Havana, Cuba’s vibrant capital, is a complete assault on the senses and the Caribbean’s most effervescent and resilient city. This is a place that from one side of the street looks like a destination on the move, with avant-garde restaurants and sparklingly new shopping centers, and from the other a city where time has stood still, evident by the crumbling yet charming colonial buildings and 1950s Cadillac’s cruising the streets, reminiscent of an Al Capone movie. Havana is a city in which to experience a rich and ever changing history, relax to the soothing sounds of Latin Jazz and dance the night away to the infectious beats of salsa and mambo.
For over 500 years a playground for pirates, a Spanish slave port and stamping ground for mafia folk drifting in from the USA, Havana (and Cuba), following the revolution of 1959, reopened its doors to visitors in the 1990s. It’s fair to say that with so many years of neglect a lot of the city has seen better days and a number of neighborhoods are crying out for a lick of paint. However, it is beneath this dwindling façade that the true character of the city lies. Stroll the cobblestone streets of La Habana Vieja and admire the colonial monuments, wander along El Malecon where the locals still come to work and play, take in an outrageous cabaret show or listen to the jazz sounds of a local house band and you’ll soon find the alluring charm building inside you.
Since the reintroduction of tourism, Havana has continued to grow in popularity, albeit with fewer visitors from the US, and at any time of the year you will find hoards of travelers eager to grab a piece of the action. What continues to stump those who do arrive here is how to describe the city in a few simple words, therefore no matter how many books are read or how many videos are watched the only way to get a true feel of this fascinating city is to get out and explore it first hand.
El Malecon - Taking a stroll along the seafront pedestrian boulevard stretching from La Punta to Vedado is a defining moment of any visit to Havana. Watch as the kids swim and the men fish during the day and young lovers come to court in the warm evening air. At anytime of the day it is the best place to see the decaying buildings of yesteryear and by night it is awash with the activities of street performers and food vendors.
El Capitolio - Resembling the US Capitol building in WashingtonD.C., El Capitolio is Havana’s most lavish building, with intricate marble floors and a replica 25-carat diamond set into the hallway floor. The building was once the seat of the Cuban government but is now the home of the national library and Cuban academy of science.
Catedral de San Cristobal - Famed for 2 asymmetrical towers that dominate its exterior, the cathedral is one of Old Havana’s most revered sights. Founded in 1748 and completed in 1787, it is dedicated to Christopher Columbus, whose remains were kept here before finally being moved to Seville.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza - Of a number of forts in Havana this one is the oldest and perhaps most interesting, perched on the western side of the harbour next door to Plaza de Armas. The fort’s success has long been a topic of debate with many believing it to have been built too far from the main harbour entrance; however, walking the drawbridge and the ancient walls of the fort encompassed by a clover shaped moat still provides a true step back in history.
Fabrica de Tobacos Partagas - A visit to Cuba’s longest running cigar factory, in operation since 1845, is an absolute must to see the time, skill and patience required in the production of the world’s finest cigars. Excellent guided tours walk visitors through the processes of drying, sorting, rolling and boxing. There is also a cigar-making school from where graduates eventually make there way to the real job.
Che Memorial & Revolution Square - For the ultimate tourist photo head to Plaza de la Revolucion, home to two of the city’s most iconic monuments. One is the soaring Jose Marti memorial tower and the other the large face monument of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the image that has become a worldwide phenomenon for t-shirts and posters. Whether Guevara would have been happy with the commercial popularity is another matter.
La Guardia - The most famous paladar (family-run restaurant) in Cuba has reached legendary status over the years and for a few extra pennies is well worth treating yourself for dinner. The meals are delicious, the ambience truly charming and the setting full of Cuban character. Its reputation has been enhanced through appearances in a number of movies including the Cuban classic Fresa y Chocolate.
Tropicana - It is pricey but well worth the money. Tropicana hosts arguably the most extravagant open-air cabaret in the world complete with hoards of scantily clad dancers and frequent big name performers.
Havana Jazz Festival - Music is all around you in Havana, from the clubs to the street corners, and the Jazz Festival is a showcase of the finest musicians. Performances take place in the many downtown music venues as well as along El Malecon. Jazz Cuba organizes Jazz tours in Havana.
Havana Nightlife - By night Havana is full of endless possibilities to enjoy yourself, whether it is a fancy meal, kicking back in a street side café or hitting the nightclubs. Mojitos and daiquiris dominate the drinks list and almost all venues have their own house band. Stop by La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito and sit where Ernest Hemmingway once did. Lluvia de Oro in Old Havana is full of atmosphere but get there early as it fills up quickly. Habana Café in Vedado is great for live music and pulls in some big name acts. Anyone with their dancing shoes on can head to Macumba Habana, the city’s largest salsa club, or La Zorra y el Cuervo.