Mini guide to Havana, Cuba
In Cuba, you are never far from an idyllic beach. (Mark Read)
Havana is a one-off. Where else can you find vintage American cars running off Russian engines, ration shops near to gleaming colonial mansions, and revolutionary slogans daubed on walls of houses hosting all-night parties? Havana also spawned salsa and mamba, Havana Club rum and Cohiba cigars.
Habana Vieja offers visitors one of the finest collections of urban edifices in the Americas – the Old Town contains more than 900 buildings of historical importance. For the best, tour the four main squares: Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco de Asís and Plaza de la Catedral.
The Museo de la Revolución is housed in the former Presidential Palace. The museum descends chronologically from the top floor, starting with Cuba’s pre-Colombian culture and going down to the present-day regime (00 537 862 4093; Refugio No 1; 10am-5pm; £3 plus £1.50 camera fee).
In 1940, Ernest Hemingway bought Finca la Vigía, a villa in San Francisco de Paula, 10 miles southeast of Havana. He lived there until 1960 and it remains virtually unchanged (Carretera Central; 9am-4.30pm Wed-Mon; £3, plus £1.50 camera fee).
The Malecón, Havana’s evocative five-mile sea drive, is one of the city’s most soulful thoroughfares. Laid out in the early 1900s as an ocean-side boulevard, it has long been a favoured meeting place for lovers, philosophers and poets.
You’re never far from an idyllic beach. Havana’s own pinefringed Riviera, Playas del Este begins just 11 miles to the east of the capital at Bacuranao. During July and August, Havana comes out to play and relax on the soft white sands and clear waters of the beautiful Atlantic coastline.
Eat and drink
Los Nardos is one of a handful of semi-private Havana restaurants operated by the Spanish Asturianas society. Portions are huge and flavourful, and dishes include lobster in a Catalan sauce, garlic prawns with sautéed vegetables, and authentic Spanish paella (Paseo de Martí 563; mains from £3).
At Restaurante el Templete, the speciality is fish, succulent and perfectly prepared without any pretensions. Enjoy Basque chef Arkaitz Etxarte’s marmitako – a tuna, potato and capsicum stew (00 537 866 8807; Ave del Puerto 12; mains from £5).
Paladar La Guarida’s food is Nueva Cocina Cubana, showcasing dishes such as sea bass in a coconut reduction, and chicken with honey and lemon sauce. Reservations required (00 537 866 9047; Concordia 418 between Gervasio & Escobar; lunch and dinner; mains from £6).
La Imprenta has raised the bar for government-run places, serving specialities such as raw fish ceviche, grilled lobster with rice, and a stash of decent wines (00 537 864 9581; Mercaderes 208; mains from £8).
Just beyond the Dársena de los Franceses lies one of the big guns, Divina Pastora, offering an international and Cuban-inspired menu, with seafood a highlight. There’s also a credible wine list, cocktails and live music (Parque Histórico Morro y Cabaña; lunch and dinner; mains from £8).
Casa 1932 affords a glimpse of Art Deco Havana. Everything you touch in this house is antique. The owner is a designer, local history expert and mine of information on everything from Cuban film to the history of pharmacy (Campanario 63 btwn San Lázaro & Lagunas; from £25).
The two rooms at Marta Vitorte are deluxe with lovely furnishings, not to mention the delicious breakfasts, laundry service, lift attendant and a glass-fronted wraparound terrace that soaks up 270 degrees of Havana’s memorable panorama (00 537 832 6475; martavitorte@ hotmail.com; Calle G 301 Apt 14, btwn Calles 13 & 15; from £25).
Mesón de la Flota is an old Spanish tavern located right beside the gracious Plaza Vieja. Five individually styled rooms have tiled floors and wroughtiron balconies. Downstairs, the busy restaurant specialises in tapas and flamenco (00 537 863 3838; Mercaderes 257 btwn Amargura & Brasil; from £65).
If you want to splash out, try the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. It’s been converted from a colonial mansion, the rooms centred around a courtyard. The suites contain stained-glass, chandeliers and sculptures (Mercaderes 202; from £105).
Baroque meets modern minimalist in Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejúcal, where you can admire artworks from renowned Cuban artists in a bright Caribbean palette (Calle des los Oficios 152 esquina a Mercaderes; from £160).
When to go
Join in the carnival celebrations in July and August, or go in October for the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music. The most active hurricane period is September to November.
Metered tourist taxis are available from all upscale hotels. Stateowned yellow and black taxis are cheaper, but don’t use the meter – agree a fare before you get in. The Havana Bus Tour operates three main routes (all-day tickets £4; 00 537 831 7333).
Virgin Atlantic flies from Gatwick to José Martí airport (from £600). Flights from other UK cities go through Heathrow, continental Europe, New York or Miami. Public transport from the airport is practically non-existent, but a taxi will cost from £15. You can change money at the bank in the arrivals hall of the airport.