If you’ve never been to Havana you’d probably imagine it as a time capsule filled with 1950 Cadillacs, faded colonial buildings, cigar factories and Che Guevara murals. What’s more, you’d be right.
You won’t find a single Starbucks or McDonalds here. What you will find is salsa, mojitos and photo-opportunities aplenty.
What to see and do
The streets of the Unesco-listed old town Havana Vieja showcase the city’s colonial architecture at its best and strolling here is a must. Havana’s most famous landmark is the Capitolio Nacional, similar to Washington’s Capitol building. For a Cuban take on the revolution and US relations visit Museo de la Revolucion in the former presidential palace. In the grounds is the motorboat Granma which brought Fidel Castro to Cuba in 1956.
Across the water are two Spanish forts Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes del Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, the latter with artefacts from its time as Che Guevara’s headquarters.
It is possible to watching cigars being hand rolled in some Havana factories. The oldest, Partagas, near the Capitolio gives tours.
Where to eat
Cuba’s cuisine is hardly its finest asset. Most food is bland and samey (get used to rice and beans) and the country’s dual pricing system means tourists can pay at UK levels for sub-standard fare. Your best bet is to stick to the quality hotels or shrug off high culinary expectations and pick a restaurant for its setting or musical entertainment. Do try the paladares – informal family restaurants in people’s homes. These are a unique Cuban experience and the food is usually better. Look out for locals proffering menus. La Guarida (at Concordia 418) has developed a good reputation.
Where to drink
“My Mojito in la Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita” said Hemingway of his old drinking haunts. Now a statue of the great writer leans on the bar at El Floridita (Calle Obispo) while at la Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado) customers including Castro have signed their name on the walls.
In its heyday the Hotel Nacional (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com) hosted the likes of Fran Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Winston Churchill. Now its sea view gardens are a nice spot to lounge with a cocktail.
Around Obispo look out for bars little changed since the 1930s and their visiting salsa bands. If cabaret is more your bag don’t miss the famous Tropicana nightclub.
Where to stay
A rooftop restaurant and pool which boast views to the Capitolio are among attractions of the Saratoga (www.hotel-saratoga.com) in the city centre. This restored heritage property has elegant suites, a gym and spa and true five-star standards that can be lacking elsewhere.
Facing the old town’s Plaza de Armas near the harbour is hotel Santa Isabel, (www.hotelsantaisabel.com) a former convent where Jimmy Carter and Jack Nicholson have stayed.
The Nacional’s grandeur is rather faded these days but you might choose this landmark hotel for its history, gardens and quieter location. (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com)