Get to know Havana
By Martha Hales
Overflowing with charm and soul, Havana - Cuba's buzzing capital - is a city with attitude. Culture, coast and Cuban beats add up to a fantastic holiday destination ripe for discovery.
Soak up the captivating atmosphere as you stroll the historic district of ‘Habana Vieja’ where life spills out into the streets and the pulse of music is never far away. Take a spin in a vintage car, dine with the locals and learn to dance the salsa before joining the habaneros on a sunset promenade along the Malecón. Havana is an intoxicating city, so allow plenty of time to immerse yourself in the culture.
Things to see in Havana
In a city of vibrant streets, one of the finest has to be Calle Obispo, a lively mix of shops, bars, community services and the odd tourist. It is one of the oldest streets in Havana, and makes a great location for a stroll, an ice cream, a little window shopping, a coffee at one of the cafés while you enjoy a spot of people watching, or a cocktail at El Floridita - famous haunt of Ernest Hemingway.
One of the most appealing and lively squares in old Havana is Plaza Vieja, flanked by colourful stylish buildings - a mix of colonial and art deco architecture with ornate windows and porticos setting the scene for the evening socialising, impromptu games of football and live music. Bars and cafés have tables spilling out onto the square, perfect for soaking up the atmosphere.
The Plaza de Armas is another of old Havana’s most beautiful plazas, dating back almost five centuries and bordered by some of the city’s most impressive architecture, originally palaces but today housing museums. In the centre of the plaza the leafy park offers a shady respite from the heat.
Revolution Square is an essential stop in New Havana and a major gathering point for important Cuban political events. The wide open space is framed by a suite of government ministries, the National Library and the José Martí Memorial, a tall monument which you can climb to see a panoramic view of the whole city after having a look around the museum at its base.
It is a popular congregating point for vintage cars which are the perfect way to see the city in comfort and style. Stroll this historic plaza, visit the memorial, and take the obligatory photos of the oversized twin silhouettes on adjacent buildings, one of Che Guevara and the other of Camilo Cienfuegos.
Discover Cuban cuisine
Recent years have seen a transformation in Cuban cuisine and an exploding dining scene to match. It wasn’t long ago that restaurants were state run, and the food wasn’t known for its quality. However, the thrill and pride of private enterprise has seized the population of Havana and they are opening private dining rooms all over the city, lifting the local food into a whole new arena of quality, innovation and flavour.
Cuban food is far more tasty and varied than it used to be, and you can detect influences from Spanish, Caribbean and African cuisines in the various dishes on offer.
One of the long standing staples is moros y cristianos - rice and beans, which you will still find in simple cafes and perhaps homestays, and is a filling and tasty dish with no frills. One of the most popular options for lunch on the go is a pork sandwich, and these are a ubiquitous street food offering. For something more complex look out for vaca frita, a delicious spicy dish of stewed beef and vegetables with layer upon layer of flavour.
Things to do in Havana
A visit to a cigar factory is a fascinating experience even if you have no intention of ever smoking one. Smoking may not be such a popular pastime these days, but everybody connects Cuba with cigars, and as the Cubans say - it’s an authentic, local, traditional product and it’s interesting to experience the production process at close quarters. The habaneros claim that Cuban cigars are the best in the world, and they are a product that brings people together.
Havana’s beaches are a good place to relax and see local life going on around you. Locals love the beach, and you’ll find ball games, family gatherings, courting couples, sun-worshippers and picnickers all enjoying the shore. Head for the beaches on Havana’s east side if you prefer your beaches sandy, while you should head for the west side for rocky coves.
Nightlife can be anything you want it to be in Havana. Chic salsa clubs, noisy bars, peaceful cafes and plenty of great places to stroll, not least the famous Malecòn. Known as Havana’s biggest sofa, the Malecòn is the waterfront where everybody comes to kick back, fish, stroll, flirt and shoot the breeze. Tamales are a must-try while you are travelling in Cuba, little parcels of corn cooked up in corn leaves and served with all sorts of delicious accompaniments like salsa and onion salad. Lots of typical dishes in Cuba will be accompanied by fried plantain, a delicious alternative to fries which get addictive the more you try!
Make it happen
Cuba is changing fast so why not nudge it to the top of your holiday wishlist? Our trusted local experts are brilliant at giving your Cuba trip those little local twists that make your holiday extra memorable for all the right reasons. Send them your outline requirements using our enquiry form and they will get to work planning a bespoke itinerary which you can tweak as much as you wish. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.