If this is your first vacation in Havana, head straight for the beautifully restored Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much of the area has been painstakingly restored to its former glory. It is a colonial marvel, a riot of color and full of atmosphere, its peculiar combination of architectural styles endlessly fascinating.
The area is a treasure to walk around and, together with Vedado, it is the liveliest part of the city during the day. It has four beautiful squares from the 16th century. Take a look at the quiet Plaza Vieja (right). There are a host of museums and galleries in the area, and many of the most impressive views in Havana.
An impressive handicrafts market, Fria de la Artesana, is not to be missed, just behind the Iglesia de Paula on Calle San Pedro. It sells every imaginable Cuban handicraft, is equipped with a CADECA, fruit juice vendors, kiosks, and a seating area where you can relax with a drink and enjoy a view of the harbor (note, however, that it’s closed on Mondays ).
Head off the main street, Calle Obispo, and you’ll see a completely different side of the old town: a well-established residential area that’s home to around 70,000 people. Have a coffee at Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja. Alternatively, avoid the tourists and head to La Barrita, in the impressive art deco Bacardí building on Avenida de los Misiones. In Parque Central, the busy main square, watch the world go by from the terrace of Hotel Inglaterra. Step into the small cafe at Hotel Telgrafo, a quiet getaway with a cascading fountain trickling over a colorful mosaic. Or enjoy one of the best mojitos in Havana at the NH Hotel. For culture, check out the Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana’s excellent museum of wonderful international art, right next to Parque Central and a few meters from Calle Obispo. Stop by to visit the room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel where Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his world famous literary works while standing at his desk.
Visit the colorful and offbeat Arte Corte, a barbershop that doubles as a museum and art gallery. It features a beautiful array of antiques and some intriguing paintings by Cuban artists, including several by the owner, Pepito. Calle Aguiar #10, between Peña Pobre and Avenida de las Misiones.
If all that wandering whets your appetite, currently the best restaurant in the area for lunch is Café del Oriente. It is a pleasant oasis, well air-conditioned, with a stylish interior and service to match. Calle Oficios #112, corner with Calle Amargura. Similar. 860 6686.
Havana’s weather-beaten 8km-long boardwalk is by far the city’s most beloved gathering place. Overlooking the stretch of water that separates 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 center of its social life, a 24-hour phenomenon. Most nights it is full of people taking in the warm sea air; during the day it is a place to pause. One of the best views of the Malecón is from the elegant garden terrace of the Hotel Nacional.
If you fancy a breathtaking panoramic view, check out La Torre. The view, from the 33rd floor of the tallest residential building in Havana, is impressive. What makes it so special is that you can walk around the building, from the bar to the restaurant, and enjoy a 360 degree view of the bay and the city. FOCSA building, 17th street corner M street, Vedado. Similar. 832 2451.
The neighborhood itself, Vedado, is perhaps the most fascinating in Havana. No vacation in Havana would be complete without visiting it. It’s funky, diverse and alternative. You could easily miss the charms of its most vibrant avenue, Avenida 23, also known as La Rampa, if you only see the rather bleak lower end that stretches from the Malecón to the quaint Yara cinema. Perched at the most cosmopolitan crossroads in the city, the Yara is a cultural institution in Havana.
The heart of La Rampa begins to beat west of Yara. Here, and in the streets nearby, you’ll find relatively few tourists, a welcome change from other parts of the city. The general atmosphere is vertiginous 1970s. From the mulattas dressed all in white (exponents of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santeria) to the reggaetaneros in their oversized sunglasses, the area is a cornucopia of color and personality. Watch the world go by alongside the locals at the popular sidewalk bar, La Rampita.
On very hot days, Havana can feel like a pressure cooker. So instead of suffering in the dead heat of the city center, head to the beach. The best beaches in Havana are Tropicoco (also known as Santa Mara del Mar) and neighboring Megano. They are located about 20 km east of the city in the area of Playas Del Este.
The area is immensely popular with locals and visitors alike for its turquoise Atlantic waters and friendly, laid-back atmosphere. Tropicoco is the more touristy of the two. Megano is much more serene, with fewer people. At the Tropicoco branch of the Club Náutico you can rent snorkeling equipment, pedal boats, banana boats, kayaks and catamarans.
The charm of the area is that it is still relatively undeveloped, apart from a seemingly random cluster of villas, austere Soviet-style hotels, and cheap and cheerful restaurants. Just a few meters along the coast and you will always find your own little piece of sandy solitude.
It’s a 30-minute taxi ride from the city center. Pay no more than 20CUC and agree the rate in advance. A special tourist bus service runs every 30 minutes from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day. It stops right in front of the Hotel Inglaterra in Parque Central and takes passengers to Megano (there is a choice of three stops on the beaches, Tropicoco being the first). A return ticket costs 3CUC. Children under the age of six travel 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 is every Sunday, from noon to around 3pm. The feverish live music sessions provided for free by leading rumba bands are becoming increasingly popular. The event draws large crowds, and white-clad converts to the Afro-Cuban religion (Santera) add an exotic pop of color. The area itself is quirky and alternative: an urban art project with wackily painted houses, eye-catching street murals, weird and wonderful shops, and amazing sculptures made from junk. Take a look at the beautifully colored houses in front of the entrance. San Lázaro street, between streets Hospital and Aramburu.
Just a five-minute walk from Parque Central, the National Capitol in Havana is a carbon copy of the Washington Capitol. It is the most extravagant and extraordinary building in Havana. Resplendent with marble and gold, it was completed in 1929 by a construction team of 5,000 after more than three years of work, supervised by Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. The 11-meter bronze Statue of the Republic is the third largest statue in the world. At its feet is a rhombus that marks kilometer zero, from which road distances from Havana to other parts of Cuba are measured. The entrance costs 3CUC.Corner of Industria street and Barcelona street, old Havana.
Havana’s most prosperous suburb, Miramar, offers a fascinating insight into upward mobility habaneros live. Fifth Avenue is the most beautiful (albeit traffic-heavy) avenue in the city, while the parallel Third Avenue is attractive for its quieter, more welcoming neighborhood atmosphere and relative lack of tourists. One of the places most frequented by Havana’s flourishing middle class is the Business Center in Miramar.
A mix of office buildings and a shopping mall dotted with open-air tiled walkways, along with one of Havana’s few five-star hotels, the Mela Habana, it’s a very pleasant area to spend a few hours. Among the facilities are four cafes/restaurants (all named ‘Amelia’), a cool new wine bar called ‘Halo’s’, a supermarket, a pharmacy, various boutiques and shops selling clothes, shoes, sporting goods and jewellery. Around the corner in the smaller Centro Comodoro, the emphasis is mostly on clothing, as well as perfumes and jewelry.
The large pool and saltwater bathing area at the Copacabana Hotel in Miramar is a well-kept secret. On weekdays, it’s pleasantly quiet, usually with just a handful of tourists and their Cuban friends and/or lovers. On weekends it fills up with wealthy Cubans and hotel guests.
The entrance for non-residents is 10CUC. You get 8CUC of credit that you spend at the pool bar for food and/or drinks. First Avenue, between 44th Street and 46th Street, Miramar.
The University of Havana is a beautiful, bleak dream of a place that looms imperiously over the dilapidated streets below. Its grounds are surprisingly neglected by tourists, and all the better for it. The library is made up of a series of rooms. The main library, Rubn Martínez Villena, dates from 1936. It’s a quaint place with long chocolate-colored reading desks and colorful tile floors.
Sit for a while by the window on a very hot day. Feel the breeze blow and the leaves rustle, and you may want to be a student again. (Just don’t ruin the experience by using the rather disgusting toilets!). Calle O, between Avenida 23 and Calle 25, Vedado.
A Soviet-style asphalt plaza surrounded mostly by government buildings, the Plaza de la Revolución is Cuba’s political nerve center. The best time to see this impressive site is at night, when its most striking feature, two bronze silhouettes of revolutionary icons Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, are spectacularly illuminated. The other big attraction is the Jos Mart Memorial and Museum, a tribute to Cuba’s seminal revolutionary. The northwest side of the Plaza is home to El Teatro Nacional, the National Theater of Cuba. In the same building is one of the most beloved live music venues in the city, Café Cantante Mi Habana. Corner of Paseo and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes avenues, Vedado.
What was, before Castro, the largest Asian community in Latin America is now reduced to a small handful of streets in Centro Habana. This is El Barrio Chino: Chinatown. It’s delightfully incongruous, and it’s just a few minutes’ walk from Parque Central. Chinese food lovers should visit Tien-Tan restaurant on Cuchillo Pedestrian Street, probably the best Asian restaurant in the area. And, if you have a particularly sweet tooth, call sweetenerat the corner of Calle San Nicols and Calle Zanja (Dragones) for a tasting of some of the tastiest pastries in Havana.