Experiencing Havana is like jumping into a real-life kaleidoscope. Pile century-spanning architecture onto wave-lashed sea walls, add some dusty city parks to the constant echo of live music, and throw in the rusty rumble of salvaged 1950s cars. Give it all a spin and, as the city’s unique elements collide and combine, delve in to discover its layers of beauty.
With wide eyes and plenty of energy, you don’t need long to get to know Havana. It is large but taxis are plentiful and cheap, so it’s easy to cruise your way around town to save time. Havana has three distinct areas; Havana Vieja (old town), Havana Centro (central) and Vedado, which lie from east to west respectively and, with two full days, you have time to experience the best of them all…
Start your day acclimatising to the city over an al fresco breakfast at Fumera Jacqueline; this contemporary cafe occupies a scenic corner spot on the edge of Havana Vieja and serves pancakes, waffles, eggs and good coffee. Fuel up before heading to Museo de la Revolución nearby, where you can take in Cuba’s fascinating history through the detailed displays. The museum occupies the former Presidential Palace, with an interior finely decorated by Tiffany’s of New York and a Room of Mirrors designed to resemble the Palace of Versailles. It’s worth noting that much of the information is in Spanish so, if you don’t speak the language, having some existing knowledge of the revolution really helps to put the exhibits into context.
A short walk south you’ll find the two sites of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The ‘Arte Universal’ houses international art from 500 BC to the present day, whilst the ‘Arte Cubano’ (situated two blocks away) concentrates solely on Cuban art. In the latter you’ll find Picasso-esque paintings from Wilfredo Lam, pop art pieces from Raúl Martínez and work from one of Cuba’s greatest artists, Guillermo Collazo. Afterwards, take a short stroll to the boho Café Archangel in Centro Habana and enjoy lunch to the backdrop of projected Charlie Chaplin films. On route, pop into Memorias Librería to pick up a souvenir or two – it’s a small shop filled with second-hand artefacts, such as books, posters, 1930s signs, cigar boxes, magazines and more.
Head to Parque Central next, where you can find one of the city’s iconic vintage-car taxis to make the journey to the Plaza de la Revolución in style. It’s here you’ll find the iconic steel memorials of Cuban heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, as well as the towering José Martí Memorial. After a photo-stop, hop back in your ride or take the 15-minute walk to Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón – one of the largest cemeteries in the Americas, full of elaborate statues and ornate tombs. From here, flag down a taxi to drop you on the Malecón in time for sunset – it’s particularly pretty from this stretch of coastal road. As the daylight dies, stroll east towards the historic Hotel Nacional, where you can relax over a mojito before dining out in the Vedado area – try Café Madrigal for eclectic interiors, live piano music and tasty tapas.
If you’re in the mood to move your feet, seek out one of the city’s salsa spots to dance the rest of the night away. Diablo Tun Tun is small but popular with locals and is considered one of the least touristy places to experience the salsa scene. La Casa de la Música’s Miramar venue is right downstairs or, if you’re heading central, they have a club in this part of town too. Both see their stages graced by Cuba’s biggest musicians and offer live music and plenty of energy. Alternatively, Café Cantante Mi Habana attracts a wide range of clientele, with locals and tourist of all ages enjoying the basement club’s live bands and late-night-to-early-morning cocktails – you’ll find it below Teatro Nacional.
Kick off day-two in the heart of Havana Vieja, wandering east down Obispo to peruse the small shops and craft stalls, dig through second-hand book stores and meander in and out of the galleries and museums. When you reach Mercaderes, take some time to explore this charismatic stretch. Witness a working perfumery at Habana 1791 and indulge in more sensory delights at the Museo Del Chocolate, before finding a place to eat lunch whilst people-watching in Plaza Vieja. This attractive square is lined with colourful buildings which showcase the Old Town’s architectural diversity, from Cuban baroque to art nouveau. As well as a school and a micro-brewery, the square is home to cafes, bars, restaurants and galleries, all of which sit around the iron-guarded central fountain.
Work your way down San Ignacio next, all the way to the harbour front where you’ll find the Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Deposito San José – an undercover market that sits just behind some attractive old train carriages. It unfolds in an old shipping warehouse and is full to the rafters with craft stalls. You won’t find a better selection of paintings, woodworks, jewellery or leather than within these waterside walls. When you’ve worked up a thirst, head to Cervecería Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y Tabaco nearby for an Austrian-style beer. Set in a former tobacco warehouse, this watering hole also has a barbecue kitchen and live music.
From beer to Bacardi, make your way back into Havana Vieja to take in the art deco delights of Edificio Barcardi on Av de la Misiones. Finished in 1929, the building offers an excellent example of the era’s architecture at its best, with stunning marble entrance halls, beautiful light fixtures and door plates that boast the Barcardi bat emblem. For around 1 CUC, you can take the elegant (albeit time-tired) lift up to the bell tower to take in superb views over the city. Once back on solid ground, you’ll find yourself perfectly placed to start an evening of bar hopping, and where better to start than with a daiquiri at Floridita nearby. You can’t visit Havana without brushing shoulders with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, and this historic cocktail bar was one of his favourite hangouts.
Stroll down O’Reilly and pick your next poison within the gentlemen’s club vibe of O’Reilly’s bar – a particularly good spot if one of the few balcony tables is free (and an excellent coffee spot by day). If you’re after a glimpse of Havana’s potential, head to El del Frente on O’Reilly for dinner. Accessed via a single, hard-to-miss doorway at street level, this first-floor restaurant and bar boasts a spacious roof terrace and considered interiors that edge heavily on hip. Opposite, you’ll find O’Reilly 304, which is set in a former toy warehouse and offers some of Havana’s most innovative dishes. In both the cocktails are huge and perfectly presented. For an equally modern menu but a more traditional ambience, try Palador Los Mercaderes – a romantic dining room set on the first floor of an historic building, with linen table cloths and live violin music.
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