If it’s your first holiday in Havana, head straight for the magnificently restored Old Havana (La Habana Vieja). Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much of the area has been lovingly returned to its former grandeur. It’s a colonial marvel, a riot of colour and full of atmosphere, its quirky blend of architectural styles endlessly fascinating.
The area is a treasure to stroll around, and, along with Vedado, is the liveliest part of the city by day. It boasts four gorgeous 16th century plazas. Check out sleepy Plaza Vieja (right). There’s a wealth of museums and galleries in the area, and many of Havana’s most impressive sights.
An impressive crafts market, Fria de la Artesana, just behind Iglesia de Paula on Calle San Pedro, is not to be missed. It sells every Cuban craft imaginable, is equipped with a CADECA, fruit juice vendors, kiosks and a breezy seating area where you can relax with a drink and enjoy a view of the port (note, however, that it closes on Mondays).
Wander off the main drag, calle Obispo, and you’ll see an altogether different side of the Old Town: a well-established residential area that’s home to an estimated 70,000 people. Take a coffee break at Caf El Escorial on Plaza Vieja. Alternatively, avoid the tourists and head to La Barrita, in the impressive art deco Bacardi building on Avenida de los Misiones. On Parque Central, the busy main square, watch the world go by from the veranda at the Hotel Inglaterra. Pop into the little caf at Hotel Telgrafo, a quiet escape with a cascade fountain trickling over a colourful mosaic. Or enjoy one of Havana’s best mojitos at the NH Hotel. For culture, check out the Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana’s excellent inte wonderful rnational art museum, just off Parque Central and just yards from calle Obispo. Pop in to visit the room in the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his world-famous works of literature while standing up at his writing table.
Pay a visit to the colourful, offbeat Arte Corte, a barber shop that doubles as a museum-cum-art gallery. It features a lovely assortment of antiques, and some intriguing paintings by Cuban artists, including several by the owner, Pepito. Calle Aguiar #10, between Pena Pobre and Avenida de las Misiones.
If all the wandering around ignites your appetite, currently the best restaurant in the area for lunch is Caf del Oriente. It is a pleasant, well air-conditioned oasis with a swanky interior, and service to match. Calle Oficios #112, corner of calle Amargura. Tel. 860 6686.
Havana’s weather-beaten 8-km long seafront promenade is by far the city’s best loved hangout. Overlooking the expanse of water separating Cuba from Florida, the famous stretch is a place for dreamers, lovers and friends. It is the spiritual heart of the city and the nerve centre of its social life, a round-the-clock phenomenon. Most nights it is thronged with people taking the balmy sea air; during the day it’s a place for pause. One of the best views of the Malecn is from the elegant terrace garden at the Hotel Nacional.
If you fancy an impressive panoramic vista, check out La Torre. The view, from the 33rd floor of the tallest residential building in Havana, is breathtaking. What makes it so special is that you can walk right around the building, from the bar through the restaurant, and enjoy a 360-degree view of the bay and the city. Edificio FOCSA, calle 17, corner of calle M, Vedado. Tel. 832 2451.
The neighbourhood itself, Vedado, is perhaps Havana’s most fascinating. No holiday in Havana would be complete without paying it a visit. It is funky, diverse and alternative. You could easily miss out on the charms of its most vibrant avenue, Avenida 23, aka La Rampa, if you only see the rather bleak lower end that stretches from the Malecn to the picturesque Yara cinema. Perched on the city’s most cosmopolitan junction, the Yara is a Havana cultural institution.
La Rampa’s heart starts beating west of the Yara. Here, and on the streets just off it, you will find relatively few tourists-a welcome change from other parts of the city. The overall ambience is giddy 1970s. From the mulattas dressed all in white (exponents of the Afro-Caribbean Santera religion) to the reggaetn hustlers with their massive sunglasses, the area is a cornucopia of colour and personality. Watch the world go by along with the locals at the popular sidewalk bar, La Rampita.
On really hot days, Havana can feel like a pressure cooker. So instead of suffering in the dead downtown heat, head to the beach. Havana’s best beaches are Tropicoco (also known as Santa Mara del Mar) and neighbouring Megano. They are about 20km to the east of the city in the Playas Del Este (eastern beaches) area.
The area is immensely popular among locals and visitors alike for its turquoise Atlantic waters and friendly, chilled-out vibe. Tropicoco is the more touristy of the two. Megano is much more serene, with fewer people. At the Tropicoco branch of Club Nautico you can hire snorkelling gear, pedal and banana boats, kayaks and catamarans.
The charm of the area is that it’s still relatively undeveloped, apart from a seemingly random cluster of villas, austere Soviet-style hotels and cheap ‘n’ cheerful eateries. Just a few yards along the shoreline and you will always find your own little piece of sandy solitude.
It is a 30-minute taxi ride from the city centre. Pay no more than 20CUC, and agree the fare in advance. A special tourist bus service runs every 30 minutes from 9am till 7pm daily. It stops just opposite Hotel Inglaterra on Parque Central and takes passengers as far as Megano (there’s a choice of three stops at the beaches, with Tropicoco being the first). A return ticket costs 3CUC. Children under six travel for free.
Located in dusty Centro Habana, this is the spiritual home of Afro-Cuban culture in the capital. This little pedestrian street is where it’s at every Sunday, from noon till around 3pm. The feverish live music sessions provided free by leading rumba bands are increasingly popular. The event attracts huge crowds, and the all-in-white converts to Afro-Cuban (Santera) religion add an exotic splash of colour. The area itself is quirky and alternative-an urban art project with flamboyantly painted houses, eye-catching street murals, weird and wonderful shops, and striking sculptures made from scrap. Check out the beautifully coloured houses opposite the entrance. Calle San Lazaro, between calles Hospital and Aramburu.
Just a five-minute stroll from Parque Central, Havana’s domed Capitolio Nacional is a carbon copy of the Capitol in Washington. It is Havana’s most extravagant and extraordinary building. Resplendent with marble and gold, it was completed in 1929 by a building crew of 5,000 after more than three years’ work, supervised by Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. The 11-metre bronze Statue of the Republic is the world’s third largest statue. At its feet is a diamond that marks kilometre zero, from which distances by highway from Havana to other parts of Cuba are measured. Admission is 3CUC.Corner of calle Industria and calle Barcelona, La Habana Vieja.
Havana’s most affluent suburb, Miramar, provides a fascinating glimpse into how upwardly mobile habaneros live. Fifth Avenue is the city’s most handsome (albeit traffic-filled) avenue, while the parallel Third Avenue is alluring for its quieter, cosy neighbourhood feel and relative lack of tourists. One of the most popular haunts for Havana’s burgeoning middle class is Centro de Negocios in Miramar.
A mixture of office buildings and shopping centre punctuated by outdoor tiled walkways, along with one of Havana’s few five-star hotels, the Mela Habana, it’s a very pleasant area to while away a few hours. Among the facilities are four caf/restaurants (all called ‘Amelia’), a cool new wine bar called ‘Halo’s’, a supermarket, pharmacy, several boutiques and shops selling clothes, shoes, sports gear and jewellery. Around the corner at the smaller Comodoro Centre, the emphasis is primarily on clothes, as well as perfumes and jewellery.
The large swimming pool and salt water bathing area at the Hotel Copacabana in Miramar is something of a well-kept secret. On weekdays, it’s pleasantly quiet, with usually just a handful of tourists and their Cuban friends and/or lovers. On weekends, it’s packed with well-heeled Cubans and guests of the hotel.
Admission for non-residents is 10CUC. You get 8CUC credit that you spend at the poolside bar for food and/or drink. First Avenue, between calle 44 and calle 46, Miramar.
The University of Havana is a beautiful, shady daydream of a place that looms imperiously over the run-down streets below. Its grounds are surprisingly neglected by tourists, and are all the better for it. The library is comprised of a series of rooms. The main library, Rubn Martnez Villena, dates from 1936. It is a quaint place with long, chocolate brown reading desks and colourfully tiled floors.
Sit for a while by the window on a very hot day. Feel the breeze blow in and the leaves hiss, and you’re likely to wish you were a student again. (Just don’t ruin the experience by using the rather off-putting toilets!). Calle O, between Avenida 23 and calle 25, Vedado.
A Soviet-style asphalt square surrounded by mostly government buildings, Plaza de la Revolucin is the political nerve centre of Cuba. The best time to see this gauntly impressive place is by night, when its most striking feature-two bronze silhouettes of revolutionary icons Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos-are spectacularly illuminated. The other major attraction is the Memorial y Museo a Jos Mart, a tribute to Cuba’s seminal revolutionary. The northwest side of the Plaza is the home of El Teatro Nacional, Cuba’s National Theatre. In the same building is one of the city’s best loved live music venues, Caf Cantante Mi Habana. Corner of Avenidas Paseo and Carlos Manuel de Cspedes, Vedado.
What was, pre-Castro, the biggest Asian community in Latin America is now down to a small handful of streets in Centro Habana. This is El Barrio Chino: Chinatown. It’s deliciously incongruous, and only a few minutes’ walk from Parque Central. Lovers of Chinese food should check out Restaurant Tien-Tan on the pedestrianised calle Cuchillo, probably the best Asian restaurant in the area. And, if you have an especially sweet tooth, call into the dulceraon the corner of calle San Nicols and calle Zanja (Dragones) for a sample of some of the tastiest pastries in Havana.
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