Our plan for our first full day was to spend it in Habana Vieja.
Habana Vieja is the older part of the city. This area is peppered with so many architecturally stunning buildings on narrow streets. Some research beforehand revealed that there is 500 years of history in Havana, which yielded over 900 buildings with historical significance in this one span of the city! THAT’S A LOT OF HISTORY!
We woke and opened the shutters to reveal a perfect sunny day. Wow, what a sight! We rushed to get ready, we were all starving for breakfast. There was a small cafe in Habana Vieja that we were heading towards. Our walk over to this area, the same as last night, was beautiful. The sights …of the people hanging out on the plaza, the vintage cars lined up in front of the Revolution Museum, and side streets glimmering with children playing at the local parks. It was spectacular. It felt familiar and welcoming.
If we had only gotten to Cuba earlier to experience this first!
The typical Cuban breakfast consists of coffee, juice, toasted bread, fruit, and eggs. The coffee, everywhere, is super strong! We loved it. The juices that is offered are normally of the exotic fruits available on the island, like guava or papaya. The only thing is, well, the flavor of some of these fruits was, well, not so good. Nor were some of them really considered juice. More like a gelatinous consistency-which most mornings made me want to run away. Needless to say, I ate a lot of toast and drank a ton of coffee in the mornings.
It’s just interesting how most of the fruit was strange. Except the bananas, those were great. Over the whole week we had tasted pineapple, watermelon, mango, papaya, guava and other melons, but they just had off tastes or textures. Not typical for the Caribbean. The breads they offered as toast are traditional; one is a more European style bread and the other is a soft sweeter bun. When you eat at your casa particular it is quite the experience. The base of the meal is the same but they add in so many elements, it’s like a feast! Which I will talk about when we go to our next house.
After breakfast, we took off on our walking tour of Habana Vieja. We started off checking out the Paseo del Prado to browse the artists set up in the middle of the boulevard. The vintage cars whipping by along the boulevard is something spectacular. It felt like we were stuck in time, but with a modern twist. The art scene is as eclectic as the people. There were realist painters, Afro-Cuban paintings, up-cycled artists, traditional souvenir paintings, just so much! The boulevard was beautiful, as well, with multi-colored granite bricks flanked with built in benches and urns. The Prado went from the ocean side (where our apartment building was) to Neptuno.
From there it crossed over to Paseo Marti, where we walked through their Central Park. We realized how close we were to Obispo Street where the Bar Floridita (aka El Floridita, or, Floridita) was located. The Floridita is known for their daiquiris, so it was a spot I had to check out. BUT, yes, this is also the bar Hemingway was known to hangout. Well, he loved this bar during his stay in Havana, and it is basically dedicated to the writer!! There are photographs of Hemingway and a life-sized bronze statue of him standing at the end of the bar. It’s quite the homage.
We walked over to the Floridita at the same time as what seemed to be a tour group from a cruise liner arriving… HOLY THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE! We walked in, well, shuffled in. There was a live band, who were incredible! We made it through the crowds all the way to the dining area that was roped off. This is when I took this video of all the daiquiris being made… (drool).
We wanted to chill out at the bar, but while looking around at the sea of heads filing in behind us, we realized it was just too packed. Then decided to head back later in the afternoon.
We walked back through Central Park where we checked out some vintage car tours, as we saw the Hotel Inglaterra. Our desires for daiquiris were strong, and this hotel had a lot of history that we researched beforehand, so we decided to go there for a little lunch and rum! The place was hopping. We opted to chill inside their swanky lobby until a table opened up. The interior felt like it hadn’t changed much over time. We sat on an avocado green velvet settee next to fringed lamps and old world artwork. I loved it!
The wait for a table was about five minutes. Score! We got to sit at the right end of the outdoor seating area. They also had a great band playing. The salsa music was so much fun! You can’t help but dance along wherever you go in Cuba. We stayed at this restaurant for a long bit. We got to relax looking towards the park as we ate some dishes and had a few daiquiris and mojitos. It felt so great to be there. Just like I imagined Cuba to feel. Once we got the check, we then went to explore the city some more.
We walked down the Boulevard de San Rafael towards the commercial shopping. The road was under construction so it was hard to walk around. There managed to be a small strip of concrete in the middle to walk, but with cars coming by and other pedestrians it was difficult. We walked about five blocks then turned up Galiano to Barcelona streets towards Il Capitolio. Their Capital. Their national capital is the most visited location in all of Havana. It was under construction at the time, but the building was still mostly visible. There is a striking resemblance to our State Building in DC!! Though this is a high traffic area and official, the area was pretty run down around it. It was surreal to see a grouping of apartment buildings with tattered exteriors. Most had laundry hanging out, literally fifty feet from Il Capitolio. Something we would never find most anywhere else.
After we walked around for these few hours, we decided it was time to make it back to El Floridita! YES! DAIQUIRIS! (Between vintage cars and daiquiris, I was pretty happy in Cuba.) We walked back into the bar to find that it had cleared out quite a bit. So much so, that we got to snag the four stools by the Hemingway statue! What a score! And what amazing drinks. Woo. Seriously. We stayed for two rounds of daiquiris, and two rounds of frozen lemonades for the chicas. The drinks came with warm fried plantains. Man, they were so crispy and salty, and goooOOood!
After hanging out at El Floridita for a while, we started on our second half of the day. We trekked back to the Prado, then down O’Reilly Street towards the lower part of Obispo and the waterfront. This half of our day was spectacularly fun! Every stop was historic. Every turn was beaming with people and color. Like this.
Walking the streets of Cuba is fun. You walk by such eclectic buildings and alleys, only to find a gem in the rough. We were walking on this obscure street then happened upon this modern meditation space and bird sanctuary where you could sit on benches, sit at a table or use the bathrooms (for free). Most bathrooms in Havana charge one CUC to use the facilities. It was a little slice of zen in a hectic place.
We left the modern space for the Plaza Vieja, Old Town Square. Plaza Vieja is so colorful in person. This square was built in 1559 for the military, later it turned into a marketplace. Now it is a trendy spot with a microbrewery, artisans, a school and a hangout for tourists. It has a big fountain in the middle of the building. A beautiful place to take a stroll. Below is a 380 degree view of the Plaza Vieja.
At this point we had been walking for some time, and took a quick stop at the al Pirata heladeria on San Ignacio Street. It was a great stop not only because the ice cream shop was pirate themed, but there was a great art store across the way that I ran to while everyone was ordering. I bought my first souvenir of the trip in there! A handmade thread wrapped necklace in a brilliant electric blue..so cool! I like to buy unusual jewelry or unique local items as souvenirs.
From this stop we walked towards the Catedral de San Cristóbal as we were finishing our ice creams; which was in a big plaza. So many architectural sights and colors. In this plaza I finally saw the Santeria women I had read about. Santeria is a uniquely Afro-Cuban religion that developed in Cuba. It is drenched in African folk roots with some aspects of Catholic beliefs. It’s like they believe in Saints and voodoo/witchcraft. The women of Santeria stand out around the city. They walk around in full on white lace ruffled dresses, head wraps and beads; even as young women. They offer services like readings, sacrifices (animal) and things like that.
From this plaza we walked towards the Plaza des Armas. This area was so vibrant with people. We walked into the park to find a large Mariachi band playing to a dancing group of people. They were great, that we all started dancing. From the band we walked towards a group of women who are know for dressing up in Carmen Miranda-like outfits waiting to take photos with the tourists. Well, we loved these girls!! They were all into us being from America, talking about what they do and kissing my husband’s face…a lot! haha We posed together, and took a cute photo. For 3 CUC, per woman, of course.
We were able to hang out in this plaza for some time. Across the street was the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and we wanted to check it out. It was a cool fortress lined with canons, one canon was so big we couldn’t get it to fit in a photo with all of us. After a walk through, we decided to take a rest on the Malecon! This is a 5-mile stone embankment along the ocean, very popular with locals and tourists alike. Where we sat was a perfect view of the Cristo de La Habana, a replica of the Jesus Christ statue of Rio. It was a great place to take a rest. The view. The sounds of the ocean lapping as the breezes were blowing made was perfect!
The sun was starting to set as we sat along the Malecon. Since we walked around for most of the day, we decided to walk back to our apartment for a little wind down to refresh before heading out for the night. It was just what we needed. We got to soak up our view on the balcony a little while and talk to our families and friends (with the free wifi in the apartment!).
We were all looking forward to our dinner reservations this night. We made reservations at the restaurant 304 O’Reilly. This restaurant was on O’Reilly street, at number 304…I’m pointing this out because this is the way they title businesses, after their street address, in communism countries.
As far as our research on this place guided us, all we knew was it was a trendy gin bar owned by two brothers and the food was supposed to be great..and it was! It was so much more fun than we could’ve ever expected. Inside this restaurant we could escape the hustle and craziness of the Old Havana city streets to enjoy a quality meal with great service. We walked in to find the house packed to the brim. The sounds of happy people laughing and enjoying their environment is the first thing we notice.
We got seated upstairs, which was a lot of fun. The kitchen was set up upstairs with us, which we could see through the pickup windows. It was a HoPpInG! Our server was so great, spoke English beautifully and waited on us like no where else we had on this trip yet. We started off with a round of drinks..a sangria for me, a mojito for my husband, a frozen lemonade for our youngest and a virgin pina colada for our oldest. These were their drinks of choice this whole trip, FYI. The drinks were spectacular..in sight and taste. I still can’t get over the ornate decorations of the drinks. Not just ours, but at everyone’s tables. Then we ordered the three empanadas appetizer, which came with one of each: chicken, ham and olive, and crab. This was served with a sweet sauce that knocked my socks off. This was a great start to the night and our meal.
Service is slow everywhere in Cuba, that is a fact. So meals usually last anywhere from a short hour to two hours. This night we were at the restaurant for a few hours. We had so much fun; and apparently the other patrons thought so too as they were all there as long as we were, if not longer.
We proceeded to order. Funny enough, after trying to figure out what we would like, my husband, our oldest daughter and myself all ordered tacos, and our youngest got the chicken pasta. WHICH her dish was humungous and not the best choice ..being in Cuba and all. Pasta is not their strong suit. Where our daughter figured an Italian inspired dish, it was creole spiced. It was good, believe me, but it is like seeing a glass of Sprite but when you drink it the drink is actually water. Just not what you expect.
We left 304 O’Reilly full and happy. Also, walking towards the heladaria from last night. YES, ICE CREAM TWICE IN A DAY! Well, not for me, but my husband and girls. I swear to you when I say they love ice cream. I mean, I do too, but they really do! This time they tried different flavors, and we walked eating the ice creams rather than hanging out inside the shop. It was so packed this night, which was great to see.
We walked around a bit, but were spent from an entire day walking so we decided to head back to the apartment to relax ..or crash! I think this day I clocked 20K plus steps.
My review of the day.
It was a great day, overall. What I have seen of Havana thus far is complex. I am so glad we got to spend this whole day in Habana Vieja to learn some history and there is so much beauty around. At every turn I would find myself enamored by what I was seeing, but also immensely saddened. Many times walking around I would be standing alone in a place that has been lost in time, and space, wondering if there was something great coming for this beautiful city. Was I standing in the pathway of a rebirth? Or was this the destiny for Havana, to be in ruins? I am not sure, and I am hoping that I was lucky enough to see this moment in 2019 as a starting point for this city to make a great turn into the city I see it to be. A great beacon of light.
Next Cuba post will be Day 3– We move onto another area of Havana, but first make a full day trip to Viñales.