So, I’ve got a number of e-mails and messages lately regarding my suggestions on doing a day-trip to Havana, mostly for people travelling from Varadero, as they’re there on an all-inclusive beach-front package. The requests have mainly been a combination on what food spots to hit, what LCDH shops to hit, and what spots to get custom cigars.
I’ve decided to copy-and-paste some of the generally relevant text here, but I want to make one thing obvious. I’m not a travel guide. Hell, out of some of my travel compatriots sometimes, I’m barely out of the “Havana rookie” category. While I love the organizational aspect of a trip sometimes, and giving tips and suggestions to complete newbies, it’s all info that I’ve absorbed and been given by others with MUCH more Cuba-travel-time than me. As a wise friend frequently says, “I am still but a student” when it comes to many things concerning Cuba, Havana, and Cuban cigars especially. Though I’ve been into Cuban cigars since 1998-ish, I’ve only been travelling to Cuba since 2008. As in cigars, when it comes to finding good food spots in and around Havana, things are constantly changing, and you really need to ask the local population to know what’s best at any given time.
Hell, some of the best and most well-known names in Havana foodspots (El Palenque, La Fontana, Bodeguita del Medio) as well as lesser known ones (Santy’s, Starbien) I haven’t even hit yet myself for one reason or another – but that I’m hoping to change most of that effectively later on this month [Edit 2017 – all hit-up and MUCH enjoyed within the last year or two; highly recommended].
So, with my recommendations please understand that I know and appreciate how some people may want to maximize their time spent in Havana on a day-trip from Varadero, and not necessarily have it be the most tranquilo part of their Cuban travel time. I also make minimal distinctions between tourist-trap restaurants or shops, for example the difference between a state-run mass-seating restaurant and that of a privately-owned and run paladar. To me, each location is special for a particular dish or vibe, and what each individual person may want from the experience should guide their choices. Take my suggestions with a grain of salt, and make your trip your own. Enjoy…
If you’re looking at doing a day-trip from Varadero to Havana, ensure you have enough time arranged. If you have a guide/driver booked, if he’s picking you up in Varadero at 8am, you’ll get to Havana at about 9:30 or so, maybe 10am. Get him to drive straight here – no stopping at tourist-trap road-side spots. Hell, if you can, get him to pick you up at 7am – gives you more time in Havana.
For the requests of what shops/locations to hit for LCDH-hopping and picking up custom cigars, you can maximize your day if you get them in the right order, relatively. Club Habana is a definite yes, but its best to use that as a start point, and it’s on the far west side of Havana, out past Miramar and Playa. So, from Varadero to there, you’re looking at about 2 hrs to 2-1/2 hrs.
So, starting from there, here’s what I’d recommend:
1. Club Habana – meet Jorge, load up on his “Monsdales” customs (get as many as you can, a bundle or two if you can swing it, and if he has the stock). Take your time and look through their walk-in humidor. Lots of goodies to be had in there sometimes. Ask to look in that antique wooden stand-alone cabinet in the far corner of that humidor – sometimes, special aged (7-10+ year) goodies hide in there.
2. Commodoro – sure, it’s not a bad idea to hit it, if you’ve got the time. Five minute drive from Club Habana, now heading back east towards Miramar/Havana proper. Can’t remember the roller here (Alex?), but sure – pick up 5 or 6 customs here. Nothing special in that shop generally with regards to my experiences in looking for aged and/or regular-production stock. Don’t waste too much time here, in my opinion.
3. Melia Habana – right next door to Commodoro relatively, 5-10 minute walk or 2 minute drive. LCDH is in the basement of the hotel. Yolanda is the custom roller there – load up on a couple handfuls of her robustos or piramides. Sometimes quite a bit of nice stock in there, but this humidor is known to have high-humidity issues on and off over the years – be careful of moldly boxes. Saw some epic boxes of Trinidad Fundadores here years back, but upon further inspection (flipping over the boxes to inspect the bottom side of all the cigars on the bottom rows), found TONS of green and blue mold even. But, her customs here are divine.
4. Hit up the shop at 5y16. It’s Carlos Robaina’s shop, the son of Don Alejandro Robaina, and they have a nice bar and restaurant there, with a nice shrine to Don Alejandro. This shop is on the edge of Miramar, pretty much right in between Melia Habana and Melia Cohiba, just before you get back to the tunnel going underneath the Rio Almendares. They have a nice big walk-in too, but usually not too much selection or aged stuff to be found here – they get hit pretty heavily by tourist groups. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Carlos, and maybe even Hiroshi there, and can shake hands and get a picture. Carlos sometimes seems like he doesn’t speak a lick of English (or do it well), but the staff will translate for you if the Spanglish doesn’t work for you, or you yourself don’t speak a lick of Spanish well.
Now, you should pace yourself so that 5y16 is either just before or just after lunchtime (maybe have a later lunch for about 1 or 2 pm). Get your guide to arrange for you to have lunch either at El Aljibe (just a bit before 5y16) or at the 5y16 restaurant itself (okay, I guess), or get your guide to make the arrangements for La Cocina de Lilliam (a bit more expensive, and back towards the Melia Habana, but impeccible and well worth it). Another option would be the Rio Mar, or Restaurant 1830, right there at the river tunnel, and with some decent menus and views.
5. Next, hit up the shop at Melia Cohiba. A very large and nice shop, with great cappucinos, but the walk-in isn’t overly huge. Juanita is the custom roller here, and there’s always a fair amount of her sticks available. Don’t spend too much time here though, IMO.
6. Habana Libre. This is a relatively must-hit shop, similar to Club Habana and Conde de Villanueva. This shop is pretty damn big, and has some amazing stock in there sometimes, although aged/special items are rarely found. This is just a great shop for the overall size and selection of cigars available usually. Can’t remember who the roller is here – I haven’t got any from here before. This shop is also known (in both a good- and a bad-way) for the various special humidors and unique packaging runs and custom stuff that they have produced especially for the Habana Libre LCDH.
ESSENTIAL STOP. Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This is only 3 blocks away from the Habana Libre, right on the Malecon seaside boulevard – a good walk to take (which would also take you right past and through a small but useful little street-side artisans market, if you walk up Avenida 23). The LCDH shop here is in the basement (turn right once you walk into the lobby, go past the elevators, and then go right again down the hallway to the shops). It usually has a decent amount of stock in recent years, and has a good-sized and welcoming walk-in humidor. The staff here are fairly knowledgeable, and though they may seem somewhat disinterested at first, they are genuinely friendly and welcoming once they get to know you and understand your appreciation and knowledge for all things Habanos (well, except for Monte Opens, at least). After you grab a stick or two here (they always have Trini Fundadores that I scoop up here), it is MANDATORY damn near to go back upstairs, through the lobby, and out to the back terrace. This is “cigar central”. During many evenings of the various festival weeks, this is where you’ll see many of us lounging and enjoying a pre-dinner drink and a cigar and generally glad-handing around. During the (way-too-early) mornings, this is where we’re mowing down on a perfect Cubano sandwich and a 6am “nightcap” (yes, it’s a 24-hr bar and service area). But during the middle of the day, it’s the best spot around to just slump into the giant wicker loungers, have a cigar, enjoy two or three cappuccinos and/or mojitos, and feel the sea breezes through the garden while watching the world go by. The terrace’s patio area is great for lounging around. The lobby and adjoining hallways are great for the history. But don’t neglect to take a walk further out from the patio, into the far gardens, watch the peacocks all strutting around, and even sit on the stone area near the Malecon and watch the parade of pedestrians and vehicles below (all while right near historical cannons and anti-aircraft fortifications). This is truly a great place, and an essential stop on any/each individual Havana trip.
7. Partagas – yes, this is where Hamlet works now [Edit 2017 – USED TO work], in the LCDH storefront. Hamlet can generally be found working here on weekdays. However, don’t ask him about customs, etc., etc. – will not be a possibility. He hasn’t rolled customs in a while, as he’s not the custom roller since the change over with the RyJ factory. They do occasionally have custom rolls available here from Leopoldina / “La China”, and she’s a short, rotund, kindly treat of a woman. It’s definitely worthwhile to say hello to both if they’re in there, and even just to say hi, maybe get a picture if they’re not too busy. If you’re wanting to buy a regular production box, ask Hamlet what’s smoking good right now, and he’ll help you out. [Edit 2017 – see Sadie or Gracia or one of the other ladies there for their help, as they all have a BREADTH of knowledge]. They do have some nice stock here. If it’s busy, the above may not be possible, and especially if it’s busy, good luck at trying to get a seat in the VIP room in the back if you’re not there with someone else / one of “us” insiders, unfortunately. Flip of a coin.
8. Conde de Villanueva. This is another definite yes, like Club Habana and Habana Libre. While the regular production stock is pretty poured over here, it’s a wonderful little short-ceilinged shop that’s tucked away into a hidden second-floor corner in the middle of the courtyard of the Conde de Villanueva hotel. Look for the slightly creaky looking green wooden staircase leading up from one corner of the hotel-center courtyard, and you’ll be in business. Reynaldo is the custom roller here – get whatever of his you can, similar to Jorge’s Monsdales. Reynaldo usually has coronas and lanceros available, sometimes robustos and piramides too. And, the courtyard downstairs is an amazing place to unwind and take in the locale – the bar here serves great cappucinos as well as mojitos, and the open air courtyard is home to a family of peacocks that frequently strut around and look for dropped food. Really a special place. Be sure to check out the giant armoir cabinet in the hotel’s front lobby of cigar lighters, cutters, watches, and other miscellaneous items that have been left here over the years.
Now, depending on ALL THAT, and on what time that all takes you, maybe prepare to stay into Havana for a bit later, if you can make the arrangements with your guide/driver/spouse. Because once all this is said and done, you should be at about 4 or 5pm now, if you time your LCDH store hopping well, and if you started at a decent time in the day. Remember that if you want to hit up all these shops, you won’t have the time to smoke a cigar and have a cappucino at each – you’ll have to smoke a cigar as you go, and limit these visits to only 10 to 20 minutes max at most of these.
But, if you can arrange it with the driver, from Conde de Villanueva, I recommend one of two things for supper. Either, a nice walk out through the old town, walking to El Templete for a nice seafood supper if that’s what you prefer. Their ceviche is amazing here, the best in Havana in my opinion, and pretty much every seafood dish is great, especially the baby-eels-in-oil, but their strength is more in the various seafood tapas plates rather than the main dishes. This is definitely a place to have a pina colada too – my favourite here as well.
OR, my main supper preference to recommend is to, after the visit to the Partagas shop, to have a nice walk, going around Parque Central, and then to find the Floridita bar, which is the start of Obispo, a cannon-blocked pedestrian-only walkway through the old town, and to use that to get to Conde de Villanueva in the first place, and then instead of El Templete, to drive over to La Terraza / Prado 309 for supper.
This would be my main recommendation for supper. The leg of lamb dinner (only $11 CUC’s) is divine, huge and fulfilling. The mixed grill ($12 CUC’s if I remember correctly) includes lobster tail and some lamb and pork, and is wonderful as well. The octopus appetizer ($10 CUC I think?) is the best here from anywhere else. Amazing prices for a great location [Edit 2017 – prices up and doubled now, but still very favourable for what you get], wonderfully decorated and appointed, with excellent service, and a wonderful view from the outdoor terrace.
And lastly, again, if you can make the plans with your driver/guide, and depending on your timelines from earlier, make the arrangements to take in the 9pm sunset cannon ceremony at El Morro castle, on the opposite side of the Havana harbour opening (be there at least by 7:30 or 8pm, to take it all in and have a chance to take in the scene).
It’s hard to fit all this stuff into a single day visit of Havana, and a two-day jaunt would be soooooo much better. Hell, if you can get the morning cigar-shop visit moving on quickly enough, and you get up to Melia Cohiba or Habana Libre, I recommend highly to have lunch at El Templete (again, divine ceviche here, the best in Havana, and amazing baby-eel dish too), and then do supper at Prado 309. But, I definitely think that if it can be done, to make the arrangements to have a longer day and take in a bit of the suppertime-/nightime-vibe of the city.
And…LOL…of course, all the above is dependant on your wife/spouse/husband/partner being understanding that this day-trip is mainly a cigar-shop-bouncing day-trip. Again, I definitely recommend at least a two-day visit to Havana if you’re doing it based on a Varadero all-inclusive vacation week. That way, you can have a day for the cigar shops, and if it’s not really your spouse’s/partner’s thing, then you have the next day to slow down and go with the flow, and find some nice tourist and historical spots, or perhaps even stumble on some hidden gems.
So, if you’re absolutely stuck in negotiating this day trip, with your spouse or your guide or whomever, and can only focus on three or four shops, and two or three places to eat, here’s my absolute bare bones list for that: for shops, Club Habana, Habana Libre, Nacional, Partagas, and Conde de Villanueva; for food, El Aljibe, El Templete (both for either lunch or dinner) and Prado 309 (for dinner mainly).
Absolutely last but not least, during the rest of your vacation, don’t forget to hit up the LCDH shop in Varadero at Calle 63. Alfonso, the roller there, has some wonderful customs that he does as well, definitely up there with Reynaldo and Jorgito and others. His robustos and piramides are very nice [Edit 2017 – though I haven’t been there in years now, I still have some of his sticks, and savour them well].
I know there’s a lot there to pour over, but I hope this helps in some way. Enjoy.
[Edit 2017 – yes, it can seem rushed, and that’s why I myself enjoy a week or so at a time in Havana; much more of a relaxed time spreading this over multiple days – you take in sooooo much more that way, and don’t feel as much like a fucking “tourist” / yuma, as Nino and others like to say, and I wholeheartedly agree now after these years and at this point. However, the above was all designed and laid out for those specifically that are looking to do it this way, to fit a shit ton of stuff into one quick day-trip to Havana, and want to maximize their time by fitting in as many essential spots as possible. As I mentioned just above, it’s definitely better to slow things down and split it over two or three or more days. But, if it is what it is, and this is how you need to try to fit it all in, I hope the above list, timelines, and step-by-step helps you out somewhat; enough so that you get bitten by the “Havana bug”, and decide on making further trips, where you can really take in all that this city has to offer in it’s hidden crevices and side-streets!]