Havana is a city of crumbling elegance and restored colonial beauty. But behind the faded façade an infectious energy and rhythmic back-beat suffuses the streets of the Cuban capital
Havana is like no other place on earth. On arrival you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a time warp; gleaming 1950s' American cars growl past, the aroma of fat Cuban cigars wafts through the air and a constant soundtrack of Salsa beats and Rumba rhythms drift down from open balconies and seep under doorways. Murals of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro adorn flaking masonry whilst rusting iron balconies are festooned with fresh laundry pegged out to dry in the warm Caribbean sunshine.
A city of contrasts and contradictions; Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, is a UNESCO World Heritage site undergoing a programme of restoration funded by tourist revenue. The freshly pastel-painted, colonial buildings stand in stark contrast to Havana Centro where many buildings are in a near state of collapse. Habaneros don't have much materially but they possess an energy, a real zest for life. And it’s catching...
What to see
Habana Vieja – Old Havana
Habana Vieja and Centro Habana are fairly compact so grab a map, some comfortable shoes and start walking...
Catedral de San Cristobel (Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja; +53 (7) 861-7771; free admission. Officially open Mon-Fri 10.30am-3pm, Sat 10.30am-2pm but often locked. For guaranteed entry go for Sunday Mass at 9.30am) - this perfectly restored plaza is home to Havana’s spectacular, baroque-style cathedral, unusually the right hand tower is noticeably wider than the left. Look for pink coral and marine fossils in the stone. Return in the evening when the bell towers are beautifully lit and cast a soft, mystical glow across the plaza. The small cobbled square is hemmed in by former palaces and colonial style buildings and during the day you may be lucky enough to be entertained by vividly-dressed stilt walkers.
Plaza de Armas - this is Habana Vieja’s oldest and most inviting square, centred on a small park and home to a second-hand book market (closed Sunday and Monday). The square is overlooked by attractive historic buildings. Museo de la Ciudad - City Museum (Calle Tacon, between Calles O'Reilly and Obispo, Plaza de Armas, Habana Vieja; +53 (7) 861-6130; daily 9am–6.30pm; 3CUC, 4CUC with guided tour). A fortress stands to one side of the square and a small Greek Temple, El Templete, marks where the city was founded. Women dressed in brightly coloured Mulatta costumes and sucking on obscenely large cigars offer to pose for photographs – for a small fee of course.
Calle Obispo is one of the busiest streets in La Habana Vieja. A pedestrian-only thoroughfare, which links Parque Central and El Capitolio with the Plaza de Armas and its nearby attractions, makes it a useful point of reference for any walking tour of La Habana Vieja
Parque Central - a pretty, tree-filled, square marks the border between Habana Vieja and Centro Habana and is lined by some of the city’s premium hotels and the show-stopping architecture of the Gran Teatro, the city’s theatre. This is a good place to pick up a coco-taxi - Havana’s answer to the tuk tuk – the yellow, egg-shaped, three wheelers are a fun way to buzz around the city. Horse and cart rides (Calezas), rickshaws and official government taxis are also located at Parque Central.
On the corner of Parque Central stands the magnificently domed and columned Capitolio Nacional (Calle Prado, Centro Habana; +53 (7) 863-7861; daily 9am-7pm; 3CUC, 4CUC with guided tour, 2CUC for photos). Modelled on the US Capitol building in Washington; Cuba’s version is slightly taller.
Fábrica de Tobacos Partagás - Partagas Cigar Factory (Calle Industria 520, Centro Habana; +53 (7) 862- 0086; 45 min guided tours every 30 mins; Mon-Fri and every other Sat 0900-1330; 10CUC). Cigars are synonymous with Cuba and a tour of the country’s largest cigar factory to see the dexterity of the workers as they sort, roll and box these Cuban treasures is fascinating and even for a non-smoker I thought the place smelt delicious. Tours can be subject to closure at short notice so check before you visit. Afterwards stop at the shop, La Casa del Habano, behind the entrance, which has an atmosphere of a tired ‘gentlemans’ club’ with worn leather armchairs, a small bar and the quiet buzz of shoppers sniffing out a take-home stogey. Shop for a Cohiba or Montecristo, sit at the bar and enjoy the ambience, the smell of cigars and a Havana Club Rum. We bought a Pepsi to go with ours the rum was so good we didn't use it. This little shop was the highlight of my day so good was the atmosphere. I wouldn't recommend buying cigars on the streets, they may be cheaper but they won’t be the real thing.
El Malecon (Habana Centro; 24/7; free) - take a sunset stroll along El Malecon, the sea-splashed, coastal esplanade, overlooked by the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where Habaneros go to walk, woo and wonder at the world. The late afternoon sun illuminates the once grand neoclassical buildings and the sea crashing over the low wall adds to the mood. The boulevard wends for eight dramatic kilometres along the Havana shoreline.
Revolution Square – Vedado area. Don't leave Havana without stopping at Plaza de la Revolución, one of the world’s largest squares and where Fidel Castro rallied the crowds and thousands jostled to listen. On The Ministry of the Interior’s building is the ultimate iconic image of ‘The Che’ and in the square a 138 foot memorial tower to Jose Marti. Take the lift to the top for stunning views of the city. Heading back towards Habana Vieja, see if you can spot the American embassy – you may well miss it - it’s the building completely obscured by Cuban flags…
Where to eat
The Roof Garden (Hotel Sevilla, Corner of Calle Prado, La Habana Vieja; +53 (7) 860-8560; Open: 18:30 - 23:00). Located on the top floor of the Hotel Sevilla in what was the hotel's ballroom; high ceilings, huge chandeliers and marble floors with amazing views from floor to ceiling windows make it something special. Recommended is the delectable monkfish in basil-curry sauce (mains 9CUC – 30CUC).
El Patio (Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja; +53 (7) 867-1034/5; Open: 12:00 – 23:00), located on Cathedral Square. Try and get a table on the terrace or in the square where, at night, the cathedral is beautifully lit and the square comes alive with chatter and laughter. The shrimp with olive oil and vegetable starter, superbly-cooked fillet steak main with potatoes and fruit mousse vol-au-vent were all delicious (15CUC – 30CUC).
La Bodeguita del Medio (Empedrado 207, Habana Vieja; between Cuba & San Ignacio; +53 (7) 867-1374/5; www.havana-mojito.com; 11.00 - 24.00). Do what Hemingway did at ‘B del M’ and order a Mojito. The walls of this small bar and restaurant are covered in photos and graffiti; it’s a challenge to find a space to add your own scrawl without climbing the furniture. Generally packed to bursting it may take a while to get your Mojito but the portions of creole chicken or slow-roasted pork, rice and beans are tasty and the ice cream delicious. A Latin musical duo adds to the party atmosphere, maracas and all. Booking is essential – and then you may have to wait for your table (main course 12CUC-16CUC).
La Dominica (Calle O'Reilly, Esquina a Mercaderes; Habana Vieja; +53 (7) 860-2918; daily 12:00 – 11:00). Italian restaurant where you can sit inside or eat at outdoor tables under umbrellas on the old brick street. Large portions of pasta and lots of different pizzas are available (pizza/pasta 6CUC-12CUC, mains 10CUC-26CUC).
Where to stay
NH Parque Central - the hotel overlooks Parque Central and has stunning views of El Capitolio, the parque and over the city from its rooftop pool and bar. Ideally located for walking into Habana Vieja or Centro, there is a lively lobby bar offering tasty snacks and live music. The breakfasts and Cuban coffee are excellent. From 140CUC Standard Room incl breakfast.
Hotel Sevilla - a couple of blocks from Parque Central and one of the grand old hotels of Havana with an ambience to match - lots of dark wood and tiled decor, courtyard bar and swimming pool. The roof garden restaurant (see where to eat) is one of the best in the city. Live music and salsa evenings add to the Cuban authenticity. From 96CUC standard room and Breakfast.
New Insurance Regulations:
Since 1 May 2010 Cuban authorities may ask passengers to present a copy of their medical insurance on arrival at immigration. All non-Cuban nationals need to ensure that their medical insurance policy is fully comprehensive and that it covers medical evacuation by air ambulance.
If a policy is not comprehensive passengers will be asked to purchase additional cover on arrival. Be sure you have the correct cover so as not to incur an additional insurance bill at the start of your holiday.