In this Havana Cuba Travel Guide, you’ll discover what to do in Havana Cuba for food, drink & fun – and included is our interactive Havana Cuba Map. We attempt to defy the rumour that all food in Cuba is terrible by finding some pretty tasty bites. We reveal our top options for good food as well as our favourite cocktail spots (Did You Know: The mojito and the daiquiri were both invented in Cuba).
PLUS what to see in Havana – famous sights, architecture and landmarks. We learn the history of old Havana and get a view from behind the wheel of a classic car. All this as well as planning a trip to Cuba traveler tips and accommodation options.
Our Havana Cuba Map, which features everything mentioned in this article, as well 25+ other top attractions, bars, and restaurants, can be found at the bottom of this article. Just scroll down to the end.
Disclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links – these links help us generate revenue, at no cost to you, and help support us in providing free information for you on our blog. Please support us by booking through our links, rather than searching google.
A Quick Note On Currency/Money In Cuba
Cuba has 2 currencies. The CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso – which is pegged to the USD. ie. 1 CUC = 1 USD. But, if you go to change a US dollar for a CUC in Cuba you get charged a 10% tax for changing USD (As you may know, Cuba and the USA are not good friends). You will also pay some other taxes and the exchange comes in at around 1 CUC = 0.87 USD on average.
So it’s advisable to bring Euros, Canadian dollars or even Mexican Pesos or British Pounds as they don’t have a 10% bonus tax, just the basic exchange rate fee.
The second currency is CUP – Cuban Pesos. This works out at about 24 CUP = 1 CUC. Some places you go will have prices in CUP – mostly local spots outside of Old Havana, street food etc. Anywhere fancy or for tourists will be in CUC. Menus may not state which currency it is, so you should ask, or figure it out based on the price sounding reasonable or not. For example, we’ve seen a cup of coffee for 1 peso. This is confusing as 1 USD for an expresso seems reasonable. Actually, it was 1 peso (5 cents) for that coffee. It wasn’t good coffee.
When you get local currency it’s advisable to change 10 or 20 dollars into the local CUP currency so you have small change for incidentals. Smaller food vendors may not be able to change even a 10 CUC note, so having some CUP is handy. Anyone who takes CUC should take CUP too. But not always vice versa.
What To Do In Havana Cuba For Foodies
What to do in Havana Cuba if you are a foodie? If you’ve done any research at all, you’ve probably seen lots of comments like “have low expectations”, or “put up with eating substandard food” or even worse comments. There are a lot of reasons why this has happened. The good news is, things are getting better and yes, there are some good food experiences to be had in Havana Cuba.
This section is our guide to the better choices we found.
Is all food in Cuba terrible? And Why?
The quick answer is, now in 2018, there is some good food in Cuba. But quality can still be very inconsistent and there are a lot of reasons for that.
The first big problem is availability of produce. Imported products are ludicrously overpriced (ie. a small carton of fruit juice in a supermarket 3.75 CUC. A 500g pack of basic dry spaghetti for 3.50 CUC). The majority of the population lives off basic rations provided through a ration card system. This only includes things like rice, beans, sugar, coffee, and 1KG of pork per month. The pricing on these rationed items is similar to prices in Mexico, or a bit less (ie. 1KG of dried beans for less than $1). But once you purchase all your rations, anything else you want to buy costs a lot more.
On top of all this, food shortages have been very common in Cuba. Even today, although basic products are available most of the time, other things, like fresh fruit and veg, can be in short supply. You will often see long lines outside certain stores that have just got in new products. They disappear fast and not everyone gets them in time.
So, for independent local restaurants, it is typical for them to only be able to provide 25% of the dishes listed on their menus. The ingredients they can get each day may be inferior quality.
The Cuban national wage is equivalent to $20 USD per month. That is the standard wage earned by all state workers. Pretty much the entire population. Most people who make more than this do so by working in the tourism sector – Classic car drivers, tour guides, waiters. Our walking tour guide, Julio, who we’ll write about a little more later, makes $20 a month from his job as a University Lecturer of history. He makes a much more livable income as a historic tour guide.
Until recently, most restaurants were state owned and run. This means the chefs are making $20 a month to work full time. Many still are. What incentive is there to make high quality food when you will never get paid more than $20 a month? Not much.
When former president Obama made changes to certain laws, money from outside Cuba could be brought into the country and this has led to the opening of many more private restaurants where owners can charge higher prices to tourists which allow them to pay for better staff. Staff who have a reason to create quality food. Waiters who work for good tips and hence actually provide good service.
This is great news for the people who own or work in these places. And for hungry tourists.
But you should also remember when you are buying your $10 burger, that most Cubans have never been able to buy a meal like that in their lives. By being a tourist in Cuba you are unavoidably supporting the current governmental practices. But you are also providing one of the few avenues for Cubans to find an escape from poverty through private enterprise.
3. State vs. Independent
Even independent establishments have to pay taxes. So it’s impossible not to have a financial connection to the government. But if you visit state run restaurants, all the money you spend goes straight to the government and staff make the fixed $20 a month wage. Though we are told that tips get kept by staff and not passed on to the boss. So that is the one benefit.
As you’ve read, state run restaurant food is typically bad.
There will not be a sign telling you if a place is independent or not. But some signals to look out for:
- Greeters at the door actively trying to get you in (unlike state restaurants, the independent actually want customers)
- Refurbished – most of the independent places are new, so they’ll look better kept than the old state places.
- Has a clean and free bathroom. State places often neglect hygiene and have a bathroom attendant charging for toilet paper.
Although you can’t guarantee great food in independent restaurants, it’s significantly more likely.
Take An Old Havana Food Tour
In hope of finding fantastic flavors in Havana, we put ourselves in the hands of the experts – Food Tours Havana. As I mentioned above, knowing which places are independent and create good food consistently is one of the hardest parts of eating well in Cuba. Food Tours Havana spent a lot of time sourcing locations that are consistent and that represent a good mix of everyday authentic Cuban food, and special dishes that highlight the best of Cuba.
This means a combination of higher end dishes that highlight the culinary history, as well as street food type dishes.
As well as a roaming degustation, you also get to see some key points in the city and get a basic introduction to some of Old Havana’s history. But this tour is focused on food, so for a more in depth history of the city, we recommend a historic walking tour (we’ve reviewed one below).
Here are some of the stops we made on the tour. To experience the rest, you need to take the tour yourself!
If your main goal is just to eat and learn about the food culture, then Food Tours Havana is for you. Churros aren’t specifically Cuban, but they are a popular street snack all around the country and have become a part of the food culture.
Lobster is an ingredient that is only available at higher end restaurants – and by high end, I mean places where meals may cost over $5, well above the typical price a local on national wage would pay for a meal. A lot of places in Old Havana advertise lobster, but that doesn’t mean once you sit down they will actually have any. The lobster we had on the tour was one of the highlights of all the dishes we tried in Cuba. It was drenched in a rich tomato and bell pepper sauce – the base for many Cuban dishes.
We also got to sample Cuba’s national dish – Ropa Vieja – as part of the tour. More on that dish later.
Our final stop was for artisan ice cream. This is not a product that most locals would have had access to until recently. Many of the ice creams here are made from local fruits, so this stop is like a fusion of how Cuba is slowly opening up to the world.
Our guide Ana did an amazing job of explaining the history and culture of food in Cuba. In a land struggling to find it’s foodie identity, Food Tours Havana have crafted an experience that captures a still rare opportunity – to taste good food in Cuba.
The tour starts at Mojito Mojito (marked on our Havana Cuba Map below – but always check after booking in case the meeting point changes)
Book your tour with Food Tours Havana now.
See more reviews of this tour on TripAdvisor.
Need Accommodation in Havana? We Stayed at Drobles Guesthouse – check out our review below.
Eating With Fidel Castro’s Former Personal Chef
Of course, we also did a lot of our own research in trying to track down great food in Havana. Even with hours of study, we still had quite a few low quality meals. Online reviews from people arriving with low expectations tend to award better ratings than are deserved… But, some restaurants really did stand out.
When we discovered that Fidel Castro’s former personal chef had opened a restaurant, we had to assume that anyone who used to cook for the most powerful man in Cuba had to be kicking out genuinely international standard food. And be well connected enough to get all the produce they needed for their restaurant.
So eating here may have some ethical implications. Does a chef share the political opinions of their boss? Or simply play the game to keep their family safe and give them the opportunity to have a better life in a nation where so many struggle? Until freedom of speech is truly free in Cuba, we’ll probably never know.
The first thing you feel when you enter the restaurant is that this is a place people come to feel free. A playground for wealthy locals and foreigners only. Two Chinese businessmen in the corner smoking cigars with a Cuban businessman. An older American lady dancing with the waiters like she was still 18 years old. The chefs in the open kitchen pumping up the reggaeton music and dancing as they work.
If one thing is for certain, the people who work here and dine here can afford to enjoy life a little more than everyone else. And this restaurant is a place to revel in the sin of being rich. The reality outside is hard to forget. But if you turn the music up loud enough, you can live inside a dream of how Cuba could be if everyone had as much freedom as those inside this restaurant bubble.
Main courses start around $16 CUC up to around $35 CUC for the lobster. It’s expensive by Cuban standards but the portions are huge. Whatever the politics, if you eat in any restaurant in Havana, and are paying over $5 for a main course, you are already acting entitled compared to the locals. So you might as well eat somewhere with a great atmosphere and above average food. That said, we found a few places outside the old town tourist area that did have food worth mentioning. More on that below.
We ordered the Grilled Rabbit (which was pretty much half an entire rabbit). The sauce you see smeared in that photo was one of the tastiest things I had in Cuba and went very well with the rabbit. I’m pretty sure it was mostly tomato paste and spices. But it was killer. It goes to show that simple ingredients and a bit of love can really make good food. For the places that have both those elements in Cuba, you can eat well.
We also ordered the blue cheese stuffed steak. Also mammoth!
Although the food might not make my top 50 worldwide list, it was my number one in Cuba and the ambiance and very strong mojitos also helped make this an essential dining experience for Havana.
Ivan Chef Justo on facebook. Get the exact location and locations for everything in this article with our custom Havana Cuba Map below.
Ropa Vieja – Cuba’s National Dish – at Van Van Restaurant
Ropa Vieja (Directly translates as “Old Clothes”) is Cuba’s national dish. But like almost all Cuban cuisine, it didn’t originate in Cuba. It came from either Spain or the Canary islands. The legend goes that an old man, so poor, had nothing but his “old clothes” to shred and cook. He prayed for a miracle, and when the dish was finished, the clothes had turned into beef.
Ropa Vieja combines shredded beef, not clothes, with the classic tomato and bell pepper sauce that is present through much of Cuban cuisine. The dish may not originate in Cuba, but it had been localized.
We tried this at 4 different restaurants around Havana & Cuba and our favorite was at restaurant Van Van – in Old Havana. Get the locations for everything in this article with our custom Havana Cuba Map below.
– Find out more about what to eat in Cuba and the history of Cuban cuisine in our podcast What To Eat In Havana – coming October 2018.
What To Eat In Havana Cuba: Street Pizza
I mentioned that street food in Havana was hit an miss… However, the street pizza was almost always good.
Cuban pizza is cooked in a pan. Always served hot and fresh, not just served after sitting in a window for an hour. The base puffs up, the edges fry to a tasty crisp. It seems like communism has standardized the cheese, so everywhere we ate it tasted like a medium strong cheddar cheese (which we love). We paid 20 CUP – less than a dollar – for this ham and cheese pizza at Cafeteria El Milagro. It’s not on google maps, so check out our custom Havana Cuba map at the bottom of this article for the exact location.
Other restaurants we recommend
I mentioned above there were hits and misses with the food. Here are a few of the hits:
TaBARish – New Russian restaurant. Serving Russian classics as well as some Cuban & international food. Not yet listed on google. Find it on our custom map below.
La Catedral – Cuban & international food. Excellent but low priced ($1.25) cocktails. In Vedado, not the old city. Check out the map below.
Locos por Cuba – Local restaurant with very reasonable prices (Mains under $5). One of just a few low price places that made good homestyle Cuban food. This is also outside of the old town.
La Algarabia – No nonsense meat and rice cafe with $3-$4 mains. Actually the best Cuban Rice (Moros y Cristianos) we had during our time in Cuba. The chuleta here was tasty and a big serve. In New Havana, 15 minutes walk from the tourist area.
Mojito Mojito – More for the drinks, but the food here was good enough to mention. Central location near plaza Vieja
Highly recommended by Others: Paladar Doña Eutimia. Reservations recommended. We didn’t get time to go.
All of these places are marked on our Havana Cuba Map at the bottom of this article.
Lonely Planet Havana Pocket Guide
With internet access in Cuba still being sketchy, it makes sense to have an easy guide and map with you at all times.
Keep on top of where you are, and popular things to do, with the Lonely planet Havana 160 page pocket guide. Includes 19 different maps of the city.
What To Do In Havana Cuba For Fun
Private Walking Tour With Cuban Eden
At the start of this guide, I mentioned our tour guide, Julio, works at the university in Havana, lecturing in History. He makes $20 a month in that job. The official state wage. To support his family, he uses his high level education in English and History to work as a tour guide. Which pays significantly better than being a lecturer. That is the crazy world of Cuba.
We took our private tour with Cuban Eden. This means we get Julio’s big history brain to ourselves for almost 4 hours, to probe with questions about life in Cuba and the crazy history of how Cuba went from Spanish colony to communist revolution and beyond. All of this done while traipsing the colourful, architectural wonderland that is Old Havana & The Malecon (waterfront esplanade).
Here are some of the spots we visited on the tour – but to get a vivid and honest account of life and history in Cuba, you’ll need to take the tour for yourself. Julio was happy to candidly answer our questions on all topics.
Construction of the Malecon began in 1901 during a brief period of United States rule in Cuba. It acts as both a seawall and a meeting place for locals. Every evening, the seawall is littered with locals drinking Havana rum, listening to music and romancing.
As well as the more prestigious and historic buildings, the tour winds through the lively streets of old Havana, where everyday life rolls on.
You can’t enter the formidable fortress that now houses the National Police headquarters.
(Left) The baroque style Palacio del Segundo Cabo, constructed in 1772 on the corner of Plaza de Armas. Here you’ll learn why part of the plaza is cobbled with wood rather than stone. (Right) We head down narrow streets leading to the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary – now Cuba’s principal cathedral.
La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana is one of 11 cathedrals in Cuba. Construction was started by the Jesuits in 1748, but completed in 1777, 10 years after they were expelled from Cuba.
Cuba’s Plaza Vieja – or “old square” is actually not the oldest square (Plaza de Armas is the oldest), and was actually called Plaza Nueva (New Square) when it was completed in 1559. Much later, the centre of the square was turned into an underground parking lot, which collapsed. The square has only recently been restored to its former glory. The Yellow building on the left of the image is the brewery. This is state run, which means bad service and… they actually ran out house beer when we walked past. Everyone was drinking the national bottled beer, Cristal.
Our guide met us at our hotel, and we walked from there. So the exact route you take may vary, but the main downtown locations will always be on the itinerary unless you specifically request alternative locations.
Book Your Havana Walking Tour with Cuban Eden. Tours can be tailored to your groups need. Each tour is private and just for your booking. Lunch and a cocktail are normally provided but check at the time of booking for exact and current inclusions.
Cuban Eden Can also provide other tours, transportation services, guides, translators, etc.
What To Do In Havana Cuba: Classic Car Tour
The number one experience you can’t skip during your visit to Havana is a classic car tour. The key to Havana’s unique feel of being “locked in time” is the endless stream of classic cars riding around the streets. One of the best paying jobs in town is to be an independent classic car owner/driver who is 100% funded by tourists.
Only about 20% of Cubans own a car, so there is very little traffic to hold you up.
We signed up with Urban Adventures for an unforgettable ride around Havana. Unlike the walking tours, which visit pedestrian streets in the compact old town. Once you get in the back of a perfectly preserved convertible, you can fly around the rest of Greater Havana, visiting landmarks and even Havana’s forest and the upper class homes of Vedado.
But it’s not just about the locations you visit, it’s all about the car itself! And getting to pose. So dress up retro and get yourself some classic 50’s style portraits.
As you drive around, your guide or driver will give you some information about the history of the city and the different districts.
At revolution plaza, you’ll encounter monuments to Che Guevara, the famous revolutionary. And to Jose Martí, an important revolutionary leader who fought for independence from the Spanish at the end of the 19th Century.
The tour ends with a visit to Cuba’s famous “Hotel Nacional” which has hosted celebrities and politicians for over 80 years. Try their famous “mafia” cocktail, before strolling past the Cuban Missile Silos within the grounds of the hotel, which held nuclear arms during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Taking a group tour is an economical way to ride in a classic car. The only downside was that the location designated for posing with the car was a car park – not a great backdrop. And the location is fixed due to it being a group and not a private tour. This seems to be the main place that many drivers take passengers to pose – we hope that they will make changes to this in the itinerary in future, as posing with the car is one of the highlights for all visitors.
We still got some pretty good photos though 😉
What to do in Havana Cuba: Best Mojitos
One of the quintessential things to do in Havana Cuba is, of course, drinking cocktails. The Havana bar scene became a place of legend during the 30s, 40s & 50s, with big names like Ernest Hemmingway, frequenting some of the city’s most famous bars.
The mojito is one of Cuba’s most famous cocktails, along with the Daiquiri (more on that below!) and the Cuba Libre Cocktail (but let’s face it, that’s just rum & coke). We did our blogger duty of trying mojitos and daiquiris in as many places as possible in order to bring you the best options – so you can avoid the average ones too.
A true mojito is made with hierba buena, not mint. It has some similar flavors to mint but has a unique taste. So, tip number one for a good Mojito is the right herb! And most importantly, the flavor in the stalks, rather than the leaves, is most important. When muddled properly, the stalks should release pink into the drink. Lazy bartenders often skip muddling altogether or barely do it at all. So sit at the bar and keep an eye on them for the best results.
The other ingredients in a Mojito are sugar (most bars use raw sugar, so it needs a lot of stirring to dissolve). Also, lime, ice, and carbonated water. The fancy extra ingredient that helped make some of our Mojitos better than others was a drop of Angostura bitters in the top.
So here are our top 3 Mojitos in Havana.
PRO TIP: If your drink isn’t strong enough, ask for more rum. This is almost always done without complaint and is always free. “Mas fuerte, por favor”. Alternatively, just ask for “fuerte” when you order.
And the winner is…
You’ll note that Havana’s most famous mojito bar La Bodeguita Del Medio did not make the list. This bar is now a complete tourist trap. They claim to have invented the Mojito, but we beg to differ as the history of this cocktail has it roots many years before the bar opened.
We talk more about the history of Mojitos & Daiquiris in our podcast What To Eat In Havana – coming October 2018.
The locations for all these bars are marked on our Havana Cuba Map at the bottom of this article.
What To Do In Havana Cuba: Best Daquaris
La Bodeguita Del Medio lays claim to inventing the Mojito. El Floridita claims to have invented the Daiquiri. Again, this seems highly unlikely but most sources do attribute the invention of the frozen Daiquiri to El Floridita. Once again, fame has led to an influx of tourists to the bar and it doesn’t make our list…
Our choice for an extra large daiquiri in Old Havana is at the trendy rooftop at El Del Frente.
But for the best Daiquiri in Havana, you’ll have to leave the old town and head to the fancy neighbourhood of Vedado. At La Catedral we found not only the cheapest daiquiri ($1.20) but the best – by a long way. This packs a citrus punch that zings on your mouth. Well balanced. Delicious.
We talk more about the history of Mojitos & Daiquiris in our podcast What To Eat In Havana – coming October 2018.
The locations for all these bars are marked on our Havana Cuba Map at the bottom of this article.
Lonely Planet Havana & Cuba Guide
Get the full Lonely Planet Cuba guide – including Havana sections – as a physical or e-book.
You can get the full book, or just download the chapters you need.
Stay informed as you travel, even without internet access.
Visit The Famous Jazz Club – La Zorra y el Cuervo
La Zorra y el Cuervo or “The Fox & Crow” in English, has played host to national and international Jazz artists since the 1990s and is now one of the most famous clubs in Havana. Hidden in a basement with a British style red phone-box stairwell for an entrance. Music fans line up well before the 10pm opening time in order to guarantee entrance to the 120 seat bar. Seats are first come first served and the seats at the back offer poor views, so arrive early.
We opted, as did many others, to sit in Cafe Sofia next to the club, to keep an eye on the line. The food was terrible, mojitos well below average and the waitress overcharged us and applied a 20% tip (10% would be normal) without asking us. Overall, avoid it. Instead, buy a beer from the convenience store and just stand in the line or sit on the kerb.
Guesthouses & Hotels In Havana Cuba
It should be noted that almost all (we were told definitely all) large hotels in Cuba are state owned. If you stay at an all inclusive resort or any major hotel, the money you pay goes directly to the government and staff get paid $20 per month wages (Although tips are typically kept by employees). NOTE: This is what we were told by locals, we can’t promise it’s 100% accurate info.
To make sure what you pay goes to families, you should stay at an independent guesthouse. These are often called “hostals” but most feature private rooms, they are not just dorm rooms.
For most Cubans, having a private room, running water, hot water, air conditioning and other things that foreign travelers may take for granted, is not a part of everyday life. So it should be expected that certain services might be inconsistent at best.
We stayed at Drobles Hostal in New Havana (about 15 minutes walk from Old Havana, and 1 minute from the Malecon). We were happy that all the services we were expecting worked for our 5 night stay – which included electric & air con, hot water, and a reasonably comfy bed.
The rooms were clean and were serviced daily. The staff was very helpful and honest. Drobles hostal exceeded our expectations and met a similar standard to other budget accommodation of a similar price range that we’ve stayed in around Asia, Eastern Europe, and Mexico.
Find the location for this Hostal on the Havana Cuba Map below.
Drobles Hostal is not represented on most major booking platforms but you can find rooms via CubanEden who sorted out all of our accommodation and the city walking tour we mentioned earlier. They made it really easy for us to choose the perfect location in Havana and to find a well established and respected hostal to stay at. As they now offer more tours on their website you can plan your entire trip to Havana (and other areas of Cuba) easily with CubanEden.
See more reviews of Hostal Drobles on Tripadvisor (Called Hostal Robles there)
Other Hotels in Havana Cuba
You can also look for accommodation using Airbnb – Get a $25 credit off your first AirBnB stay with our link.
As we mentioned above, to support local people, look for independent hotels. These rarely sit in the luxury category.
Havana Cuba Map – What to Do In Havana
Our Havana Cuba Map features every location mentioned in this article as well as 25+ bonus locations for you to explore. Be aware that internet in Cuba is sketchy, so you may want to note down places you want to visit onto your own offline google map. You can make Havana an offline map using the google maps app with these instructions. At this time, we haven’t figured out a way to make our custom map available offline, but you can manually add the points of interest to your own personal google maps using labels or stars and then access partial info on those while offline.
If you figure out how to make this custom map available offline, please leave the info in the comments below.