I just returned from a three-day vacation in Havana, Cuba...and I did it all stone-cold-sober. Most people thought I was crazy to travel to a city known for their amazing rum and not have a single sip of their famous nectar, but I did it and it and it was an absolutely wonderful trip. For those wondering if Havana is a practical sober vacation, I can assure you: it is. Here are my pro tips for navigating the city of rum, alcohol free including my sober strategy as well as the spots I hit up while exploring there.
First, let me lay out my strategy; it’s pretty simple: devour as much Cuban food as possible and soak in the time-capsule culture of the country’s capital city. For my strategy to be effective, I knew I wanted to stay sober and indulge strategically so as to have enough capacity to eat all the yummy things in sight. For this to be possible, I knew I shouldn’t try out a virgin drink at every stop (as many drinks - minus the famous Mojito - are blended in Cuba). Here’s the evaluation process I went through at each stop:
Is this place well known for their Mojito? If the answer was yes, I’d grab a sparkling water as a virgin Mojito isn’t much to write home about.
Does this place look overpriced or like they cut corners? I tried to pay close attention to what was being served and for how much. Cuba is known for being very affordable (many drinks falling in the $5 range), so if prices were higher, I’d usually pass on a virgin drink. Similarly, I’d look to see if the drinks were being blended with anything pre-mixed that didn’t look homemade. Though these places were few and far between, I didn’t want a drink made with icky syrups when most places offered amazing fresh fruit.
Is there a non-alcoholic specialty drink listed on the menu? No matter where I go, this is usually the sign that I’ve struck gold. If a restaurant/bar offers a beverage that is listed in the “non-alcoholic” section, I almost always order it. Rarely am I disappointed.
Do I need a pick-me-up? If the answer was yes, I ordered a cafe con leche as most places in Cuba brewed all coffee drinks fresh, yum!
Now that we’ve established my process for evaluating what I’d drink and where, here is a list of the spots I visited and what I recommend drinking there!
Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The ambiance at this historic hotel is something you don’t want to miss. The waterfront view is lined with rattan chairs and you’ll find peacocks roaming the property. Most folks around us had mojitos and I noticed the prices were a bit on the steeper side. With this in mind, I just ordered a sparkling water and enjoyed the view.
La Guarida. This historic palace turned hip restaurant came highly recommended. We stopped by the rooftop bar before enjoying dinner on the grand balcony. I had a virgin pina colada, but was still charged full price (which is somewhat understandable as it is a blended drink and because the rum is likely the least expensive part of the beverage). Overall, the ambiance was worth the experience, but I’d recommend sticking to sparkling water as leave plenty of room and budget to devour more items on their delicious gourmet menu.
O'reilly 304. This place is a must-visit. Be forewarned, you do need a reservation, even at lunch (which we didn’t know, but lucked out because they squeezed us in). The bartender treated us to a magical papaya drink as we waited (which I confirmed was alcohol-free before promptly devouring). I ordered a cucumber-lemonade - the drink turned out to be frozen (and only $2, if I remember correctly!) This was probably the most delicious thing I tasted the entire time I was in Cuba - I’ll be trying my best to recreate this refreshing drink ASAP.
Bar Floridita. A well-known haunt of Ernest Hemingway, this place is known for their frozen daiquiris. The bartender had no problem mixing me up an alcohol-free mango daiquiri. He charged me a dollar or two less than the fully-loaded version and was pretty darn delicious. The place was bustling with visitors (all tourists, from my view) and had an amazing Cuban band performing - though it’s a tried-and-true bar, this place was worth the stop.
Hotel Ambos Mundos. The rooftop patio is a must-visit to escape the heat of the day. You’ll enjoy shade, a great ocean breeze and a wonderful view of Old Havana. By the time we made our way to Hotel Ambos Mundos, I was hot and tired, so opted for a coffee and sparkling water versus a virgin cocktail.
El Cocinero Cuba. Located in Miramar, the more boujee part of Havana, I opted to save my stomach space for dinner and dessert at El Cocinero. The view, food and ambiance were absolutely worth the visit.
Hotel Parque Central. After a lot of exploring in the heat, it was definitely time to relax by the pool. Word is, all Havana hotel facilities - including pools - are open to non-guests...though we got a mixed reaction from the guy guarding the elevator. After a moment of smiling and looking confused, he allowed us up to have a drink by the rooftop pool. I had two virgin pina coladas (after my friend assured the pool waiter I was with child to get him to stop heckling me for ordering my drink without rum), they were amazing and refreshing. Though the drinks here are a little more high-priced (in Cuban standards), I definitely recommend sipping a virgin pina here while lounging by the pool.
El Toro. After spending about 15 minutes meandering around a creepy apartment building (known to be the tallest building in town), searching for the rooftop bar; we learned El Torro had a special entrance that did not require navigating a sketchy apartment building (pro tip: there is usually a line). This spot is located near the El Melecon in the Vedado neighborhood and has a spectacular view.
Restaurante Paladar Cafe Laurent Habana. This spot was located in the neighborhood we were staying and came recommended by a couple of people, including our host. Also in Vedado, the ambiance at Cafe Laurent is also impeccable. I ventured here alone for an after-dinner and dessert and am so glad I did. The food and coffee were amazing and I loved looking out over the city at the bar seating situated at the edge of the patio. I did take a glance at the full menu as well and instantly wished I had another meal to spend at Cafe Laurent.
If you’ve visited Havana and have a recommendation of places to visit (specifically when you’re not drinking) to add to my curation, please share it in the comments; cheers!
Follow this link to learn more about my 30-Day Alcohol Detox; a month-long program I created for people who want to change their relationship with alcohol, but need help shifting their mentality about drinking first. In addition to helping you identify and shift your current drinking mentalities, the program will help you change the way you think about alcohol and drinking altogether.