Step onto a street in Havana and it’s easy to believe you’ve fallen through time. Brightly coloured Cadillacs cruise the streets, washing hangs like garlands along the faded building facades, men play dominos on fold-up card tables, and kids play stickball as horse and carts pass by.
But don’t buy into this cliched, picture-postcard streetscape just yet. Walk a few blocks more and you’re just as likely to find a corner store selling Converse shoes, a Mercedes driving down the street and a US tour group taking snapshots in a square.
Having visited Havana in 2007, I was overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the art, music and dance scene, the sad beauty of the crumbling architecture and the frustrating contradictions and challenges of daily life in the Caribbean city.
Returning in early 2013, this is a changed city. Bright red double-decker tourist buses loop down the Prado — the kind you’d find ferrying sightseers around London. The famous Partagas Cigar Factory tours have shut down and the classic art deco bar in the Bacardi Building has called last drinks. The iconic El Capitolio is closed for renovations, while restoration work has finally begun along parts of the Malecón esplanade. New state-owned restaurants, paladars (privately owned restaurants) and bars have flourished, and it seems every house in Old Havana has become a casa particular, offering beds to tourists.
And while these changes might seem superficial, the deepest change has been among the people — they’re now easier to talk to, more candid, and more entrepreneurial.
For better and for worse, the value of the tourist dollar has been well and truly recognised by locals, and the possibilities capitalism brings are being fully explored by enterprising locals taking advantage of the easing of government restrictions on private business since 2010. The upside is facilities for travellers, and the tourism industry in general, have improved. The downside is the sell has never been harder in Havana. Luckily, this pressure eases once you venture beyond the touristy centre and journey into suburbs like Centro, La Rampa, Vedado and Miramar.
And that’s the key to getting the most out of Havana: exploring beyond the beaten path.
The heart of Havana is the UNESCO-listed Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The best-preserved Spanish colonial mansions and baroque buildings centre around the old town’s four main squares: the touristy Plaza de la Catedral; the leafy Plaza de Armas, with its secondhand book market; the breezy Plaza de San Francisco; and Plaza Vieja, the largest and most recently restored plaza.
While they’re beautiful, it’s important to get out of the centre and see beyond the polished grandeur of these plazas. The lesser-visited Plaza del Cristo, with its fruit and veg carts, bird sellers and kids playing ball games, has a more local feel, while the grit and decay of Centro Havana offers a sharp juxtaposition to the fancy restoration on show in the old town.
The Museo de la Ciudad provides the perfect snapshot of the city’s colonial past, while art aficionados should seek out the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The Museo Nacional de la Revolución in the former presidential palace is highly recommended, and it’s a good idea to visit with a guide who can provide much-needed context and balance amid the propaganda on display.
At the weekend, most locals head to the Malecón, the seaside boulevard that winds along the shore. At one end is the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a taste of what could have been if US gangsters had seized control of Havana in the 1950s.
Hiring a classic ‘50s car is an incredibly fun way to see Havana. Tours generally do a loop through the city, stopping at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Vedado, the Plaza de la Revolución, and a cruise along the Malecón.
Elsewhere, the new double-decker Havana bus tour is the last thing most people expect to see (let alone enjoy) in Havana. However, if you’ve got limited time, Route T1 offers glimpses of the unusual colonial buildings of Miramar and Vedado, while the Route T3, to Playas del Este, takes you to Havana’s beach area if you need a swim to cool down.
And finally, the ghost of Ernest Hemingway looms large in Havana. If you’re a fan, the best place to head is the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum on the fringe of the city. His villa was donated to the Cuban people and has been kept as the US author left it in early 1960, complete with a Picasso ceramic and Goya painting on the walls, and a bookshelf by the loo.
A new wave of kitchens is proving Cuban cuisine doesn’t have to be limited to peso pizzas and spam burgers. The easing of government restrictions on paladars, along with greater access to fresh produce, has seen Cuba’s dining scene undergo a culinary evolution.
With plaudits from the New York Times and the Guardian, Paladar Doña Eutimia is leading the charge in Old Havana, serving up generous portions of the house speciality, ropa vieja, a dish of shredded stewed beef with fried plantain, black beans and rice. Opposite El Capitolio, lines snake down the staircase from Los Nardos, while restaurant Nao, on Calle del Obispo, is also worth a visit for its Cuban classics and warm service.
It’s worth getting out of the centre to try some of the original paladars that turned the tide of Cuban cuisine back in the late 1990s. La Casa, a slick restaurant in Nuevo Vedado, is popular with international stars and grateful vegetarians. Meanwhile La Cocina de Lilliam Restaurant, in Miramar, is one of the city’s most atmospheric restaurants — I loved the homemade basil ice cream, although the highly-praised restaurant was feeling a little tired on my visit.
If you’re staying in a casa particular (private house), eating in can be an affordable and authentic way to taste traditional Cuban food. It’s worth sampling street food too: peso pizzas sold from hole-in-the-wall kitchens make for a dirt-cheap, if not always tasty, snack, while bags of churros and corn-on-the-cob can easily be picked up for a few pesos in the old town. And of course, waiting in line for hours with the locals at ice cream parlour Coppelia, in Vedado, for a one-peso-per-scoop sundae remains a Havana rite of passage.
In Cuba, music will chase you down the street, and then most likely ask for a tip. From the overpriced Tropicana performances, which have run since before the Revolution, to rumba dancing in La Rampa, it’s tempting to argue Havana’s day only begins when it gets dark.
For a low-key night out, start with a drink under the stars at the Taberna de la Muralla microbrewery on Plaza Vieja. A few blocks up is the latest ‘it’ bar, El Chanchullero, known for its cheap drinks and generous tapas plates.
Jazz lovers should look out for the bright red telephone booth marking the entrance to La Zorro y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow) in La Rampa, where $10CUC (£6.46) pays for entry and two drinks at Havana’s best live music venue.
Most of the nightlife, including dance clubs are located in Vedado, however there are some great dance options in Old Havana if you keep your eyes open. From around 10pm each night, a small salsa party gets going at Hotel Florida’s Piano Bar Margato. The cheap $5CUC (£3.23) entry fee (includes two drinks) attracts a friendly mix of locals and tourists trying out steps they’ve learned at their salsa lessons.
Of course, if you’re planning to head out to some of the larger salsa clubs, you can brush up on your fancy footwork by arranging Cuban salsa lessons; dance instructors can often tell you where the best dance parties are. Mari Suri dance school in Centro is recommended.
In the past two years Havana’s accommodation scene has exploded, offering everything from backpacker hostels to self-contained apartments and five-star hotels.
In the past, visitors to Cuba generally had two accommodation options: staying in a run-down government-owned hotel or renting a room in a family home (a casa particular). Casas are still one of the most popular accommodation option, allowing an insight into daily life and the restrictions and challenges faced by locals. Casa Christina, near Plaza Vieja, is recommended, as is Hostal Peregrino in Centro Habana. Even if they’re full, most casa owners will happily help arrange a room for you somewhere else.
The ability to buy and sell real estate (previously restricted) has seen the creation of alternative accommodation options. These include the newly-renovated El Encinar hotel in Habana Vieja, with its breathtaking rooftop terrace, and backpacker hostels like the 16-bed, family-run Rolando’s Backpackers in Centro Habana, fast gaining a reputation as the place to meet other travellers.
At the other end, hotels have improved in leaps and bounds, with the arrival in 2010 of the swish 26-room Hotel Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal. This refurbished 18th-century building on the Plaza de San Francisco shows that Havana can finally manage five-star comfort — even if not quite managing to master five-star service just yet.
Some of Habana Vieja’s best mansions and architecturally significant buildings have been converted into high-end hotels, and it’s worth sneaking a look at their stunning lobbies, including the colonial splendour of the Hotel Florida and the stained-glass ceiling of the Hotel Raquel.
Art is arguably the best thing you can buy in Cuba. While it might be lacking in shopping malls, Cuba is a country awash in artists, and there are plenty of galleries throughout Havana dealing in high-quality work.
One of the best is the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, an artist collective near the Plaza de la Catedral, where you can watch the artists work. Galería La Acacia on San Martín deals in works by prominent Latin America artists, and there are a number of smaller galleries on O’Reilly Street worth perusing. On weekends there’s an artists’ market along leafy Prado, the pedestrian walkway that links El Capitolio to the Malecón.
In 2009, the atmospheric open-air Feria de la Artesanía art and crafts market moved a few blocks back to a new location in an old harbour-side warehouse. While the market has lost its ambience, the close quarters keep prices competitive and, if you’re tight for time, it’s the best place for a quick shopping trip.
Of course, for many visitors who come to Cuba, their trip wouldn’t be complete without bringing home a few Cuban cigars. Those after an atmospheric (albeit pricey) connoisseur experience should visit La Casa del Habano in the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. Filled with old tobacco bric-a-brac and possessing a smoking room, it’s the cigar aficionado’s place to buy, although it’s worth checking up on any restrictions, rules and red tape regarding purchases before you leave.
There’s only one direct flight from the UK: Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick to Havana. Alternatively, British Airways flies via Madrid and Air France flies via Paris. www.virgin-atlantic.com www.ba.com www.airfrance.co.uk
Average flight time: 9h.
Havana is best navigated on foot. Shared taxis leave from around El Capitolio, from 10CUP (24p). Classic car tours from
$20-30CUC (£13.30-19.95) per person. Havana Bus Tour from $5CUC (£3.22). Local buses from 0.05CUC (0.032p).
When to go
Havana is a balmy 20-30C year-round. Hurricane season is from June to October; peak tourist season from November to March.
Need to know
Visas: An onward ticket, travel insurance and a 30-day tourist card is required. Visas can be extended in-country. Tourist cards must be bought from travel agents or airlines in advance and presented on departure. A $25CUC (£16.14) departure tax applies.
Currency: Cuba uses Cuban Convertible Pesos (known as CUC, or ‘cooks’; £1 = CUC1.58) and Cuban Pesos (moneda nacional, or CUP; £1 = 41CUP). You’ll mostly use CUC; but take a few CUPs for tips, snacks and taxis.
International dial code: 00 53 7.
Time difference: GMT -5.
Museo Nacional de la Revolución. T: 00 53 7 0862 40 9198.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. www.museonacional.cult.cu
Museo de la Ciudad. T: 00 53 7 861 6130.
Museo Ernest Hemingway. T: 00 53 7 891 0809.
Paladar Doña Eutimia. T: 00 53 7 861 1332.
La Casa. www.restaurantelacasacuba.com
La Cocina de Lilliam Restaurant. T: 00 53 7 209 6514.
Los Nardos. T: 00 53 7 863 2985.
Nao. T: 00 53 7 5295 8209.
Coppelia. T: 00 53 7 832 6184.
Galería La Acacia. T: 00 53 7 863 9364.
La Casa del Habano. T: 00 53 7 62 92 93.
Taller Experimental de Gráfica. T: 00 53 7 862 0979.
Feria de la Artesanía. Avenida Desamparados at San Ignacio
El Encinar & Hostal Peregrino (same owners). www.hostalperegrino.com
Rolando’s Backpackers. www.hostelbookers.com
Hotel Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal. www.habaguanexhotels.com
Hotel Raquel. www.habaguanexhotels.com
Hotel Florida. www.habaguanexhotels.com
Casa Christina. T: 00 53 7 867 6373.
Taberna de la Muralla. T: 00 53 7 866 4453.
El Chanchullero. T: 00 53 7 861 0915.
Hotel Florida. T: 00 53 7 862 4127.
La Zorro y el Cuervo. T: 00 53 7 833 2402.
Mari Suri dance school. www.marisuri.com
How to do it
Journey Latin America’s offers seven nights B&B at Hotel Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal, a city tour by vintage car, Hemingway’s Havana tour and salsa classes from £1,846 per person. Includes return flights. www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk
Published in the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)