The Cuban capital Havana is a captivating mix of intriguing history and faded glamour, with a decidedly retro feel. Mark spent a long weekend discovering the charms of the City.
Havana is an extraordinary city that’s packed with interest, and one that makes a great destination for a long weekend with a difference or as part of a wider trip to Cuba. 500 years of history has left the City with an incredible array of buildings from various architectural styles, while the last 50 years or so has changed its character again. Lose yourself in the backstreets of Old Havana, watch the waves crash on the Malecón, Havana’s seafront promenade, and take in the nightlife of Vedado - ideally with a cold mojito in your hand.
A great place to start exploring is at Parque Central, a tree-lined square that marks the start of Old Havana where men sit under the shade of the trees to discuss the latest goings on in the world of baseball, a Cuban obsession. The square is surrounded by a series of historic buildings including the neoclassical Hotel Inglaterra, dating back to 1875, and the Gran Teatro de La Habana, a stunning building that’s home to the Cuban National Ballet. Just to the south is the Capitolio Nacional, the seat of Government until the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and a perfect place for visitors to Havana to appreciate the City’s neoclassical architecture.
From Parque Central walk along Calle Obispo (Bishop Street) in to the heart of Old Havana. The cobbled streets here date back almost 500 years, and this particular street is dotted with historic buildings that are now home to boutique hotels and lively bars. Calle Obispo leads in to Plaza De Armas, one of Havana’s most important and prettiest squares and one that’s been restored in recent years. Any visitor to Havana will notice that many of the City’s historic buildings are crumbling, but an ongoing restoration scheme is breathing new life in to these areas. It’s then a short hop to the Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana, a Havana landmark noted for its unequal towers and fine baroque architecture. Plaza de la Catedral is a great place for a spot of lunch – check out the Restaurant El Patio’s grilled fish and sublime mojitos!
Havana’s diverse history is also reflected in its places to stay, with hotels dating from various eras in the City’s history. Old Havana is dotted with quirky hotels that were formerly merchant’s houses, such as the Hotel Florida on Calle Obispo, a beautiful property centered around an internal courtyard. Perhaps Havana’s most renowned hotel is the Hotel Nacional De Cuba, dating from 1930 and reflecting the era’s Art Deco architecture. The hotel welcomed Hollywood legends in its heyday including Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, and today is a great place to soak up the City’s retro atmosphere.
A great way to really experience Havana is to rent a classic American car for an afternoon – you’ll need a driver too as the cars tend to be held together by a wing and a prayer (or at least a piece of rope and a roll of sellotape!) as spare parts haven’t been available for years, but it’s quite an experience. Cruise along the Malecón to the Plaza de la Revolución, the heart of revolutionary Havana that saw Fidel Castro address huge crowds. Today, the square is dominated by the famous Che Guevara image on the side of a government building.
Even in a short trip, Havana’s charms will grab you immediately. Recent reforms have given Havana a new burst of life, and things are changing quickly so visit soon to experience one of the world’s truly unique capitals.
Don’t miss…drinks at the terrace bar at the Hotel Inglaterra – the service can be typically Cuban (slow), but it’s a great spot to watch the world go by.
Don’t miss…dining at a paladar, a local restaurant often housed in private houses, where some of the best food in Cuba is served in an informal setting.
One to avoid…keep an eye out for crumbling buildings, potholed pavements and even badly pitched baseballs when exploring the city, to avoid any unexpected injuries.
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