The part of the city that really draws the crowds is Old Havana, or Habana Vieja, where each street reveals something new. There are lovingly restored mansions and those that have left to the elements, narrow, cobbled alleys overlooked by wrought-iron balconies and grand squares lined with pretty colonial buildings. Wander along the car-free Calles Obispo, which is the setting of one of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous haunts, El Floridita and leads to the tree-shaded Plaza de Armas which is surrounded by book and news stands, bars and restaurants.
Head to the harbourside part of the Old Town and you’ll come across the Castillo de la Real Fuerza which was built to defend the city against one of the biggest threats of the 16th-Century Caribbean – attack by pirates. Other attractions in the area include the Museum of Natural History, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales and the Havana Rum Club Museum. On the western edge of Old Havana and adjacent to the Centro Habana neighbourhood is the imposing El Capitolio, a building that may look familiar if you’ve ever visited Washington D.C.. It’s just a short walk from here to Parque Central, and then a lazy stroll along Argramonte to the National Museum of Fine Arts and the unique Museum of the Revolution which is housed in an the old presidential palace.
The formidable Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro sits across the harbour from Old Havana. It was built to defend the original town of San Cristobal de la Habana from pirate attack and the threat of foreign forces. It was here that the British attack on the island, the Siege of Havana, took place during in the mid-18th Century as part of the Seven Year’s War. Today, you can visit the castle and take in the views back towards the city and the Caribbean and visit the maritime museum.
Bordered by Centro Habana to the east and the waterfront strip, the Malecon to the north is the neighbourhood of Vedado. This is post-colonial Havana where you’ll get a totally different taste of the capital. During the height of the island’s sugar boom and following influx of Hollywood A-listers and infamous gangsters in the early to mid-20th Century, this corner of the capital was the epicentre of glamour and decadence. The mid-century, Mob-built hotels still stand and at the Hotel Nacional and the NH Capri you can hear the tales of pre-revolutionary Havana.
In Vedado you’ll also get a more authentic view of how people live than you would in the tourist hotspot of Old Havana. Wander along the waterfront alongside the locals as the sun goes down, visit the narrow street of Callejon de Hamel which is adorned with Afro-Cuban murals and art works and make your way down the sound-filled and lively street, La Rampa. By day people sit outside cafés and queue for ice creams while salsa clubs and bars draw out the night owls.
Where is Havana
On the north coast of Cuba at the point where the Gulf of Mexico joins the Atlantic Ocean, Havana is Cuba’s capital and a living museum of a 500 year old history.
The hop-on/hop-off bus is one of the easiest ways to travel around Havana and Cubataxi is the authorised taxi service. Havana is fairly flat and a great place to explore on foot - especially Old Havana and along the Malecón both which are pedestrian friendly. Most of the main attractions are within walking distance of each other.
Food & drink
There’s a misconception that the food scene in Havana isn’t going to hit any high notes. Restaurants used to be government controlled and owned, allowing very little leeway in terms of innovation and excitement, but in recent years there has been much change in Cuba and with that change regulations have lessened. One of the most exciting developments is the paladeres (privately-owned restaurants) that are cropping up in Havana which give chefs the chance to produce innovative menus to the beat of their own drum. Expect to find trendy eateries in the Vedado neighbourhood and vibrant restaurants hidden behind crumbling facades in Old Havana, with menus offering everything from Cuban fusion to local comfort dishes including shredded lamb, fresh fish and tapas. Street food is always fried and calorific, but certainly tasty and worth the bite - fresh fried potato, churros and plantain. Cocktails are centred around Cuban rum and there’s always a daiquiri, mojito or pina colada to be had at hip bar or on a balcony or terrace overlooking the historic centre.
GMT -5 hours
• US dollars and US traveller’s cheques aren’t as widely exchanged as they used to be.
• Traveller’s cheques are mostly accepted, but not all hotels exchange them – go to an international bank instead.
• There’s a minimum fee of 8% to exchange currency and 3% on credit card payments.
Spanish. English is also spoken.
A discreet tip here and there is welcome!
• Our Havana resorts serve a range of Cuban and international cuisine.
• Tostada is buttered and toasted bread, often dipped in coffee for breakfast.
• The local speciality is pork roasted on a spit and covered in lemon and honey, served with black beans and rice.
• Ropa Vieja is a stew of shredded flank steak in tomato sauce.
• Picadillo is a beef hash with onions, garlic, olives and herbs.
• Moros y Christianos is a dish of black beans and rice flavoured with spices including pepper, cumin and paprika.
• A traditional a stew of chicken, okra and plantains is served with rice.
• Cuban sandwiches are a popular hot snack of Cuban bread with mustard, ham, pork, cheese and pickles.
• Empanada is a chicken or meat turnover, eaten with a side of plantain chips.
• Popular desserts include custard flan and rice pudding.
• Stick to bottled water.
• Cubans drink a lot of coffee, with milk or in espresso shots. Daiquiris and mojitos are also popular.