis on San Lazaro street: these run between there and Old Havana all day, and cost 1 CUC (~$1) for the ride.
First on our gay agenda after our classic cab ride: the “beer factory“ on a pier! We weaved in and out of the streets in Habana Vieja until we hit the water, and eventually made it to a brewery with a large eating/drinking space, offering three shades of beer. As devoted stout drinkers, we went for the darkest one. It was great! We were treated to live music, which we were learning happens most of the time in Cuba!
One pier/block away was a giant art market – a tourist market for sure, but a good one-stop shop to pick up certain souvenirs: paintings of Havana streets, t-shirts, magnets, instruments, etc.
Afterwards, we around wandered Old Havana. This is the Havana that everyone pictures: colourful colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, fancy hotels where Hemingway used to hang out. (I have to admit that I haven’t read any Hemingway, but I’m pretty sure we hooked up to the Wifi across from the bar where he used to drink his daiquiris!) Add in leafy courtyards in restaurants and cafes, live music playing, cocktails in hand. Some chatty stray dogs, patios in open squares that reminded me of piazzas in Rome or Florence. Colourful classico convertibles on every corner, with drivers inviting you to take city tours.
We headed back to our penthouse, put on our pjs, and chilled for a bit until we forced ourselves to feel motivated enough to put pants back on and go out! One cool thing about staying near Vedado (seriously a hip place, we’re just not that hip) was proximity to gay bars! I’d written down addresses of a whole bunch of them ahead of time, since internet is tricky in Cuba, but the one closest to us didn’t seem to exist anymore, and the other one nearby wasn’t open (…yet, cause we’re grandmas). But as we walked towards Cabaret Las Vegas (the not-yet-open one), Kyla spotted a rainbow flag at the joint next door! A quick scan of the clientele told us that it was, indeed, a gay bar!
Unfortunately, the bar (Toke) was ‘full’ – all the tables were in use, but as we stood awkwardly in the doorway, an American gay couple ushered us over to their table. They asked us lots of hilarious questions about being lesbians, being Canadian, and being Canadian lesbians. It was a fun night; worth putting on pants for! The bar maybe didn’t have much atmosphere on its own, but it was a cool gathering place that also apparently serves cheap and delicious food.
The next day, we headed out down swanky Rampa street in Vedado, in search of a big American-style breakfast described in my Rough Guide (I know, I know, but I was craving bacon and stuff). Sadly, by the time we got to La Rampa Cafeteria, breakfast was over, and though I hangrily grumbled, we both ate heavenly sandwiches!
Across the street was the famous Coppelia ice cream… institution? It’s a parlour, but also an entire square block with a park. It’s a bit confusing, there are different lines and parlours and even ice cream flavours depending on whether you have CUC or Cuban National Pesos. I wished that I had pesos, because there were better flavour options and a classic ice cream parlour counter, as well as the opportunity to climb up a tower thingy in the main building… I think? It was confusing. But I got mediocre melty tiramisu ice cream out of it! I’d maybe recommend this for the people-watching, rather than the ice cream experience.
From there, we hopped into a shared taxi and headed back towards the city centre. We ended up on the Malecón near the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, and played in the waves splashing over the wall. The seawall is a famous spot for people to congregate in Havana, and I was looking forward to hanging out there. Unfortunately, the uncharacteristically cold and windy weather meant that there were very few people out, but we made the best of it!
We wandered back towards Old Havana, to some of the streets and squares we’d missed the day before. My favourite was Cathedral square: the Catedral de la Habana is beautiful, but the best part is climbing up the stairs to the bell tower (1 CUC) to look out over the city. It was a romantic spot!
Just around the corner from the cathedral was the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, a printmaking workshop and shop, where we admired some brilliant artists at work. We also wandered into some other galleries nearby.
After weaving our way around the cobblestoned streets of the neighbourhood, we ended up in a classy resto-bar. We took some time to write in our journals, drink some rummy cocktails, and eat some creatively-presented snacks, while a brilliant piano player played white people songs for the mostly foreign customers. 😛
Finally, it was time to do the number one thing on Kyla’s Havana to-do list: ride in a classic convertible! We searched for a red one (her choice), but sadly (not for me) there weren’t any nearby, so we settled (not really) on a bright pink car! I lived out my dream of being a Barbie girl in a Barbie world! (I didn’t know that was my dream until I saw the car.) We did a bit of negotiating; we didn’t need a city tour, just to ride back to our Airbnb in style. Then we let our hair down and sat in the back of a fancy car singing Aqua on the streets of Havana! Pro tip: don’t let your hair down in a convertible.
That night, we PUT ON PANTS AGAIN (what are we, in our early twenties?!?), determined to find another gay bar. We tried to go to the drag bar our gay friends had told us about (Cafe Amor – apparently a restaurant by day)… but sadly, like Cabaret Las Vegas, it didn’t open until 11 and it was wayyyy before 11! Toke looked busy and we didn’t feel social enough to befriend strangers again, but we felt VERY accomplished having left the apartment, with pants on, in the evening!
The next morning, we headed to the Viazul bus station. Off we went, to beautiful Trinidad!
Our view was stunning and I loved our private casa experience, but for a short stay I’d recommend staying in Old Havana. Most of the things we wanted to see were in that area, and although it was easy to get around the city, for a short couple of days staying there will save you a lot of time.