We’ve all seen pictures of Fidel puffing on his Cohiba Esplendido, we know students who put posters of Ernesto “Che” Guevara on their walls, and we’ve probably enjoyed too many mojitos on a night out. So you may, like me, want to come to Cuba for the architecture, rum, beaches, cigars, nightlife – or a combination of these. But whatever your reason for coming, even if you’re on a package deal, a visit to the capital of Havana is an essential experience. Once you’re out of the sterilised confines of a resort it really will be the incredible street theatre around you that you’ll remember afterwards – whether it’s becoming an impromptu player in a game of street baseball, buying something from a friendly old-timer running a churros business out of his living room or witnessing a family dance their cares away for a family celebration.
The three major areas of the city are Habana Vieja (the Old Town) in the east, Vedado in the west, and Centro between the two. Skirting around all of this is the marvellous Malecon – the seafront boulevard where many locals share their first kiss, or join friends for a drink, or simply to watch the sunset. A walk along here is an essential experience, particularly in the evening. I stayed in Centro and would often walk into Habana Vieja using at least part of the Malecon, though you can also walk through the inland streets, perhaps passing one of the most unusual Chinatowns in the world – unusual because it seems to contain virtually no actual Chinese people!
The imposing Capitol building, modelled on the Washington original, was unfortunately closed for renovation during my visit, but a great place to begin your understanding of the country is at the Museo de la Revolucion. Havana has dozens of museums, but even if you’re not typically a museum person this is highly recommended – not least for the genuine artefacts used in battle, like bits of a plane fuselage proudly shot down by Fidel, an army jeep still with bullet holes in the side, and Che’s radio transmitter. Going along with the general propaganda you’ll see throughout the rest of the country, there is even a “Corner of Cretins” depicting Batista, Reagan and George Bush Senior & Junior. Just behind the museum is Havana’s premier museum of art, the Museo Nacional del Bellas Artes, where you can trace the history of the country through its leading artists.
Also nearby is the Edificio Bacardi, a prominent building but one seemingly overlooked by many visitors, unaware that you can go to the roof for free and take in a stupendous view from the centre of the city. It has somewhat erratic opening hours, but thankfully that meant my companion and I had time to kill and decided to hole up in a real locals bar – one with literally a single bottle of 3-year-old white rum on the shelf, to be drunk straight. A perplexed look from the barman at my friend’s request for a Cubra Libre was followed, about 10 minutes later, by the appearance of a can of cola – the barman had clearly sent someone out to buy a can especially for my friend so she could have the drink she wanted! This summed up the whole Havana experience to me – people who may not have everything, but who are friendly and resourceful, and who ultimately find a way to solve almost any problem thrown at them.
Drinking at an unassuming locals bar seemed about as authentic an experience as I was likely to find, especially with places like La Bodeguita del Medio or El Floridita nearby – and crammed with tourists on a Hemingway pilgrimage. Whether you choose to follow in their footsteps will depend on your desire to tick that particular box (and be charged double or triple what a daiquiri or mojito will cost elsewhere), but there’s always the option to simply poke your head inside and have a look.
The food in Havana probably won’t be winning any Michelin stars anytime soon but you’ll have fun seeking out the local eateries. Basing my theory that if a place has a queue outside, who look like some are locals, then the food inside should be at least decent – so I joined the line outside Los Nardos, opposite the Capitol. Once inside, the decor was nice enough but that’s scant recompense for an unappetising breadbasket, over-salted seafood chowder or a pork dish with “Creole sauce” which seemed to be simply vinegar and a few onions.
Thankfully during the rest of my stay, I was able to find better food – from a street food vendor selling admittedly unknown meat, to one of the newer players on the paladar scene, Casa Miglis, and from passable, ubiquitous cheese & ham pizzas to dining at La Guarida, possibly one of the few restaurants you might know about before you arrive due to its international profile.
If you feel like dancing the night away – and if you’ve come all the way to Havana it would be churlish to not even try, no matter how many left feet you’ve got – then there are plenty of places to get your groove on. I enjoyed the outdoor terrace of Club Colonial 1830 on the Malecon where you can “salsa under the stars”, and for something more sedate you can check out the jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo, entering through a British red phone box. If you don’t have the means or inclination to splash the cash on a visit to one of the cabaret shows like the world-famous Club Tropicana, then a mojito at the Hotel Nacional (above) is certainly not a bad way to either wind down at the end of a day or at the start of a day as you think about what you’re going to do.
One final little tip – seeing as for all practical purposes there is no public transport between the airport and the city centre and you pretty much have to take a taxi, there is a way you can make the journey much more memorable. While you would need to re-arrange it for your arrival (or simply get one of the hundreds of Lada taxis waiting outside), the return journey can be done by haggling with the owners of the classic 1950’s American cars that wait around the Capitol or the Hotel Parque Central, for just a few CUC extra than the beat-up old taxi you would’ve taken otherwise – mine was a gorgeous red Ford convertible, but you can take your pick from a Chevy, Buick, Plymouth or possibly a Cadillac.
In some ways this article, and even a guide book about the sights, is almost redundant as many of the best things can’t be planned or predicted as you wander around. Don’t worry though, keep your eyes and ears open, vary your route each day and put in plenty of leg work and you’ll doubtless be rewarded many times over. The strangeness of Cuba was neatly summarised at the airport on my departure – it dawned on me that I’d been excluded from virtually all the usual trappings of westernised life, and then spent my final coins on a bar of chocolate – imported from New Jersey, USA. Maybe you’ll never figure Cuba out, but it’s a fun ride trying to!
All words and photos by regular contributor Lee Hubbard.