Overrated Sights and Secret Gems in Havana, Cuba
Overrated Places You Should Just Skip:
- HEMMINGWAY – Unless you are specifically going to Cuba on a Hemmingway quest to follow the man’s footsteps, anything associated with him is going to be a packed madhouse of tourists and not very interesting. This list includes El Floridita bar and their daiquiries, La Bodeguita del Medio and their mojitos, and Hemmingway’s House (it’s really just a house…).
- FAC –Hear me out before you jump on me for this one. What they are doing at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano is great and very important and interesting. But what we did not realize was just how long the line was. It is possible to stand in line for hours and still not get in. People in line told us they’d been in line for over an hour and expected at least another hour-plus wait. There is a VIP line and some AirBnB experiences promise a direct entry, but if you want to go, plan on going at least an hour before they open and just hope you get in with the first wave of admissions.
- Coppelia – The favorite national chain ice cream shop, every guide book we saw touted it’s incredible ice cream. No one we talked with agreed that it was incredible. It’s not bad, but it’s perfectly ordinary ice cream. If you go to Parque Coppelia for it, be aware that there a number of small Coppelia shops scattered through the park, each with a slightly different flavor list. So if you don’t see what you like, go on to the next one.
- SHOPPING – El Quitrin‘s selection of linen guayabera men’s shirts is not very good especially if you go beyond a US medium. We did not find a good alternative. Habana 1791 is a little perfumery. They have pretty bottles in a lovely little shop, and scents can be custom mixed for you (about $10 for a small bottle), but the scents were all pretty conventional, even their own house blends. Most of the shop people speak little or no English (an odd choice for a shop whose clientele is primarily tourists), and they just let you select your choices and mix them – they don’t really advise or help you find a good scent for you.
- Almacenes San Jose – This is a huge covered ‘flea market’ in an old shipping warehouse on the waterfront. There is 1 shop with leather goods (they really favor patchwork and not great quality materials), 1 with funny and rude quotes printed on things, 1 with linen and crochet clothes, 1 with wooden toys, and 1 with Che t-shirts – each times 100. Yes, you basically have the same half dozen stalls just repeated over and over with only a few variations to make things interesting. Around the perimeter are art stalls. There are a couple very talented and interesting artists doing their own thing, and the rest are churning out the same images as half the artists in Havana because that’s what sells. I had fun picking out a piece I loved and then walking around to see the imitations – very different qualities of skill and technique were clear as they all copied the same picture. This is the place to go if you want to get cheap Made-in-China crap printed with CUBA or Che’s face. There are a couple gems buried in here, but not enough to justify the hunt.
HIDDEN GEMS YOU MUST SEE!!
- Fusterlandia – This oddity was not in any of our guidebooks nor did any of the hotels or tourist information people want to discuss it or have any pictures of it. In fact, our only hint that this place existed was a tiny labeled dot on our map. Fusterlandia is the result of one artist’s passionate dream to cover his whole neighborhood in mosaic tiles. The result is totally insane and looks like Chagall’s brain on drugs, but is definitely worth a visit!!! Located at the far end of the luxe Miramar neighborhood, there isn’t much else out here, so try to get your cab to wait for you since getting a ride home will be tricky. There are other tourists here, but they mostly come on buses. 30-45 minutes is enough time to rush through, without much lingering. Entrance is free.
- Cafe Escorial – This little cafe is tucked into the corner of Plaza Vieja in Habana Vieja. Known for their excellent coffee and drinks, this cafe does a bustling trade at all hours and you may have to wait for a table. It’s totally worth it, and I highly recommend their Cafe Helado Escorial – a marvelous treat of coffee, ice cream, and whiskey whipped cream. They do sell their ground beans, but tend to run out by afternoon, so if you want to buy coffee beans go early!
- Hotel Saratoga – Across from the capitol, this nice hotel has incredible view from their rooftop bar. The drinks aren’t very good, but the view is worth checking out – a 270-degree view over the city! (See my previous post – A Half-Day Plan for Havana )
- Military History – If the Cuban Missile Crisis is your interest, the palatial Hotel Nacional still has cannon emplacements and trenches from those days. There is a small exhibit in the underground trenches. If you look sufficiently interested, the guide might just lock the doors and take you on a private tour through the narrow trenches. Though he didn’t really speak English, we managed to get the gist. The grounds are nice to stroll and the outlook over the water is delightful, so anyone in your group not interested in trenches can relax and wait.
- Performing Arts – Cuba has a very strong and vibrant performing arts scene and it’s definitely worth taking in a show if you can. We caught a dance show at the Centro Cultural Bertold Brecht (next to the largest synagogue in Havana), and a concert that set up in Habana Vieja randomly one day.
- Jardin Ky19 – This is a tiny nursery run out of one woman’s front yard. In the back she has very cute ceramics and wooden carvings. Her prices are excellent and the merchandise runs the gamut from art pieces to kitsch. Whatever your taste, you will probably find something you like that is unique and nicer than the same-old-same-old souvenirs you’ll find everywhere else. (Calle K, between 19 & 21, #354. No posted hours, you can call to ask – m. 5 253 3784).