Comuna Guide To: Havana, Cuba
Havana has captured the hearts of so many over the past 500 years, with estranged lovers the world over. First, the Spaniards came to lay claim to her sugar cane, then the Americans, the Soviets and the Venezuelans. They all eventually left her with nothing but the visual cues to their existence. Now, Cuba is forging its own way forward. Led largely by the hands, hustle and ingenuity of creative and driven youth tired of waiting for a more open future, and creating one themselves.
If you want to go to Cuba "before it changes" you're already too late. Here's our insider guide on how to be part of the change as it happens and experience the very best of this electric city.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK:
1. Cafe Arcangel for a good breakfast and cosy vibe with art-filled walls.
2. El Café is a beautiful cafe in a bright, tall and restored building in Old Havana. The lunch and brunch menus are delicious and the coffee strong.
3. O'Reilly 304 for dinner and drinks. They serve up daily taco specials, fresh fish options, amazing ceviche, and creative cocktails. The staff is young, stylish and friendly and the vibe laidback.
4. Mama Patio on Calle 23 for mingling with locals who know this is the best spot serving Creole Cuban food, just like grandma’s, in Vedado. Ask around for it.
5. The kitchens of locals is where the heart and soul of Cuban cuisine and food culture is. If you have the opportunity to eat a creole meal at your casa particular, do it!
WHERE TO STAY: CASA PARTICULAR, CENTRO HABANA OR VEDADO
Book your stay in a casa particular hosted by a local family (private homestay similar to a B&B) over staying in a state-owned hotel. By staying in a casa particular, you not only get a super authentic experience, but your tourism dollars will also remain in the local economy which in turn directly supports locals. We love the Centro and Vedado neighbourhoods because you get much more of a local experience away from the tourist crowds. You’ll see and interact with more locals going about their day to day while walking around than tourists and have daily opportunities to engage with your neighbours on a more real level. You’re more likely to be invited into someone's home for a coffee after a brief chat in the street than to be approached by hustlers looking to sell you something (which is a common occurrence in the heavy tourist circuit of Old Havana).
WHERE TO GO OUT & DANCE:
1. Bar EFE is a great spot to experience Havana's growing underground urban music, contemporary jazz, hip-hop and electronic music scenes.
2. Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) for Cuba's leading cultural arts exhibits and performances in a beautifully designed converted factory. Here locals intermingle with foreigners in a really inventive and fun environment.
3. Corner Café for pop up live music shows.
4. Club 1830 for salsa dancing al aire libre near the water.
5. Conga Room or Elegguá is a secret club in Old Havana for electronic music and local DJs in a dark and moody environment with a great crowd. Arrive by 10pm to experience the rumba performance which is the real draw!
WHERE TO SHOP LOCAL:
1. Clandestina is Cuba's first clothing label with a design studio in Old Havana. The perfect spot to buy something made by local graphic designers. You'll also be supporting a creative, female-led and independent shop.
2. Alma Cuba Shop is a cute little gift shop that showcases the work of local artisans.
3. Casa de Belkys is in a Vedado home that is full to the brim with every antique you can imagine.
4. Taller Comunitario Jose Marti is an artist co-operative where several local graffiti artists and photographers share a space to showcase their art.
5. Dador is another new Cuban fashion brand with a studio in Old Havana that specializes in beautiful and unique linen pieces.
HOW WE DO HAVANA
Our insider selections on how to experience a unique side to Havana.
Life happens on Havana rooftops. If you look up at any given time, you’ll hear music blasting, people yelling down at their neighbours to say hello, laundry drying, and parties getting started. They’re also the perfect spot to take in the magic of golden hour that washes over the city each evening. If you find yourself being invited to someone's rooftop, say yes, and make sure to bring along some DIY cuba libres, $1 cajitas de ron (boxed rum), and cold cervezas.
Spend the day hanging out with Havana's growing but still very much underground skate scene to get a first-hand introduction to a passionate and community driven youth culture. You can usually find them skating around Prado or a DIY skatepark in Marianao, called Ciudad Libertad.
Let's be real for a moment. Cruising around the city in a classic convertible with your hands waving in the air, while trying to get that perfect instagram shot showing how authentically Cuban you're being, is probably the most non-Cuban thing you can do. Want to experience how true Habaneros get around the city? Ride in a taxi colectivo to get from Centro to Vedado for $1-$2 (depending on your negotiating skills). These taxis have designated stops, so ask a local where you can catch one if you aren't sure. In Centro, they stop along Neptuno Street, and pick people up along the route. In Vedado they run along Linea and Calle 23. Just make sure you're standing on the correct side of the road when flagging one down.
Food is culture, and in Cuba the food has so many stories to tell. Visit one of the city's many agromercados with a local, like your casa host. You'll never eat another papaya, avocado or banana again once you've tried a truly organic Cuban version. Then, bring the goods back to your casa and take a cooking class to connect over the art of cooking, sharing recipes and learning how to make a traditional Cuban meal. Just remember that the mercados operate in the national CUP currency that locals use to buy provisions, which is roughly 24 CUP = 1 CUC.
A good wander will always reveal the wonders and intricacies of a city. Get outside of Old Havana and just walk around. Get lost through the streets of Centro and talk to the locals. You never know what interaction might lead to being invited into someones home for an afternoon cafe Cubano and a 4 hour conversation, a game of dominoes en la calle, or an impromptu dance party. Cubans are extremely friendly, open and welcoming people, eager to show visitors their lives, share their hospitality and reveal a unique perspective on Cuban culture.
GET INSPIRED BY THAT CUBAN RYTHME
Take an audio journey through our curated Spotify playlist: Comuna Sound Sessions no.1 | Cuba
It's no denying that music and dance are at the heart of Cuban culture. Let yourself be moved, inspired and transported to the heat and vibrant beat of Havana through an audio escape. This eclectic Spotify playlist is curated by our founder and inspired by the growing independent music scene and contemporary urban sounds coming from Cuba and its diaspora.
Do we have you intrigued and wanting to go even deeper below the surface of Havana's electric local culture? Do you have a few question? We don't blame you.
There is so much to consider when planning a trip to Cuba. From bureaucratic red tape, to confusing travel policies, and the general difficulties of navigating the unique type of travel required in Cuba on one's own.
Get in touch with us! We're always excited to share our love for Cuba with potential travellers and help turn what would otherwise be hours of research, planning and preparation on your end into an easy, stress-free and unforgettable travel experience to one of the most culturally rich and unique places in the world.