Holiday Diary: First Times in Havana, Cuba

Colourful. Friendly. Full of surprises.

Travelling to the Caribbean has always been on my bucket list, and finally this year I’ve ticked it off! Myself and Lorna (of Fashion Boss) headed down to Havana, Cuba for 4 nights & 3 days for our first time and what an experience it was. All of my expectations were met, and exceeded, and I want to highly recommend you visit Havana too!

Travel & Accommodation

When booking our Caribbean holiday, we went to Trailfinders on Dawson Street, who booked us in for a few nights in Havana and then a week in Tulum, Mexico (blog post to follow). We flew from Dublin to Amsterdam (2 hours via KLM), had a four hour layover, then flew Amsterdam to Havana (10.5 hours via KLM). The flights were both fine, with the latter offering two complimentary meals, drinks and snacks, as well as a blanket and pillow. There was a wide variety of in-flight movies, tv series and music options, while it also showed the flight’s location via the ‘moving map’.

I booked us an apartment via Airbnb on San Rafael, Havana, hosted by Vladimir & Maly. It was a cute apartment, bedroom with two beds (double and single), shower and WC, an open kitchen-dining-living room with high stools & table and two single seater sofas, as well as ample storage space and air conditioning. The rooms were very clean and everything worked as it should. Our hosts were brilliant! They organised airport transfer to and fro (30 Pesos/CUC each way), and explained about the WiFi, getting around Havana, and suggested what to see and do. They also ensured us that Havana is a safe city, no matter what time of the day or night it is. We opted for the in-house breakfast (5 Pesos per person per day), which varied from cooked eggs, ham, cheese, fried potato croquettes, bread and fresh fruit, with tea and juice.

Havana is a pretty big city, but there are plenty of ways to travel. The easiest and cheapest way are the bicitaxis (tuk tuks). Most will travel approx 1km maximum, which should cost about 5 Pesos per person. There are two types of bicitaxis: pedalled and motored – the former are classic, latter are like yellow taxis. Normal car taxis are also available, however they’re more expensive. Buses are also an option, however we never got one.

Recommendations – Sightseeing

One of the biggest attractions to Havana are the vintage car tours. We booked ours online a few days in advance via Strawberry Tours. It was a very handy booking process: easy to navigate, you can pay online, and the confirmation was sent instantly. We opted for the Havana Vintage Car Tour (2.5 hours/US $99), and met our driver & guide at Teniente Rey 360. It was a gorgeous and sunny day in Havana, perfect conditions for touring around the city and learning more about the culture. Luís was our guide and he was brilliant! His English was excellent, and he was full of fun facts, history and stories about Havana, which we really enjoyed. He also was very patient with all of our photo opps – and was a great photographer too! Highlights included Old Town, Plaza de la Revolución, Parque Almendares, John Lennon Park, Ché Guevara’s house and the Christ of Havana where the views from Casablanca across the port are stunning. 

El Capitolio, the National Capital building, and its surrounding area are just beautiful. The gold was actually given by the Russians, whilst the grounds are secured all around. Built in 1929, the architecture is pretty special, that features a large domed cupola and a central porticoou, and is elegant from all sides. You can visit the museum though be advised queues can be a long wait.

The colourful buildings of Havana are definitely another reason this city has such high spirits. Though the infrastructure isn’t at its best, the pink, blue, yellow, green and turquoise buildings sure make up for it. We found so many pretty little spots just by walking around including Paseo de Martí, which is the east-side stretch by El Capitolio, Plaza Vieja in Old Town and its surrounding streets.

Recommendations – Food & Drinks

As a food and lifestyle blogger, you know that this was gonna be a natural highlight. Whenever visiting a new city, I always like to do research beforehand (then again, who doesn’t!). Luckily a few friends had already been to Havana and have some great suggestions, while other spots we found by accident or were recommended by our tour guide. Take a look below at where we ate and drank, and what was tried and tasted!

La Guarida, 418 Concordia, 4JQJ+8J La Habana, Cuba: This was a delicious meal on our first night in Havana, with tasty Cuban cuisine and lovely staff. The outdoor terrace is wonderful and though a little pricey, the food is worth it.

Tried & Tasted: (Daily Special) Pork Loin Trio with Papaya and Guava, Fritter and Fried Plantain. Cookie FM Rating – 5/5

Creperie Oasis Nelva, Muralla, 4JMW+XX La Habana, Cuba: We stumbled upon this wonderful café and bar whilst wandering through Old Havana. Their cocktails and crepes are delicious, and their café manager Carlos was more than helpful and great craic. Not only did he suggest great cocktails for us, make us some special ones but he also gave us tips of where else to eat and drink in town.

Tried & Tasted: Papaya Cocktail Special, Chocolate & Mint Rum Cocktail Special, Cuba Libre, Crepe with Honey. Cookie FM Rating – 5/5

San Cristóbal Paladar, San Rafael, 4JPM+FF Havana, Cuba: We stumbled upon this spot on our walk back to our Airbnb, which was also on San Rafael. A cool spot with high ceilings and adorned with eclectic decor, this restaurant has also been visited by many big celebrities including Barack & Michelle Obama! The food options were big, and rather tasty, and the service was very attentive. You can see they chefs and staff are proud of this restaurant.

Tried & Tasted: Beef Stir Fry with Plantaine and Cucumber Salad. Cookie FM Rating – 4/5

O’Reilly 304, O’Reilly, La Habana, 4JQW+PM, Cuba: Recommended by my friend Alice, this little restaurant and bar serves up some hella tasty food. I opted for that day’s special of Reef Tacos which were four soft tacos with Lobster, Prawns, Fish and Crab respectively. Topped with salad and sour cream or guacamole, they were messy but absolutely delicious!

Tried & Tasted: Reef Tacos, Empanadillas, Cuba Libre. Cookie FM Rating – 4/5

La Bodeguita del Medio, Empedrado, 4JRX+83 La Habana, Cuba: The best place for Mojitos (XX CUC), this bar became more famous as they’re recommended not only by everyone whose been to Havana, but Ernest Hemingway himself. The live music and atmosphere alone are worth visiting for. I also had my first cigar here!

Teniente Rey 360, Calle Teniente Rey No. 360 e/ Villegas y, Aguacate, 4JPV+9X La Habana, Cuba: We stopped into this little bistro as it was our meeting point before our vintage car tour, but we did enjoy a cheeky mojito. We then returned for lunch afterwards, where I enjoy my first snapper dish. A tasty piece of fish, with a cherry daquiri as dessert.

Tried & Tasted: Fried Snapper Fillet, Mojito, Cherry Daiquiri. Cookie FM Rating – 3/5

Restaurante D’Lirios, Paseo de Martí, 4JMR+QQ Havana, Cuba: Our last night’s dinner venue, this is a beautiful restaurant with live music, attentive staff and a huge variety of meat, seafood and Cuban traditions. It’s listed as one of the restaurants to visit, we had a delicious last meal before heading off for daquiris. 

Tried & Tasted: Shrimp Casserole in Cuban Tomato Sauce with Rice & Kidney Beans and Plantain Crisps. Cookie FM Rating – 4/5

El Floridita, Obispo, 4JPV+X3 La Habana, Cuba: Just like La Bodeguita del Medio, this is the best place for Daiquiris (XX CUC each). Also recommended by Ernest Hemingway, we had a tasty selection of daiquiris and managed to not only nab a table with a great view of the bar but get in the doors before they closed – we essentially experienced a Havana lock-in! With live music and a buzzing atmosphere, this was the perfect way to end our journey in Cuba.

Traveler’s Tips

My biggest top tip is about money in Cuba. Don’t try to get Cuban pesos (CUC) before you arrive – you won’t get them anywhere! When you arrive to Havana Airport, there are currency machines after customs, which are secure and easy enough to use. You will need your passport for this and either cash to convert or your card. In Cuba there are two currencies, CUP and CUC; the latter of which is what we used and is commonly known as Cuban “dollars”. Cash is key around Havana, so be sure to have enough when you go out during the day.

Your mobile internet is not going to work well when you arrive to Cuba, but don’t fret. Although the majority of the time our 4G wasn’t working, instead we availed of the WiFi cards. Our host explained how to use them at the beginning of our stay, and the WiFi was fine during our stay. Each card cost a 10 Pesos and lasts one hour, but somehow our continued to work even after one hour.

What do you wear when in Cuba? Well, Havana is a big enough town, therefore comfortable walking shoes are key, and I would not advise in wearing heels or wedges for more than a few hours as many streets have holes or are uneven. We visited in February and it was hot but bearable for me. Short skirts & dresses, shorts and little tops are totally acceptable, and I recommend a light jacket or shirt for the evenings.

As aforementioned, getting around Havana is easy with the bicitaxis (tuk tuks). Other than that, we walked around everywhere and even met a few memorable characters on the way. Use Google Maps offline and get a paper map to help navigate your way. Most travel books have maps within them, as well as great tips for what to see and where to eat, so they’re handy to bring too.

Both myself and Lorna felt safe day and night throughout our Havana experience. The people really are wonderful and very friendly and hospitable, with infectious smiles. I really hope you will make your way to Cuba and visit the Havana capital, because it really is worth it! 

Nirina xx

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Images © Nirina Plunkett

One thought on “Holiday Diary: First Times in Havana, Cuba

  1. DW says:

    Was supposed to be on a Cuba cruise in November… still on the bucket list though, lots like you had a great time! Did you all experience the Afro-Cuban Jazz scene, hear it is incredible!


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