If it’s your first vacation in Havana, head straight to the beautifully 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 is a colonial marvel, a riot of color and full of atmosphere, its peculiar combination of architectural styles is infinitely fascinating.
The area is a treasure to walk around and, together with Vedado, it is the liveliest area 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 Havana’s most impressive sights.
Not to be missed is an impressive handicraft market, Fría de la Artesana, just behind the Iglesia de Paula on Calle San Pedro. It sells every imaginable Cuban handicraft, it is equipped with a CADECA, fruit juice vendors, kiosks, and a rest area where you can relax with a drink and enjoy a view of the port (note, however, that it is closed on Mondays ).
Stroll down the main street, Calle Obispo, and you’ll see a completely different side of the old town: a well-established residential area that is home to some 70,000 people. Have a coffee at Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja. Alternatively, avoid tourists and head to La Barrita, in the impressive art deco Bacardi building on Avenida de los Misiones. In Parque Central, the busy main square, watch the world go by from the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra. Visit Hotel Telgrafo’s small café, a quiet getaway with a cascading fountain that drips over a mosaic of colors. Or enjoy one of the best mojitos in Havana at the NH Hotel. To get to know the culture, visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Havana’s excellent and wonderful international art museum, right next to Central Park and a few meters from Obispo Street. Visit the room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his world-famous literary works while standing at his desk.
Visit the colorful and unconventional Arte Corte, a hair salon 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 Pena Pobre and Avenida de las Misiones.
If all the wandering whets your appetite, currently the best restaurant in the area for lunch is Caf del Oriente. It is a pleasant oasis, with air conditioning, an elegant interior and a service to match. Calle Oficios # 112, corner of Amargura street. Telephone. 860 6686.
Havana’s 5-mile-long, weather-beaten boardwalk is by far the most beloved hangout in the city. Overlooking the expanse 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 permanent phenomenon. Most nights it is packed with people taking in the soft sea air; during the day it is a place of pause. One of the best views of the Malecón is from the Hotel Nacional’s elegant garden terrace.
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. Telephone. 832 2451.
The neighborhood itself, Vedado, is perhaps the most fascinating in Havana. No vacation in Havana would be complete without a visit. 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 shady lower end that stretches from the Malecón to the picturesque Yara cinema. Perched at the city’s most cosmopolitan crossroads, the Yara is a cultural institution in Havana.
The heart of La Rampa begins to beat west of the Yara. Here, and on the nearby streets, you will find relatively few tourists, a welcome change from other parts of the city. The general atmosphere is dizzying in the 1970s. From the mulatto women dressed all in white (exponents of the Afro-Caribbean Santera religion) to the reggaetn con artists with their huge sunglasses, the area is a cornucopia of color and personality. Watch the world go by together 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 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 (eastern beaches).
The area is immensely popular with locals and visitors for its turquoise Atlantic waters and friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Tropicoco is the more touristy of the two. Megano is much more serene, with fewer people. At the Tropicoco branch of the Nautical Club you can rent snorkel equipment, pedal and banana boats, kayaks and catamarans.
The charm of the area is that it is still relatively undeveloped, aside from a seemingly random cluster of villas, austere Soviet-style hotels, and cheap, cheerful restaurants. Just a few meters along the coast and you will always find your own little piece of sandy solitude.
It is a 30 minute taxi ride from the city center. Do not pay more than 20 CUC and agree on the rate in advance. A special tourist bus service runs every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. M. Until 7 p.m. 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, with Tropicoco being the first). A return ticket costs 3CUC. Children under the age of 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 you are every Sunday, from noon to 3pm. The feverish live music sessions offered free of charge by top rumba bands are becoming increasingly popular. The event draws large crowds, and converts in white to the Afro-Cuban religion (Santera) add an exotic splash of color. The area itself is quirky and alternative – an urban art project with quirky painted houses, eye-catching street murals, weird and wonderful shops, and eye-catching sculptures made from scrap metal. Take a look at the beautifully colored houses in front of the entrance. Calle San Lázaro, between streets Hospital and Aramburu.
Just a five-minute walk from Central Park, Havana’s domed National Capitol is a carbon copy of the Capitol in Washington. It is the most extravagant and extraordinary building in Havana. Resplendent in marble and gold, it was completed in 1929 by a 5,000-person construction team after more than three years of work, overseen by Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. The 11-meter bronze Statue of the Republic is the third largest statue in the world. At his feet is a rhombus that marks kilometer zero, from which distances are measured by road from Havana to other parts of Cuba. The entrance costs 3CUC.Corner Industria street and Barcelona street, Old Havana.
Havana’s most affluent suburb, Miramar, offers a fascinating insight into just how upward mobility is habaneros Live. Fifth Avenue is the most beautiful avenue in the city (albeit busy with traffic), while parallel Third Avenue is attractive for its quieter and more welcoming neighborhood vibe and relative lack of tourists. One of the most popular places for Havana’s burgeoning middle class is the Centro de Negocios in Miramar.
A mix of office buildings and a shopping mall dotted with outdoor tile hallways, along with one of Havana’s few five-star hotels, the Mela Habana, is a very pleasant area to spend a few hours. Among the facilities are four cafes / restaurants (all named ‘Amelia’), a new wine bar named ‘Halo’s’, a supermarket, pharmacy, several boutiques and stores selling clothing, shoes, sporting goods and jewelry. Around the corner in the smaller Comodoro Center, the emphasis is mainly on clothing, as well as perfumes and jewelry.
The large swimming pool and saltwater bathing area at the Hotel Copacabana in Miramar is a well-kept secret. On weekdays, it is pleasantly quiet, with only 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 10 CUC. You get an 8CUC credit that you spend at the poolside bar for food and / or drinks. First Avenue, between Calle 44 and Calle 46, Miramar.
The University of Havana is a beautiful, bleak dream of a place that looms imperiously over the ramshackle streets below. Its grounds are surprisingly neglected by tourists and much better for them. The library is made up of a series of rooms. The main library, Rubn Martnez Villena, dates from 1936. It is a picturesque place with long chocolate-colored reading desks and colorful tile floors.
Sit by the window for a while on a very hot day. Feel the breeze blowing and the leaves hissing, and you probably want to be a student again. (Don’t ruin the experience by using the nasty toilets!). Calle O, between Avenida 23 and Calle 25, Vedado.
A Soviet-style asphalt plaza surrounded mostly by government buildings, Plaza de la Revolución is Cuba’s political nerve center. The best time to see this impressive place is at night, when its most striking feature, two bronze silhouettes of the revolutionary icons Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, are spectacularly illuminated. The other great attraction is the Jos Mart Memorial and Museum, a tribute to Cuba’s fundamental 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, Caf Cantante Mi Habana. Corner of Paseo and Carlos Manuel de Cspedes 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 Chinatown: Chinatown. It’s delightfully incongruous, and it’s just a few minutes’ walk from Central Park. Chinese food lovers should visit the Tien-Tan restaurant on Cuchillo Pedestrian Street, probably the best Asian restaurant in the area. And if you like sweets, call sweeton the corner of Calle San Nicols and Calle Zanja (Dragones) for a sampling of some of the tastiest pastries in Havana.