what to eat, drink + do in Havana

words by Emily Weber | photo by Charlotte Weber

Havana

Havana is a magical city both deeply embroiled in the past and in the midst of exciting change. While it’s not necessarily a food destination quite yet, developments on the food scene are making it a great place to explore Latin and fusion flavors at “paladares” (private restaurants in people’s home) and a handful of interesting, state-run restaurants. From taro fritters to pork confit served over yuca mash, Havana’s best dining spots are taking traditional Cubans dishes and putting their own contemporary twist on them.

Beyond food, Cuba, and Havana in particular, hold a special place in global cocktail history that can still be felt today. The “Golden Age” of Cuban cocktails, from 1920 to the revolution, brought with it the invention of the iconic frozen daiquiri and many other original Cuban drinks inspired by the arrival of the blender and the influx of American tourists. In bars, restaurants, and paladares across the city, you can sample signature mojitos, smooth and sippable aged rums, and cocktails like a canchánchara (añejo rum, local honey, lime juice, and water).

Beyond its food and drinks, there’s lots to discover down the twisting colonial alleys of Old Havana and on the outskirts of the city. Here’s our list of favorites:

Finca Marta.
Located 20 miles outside of Havana, Fernando Funes is quietly starting a Cuban food revolution. At his farm, Finca Marta, Funes is reintroducing sustainable and organic farming and beekeeping practices to Cuba. The idyllic farm is made up of a terrace of curved raised beds outlined in perfectly aligned stone walls. While the vegetable terrace is stunning, the most awe inspiring feature of Finca Marta is the stone well. This 15 meter well was dug by hand by Funes and a local man, and they didn’t cease digging for over a year despite speculations that they’d never reach water. Funes likes to use this well as a metaphor; change in Cuban food systems is possible if you believe it is and work vigorously towards it. Finca Marta is not only a great model for sustainable farming in Cuba, it’s also a driver of change on the Havana food scene. Many restaurants in the city have difficulty sourcing fresh ingredients that we take for granted in the U.S., Funes is beginning to change this, selling his organic produce and honey to about 30 Havana restaurants and paladares.

Habana 1791.
Easily one of the most beautiful and well-preserved interiors in Old Havana can be found at this historic perfumery. Adorned with floral stained glass, dark wood detailing, and a gorgeous courtyard, the setting alone is worth a visit. However, if perfume is your thing, you will love this place. The friendly proprietresses in matching floral dresses are happy to mix a signature scent on the spot for you to try. They have a selection of floral, musty, and fresh scents ranging from sandalwood and patchouli to water of Portugal and flowers of Havana. Once you have found a scent you love, you can choose a vintage perfume bottle and take it home with you. Prices vary between ($10-$35, depending on the size of the bottle).

FAC (Fabrica de Arte Cubano).
Without a doubt the hippest spot in Havana at the moment is FAC, a multipurpose art and culture center housed in a former cooking oil factory. Tucked away on a two-tiered rooftop in the back of the labyrinthine venue is Tierra, a trendy restaurant specializing in Mediterranean-Cuban food. Try the Thai chicken, a spicy mix of ground chicken and cashews served over mashed tubers; confit pork served over mashed yuca and garnished with chicharrón (fried pork) or local fried fish and chips. Definitley leave time after dinner for exploring the art and music at FAC. You can easily spend an entire night here and not see it all. Be sure to make a reservation, it gets busy.

El Del Frente.
For the best daiquiri in town, head to this trendy, rooftop cafe. Their mango daiquiri is arguably the best cocktail in Havana. Here you’ll also find a more diverse menu for lunch or dinner, including standouts like the gazpacho, steak tacos, croquettes, and market fish. The restaurant can be hard to find since it has no presence on street level, so look out for O’Reilly 304 (another great café by the same owners) and you’ll find it across the street and upstairs. Be sure to make a reservation here too.

Ajiaco Café.
Cojimar, a fishing village located a 15 minute drive outside of Havana, is best known for being one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts and the basis for his novel Old Man and The Sea. Ajiaco Cafe is a Cojimar favorite. Try their special “mojito ajiaco,” a transcendent mix of Cuban pepper-infused Santiago aged rum, local honey, lime, mint, and sparkling water. If you’re looking for a fun afternoon activity, take one of their cooking classes, which includes a tour of their organic garden and a lesson on how to make their most popular dishes and drinks.

Le Chansonnier.
This elegant home tucked away on a quiet, residential block offers up Cuban classics with a twist. The traditional dishes on the menu include ropa vieja, chicken with cumin, and black beans and rice, but the standout dishes are the cream of pumpkin soup, taro fritters, and orange flan. Their signature mojitos are special thanks to the not-so-secret ingredient, bitters. They also has a nice wine list, which can be hard to come by in Havana.

Cero Habana.
This dimly lit, after hours bar is the place to mix and mingle with the young artists of Havana for some rumba and dancing, and a perfect way to end your night.

Havana is city rich with culture and life, and this list only skims the surface of what you can discover there. Searching out the more off-the-beaten-path places will allow you to meet and interact with the locals a bit more, and get a truer taste of the flavors, colors, and charms of this one-of-a-kind place.


Note: There may be some restrictions on travel from the U.S. to Cuba, so you may need a bit more planning than usual before you go. When visiting, you have the opportunity to buy a temporary Cuban visa at the check-in desk in the airport for around $50. However, you'll need to pick 1 of 12 categories of authorized travel to legitimize your trip, the most lenient being “Support the Cuban People,” which simply asks that you engage in a full-time schedule of activities that support the Cuban people.


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