A Design Lover’s Field Guide to Cuba
Prepare to overdose on color.
Updated Oct 7, 2019 11:13 AM
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This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Domino, titled “In Living Color.” Subscribe to be the first to receive each issue!
When traveling, it’s important to depart with objectives. We left New York City, bound for Cuba, with a handful. Unplug, for one, from our fast-paced lifestyles. Experience the country’s rich culture and history, and get inspired, of course, by the colorful streets. Well, Havana ooh na-na is right. Our expectations were unequivocally exceeded. We were met by the most vivid hues; a lively music scene; flavorful, no-fuss food; and a weeklong adventure we’ll never forget. Cuba is so much more than an island stuck in time—the retro cars and painted buildings are just the background of a bigger picture. And we returned home with (in addition to a few bottles of rum) a whole new way of seeing color. Keep reading to explore the dynamic city through our lens.
There aren’t official tours, but you can (politely) duck into Havana’s Teatro America for a peak out at its 1,700 original red stadium-style seats. This Art Deco wonder dates back to 1941, and walking the halls is like taking a trip back in time.
By day, Casa de la Amistad—a grand pink mansion once said to be the most beautiful building in Havana—is a great spot to grab a jamon y queso sandwich. By night, it turns into a hopping venue for live music.
Where to Eat
Before leaving, we reached out to in-the-know friends, like Katalina Mayorga of El Camino Travel and NYC-based chef Camille Becerra, for their must-visit spots. It’s important to make reservations and jot down addresses in advance. Once you arrive in Havana, Internet is spotty at best.
La Guarida: Hike the steep marble staircase and head to the balcony for unmatched views of the city before taking your seat in the dining room of this Old Havana mainstay. You’re here as much for the food—elevated traditional Cuban cuisine (this will be your most expensive meal)—as the lively, bohemian vibe.
El del Frente: We’d hang out here every weekend if we lived in Havana—there’s a rooftop patio with a statement neon sign that reads “People Like You Need to Eat With People Like Us,” delicious food, and plenty of good vibes.
At Your Airbnb: The meals prepared by our hosts were some of our favorites, including one sunset dinner starring the best ropa vieja (Cuba’s national dish of shredded beef and stewed vegetables) we had on our entire trip.
El Chanchullero: Go on a weeknight to avoid waiting at this no-reservations hot spot—or be prepared to stand in line for hours. Find each wall painted in a different mural, cozy seating, and a spread that will completely overwhelm your tiny table.
Dos Pelotas: This is an authentic (and affordable) place to grab a quick bite. Order all the sides—rice and beans, for sure—and enjoy a real Cuban feast. Bonus: Old music videos from the ’80s and beyond are played on a tiny television
What to Do
Catch a ride to Fusterlandia, an imaginative enclave 30 minutes outside of Havana. In the 1970s, local artist José Fuster completely tiled his own home, which led to the tiling of the surrounding neighborhood, transforming it into an over-the-top dream world—meets–museum.
You can’t go to Havana and not ride in a 1950s convertible. It’s a nonnegotiable activity. Luckily, there are plenty of friendly tour guides who will gladly show you the city. Go on day one to get the lay of the land.
Viñales: “If you don’t go, you’re making a big mistake” is all we heard about the farming region located on the western side of the island. Book a one-day tour that includes transportation to and from the capital, cigar rolling, horseback riding, and—important—epic views of the valleys.
Santa María del Mar: Enjoy an easy 30-minute ride to this locals-only beach and be back to town in time for sunset. Sip a cocktail out of a coconut, go for a swim, or just sit back and relax in the sunshine. Pro tip: This is the drive to splurge on chartering a vintage convertible.
Varadero: It’s a solid two-hour drive to this pristine beach. We did it in a day, which was ambitious, but the route is gorgeous and the car ride provided some much-needed downtime after Havana. Next trip, we’d stay longer—there’s a reason the intensely blue water is now the background photo on all our phones.
In a Nutshell
Havana’s eclectic architecture tells a visual history of the outside influences on the city over the past 500 years, like Spanish colonial churches, the American-inspired capital, and Brutalist Soviet-era government buildings. Almost every structure feels equal parts work of art and history lesson.
Despite the prevalence of primary colors, Havana hues aren’t all bold and in your face. Many facades feature soft teals and faded yellows, as well as electric blues and Day-Glo pinks—like a faded, retro beach town turned up a notch.
Unexpected color pairings are at every turn. Take your time wandering the city solo after a guided walking tour to let the inspiring palettes recharge your senses.
Get the Look
Bring Havana to your home. Double down on a single hue or mix and match to your heart’s content in true Cubano style.
See more places to explore: