Cuba is a country that has long been associated with rum, cocktails and cigars. It is spiritual home of classic cocktails such as the daiquiri and mojito and boasts some of the world’s most iconic bars in the capital, Havana. But there are now new places popping up to challenge the older and more traditional establishments. On a recent visit to Havana, I went to check a mix of the old and new – here are my five favourites.
303 O’Reilly, Habana Vieja.
El Del Frente is one of the new wave of bars in Havana. Located on the popular O’Reilly thoroughfare, you have to know where to look to find this place. A simple and unassuming doorway is the only clue at street level. Once up a narrow set of stairs, it opens out to the main bar and restaurant area. However, the highlight is the rooftop bar and terrace located up another flight of stairs. Here they serve massive and well-made mojitos, excellent daiquiris and great food (the ceviche and tacos are particularly good). All are complimented by laid back tunes, big shady umbrellas and a chilled out vibe.
557 Obispo, Habana Vieja.
No trip to Havana is complete without paying a visit to the iconic Floridita. This legendary bar originally opened in 1817 but really rose to fame after barman Constante Ribalaigua invented the daiquiri cocktail just after World War I. The creation proved popular with Americans before the embargo with the USA was enforced in the 1960s (the name translates as ‘Little Florida’) and was famously frequented by writer Ernest Hemingway during his time in Cuba. A bronze statue of him sits in the corner and presents a photo opportunity for the hundreds of tourists that visit each day.
La Bodeguita del Medio
207 Empedrado, Habana Vieja.
This is another tourist trap but a very cool one. La Bodeguita del Medio claims to be the place that invented the mojito cocktail, although others dispute this. In any case, it has been there since the early 1940s and was a watering hole for the rich and famous. Graffiti, writing and signatures adorn every inch of wall space, inside and out, along with memorabilia and photos of past famous custodians. It is packed to the rafters with tourists that spill out on to the street and the atmosphere is lively, especially when the band is playing. Most importantly, the mojitos are excellent and much needed after a hot day of walking around Old Havana.
418 Concordia, Habana Centro.
This high-end rooftop bar specialises in premium cocktails and is one of the newest on the Havana scene. It is attached to the famous celebrity-trap Paladar La Guarida restaurant, one of the city’s best dining spots, and gives views over Habana Centro and views through to the Malécon. You walk up through three floors of a derelict mansion, walls adorned with Revolution-based art and graffiti. The drinks menu has been created by the 2014 winner of the Havana Club Grand Prix cocktail competition and offers interesting twists on classic Cuban cocktails with an emphasis on fresh ingredients available in Cuba. A punchy version of a negroni was particularly impressive.
502 Calle Industria, Habana Vieja.
Tucked away in a narrow street behind the imposing Capitolio building is the charming Sia-Kara. This is well off the regular tourist path and seemed to be frequented mostly by young affluent Cubans. The name is the Cuban expression for ‘get away’ and is said to ward off evil spirits. They have an excellent selection of rum behind the bar (the best we saw in Havana), including some tasty premium options and pour simply the largest daiquiris ever witnessed. Good tapas-style food is on offer amidst a calm, friendly and slightly bohemian atmosphere that is accentuated by a live pianist and eclectic vintage décor.