Cuba Travel Guide – Part 2

Part 2 of the Cuba Travel Guide contains the sections on Sights, Accommodation and Restaurants. For all other sections, please refer to Cuba Travel Guide Part 1.

Date Visited: November 2015

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Cuba is an enchanting destination! A country with a long and complex history and fascinating culture, the largest island in the Caribbean, which is home to the region’s largest population. As a destination, Cuba offers so much and during my visit, I explored the cities of Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego De Avila, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba.

For each city I have provided details about sights, accommodation and restaurant options, which has resulted in a travel guide twice the size of my usual guides. While I like having all information in one guide, downloading such a behemoth would take too long so I have split the guide into two parts, with Part 1 containing all the usual sections except for sights, accommodation and restaurants, which you’ll find in Part 2.

 

Sights

With 70% of its population living in cities, Cuba is a largely urban nation, with most cities comprised of a colonial old town at their core. The post-revolution (1959) years have been characterised by a distinct lack of development, leaving most of these cities as charming time capsules. During my time on the island, I explored seven of these enchanting cities.

Havana

Havana (Spanish: La Habana), is the throbbing heart of Cuba. It’s the capital city, largest city (population: 2.1 million), main aviation and maritime hub and leading commercial centre. At it’s heart, the charming Habana Vieja is the old town and the place of most interest to tourists. With a history stretching back 500 years, the old town is a treasure trove of Colonial architecture and, after 50 years of neglect, is slowly, and carefully, being renovated. Walking the streets of the enchanting old town, you can feel the history around you – it’s a powerful place .

The old town is comprised of numerous grand squares, which can best be described as jewels of colonial architecture. Lining the squares are cathedrals, old mansions which have been converted into museum’s and galleries, shop’s, restaurant’s, cafe’s, bar’s, and always – music. The music never stops in the old town, there’s always a band playing somewhere and there are lots of venues where you can dance salsa through the night.

Of the many squares in Havana, my favourites include the main square – Plaza de Armas -which  is flanked by historic buildings and museums and is always alive with musicians, booksellers and arts and crafts vendors. A short walk from Plaza de Armas is the larger Plaza Vieja, which is also lined with a fine collection of colonial-era buildings, one of which contains a lively craft-beer bar where the live music never stops. Another square worth visiting is the Plaza de la Catedral, which is anchored by the ornate Havana Cathedral. Also in the old town, Central Park features a monument to the Cuban national hero – José Martí. The ever-lively, full-of-old-world-charm Hotel Inglaterra (see the ‘Accommodation – Havana‘ section below) overlooks the park and is a great place to relax with a Mojito and listen to some live music. If you wish to hire an old-timer taxi to explore Havana, you’ll find the drivers at one end of the park.

Of the many museums in the city, I enjoyed learning about the revolution at the Museum of the Revolution. Next door, the National Museum of Fine Arts provides a comprehensive display of Cuban art – both old and contemporary. On the eastern side Plaza de Armas is the Palacio De Los Capitanes Generales which is the former official residence of the Governors (Captains General) of Havana. The Palace today houses the Museum of the City of Havana (Museo de la Ciudad). If you’re a Hemmingway fan, you can visit his former digs at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where you’ll see his old bedroom, bathroom, typewriter and more.

You couldn’t visit Havana without visiting . the Museo del Ron Havana Club (Havana Club Rum museum). Here you’ll  learn about the history and production of rum in Cuba.

Outside the old town are a couple of imposing coastal fortifications (San Salvador de la Punta Fortress on the city side of the bay and Morro Castle on the opposite shore), which guard the entrance to the all-important harbour. Running along the harbour-front is the coastal avenue – the Malecón  which leads to the newer business district of Vedado. 

Cienfuegos

Situated on the Caribbean coast of southern-central Cuba at the heart of the country’s sugar cane, mango, tobacco and coffee production area, delightful Cienfuegos (English: hundred fires) was founded by French settlers escaping the revolution in neighbouring Haiti. The French established themselves as agricultural barons and used their wealth to construct fantastic mansions in the neoclassical style, which today makes Cienfuegos a pleasure to explore.

At the centre of the old town is the attractive (always-animated) main square – Parque José Martí. If you’re searching for a WiFi hot-spot in the city, you’ll find it here – just look for the crowd of Cubans on their smartphones. Around the square are a collection of sights worth visiting, including the Teatro Terry.

Built between 1887 and 1889 to honor Venezuelan industrialist Tomás Terry, this ornate and grand, theatre (on the northern side of Parque José Martí) is listed as a national monument. The spectacular 950-seat auditorium is decorated with Italian marble, hand-carved Cuban hardwood floors and Classicist-style ceiling fresco’s. Performances are held most evenings with tickets costing a few CUC. The theatre bar occupies a shady courtyard and is a good place to enjoy a Mojito.

On the western side of Parque José Martí is the iconic, pastel-blue, former Palacio de Ferrer (1918), which was built by the merchant and landowner José Ferrer in the neoclassical style. The standout feature of the Palace is the rooftop cupola, which overlooks the square. At the time of my visit, it was closed for renovations and seemed to have been closed for some time.

On the southern side of the square is the Museo Provincial, which offers an overview of the history of Cienfuegos. Displays include furnishings from 19th-century French-Cuban society.  The elaborate interior forms a perfect backdrop for wedding photos and model shoots, which I witnessed during my visit.

South of the centre, the main street – Paseo del Prado – becomes the Malecón, which cuts alongside the beautiful, sweeping, natural bay. The Malecón ends at the seaside neighbourhood of Punta Gorda, home to a yacht club, the biggest hotel in town (Hotel Jagua), restaurant’s, bar’s and nightclub’s.

Trinidad

Located in the province of Sancti Spíritus in the heartland of Cuba, Trinidad (population: 74,000) is a perfectly preserved colonial jewel, which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988. The town was originally founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in 1514 and, in 1518, Hernán Cortés recruited men from the town for his expedition to Mexico.

The countryside surrounding Trinidad proved ideal for growing sugarcane and, at its peak in the early 19th century, there were 56 sugar mills in the region, with one of them producing a record cane haul one year that resulted in almost one million kilos of processed white sugar. The fortunes made from the sugar industry were spent building fine mansions, churches and plazas in Trinidad.

The cobbled streets of the old town are full of museums, art galleries, cafes, restaurants and beautiful plaza’s. This is one place to put way your guidebook, meander, get lost and soak up the ambiance.

The town’s centre-piece is the tiny, but beautiful Plaza Mayor, which is surrounded by many fine colonial-era buildings and is dominated by the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad. The plaza is essentially an open-air museum of Spanish Colonial architecture, surrounded by a collection of beautiful houses painted in different pastel shades with wrought-iron grilles. These old mansions today house museums, shops and restaurants. The plaza is also one of the WiFi hotspot’s in Trinidad, with locals thronging here to talk to relatives in the US. In the evening there’s lots of lively entertainment in and around the plaza with musicians, food vendors, performers and a string of bustling cafes and restaurants.

For panoramic views over the old town, head to the Museo de Historia Municipal which is near to Plaza Mayor. The museum tells the story of the history of Trinidad but it’s main attraction is it’s tower, which you can climb (via several flights of rickety wooden stairs) for spectacular views over the old town.

Another place where you can get a view of the old town is from the bell-tower of the Museum of the War Against the Bandits (Lucha Contra Bandidos), which is housed in the former Convento de San Francisco de Asis (Convent of St. Francis of Assisi). The War Against the Bandits was the 1961-1969 fight against U.S.-sponsored counter-revolutionaries, who hid out in the nearby mountains.

Sancti Spíritus

The captivating city of Sancti Spíritus (population: 134,0000) is the capital of the province of the same name. Like neighbouring Trinidad, the city was founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in 1514 and, also contributed men for Hernán Cortés‘ 1518 expedition to Mexico.

Located on the River Yayabo, the city’s main landmark is the beautiful stone bridge (Yayabo bridge) which spans the river. Built in 1815 from clay bricks, it forms five arcs, the centre being 9 metres tall. The bridge was designed and built for pedestrians and carriages but today is used for traffic.

Up the hill from the river is the city’s main site and Cuba’s oldest church – the Parroquial Mayor. This blue-towered church was built in the early 16th-century.

The old town is a pleasant place to stroll, with the picturesque main square – Parque Serafin Sanchez – being the perfect place to relax and breath in the history of the city. In one of the side streets I found a cigar factory – although I wasn’t allowed to enter – but the ladies inside were very friendly and happily posed for photos (which I took through the screened window).

Ciego De Avila

The sleepy city of Ciego de Avila (population: 136,0000) is the capital of the province of the same name. The city lies on the Carretera Central (central highway) so many people pass through it but few stop, with most visitors to the province heading to the beach resorts on the north coast at Cayo Coco.

The old town contains a nice collection of colonial-style buildings, which are arranged around the central Parque Martí. The park, which has a statue of José Martí at its core, was originally laid-out in 1877 in honor of then king of Spain, Alfonso XII, but was later renamed in honour of the Cuban national hero. The park is a great place to kick-back, watch the world go by and meet the locals.

A short walk from the park is the Museo Provincial Simon Reyes (look for the two white soldiers (statues) standing guard outside), which is a very fine provincial museum. Exhibits cover local history, Afro-Cuban culture and religion.

Camagüey

The charming, and at times confusing, city of Camagüey (population: 321,000) is the capital of the province of the same name and the nation’s third largest city. The city was initially founded on the coast as one of the seven original settlements (villas) by the Spanish. They moved the settlement inland to its present location in 1528.

Of all the cities I visited on my meander through Cuba, Camagüey was my favourite. At its heart is a charming old town whose layout is very haphazard and confusing (part of its charm – you’re bound to get lost at some stage). The maze-like design was a deliberate move which came after Henry Morgan (the famous Pirate) burned the city in the 17th century. Town planners rebuilt the city with a confusing street layout so attackers would find it hard to move around inside the city.

The old town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and offers enough attractions to keep you busy for a day or two. Within the old town you’ll find lots of restaurant’s, bar’s, cafe’s, museum’s and art gallerie’s/ studio’s.

The city claims to be Cuba’s Catholic Soul, and it backs this up with a multitude of churches, which dot the old town. On the main square you’ll find the dominating Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of Candelaria Cathedra) which is a Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to the patron saint of the city – the Virgen de la Candelaria.

The very blue Convention Center Santa Cecilia is an architectural standout in the old town as are the numerous plazas. In the heart of the old town is the main plaza – the beautiful Parque Ignacio Agramonte. If you wish to connect to WiFi, you’ll find it here – just look for the hoard of locals.

Plaza San Juan de Dios is named after its chief occupant – the church of San Juan de Dios. The neighbourhood around the plaza is very picturesque and it’s here you’ll find lots of artist studios and numerous restaurants, which line and surround the square. It’s most lively in the evenings when the restaurants are full of diners.

Holguín
Panoramic view of Holguin from Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross).

Panoramic view of Holguin from Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross).

The bustling city of Holguín (population: 326,0000) is the capital of the province of the same name. At the heart of the city lies the graceful old town, with it’s square’s, park’s and historic cathedral’s. The city holds enough attractions to keep you busy for a day, with most of the sights within the old town.

The best place to gain an overview of the city (and get your orientation) is from the top of Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). Located at the end of Maceo, a 20 minute walk from the centre of town (or a short bici-taxi ride), 465 steps lead to the summit (275 metres), which offers panoramic views of the city and beyond. A great place to get your orientation before plunging into the narrow, busy streets below.

In the centre of the old town is the ‘very white’, twin-domed Catedral de San Isidoro, which was constructed in 1720.

Holguín is known as the ‘City of Parks‘ and one of the nicest is Parque Calixto García, which is located in the heart of the old town. The park was originally laid out in 1719 as the original Plaza de Armas and has served as a meeting point/ marketplace ever since. At the centre of the park is a statute of General Calixto García (his tomb is nearby), around which you’ll find locals relaxing and vendors selling their wares.

Santiago de Cuba

Located at the far eastern end the island, historic and charming Santiago de Cuba (population: 473,0000) is Cuba’s second largest city and the capital of the province of the same name. The city was the fifth village founded by the Spanish Conquistador – Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar – in 1515. The settlement was destroyed by fire in 1516, and was immediately rebuilt. It was from here that Hernán Cortés departed on his expedition of the coasts of Mexico in 1518.

It was also from Santiago de Cuba that Hernando de Soto departed on his expedition to Florida in 1538. It was the first European expedition which traveled deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, traveling overland through Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. He is the first European documented as having crossed the Mississippi River.

Santiago was the birthplace of the Cuban revolution, when Fidel Castro led a small contingent of rebels on an ill-prepared armed attack on the Cuartel Moncada (Moncada Barracks), which is today a museum.

At its core lies the main square of the city – Parque Céspedes – which is like a non-stop, open-air carnival. Surrounded by a collection of fine colonial-era buildings (including the oldest house in Cuba – Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano), the always-throbbing square is a popular place to relax, meet, talk, play music, watch street performers and access WiFi. At the centre of the square is the bronze bust of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a key proponent of Cuban independence.

Lining one side of the square, the Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano dates from 1522 and was the official residence of the island’s first governor, Diego Velázquez. This fine casa features an Andalusian-style facade with fine, wooden lattice windows on the second floor overlooking a central courtyard, which is refreshingly cool on a hot day.

The streets of the old town are lined with examples of fine colonial architecture some of which have been converted into museums. It’s here you’ll find the Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardí Moreau, which was founded in 1899 by the rum-magnate and city mayor, Emilio Bacardí y Moreau. The museum is one of the oldest in the country and features an eclectic collection of exhibits amassed from Bacardí’s travels.

Up the road from the Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardí Moreau, is another Bacardí venue – the former Bacardí Rum Factory. It was here that the Spanish-born founder Don Facundo dreamed up the world-famous Bacardí bat symbol after discovering a bat colony in the factory’s rafters. Although the Bacardí  family relocated the business to Puerto Rico at the time of the revolution, the Cuban government continues to make traditional rum here – including Ron Santiago.

A short walk outside of the old town is the fascinating Moncada Museum. Housed inside the Moncada Barracks, the exhibits provide details (sometimes gory) of the failed 1953 attack by Fidel Castro and his band of rebels.

 

Accommodation

Introduction

In the early years of the 20th century, Cuba was a favoured playground for American tourists, then Fidel Castro appeared on the scene and ended the party. Following the revolution in 1959, and for most of the later part of the 20th century, Cuba was closed to tourism – hidden away behind the Coconut curtain. It was only in the 1990’s when the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trade partner) collapsed – withdrawing it’s support from it’s former ally – did Cuba (out of economic necessity) start to open itself to tourism.

Room Shortage

For most of the 21st century tourists to Cuba have come from Canada and Europe but with the thawing of relations with the United States, American tourists are now flooding into Cuba.

Unfortunately, with just 60,000 hotel rooms in the country (many in dilapidated state-run hovels), the country is suffering from a severe shortage of accommodation. In some cities (e.g. Holguín – population 300,000) there are just two hotels located on the outskirt’s of the city – and these are permanently block-booked by European tour groups. It’s the same story in Santiago de Cuba and many other cities. If you arrive in a city without a hotel reservation you should not expect to find a room (at least in a hotel) – you will need to find a room in a Casa particular.

Casa Particular

The saving grace for many visitors to Cuba is the Casa particular. Like B&B’s in other parts of the world, rooms in private family homes are made available for payment. I stayed in a number of Casa’s during my time in Cuba with my favourite being the immaculately clean Casa Guevara Alba B&B in Havana (refer to the “Accommodation – Havana” section below).

Most Casa’s charged 25 CUC per night and often offered breakfast for an additional charge. The best websites for finding Casa’s are trivago.comAirbnb.com and BedyCasa.com

Havana
My comfortable room at  Casa Guevara Alba B&B in Havana.

My comfortable room at Casa Guevara Alba B&B in Havana.

Not surprisingly, Cuba’s capital and most populous city offers more hotel options than anywhere else in the country. Hotels range from charming colonial establishments, which line the cobbled streets of Old Havana to modern, towering hotels located in the newer districts of the city.

Throughout the city there’s a good selection of Casa particulars which can be booked from websites such as trivago.comAirbnb.com and BedyCasa.com

While in Havana I stayed in two very different Casa particulars – the charming, spotlessly clean, friendly, family-run Casa Guevara Alba which is located in the suburbs and a rustic, old Casa which was conveniently located in the heart of the old town.

I also managed to secure a room at the legendary Hotel Inglaterra. Founded in 1875, the Inglaterra is Cuba’s oldest hotel and has been declared a National Monument. Overlooking Central Park and adjacent to the Capitol building, the hotel is the most convenient address in the city, being a short stroll from most sights in Old Havana. The street-side covered café is always buzzing with activity, a place where tourists and locals can relax at tables individually decorated by Cuban artists, listen to live bands, enjoy a meal, coffee or Mojito and watch the world go by.

Cienfuegos
The charming 4-star La Union Hotel, located in the heart of Cienfuegos.

The charming 4-star La Union Hotel, located in the heart of Cienfuegos.

Cienfuegos is another city where the rooms in established hotels (including the charming La Union Hotel – pictured above) are normally block-booked by tour groups.

Located on the coast, a short taxi ride south of the city centre is the enclave of Punta Gorda, which is home to several hotels, including the Hotel Jagua – the biggest hotel in town.

While in town, I stayed with a young, entrepreneurial family in a beautiful, modern, contemporary-design house which I found on BedyCasa.com.

Trinidad
Charming Trinidad.

Charming Trinidad.

Beautiful Trinidad has a population of 73,000 but walking around the busy cobbled streets of the old town, it’s easy to imagine there are even more tourists than locals in town at any one time. Like elsewhere in Cuba, Casa particulars save the day here.

I stayed in the Hotel Las Cuevas which is built on a natural verandah above the city, offering panoramic views of the Caribbean sea and the old town below.

Sancti Spíritus
Exterior of Hotel del Rijo in downtown Sancti Spiritus.

Exterior of Hotel del Rijo in downtown Sancti Spiritus.

My favourite hotel in Sancti Spiritus is the beautifully restored, colonial-era Hotel del Rijo. Located on Park Honorato, this impressive mansion was built between 1818 and 1827 for a wealthy family. It was renovated in 2001 and later converted into a hotel.

With decor that looks like Hemingway might have stayed here just yesterday, the rooms are spacious and comfortable and include black & white photos of the old town.

The hotel occupies prime downtown real estate and (in my opinion) is the only place to stay while in town. It’s location opposite the main Parochial Church, close to the main shopping street and nearby the Yayabo river make this the perfect base for exploring the city.

The front-side alfresco restaurant, which overlooks the peaceful Parque Honorato, offers wonderful Cuban cuisine.

My beautiful room at Hotel del Rijo.

My beautiful room at Hotel del Rijo.

Ciego de Ávila

Most tourists visiting Ciego de Ávila province stay on the north coast at Cayo Coco, which is a good thing since most hotels in the capital (same name as the province) are old, dilapidated state-run dives. The best of a bad bunch is the colonial-style Hotel Sevilla.

While in Ciego de Ávila city, I stayed in an unremarkable Casa particular in the heart of the downtown area.

Camagüey

The charming, historic city of Camagüey is a popular stop for tour groups and, unlike other Cuban cities, offers a reasonable selection of hotels, some of which are beautifully refined colonial-era establishments. I stayed in one such place – the centrally located Gran Hotel – which once accommodated Hemingway and offers comfortable rooms for 65 Euros per night.  The hotel is located in the heart of the business district and is a short walk from most sights.

There are many Casa Particular’s in the city, which can be reserved through trivago.comAirbnb.com or BedyCasa.com

Holguín
View of Holguin from Loma de la Cruz (Hiill of the Cross).

View of Holguin from Loma de la Cruz (Hiill of the Cross).

Despite having a population of 300,000 people, there is a dearth of hotels in Holguín. The city boasts just two – the Islazul Pernik and the Islazul El Bosque (both of which are part of the state owned Isalzul group and are old and faded affairs). The hotels are located next to each other on the outskirts of the city and are both permanently block-booked by tour groups.

When I arrived at the El Bosque, the hotel had no vacancies but the helpful reception staff directed me to a Casa Particular a short walk away, which was very comfortable.

Your best bet in Holguín is to book a Casa Particular through trivago.comAirbnb.com or BedyCasa.com

Santiago de Cuba
Adjacent to Cespedes Park, the iconic Hotel Casa Granda (white building) is a city institution.

Adjacent to Cespedes Park, the iconic Hotel Casa Granda (white building) is a city institution.

With a population of 430,000 – Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s second largest city and, like most other cities, it offers very few hotel rooms.

One of the few hotels in town is the delightfully eclectic Hotel Casa Granda. Built in 1914, the hotel overlooks Parque Cespedes (the main square) and is a short walk from all attractions. Unfortunately, like so many other hotels in Cuba, the rooms are normally block-booked by tour groups.

Even if you’re not a guest at the Casa Granda, you’ll probably find yourself spending time at the lively terrace café/ bar. With views over the main square, live music and delicious Mojito’s its the best place in town to unwind after a hard day of sightseeing.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Melia Santiago de Cuba.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Melia Santiago de Cuba.

Located 2.5 kilometres from Parque Cespedes is the modern, 5-star Meliá Santiago de Cuba, which has the best pool in town (open to non-guests for a fee).

I stayed in a family-run Casa which I was directed to by a helpful local. There are plenty of Casa Particular’s in the city, which you can reserve through trivago.comAirbnb.com or BedyCasa.com

 

Eating Out

Bar in Havana old town.

Bar in Havana old town.

Cuban cuisine is a blend of Native American Taino food, Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisines. A typical meal consists of rice and beans, which – when cooked together – is called “congri” or “Moros”.

The good news for diners is that under Raul Castro’s economic reform programme (since 2010) there has been a wave of new private restaurants (paladares) open around the country, especially in Havana. Dining in Cuba has gone from once being a chore to now being a pleasure, with a wealth of options serving decent food with lots of ambiance and good service.

Cuban Sandwich

The ubiquitous and popular Cuban sandwich.

The ubiquitous and popular Cuban sandwich.

A popular snack is the Cuban sandwich (sometimes called a mixto). The sandwich is a popular lunch item which was first created as a snack for cigar workers who traveled between Cuba and Florida in the 1800’s. Typically, the sandwich is built on a base of lightly buttered Cuban bread and contains sliced roast pork, thinly sliced Serrano ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and yellow mustard.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja. Source: www.kitchenme.com

Ropa Vieja. Source: www.kitchenme.com

One of my favourite Cuban dishes is Ropa Vieja (translates as ‘old clothes’), which is slow-cooked shredded beef (or lamb) served in a tomato sauce with different vegetables. A very tasty stew! The name comes from the fact that the dish can look like a pile of shredded old clothes. Old clothes or not – it’s delicious and so popular it’s been designated a national dish.

Included below are some of my favourite restaurant’s, bar’s and café’s in each city.

Havana
The ornate dining room at the Hotel Inglaterra.

The ornate dining room at the Hotel Inglaterra.

One thing you can be sure of in a great, cosmopolitan city such as Havana is that you are never far from your next dining option. La Habana Vieja (the old town) is the epi-centre of the Cuban culinary world with restaurants, bars and cafes around every corner. With more (private) establishments opening constantly, the dining scene in Havana is forever changing. And when not eating you can relax in one of the many bars, listen to live music (which can be heard day and night), sip a Mojito, watch some salsa dancing and soak up the atmosphere of this wonderful Caribbean metropolis.

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway

Due to the high number of tourists in the city, any restaurant in the old town is invariably a tourist trap. Of all the establishments, the two favourite watering holes of Ernest HemmingwayLa Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita attract most of the attention (and hoards of tourists). Hemmingway certainly enjoyed his rum cocktails and was said to favour the Mojito at La Bodeguita and the Daiquiri at El Floridita.

A good lunchtime option (and definitely a tourist trap), which offers panoramic views over the centre of the old town, is the rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. The hotel was built in the 1920’s and was frequented by Ernest Hemingway (you can visit his former room – # 511 – which has been converted into a museum). The food and service are reasonable but it’s the views that make a visit worthwhile.

The street-side Gran Café el Louvre at the beautiful Hotel Inglaterra is worth mentioning for it’s carnival-like atmosphere. Located opposite Central park and offering live music (day and night), Mojito’s, snack’s and good coffee, the Louvre is a great place to relax and watch the world go by. If the circus atmosphere becomes too much you can retire inside to the quiet, ornate, air-conditioned restaurant, which is full of old-world charm. For something really special you should venture to the rooftop terrace where you’ll find a quieter bar.

Cienfuegos
The ornate, Moorish-style interior of the Palacio de Valle.

The ornate, Moorish-style interior of the Palacio de Valle.

There’s no shortage of good restaurants in Cienfuegos, many of which can be found along the main Paseo El Prado – which runs for many kilometres from downtown to the coast at Punta Gorda.

Located downtown on the corner of Paseo El Prado and calle Arguelles is Restaurante Doña Nora, one of my favourite restaurants in Cienfuegos. This establishment was one of the first private restaurants to open in the city and was recommended to me by my (Casa particular) host. Although not as cheap as a government-run establishment, the food, service and ambiance are worth the extra cost. Built on two floors, there’s an upstairs balcony which overlooks the main street and is used as the waiting area while you (inevitably) wait for a free table, which is no problem since you can sip one of their amazing Mojito’s while appreciating the views.

Located next to the Caribbean sea in the Punta Gorda enclave is the opulent and ornate Palacio de Valle. Once the home of a wealthy merchant and built in a Moorish style, the palace is worth visiting – even if just to photograph. Meals here are good (but not spectacular) and there’s a rooftop bar which offers panoramic views of the Caribbean.

Trinidad
Lunch at Restaurante Guitarra Mia,Trinidad.

Lunch at Restaurante Guitarra Mia,Trinidad.

Despite it’s small population (78,000), Trinidad punches well above its weight when it comes to culinary offerings. Within the picturesque old town, the cobbled streets and tranquil squares are lined with restaurant’s, bar’s and cafe’s, all catering to the ever-present tourist hoards.

Located a short walk from the main Plaza Mayor (at # 19 Jesus Menendez Alameda) is the quaint and cosy Restaurante Guitarra Mia (My guitar). The beautifully presented, tasty food, service, ambiance and live music ensure a memorable dining experience.

In the evening the cobbled streets around the Plaza Mayor come alive with the bustle of tourists and locals, with many restaurants, bars and cafes offering Cuban and International cuisine and lots of quaffable rum cocktails. Located on the square, the excellent Sol Ananda is a cross between a museum (it’s packed with antiques) and a restaurant. The specialty here is the amazing lamb Ropa Vieja.

Sancti Spíritus
A fresh lime juice at Restaurante Quinta Santa Elena - a great refresher while exploring Sancti Spiritus.

A fresh lime juice at Restaurante Quinta Santa Elena – a great refresher while exploring Sancti Spiritus.

The best meal I had in Sancti Spiritus was at the Taberna Yayabo which overlooks the Yayabo river (next to the old stone bridge). As you enter, it’s hard to miss the row of Serrano hams hanging from the bar. The Taberna offers Cuban cuisine and tapas (focused on ham and cheese) with a good selection of wines. The best seats in the house are outside on the balcony which overlooks the river.

Located on the banks of the Yayabo river (across the road from the Taberna) is the historic (and iconic) Restaurante Quinta Santa Elena which offers Cuban cuisine, great cocktails and fresh lime juice – all served in their shady riverside garden.

The charming  Restaurant Hotel Del Rijo is located on the cool, breezy, covered ground-floor of the majestic Hotel Del Rijo (see “Accommodation – Sancti Spiritus“). Overlooking the peaceful Parque Honorato, the restaurant offers Cuban cuisine at reasonable prices.

Ciego De Avila

In terms of cuisine, there’s nowhere in Ciego de Avila city that’s setting the world on fire. Located on Marcial Gómez (adjacent to the main square), the restaurant Don Avila has the best bar in town, a cigar outlet and reasonable Cuban and Creole food. The restaurant is busiest during lunch and has a nice alfresco dining area.

A short walk from Don Avila – at Independencia 388 – is Restaurante Blanco Y Negro, which serves good international & Cuban cuisine.

Camagüey
Cafe in Camagüey.

Cafe in Camagüey.

Located in the old town, the serene Plaza San Juan de Dios is lined with cafe’s and restaurant’s and is a wonderful place to spend a relaxing evening enjoying cocktails, fine food and live music. The square is surrounded by artist studio’s, which line the quiet cobbled streets. The whole neighbourhood has a great vibe and ambiance.

The main restaurant on the square is the impressive Restaurant 1800 which offers a good selection of Cuban and international cuisine.  

Holguín

A standout restaurant in Holguín is the 1910 Restaurante & Bar (address: 143 Mártires). Located in the heart of the old town, 1910 offers very tasty Cuban and Spanish cuisine.

Santiago de Cuba
Live music at Casa de la Trova.

Live music at Casa de la Trova.

Being the birthplace of Bacardi (since relocated offshore), Santiago de Cuba is still a major rum producer and a great place to party. Live music can be heard day and night in the bars around the old town with a popular place being Casa de la Trova (located near the Hotel Casa Granda on Bartolomé Masó street).

The best place in town to relax with a rum-based cocktail (made from local rum of course!) is the terrace restaurant/ bar at the Hotel Casa Granda. Overlooking the (always busy and entertaining) main square – Parque Céspedes – the terrace is a popular meeting place for tourists, touts and locals. While the cocktails demand respect, the food offerings are less than inspiring with burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches available.

Opposite the Hotel Casa Granda, (overlooking the cathedral) is the best seafood restaurant in town – Thoms Yadira Restaurant. I highly recommend their seafood Brocheta’s. 

Located at the end of a corridor (enter from Calle Saco), near to Parque Plaza de Marte, is Santiago’s #1 restaurant – a true hidden gem – St. Pauli. Although hidden, the restaurant is no secret and is a favourite lunch stop for tour groups during their city tour’s. The menu is wonderfully varied and the food (Cuban/ Caribbean) is delicious.

Chocolate selection at Chocolateria Fraternidad.

Chocolate selection at Chocolateria Fraternidad.

Adjacent to Parque Plaza de Marte (on the southeast corner) is Chocolateria Fraternidad, which is famous for its ice-cream, hand-made chocolates and hot chocolate drinks. Although their chocolates come in a variety of different shapes, there’s no variety in their flavour or fillings with all their offerings simply being chunks of either solid milk, white or dark chocolate – wonderfully symbolic of Cuba – where ‘variety’ is rarely on offer.

 

For all other sections, please refer to Cuba Travel Guide Part 1.

Author: Darren McLean

Author of taste2travel.com and an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver and adventurer.

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Cuba Travel Guide
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Cuba Travel Guide
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A Cuba travel guide by Darren McLean - covering history, sights, accommodation, restaurants, visa requirements, getting there & around.
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www.taste2travel.com
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