Frugal City Guide Havana: Food and fun for cheap

Havana, Cuba.

All the snow and slush in New York prompted me to fly south. Way south.

I took a trip with my good friend Emily to Havana, Cuba, for the yuca, rum and cigars, and I was not disappointed!

If a trip to Havana is on your horizon, this city guide has you covered. I’m highlighting the best places to eat and play for frugal travelers.

Read more about how I prepared and budgeted for my trip, where I stayed and how much I paid for my flight here. After that, read on for all the fun stuff!

Food

As a self-proclaimed #foodie, one of my favorite parts of traveling is indulging in the local cuisine (calories don’t count when you’re on vacay!). Here’s the thing about Havana, it’s perfect for frugal foodies.

One U.S. dollar is pretty much one Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). At some local eateries, prices were as low as 2 CUCs for a full meal! If you find yourself forking over anything above 15 CUCs for a meal, you’re likely either splurging at a fine dining establishment (like a white tablecloth restaurant in a hotel), or falling for a tourist trap.

During our time in Havana, I think I devoured enough rice and beans to last a lifetime. Cuba is also known for its pork and yuca (OBSESSED), so be sure to get your pizza and pasta fix before you leave.

If you find yourself in Havana, here are my recommendations:

Café Lamparilla

This adorable spot in the Old Town neighborhood of Havana would’ve been perfect for a date night! Still, I was with my travel buddy Emily, and we had a great experience. Tables were nestled right there on the cobblestone street, tucked between old and colorful buildings. While we dined, we watched live music as the sun set.

I ordered the pork slices in garlic sauce … delicious and fairly priced! The stray cats that roam the streets of Havana were constantly circling our table, and I couldn’t resist sneaking them a few scraps when the waiter wasn’t looking.

Watching the sunset during dinner at Cafe Lamprilla.

Watching the sunset during dinner at Cafe Lamparilla.

Megano

Our taxi driver recommended Megano, literally at Megano Beach in Havana, for lunch. At first, the place looked a little sketchy to me (as a New Yorker, my fear of food poisoning is too real). It was an establishment entirely outside, with just a few tables and chairs and a small bar. It could easily pass for a small concession stand at a Little League ballpark in the states.

I got a hard and fast lesson in not judging too soon. This place was our (by far) favorite meal during our stay in Havana. We ordered lobster and shrimp for 12 CUCs (!!) and it was the freshest seafood I might have ever tasted. The local Cubans relaxing at the restaurant were likely repulsed by how fast I devoured my food … but it was that good. Trust.

The delicious meal I had at Megano!

The delicious meal I had at Megano!

El Barracon de Hamel

This spot in Havana was recommended by a local. It’s hidden between brightly colored buildings in a small, art-filled alley. It was hard to find, but visually stunning — a haven outside teeming with flowers and colorful art. We saw several tour guides stop by during our meal, so I got the notion that it’s one of the more famous spots in Havana.

The meal was meant to be split between two people, and for 20 CUCs Emily and I got grilled shrimp in red sauce, rice and beans and drinks. I recommend!

Outside El Barracon de Hamel.

Outside El Barracon de Hamel.

RATE SEARCH: Find the right rewards credit card for you, today.

Fun

Between all those protein-packed meals, we had our fair share of fun in Havana! With the retro cars and captivating artwork, there’s no shortage of visual stimulation. Here are a few of the favorite things I did that you should try too!

Car tour

For only 35 CUCs an hour (and I split with Emily), we had a driver cruise around the city in a hot pink, convertible, fifties-style car. Not only was it a great way to see the entire city, but being in an old-school car made the Havana experience feel so much more authentic. Worth the money, and don’t be shy about requesting your favorite color car! I had no shame in voicing my desire for a hot pink car, much to the embarrassment of Emily.

Head to the exquisite Hotel Nacional de Cuba — located in Vedado, Havana — and let a staff member know you’re interested in a car tour. They’ll hook you up, and the car will pick you up right in front of the hotel.

Retro cars zoom down the streets in Havana.

Retro cars zoom down the streets in Havana.

Hemingway’s Finca Vigia and Cojimar

The book “The Sun Also Rises” made me fall in love with literature. So when I heard Ernest Hemingway’s house was available to tour, I jumped at the chance. Located in the town San Francisco de Paula is Hemingway’s Finca Vigia, or “lookout house.” For only 5 CUCs, we walked the beautiful grounds, which also had great vantage points of the town. Bookworm or not, this is a must-see.

We continued on to the small fishing village Cojimar, where Hemingway spent a lot of time. This was a great opportunity to breathe some fresh ocean air and enjoy the waves lapping on the shore, without the hustle and bustle of the city.

Cojimar!

Cojimar!

Viñales

Viñales, roughly three hours out of Havana, is something you should not skip! It’s a sharp contrast from the streets of Havana — cramped with colorful buildings and swarming with city life — and gives you a glimpse of the countryside in Cuba.

Originally, we were going to get a taxi driver to take us out to Viñales and then horseback ride for 5 CUCs an hour through the tobacco fields. The taxi ride would have costed more than our flight, though, so we opted for an excursion we bought through a tour company that had a desk at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

While I typically hate guided tours, this one was worth it. For 67 CUCs, we were bused to and from Viñales, were shown breathtaking sights including the Viñales Valley and the Prehistoric Mural, were given a boat ride through an Indian Cave, a delicious lunch and were taken to a tobacco farm, where we saw how Cuban cigars were made and rolled. I even took a few puffs of a Cuban cigar right there in the tobacco field!

Having a Cuban cigar in the tobacco fields.

Having a Cuban cigar in the tobacco fields.

RATE SEARCH: Find a low-rate credit card today.

Sarah Berger

I am a journalist and penny-pinching millennial living in New York City on a budget.