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Inside Havana

Dining and lodging options in Cuba's capital remain virtually unchanged, but a few venues still stand out. Here are the best places to stay and eat.
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, January/February 2009

Change is a relative word in Havana. The status quo generally prevails in Cuba, with the exception of natural disasters like the three hurricanes in 2008. For example, a regular visitor to Havana will not discover big changes in the hotel and gastronomic scene. A couple of new restaurants and a few renovated small hotels have opened, but long established places are still the most popular.

I travel to Havana three or four times a year, and I like to go to the same places. There's nothing better than arriving at a hotel or restaurant and seeing a familiar face. "Señor Suckling, como esta?" or "Como esta su familia?" Cubans are empathetic people and relationships mean something.

But I often wonder what would happen if the travel ban for Americans was lifted? How would Cuba cope? How would Havana handle the influx of visitors? At the moment, there just isn't an infrastructure to take care of tens of thousands of American visitors to the island. There are not enough restaurants nor hotels to accommodate more tourists on the island, which currently total about two million annually.

Service is another issue. For the most part, workers in the hospitality business in Cuba are not very attentive or professional compared to their counterparts in other countries. That service culture was lost a long time ago. Nonetheless, many Cubans are friendly and attentive wherever they work, especially if you are patient and friendly to them.

The restaurants I frequent are listed below. I have visited all of the eateries in the past year. There is more variation in the privately owned restaurants, called paladares on the island, than government-run ones. The menus are still remarkably similar, with most places focusing on locally caught fish, such as grouper or snapper, or chicken and pork. Spain dominates wine lists, with names such as Marqués de Cáceres and Torres being the most popular labels. I tend to order them because I know the stocks are well kept and turn over, which assures that they are good bottles in such a hot and humid climate.

Hotels have not changed that much either, although a few smaller inns have opened in Old Havana. I usually stay in the same place—the Meliá Cohiba. It's almost better than home with its good service, Wi-Fi Internet and a comfortable swimming pool. The executive floor, the Plata Real, is equivalent to similar dedicated service floors in international hotels in other parts of the world, but in Cuba such attentive service is a rarity.

I have visited all the other key hotels in Havana on a regular basis, and friends have stayed in them in the past year as well. The main reasons to stay in a particular hotel in the capital are service and ambience. For instance, the National and the Santa Isabel have historical elegance and style, the former being a beautiful art deco building and the latter a Spanish colonial edifice. But service in both is dismal. Meanwhile, the Meliá Cohiba and Meliá Habana have excellent service for the island, but their modern facades leave a lot to be desired. Newer hotels such as the Parque Central or Saratoga are a combination of the two.

Here are my choices for the best restaurants and hotels in Havana. They are listed in my order of preference.

Restaurants


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