Havana: the complete guide
August 20, 2009
It's all change in the Cuban capital – so join the party before the new (Western) dawn. Clare Ferro knows where to go.
From the September issue of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine
If you come expecting a Havana steeped in aspic, you're in for an eye-opener.
While it's true you'll see '50s motors swarming about decaying colonial buildings, the old smell of poverty from crumbling blocks is gradually being overpowered by the new scent of fresh plaster – thanks to a decades-long restoration project.
And as for the cars – there are now as many government-issue Ladas as classic Buicks. These dilapidated-but-delightful Cuban icons owe their presence to one man and his revolution.
Even though he's been bedridden for three years, you can't miss him: graffiti on every street eulogises Fidel Castro, whose 1959 ousting of American influence froze Cuba in time.
So do as the locals do: get used to the timewarp, and celebrate. The streets of Old Havana are in permanent party mode. Carnival processions swagger down the cobbles, and music – salsa, son, and the hip-hop-inspired reggaetón – blasts through every doorway. And don't fret about museums and galleries – just go with the flow.
If the city's layout were a clock face, Old Havana sits at three o'clock (on a first trip, you'll probably spend most time here). Then comes Centro at six o'clock, home to the iconic Capitolio (the ex-government building based on the White House, later taken over by Fidel and Che).
At nine o'clock is Vedado – all decrepit mansions and tree-lined streets, while midday is the Malecón, or waterfront.
For years, people have been saying of Havana, 'Go now, before it changes'. Well, it already is – which means there's something for revolutionaries and revellers alike. But with Obama easing restrictions on American travel, the 21st century is about to hit the city head on.
Watch out for the wet paint.
Not for Castro the luxurious spoils of the ruling classes – he turned the sprawling, gilt-painted presidential palace over to the people, transforming it into the Museo de la Revolución (Refugio 1; 00 537 862 4092; £2.50). It's a mammoth, if highly partisan, collection – the interesting bits come first (the build-up to the Revolution) and last
(tanks used by militants, and planes from the Bay of Pigs invasion). But the propaganda in-between is eminently skippable.
Never let it be said revolutionaries are party-poopers – funding for the arts has always been high on the Castro agenda. The best place to see the fruits is at the frothy-fronted Gran Teatro (458 Paseo de Prado; 00 537 861 3096; tickets from £4). Every weekend there are performances of opera, modern dance and ballet (the National Ballet, which counts Carlos Acosta among its progeny, is based here).
Che Guevara memorabilia isn't limited to that campus-favourite T-shirt at the second-hand book market in Plaza de Armas (closed Sun and Mon). The oldest square in Havana – complete with mansions, a fortress, and El Templete, a mini Greek temple marking the city's foundation in 1519 – is ringed with stalls hawking Fidel's speeches, Che's diaries and even the odd erotic story collection (helpfully translated into English).
Cigars are right up there with Socialist icons when it comes to celebrated Cuban exports. Watch them being made at the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás (Industria 520; 00 537 862 0086; £7; closed August). A 40-minute tour shows you how tobacco leaves become Cohibas and Montecristos – the latter being Castro's favourite brand.
Seize Cuba's most famous photo-opp at the Plaza de la Revolución in Vedado neighbourhood, where concrete buildings are jazzed up by that giant, steel-cut likeness of El Che. Heading back towards Old Havana, check out the US Interests Office, America's embassy – it's the building completely obscured by Cuban flags that forms the Plaza Tribuna Anti-Imperialista (Anti-Imperialist Square), with its 'Patria o Muerte' (Homeland or Death) and 'Venceremos' (We shall overcome) slogans. Catch it before Obama ends the hysteria.
However much the regime frowns on religion (Castro declared Cuba an atheist state in 1959), it can't prevent Havana's deliciously jaunty Cathedral (Plaza de la Catedral) being one of the city's most spellbinding buildings. The florid exterior, with its misshapen belltowers, belies the plain interior, saved from complete austerity only by the pink flush of coral ingrained in the stone. Drop in on Sunday mass (10.30am) to hear the choir's Caribbean beats.
Acquire a trademark Hemingway ruddy glow with a Daiquiri (£4.30) at the writer's favourite bar, El Floridita (Obispo 557; 00 537 867 1300). Or, for somewhere with even more sparkle, walk a block further down Monserrate to the raucous Bar Monserrate (Obrapía 410; 00 537 860 9751), which, unusually for Havana, seems to have as many Cubans sparking up impromptu karaoke sessions as tourists.
The afternoon sun can take its toll, so try a reviver at El Cafe Taberna (Mercaderes, corner of Tte Rey; 00 537 861 1637): it not only lays claim to being the first cafe in Havana (opened 1772), it also doubles as a salsa school. Slip on your dancing shoes and drop in any time between 11.30am and 11pm – hour-long classes cost £11.
By day, the Malecón is just a road linking Old Havana and Vedado. An eight-kilometre-long buffer between the city and the Straits of Florida, its high sea wall shelters seafront buildings from gusts of ozone. Walk it by night, however, and see it transformed into a long open-air theatre, the wall acting as bar, catwalk and lovers' seat all at once.
Cuba has a fine chocolate-making tradition, thanks to its historical sugar plantations (America's Hershey brand was made from Cuban sugar before World War II). The Museo del Chocolate (Mercaderes 255; 00 537 866 4431) has a paltry collection of chocolate moulds and teacups that hardly merit the permanent queues. Treat it as a specialist cafe instead: try the deliciously gloopy hot chocolate with its kick of cinnamon and vanilla (40p) – it will be up there with your first Cuban Mojito and linger longer in your memory than in your mouth.
OUR WOMEN IN HAVANA:
Mother Teresa and Princess Diana make unlikely Cuban icons, but they each have a garden devoted to them – the former next to the Greek Orthodox church, the latter just north of Plaza San Francisco. 36p BUYS: A copy of the party rag, Granma. RUM-DO: For the best Mojito in town head for the mezzanine watering hole in the Art Deco Bacardi Building (it used to be the private bar of the Bacardi family).
MONEY MATTERS: Debit cards don't work in Cuba, and credit cards charge 11 per cent. Exchange sterling and travellers cheques at cadecas, where you'll get CUC (tourist currency); make sure to get some Cuban pesos,
too, to buy street food and market produce.
WHERE TO EAT
No expense spared
La Guarida, Concordia 418 (00 537 866 9047, www.laguarida.com). The (entirely deserved) superlatives heaped upon La Guarida have made this paladar (small family-run restaurant) Havana's best-known place to eat.
Make your way through the spectacularly dilapidated building in Centro Havana to find dishes such as snapper in orange, and swordfish with pumpkin sauce and cardamom. Mains from £9.
La Cocina de Lilliam, Calle 48 (00 537 209 6514). Make like Jimmy Carter and order the ropa vieja (beef stew) at this cut-above paladar in an impressive Vedado villa. Dinner is served on the terrace and accompanied by lush foliage. Mains from £7.
Middle of the Road
El Templete, Ave del Puerto, corner with Narciso Lopez (00 537 866 8807). Charming service and a good selection of fish cancel out the fact that you're sitting on the main road. Leave some room for the brownie with caramelised banana – it's heavenly. Mains from £6.
La Maison, Calle 16, 701 (00 537 204 1543). First things first: the bog-standard food is not what you're coming for when you eat at La Maison. You're here for the experience of dining in a Versace-esque mansion that's also home to one of Cuba's top 'fashion houses'. This means watching live catwalk shows as you eat, with barely a tourist
among your fellow diners. An unmatchable experience. Mains from £5.
On a budget
Hanoi, Tte Rey, corner with Bernaza (00 537 867 1029). Ignore the name – although it claims a Vietnamese influence, this place serves thoroughly Cuban food to the sounds of the house band working the leafy courtyard.
Best value are the 'combinaciones': rice, beans, vegetables and meat of your choice for just £2. Mains from £1.50.
La Marina, Tte Rey, corner with Oficios (00 537 862 5527). Come for the freshly squeezed juice, pasta (£1.50) and set menus (£2) at this quiet spot near the Plaza Vieja, with potted plants and caged birds pitted against blaring '80s ballads and Cuban rap. Mains from £1.
BARS AND CLUBS
Taberna de la Muralla (San Ignacio, corner with Muralla; 00 537 866 4453). This slick bar and restaurant is also the brewery for Plaza Vieja beer (made on the premises from Austrian ingredients). There's free stew on offer at 10pm.
Tropicana (Calle 73, 4504; 00 537 267 1717; closed Mondays). Paradise under the stars or just a clapped-out trap for tourists with more money than taste? It all depends where you stand on less-than-scantily-clad girls floating about the open-air auditorium, and paying £50-plus for the privilege.
Feria de la Artesania (Tacon between Empedrado and Chacon; open Wed-Sat). Cigar boxes, traditional guayabera shirts (like the waiters wear), dolls and the photos of Havana you didn't quite dare take – if you've been wondering where to spend your cash, this market's the answer. Bargain hard. Habana 1791 (Mercaderes 156; 00 537 861 3525).
Perfumes and oils from flower extracts make this the place for girly gifts – and, at £1.40 for a 50ml bottle, it's cheap, too.
Casa del Tabaco (Oficios 53). Here's where Hollywood producers invest in fine Cuban cigars. You'll find more than 35 brands, and 500 different types of cigar, from the mini Montecristo (£18) to the Cohiba Esplendido (£320 for a box of 25).
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