Lonely Planet Local Diana Rita Cabrera was born and raised in Havana, and she’s positive she could not be happier anywhere else. The timeworn glamor of a five-centuries-old city keeps her rooted to the colonial palaces and cobbled streets, the ever-present music, the friendliness of habaneros (Cubans)… and the refreshing cocktails.
I know I’m a habanera because… I need to sit by the sea at least once a week. My favorite spot to share an ocean view with my partner is Siete Días restaurant – ask for the grilled octopus with salsa verde and pair it with a mojito. If you'd rather skip the meal, you can sit on the concrete benches in front of the restaurant (and right on the coastline) to feel the Caribbean breeze and watch the stars, the best place for it in the city.
If I had to recommend one venue... it would be La Fábrica. The Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a multifarious art center that welcomes all generations and interests, and you can make a whole evening out of a single visit. Starting at 8pm, you can dine at the Tierra restaurant on the premises or at El Cocinero next door, and then walk out to the galleries, where the art rotates every three months. Jump to the next hall for the 11pm concert, and finish up with a film around 1am. Cocktails are available all night and the ambience is the most fashionable in Havana.
My favorite place to see the sunset… is the malecón, our 8km-long (5 miles) seaside promenade. Known as Havana’s sofa, the malecón is where we all go to celebrate, to philosophize, to fall in love. For a more comfortable seat, opt for the benches at the gardens of Hotel Nacional de Cuba to take in a view (and a piña colada).
One thing I hate about Havana is… public transportation. You’ll spend a significant part of your budget in taxis and shared transfers, unless you have a local friend with enough patience to explain the habaneros’ system for moving around town in the almendrones – the almond-shaped vintage American cars.
You know you’ve been in Havana too long… when you can’t remember the last time you updated your social media. Yes, Cuba is the perfect place to detox from technology, as there is no free internet and ETECSA cards give access to an erratic connection. The feeling of being off-the-grid is liberating, but make sure you pack some extra storage for your photos and take notes for when you finally find a proper connection.
When I meet friends for a drink… we knock out La Esencia’s happy hour(s) on Fridays from 5pm to 8pm. It’s the best choice in Havana for young professionals thanks to its affordable, well-made cocktails. Moreover, the music is contagious and dancing is inevitable. Then we generally move on to Oh La La (formerly Sarao’s); Havana’s glossier groups meet here until 3 am.
When I have friends in town… I make sure they go to the Parque Morro-Cabaña complex. Get a panoramic view of the city while you walk the fortresses’ alleys and climb deteriorated stairs – it feels like time stands still and you could meet a Spanish soldier around the next corner. The only time this place feels modern is for 10 days in February when the international book fair brings hundreds of thousands of visitors here.
I have a kid… who loves exploring as much as I do, so we both enjoy visiting Havana’s museums – the Cuban-European cultural museum within Palacio del Segundo Cabo is our all-time favorite, but she also keeps asking to go back to the Museo de la Revolución. If the kids are feeling hungry, families can't visit Old Havana and miss eating street food like chiviricos (sweet fried cracklings) and buttered corn cobs on a stick.
When I want to get out of the city… I drive about 25 minutes to Playas del Este and take a swim at the sandy beaches located at the eastern part of Havana. I prefer to go early in the morning or after 5pm because the sun is less harmful to my all-day-in-the-office skin. The weather is amazing all year round, but I would recommend avoiding July and August, since these are the hottest months and beaches are full of habaneros on school vacations.
When friends come to stay… I usually endorse casas particulares instead of hotels, not only because prices are better, but because the experience of staying with private owners is unparalleled if you want to understand Havana and get first-hand recommendations of what to do, where to eat, etc.
My best tip for Havana exploration is to... download an offline map of the city and spend a whole day walking your way around plazas and boulevards in Old Havana. Obispo’s boulevard is the most popular thanks its numerous little shops and street music, but take a detour to the lesser-known Plazuela del Santo Ángel, Plaza del Cristo and the recently renovated San Rafael boulevard.