City Guide: Why you need to visit Havana
Cuba is changing. Several years ago, trade and travel embargoes were relaxed and, now, tourists can freely travel to a country that is – to all extents and purposes – still living around 50 years in the past. But modern cars and music are sneaking in – so your last chance to step back in time won’t last forever. Book a trip to the capital, Havana, soon – and make sure you follow this guide.
The majority of the hotels in Havana are state-owned, and fully-booked the whole year around. Your best alternative is to book a ‘homestay’ – a type of accommodation virtually exclusive to this Caribbean island, which works like an AirBnB – where the owners are home too.
Dotted around the capital, try finding a room in a more affluent area. This still won’t break the bank, with a homestay costing around $30 per night – with breakfast included. Opting to stay this way will also give you the most genuine insight into real Cuban life – fuzzy TV, cold showers and good rustic food.
Like the hotels, many of the restaurants in Havana are state-owned. But, like many of the underhand and under-the-radar goings-on in the Cuban capital, privately-owned eateries called ‘Paladars’ can be found on virtually every street corner.
Try visiting La Guarida, a dilapidated mansion that looks like it could fall down at any second. Dine between joists and beams, eating some of the most celebrated food in the city – from marlin tacos to roast pork or even the popular lobster.
El Atelier, by the coast, is another great option. With incredible views, a nighttime meal on the roof terrace will be an evening to remember – not only for the views, but also the incredible food that comes in sharing dishes and encourages communal dining. They also make a mean Cuba Libre.
If you do want to try out a state-owned restaurant, go for El Aljibe. It may be a little out of the centre, but it gives a great taste of traditional Cuban cuisine – roast chicken with white rice and black beans. Order a side of plantain chips – another national dish – and you won’t be disappointed.
After dining, go for drinks. The culture of Cuba is that of dancing, partying and drinking.
For a quiet cocktail, try the Madrigal Cafe – a small, sleepy bar in the suburbs. Order one of their specials – twists on Cuban classics, and enjoy the retro decor. If you don’t mind it busy, head to El Floridita or La Bodeguita – favourite haunts of Ernest Hemingway, who enjoyed his Daiquiris at the former and Mojitos at the latter.
Finally, head to Fábrica de Arte Cubano – a wild club-cum-arts centre that has dance floors, galleries, concert halls and a cinema – amongst other hidden rooms, spread over an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city. And the best part? There’s no ‘spilt-pint’ mentality or fights, because the clientele is so diverse, that guy who just bumped into you might be an 80-year old man out with his wife.
The city itself is a sight enough – the vintage-era cars, colourful houses, bustling characters and Spanish colonial architecture – but if you want to delve even deeper, take a trip to the old town in one of the authentic 1950s taxi cabs. Explore the old official buildings, and walk the wooden roads to the beautiful city squares.
The Havana Club rum museum will give you an insight into the importance of this sugar-cane spirit on the island, and a tour of a local cigar factory is a fascinating look into how 5 types of tobacco leaf are rolled into the world-famous Cohibas and Montecristos.
The Malecon – literally translated as ‘sea wall’ – is a fascinating place to lounge at night, and the walk up to the grand sea fortress, the Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, is worth it for the sight of the sunset from the battlements.