We love the smell of Cuba. Normally stale cigar and cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes and musty furniture from another century are not quite what delights the senses, but we like that we have a sensory memory of this unique nation. As soon as you arrive at Jose Marti airport in Havana this smell of indulgence and decadence will hit you and it will accompany you (and your clothes!) on your journey around the nation; at the cigar shops and factories, in the lovable chaos of the streets at dusk, in the well-kept homes behind the decaying facades and in the bars and restaurants filled with veritable museums of curiosities.We visited Havana once before in 2013, during which we toured the main sights of the city. This time around in 2016 we felt more at ease in the city and less under pressure to pack in all the tourist favourites. This meant that we enjoyed Havana more and in a completely different way, which was a wonderful surprise and now have a good idea of what not to miss in Havana!
Perspectives of Havana
As with any city it is easy to get lost in the maze of streets and buildings. Here are some great spots for gaining a perspective on the city.
- Head for Plaza Vieja where you can visit the Camera Obscura. The Camera Obscura is interesting in itself, but the main advantage is that you can get up high enough to be able to see the city from above. This is great both for orientation or just to see where you have already been. And once there, why not stop on the square for a cold one at the famous “La Factoria” brewery?
- You cannot miss visiting the Malecon (that is the promenade by the sea) for a walk at dusk. From here you can see round to the Vedado area of skyscrapers or back the other way to the old fortified town. The Malecon is basically where it all happens, you will encounter music, drinking, all sorts of snacks for sale, people socialising and maybe make a few friends!
- The Hotel Nacional in Vedado is a must as it is a glorious grand hotel. It has extensive gardens overlooking the Malecon and the ocean and you can stop for a sneaky refreshing cocktail.
Getting oriented is one thing, but what activities are there to do in Havana? Below are our favourite things to see and do.
The main tourist area is that of Havana Vieja and there is plenty to keep you busy like the fortress of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Calle Obispo, the Bacardi building, the Museo de la Revolucion, the Capitolio building and Plazas Vieja and de la Cathedral.
Our top tip is to go into some of the large hotels to enjoy the grandeur and a drink at their many bars. Oh and make sure you learn the song called “Chan Chan” by heart, you’ll hear it over and over again literally everywhere.
Havana Vieja is the most polished and tourist-friendly area of Havana (even though it might not seem so!), so we recommend taking a stroll into some of the more residential streets just so that you can see the Havana where the people live. The streets may look daunting at first as clearly no real refurbishment has taken place since the 1950s. Going during late afternoon or at dusk is a good idea as the streets really become alive with locals sitting out on their porch to cool off and children running riot all over the place. This is real Havana life, everybody, young and old, hanging out in the crumbly streets to spend time together, smoking cigars, enjoying a cold beer and generally have a good time!
Our casa particular was on Campanario, a couple of blocks down from the Malecon. A casa particular is essentially a bed and breakfast; it is a home in which the owner has received permission from the government to rent spare rooms to tourists. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the country, having being introduced by the government in 1997 as one of the first sanctioned forms of private enterprise. We absolutely loved staying at our casas as we got to meet really nice and friendly Cubans who would always welcome us and make us feel like members of the family. The casa owners really are the experts on where they live and, if you are lucky, they will tell you their stories, teach you about life in Cuba and share their hopes and dreams for the future. You are also in for a treat as they all make you monumental breakfasts consisting of all sorts of delicious Caribbean fruits, juices, strong coffee, pancakes, plantain, eggs, cheese, ham, bread, sausages etc. It is usually a good idea to eat dinner at your casa at least once to taste the best that Cuban cuisine has to offer (and you had better like lobster!)
As mentioned above the first impression of residential Havana can be off-putting, the streets are poorly paved and generally in a derelict state with crumbling buildings that look like they are being held together by a shoestring. We clearly remember that our first thought was that the streets looked like they had just been bombed! However, upon closer inspection the beauty of those mixed period buildings in disrepair starts to take over and takes you to a strange place, a sort of time warp between the present day and the past. You can’t say to have visited Havana properly if you have not spent time in its crumbly streets and admired the decadent beauty of its buildings, the ingenuity of people keeping them alive and the street life of people getting on with their days despite the poor conditions. Clearly the poor state of the capital’s buildings has not affected the Cubans’ character and their world-renowned lust for life.
Plaza de la Revolucion
You will probably drive past this plaza on your way from the airport and it is worth stopping for 10 minutes to appreciate the huge steel visages of the legendary Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos that adorn the government buildings on the square. Having said that, the square is a huge concrete celebration of The Revolution, not unlike government squares in ex-Communist countries in Europe.
Cigars and Rum
Of course Cuba is world-famous for its cigars. You are going to find cigar shops all over the place at the posh hotels, at the airport and in the streets. The good news is that prices are the same everywhere you go as it is a state industry, and don’t be tempted to buy cigars on the street no matter how good the deal seems, they are probably going to be fake. We also recommend visiting a cigar factory. We went to the Partagas factory which is now in new Havana, not at the site of the old building (where there is still a good shop) just behind the Capitolio. Here you will see people expertly rolling cigars of all types while being read the news in the morning and a book in the afternoon from the loudspeakers. Unfortunately pictures weren’t allowed!
And how could you go to Cuba without savouring its world-famous Havana Club rum and the various cocktails inspired by it. You can spend a cool half an hour in the Havana Club museum where you will learn about rum production and where you can get a delicious cocktail made of rum, orange juice and sugar cane juice. We particularly enjoyed 7 year old Havana Club rum on its own (please don’t spoil it with ice!) with a ‘puro’, that is a magnificent Cuban cigar: the perfect Cuban wedding, as one of our hosts described it. If you really want to treat yourself get yourself a bunch of Cohiba cigars siglo IV (the ones famously smoked by El Comandante in his heyday) and accompany it with some quality rum. The ultimate Cuban sensory experience.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking options in Havana are plentiful and you will be able to find many places with live music. We weren’t too impressed with Cuban food in 2013 but for some reason in 2016 we found it much more palatable! We are not sure whether it got better or we got better at choosing where to eat or we had just been travelling for so long at that point that our standards had fallen! Our recommendation is to eat at the casa particular in which you are staying. The prices are cheaper and the food is likely to be much nicer than any restaurant.
If you fancy some fine dining the head for La Guarida, just make sure that you book it in advance because it is popular. It’s a wonderfully crumbly old building with mixed occupancy and when you enter it looks like a building site. Don’t worry, just go upstairs and you will find an eclectically decorated restaurant with decent (don’t expect it to blow your socks off), if expensive food. Check out this video of when (annoying!) American comedian Conan O’Brian went there.
In Vedado, not far from the Hotel Nacional is a space ship shaped building that is the notorious state-owned ice cream parlour called “Coppelia”. How to explain the Coppelia in a few words? We don’t know as we haven’t fully understood its workings ourselves. It is basically a massive complex, the brainchild of Fidel Castro himself, in which ice creams and cakes are served. Easy isn’t it? Not quite! The complex is divided in different sections and the queue for each one snakes round the block and can take hours. However if you are a foreigner and you carry CUCs you’ll be able to avoid all that and be sent to a dark backroom where you will be served mediocre vanilla and chocolate ice cream sprinkled with biscuit dust. More a cultural than a culinary experience, but recommended nonetheless as it offers a window into the life of the average Cuban.
Once you get over the initial shock of seeing Havana for the first time, it is a deeply rewarding city and worthy of many hours of exploration. It has ample tourist sites, specialist industries like the cigars and rum, great weather, musical tradition and an exuberant and amiable population. However it is hard to tell at this point in time how long things will remain the way they are, due to the re-opening of relationships with the US, and the uncertain future of The Revolution.
Havana can take a little patience, but if you are willing to simply accept that some things work and some (or most) things don’t (it’s Cuba, remember!) then you will be able to experience a culture that is absolutely enthralling and utterly unique when compared to the rest of Latin America.