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Exotic, mysterious, vibrant, Havana is steeped in time-worn splendor. But with President Barack Obama announcing a historic overhaul in relations between the United States and Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and its capital of Havana stand on the precipice of dramatic change.
Home to 2 million, Cuba’s beguiling capital city resembles a Hollywood stage set, once glamorous, now with an aged patina, but still with plenty of action for travelers wondering what to do in Havana.
Old Havana overflows with colonial castles, convents and cobbled plazas. Detroit dowagers with fins sharp enough to draw blood rattle along the Malecón seafront boulevard. And the Tropicana cabaret – a sensual salsa-charged extravaganza – recalls the pre-revolutionary heyday of sin.
Welcome to communism, Caribbean style. Socialism and sensuality.
Havana’s gritty, faintly louche authenticity is unique – an enthralling amalgam of colonialism, capitalism and communism. It’s also uniquely charming. You won’t want to sleep for missing a vital experience as you explore streets haunted by Ernest Hemingway’s ghost.
But even before Obama’s December phone call with Cuban President Raul Castro that reflected the first communication at the presidential level with Cuba since the Cuban revolution, Havana was in dramatic flux.
Confused about rules for U.S. citizens visiting Cuba? We help clear it up
Private restaurants (called “paladares”) in private homes have been improving the dining scene for years. Sophisticated boutique hotels exuding colonial-tinged Miami chic have already been filled with U.S. visitors (thanks to a recent “people-to-people” license provision), who now outnumber Canadian and European tourists.
Here’s what to do in Havana:
Savvy European investors are behind the glam Saratoga, Havana’s primo hotel. Its colonial facade is just that – within are cavernous rooms boasting chic styling and 21st-century amenities. It’s the only Havana hotel with free Wi-Fi.
The rooftop pool has a sundeck for lounging and tanning, perfect when planning what to do in Havana. At the Moorish-themed Anacaona restaurant, you can puff a cigar and have a cocktail in the neon-lit mezzanine bar.
Rising over the seafront Malecón, this landmark grand dame is touted as the city’s top hotel. Through the decades, a parade of A-listers – from Al Capone to Naomi Campbell – has slept here.
Accommodations are a bit worn. Executive-level rooms fare better and are worth the splurge. The Moorish-themed lobby offers a great architectural photo op. Stogies and mojitos on the patio bar are a good precursor to the titillation at the hotel’s Parisien Cabaret.
Hostal Los Frailes
Steps from Plaza Vieja in the heart of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), this boutique charmer plays on a monastic theme, including staff dressed in monks’ habits. No medieval austerity here, however – guest rooms have all modern amenities.
A lively quartet performs expertly in the lobby bar. Historic sites surround the hotel. The nearby plaza has art galleries, museums and a tavern.
Take the former home of a Spanish count, then turn the ground floor into a paella restaurant and bistro bar and the upper level into antique-filled bedrooms with cool marble floors. The result?
A bargain-priced beauty in the thick of the colonial quarter. Every room is distinct. Many have balconies overlooking the street, although some lack air-conditioning, and hot water is never guaranteed.
Beloved by Havana’s diplomats, gourmand expats and visiting VIPs, Cuba’s trendiest restaurant is booked solid every night of the week. Its setting – the third floor of a near-derelict yet photogenic building in the gritty Cerro district – belongs in a Fellini movie. The cozy setting is enhanced by original artwork and posters festooning the walls.
Owner Enrique Nuñez has lived in Spain and brings a European savoir-faire to the menu, such as the signature honey-mustard chicken and pork medallions in mango sauce. You might recognize La Guardia as the setting for the hit-movie “Fresa y Chocolate.” After you’ve settled on what to do in Havana, this is where to settle on what eat.
La Guajira, Calle Concordia 418, Centro Habana; +53 7 866 9047
This recently opened paladar (“paladares” are private restaurants, often located inside proprietors’ homes) occupies a rooftop penthouse suite in the Vedado district.
It dishes out some of the best food in town on a changing menu. The chocolate brownie is exceptional.
There’s a lovely cocktail terrace with dramatic views of the Focsa building. The retro-stylish decor would fit well in Miami’s South Beach – reason enough to throw on dressier clothes. The prices are an absolute bargain, and the service is spot on.
The jaded exterior of a Beaux Arts mansion belies the colonial-meets-contemporary beauty of this lavishly decorated private restaurant – it’s the impeccable conception of owner Hector Higueras.
French influences fuse with Cuban ingredients on the changing menu. Octopus in squid ink followed by chicken breast with tamarind sauce is memorable when available.
The music is happening and, rare for Cuba, the main dining room is nonsmoking. Smokers get their own private space, while romantics can request the canopied table on the terrace.
A trio of siblings conjured an idiosyncratic centenary mansion into this cosmopolitan paladar atop a five-story apartment building. Expats flock here – your best thumbs-up indicator in Havana. The chefs aren’t afraid to experiment, from candied duck to a delicious sirloin steak with shrimp and celery mousse.
Daily menus are scribbled on Cuban ration cards. The portions, however, will not leave you wanting. You can hang out on a spacious balcony with plump cushioned, poured concrete sofas.
With the best views in town, this state-run restaurant on the 33rd floor of Havana’s tallest building has wraparound walls of glass for a panoramic perspective.
The south side offers the most mind-boggling views. It’s a good place for long look while deciding what to do in Havana.
The menu combines continental and Cuban staples. Classic dishes are ropa vieja (braised beef with white rice and veggies) or fish fillet poached in white wine, followed by the best profiteroles in town.
Recently forsaken by the expat community and now a staple of tour groups, “The Well” still serves perhaps the best roast chicken (in orange sauce) in Havana. Sure, the à la carte menu has something for every palate, but the all-you-can-eat house chicken dish with all the trimmings is the best bet for those with big appetites.
This thatched, open-air restaurant in the tony Miramar district has a huge wine list, plus a cigar shop. Service can be slow when the groups invade.
The long line to enter this restaurant says it all. Up a set of crumbling stairs in an equally tumbledown building opposite the Capitolio, this hidden spot delivers heaping portions of Cuban staples.
Favorites include garlic shrimp, and lobster in Catalan sauce. The house sangria is good and served for groups in pitchers.
The semi-private restaurant is run by the Spanish Asturian Association, so service is on the ball. The best place to sit is the main room on the second floor, with its hand-crafted wooden furniture.
Cubans love ice cream and worship at this shrine, which takes up an entire block in the heart of Vedado, handily close to key hotels. Alas, foreigners are relegated to their own tiny section and charged CUC1 per scoop.
Savvy visitors will befriend Cubans in line and join them in one of the leafy park sections or, on rainy days, in a 1950s-era spaceship-like building. Here, a mere five pesos will buy a bowl-full of delicious ice cream.
Congratulations! You’ve just experienced a Cuban rite of passage in true habanero style.
Sure, the Revolution shuttered the strip clubs, but stiletto-heeled paganism still rules at Havana’s sauciest (and largest) Las Vegas-style cabaret. More than 200 performers shake, shimmy and croon in this open-air paean to retro redux titillation.
Even female patrons love it, not least for the over-the-top decor and the show’s Adonis-like acrobats. It’ll burn a hole in your wallet, but a cigar and a bottle of rum (plus cola) are thrown in to ensure your enjoyment.
Casa de la Música
Havana’s hottest dance club draws aficionados who really know how to burn up the floor, and they’re not shy about inviting foreign newbies to dance. Cuba’s hottest bands often perform here. Headliners often don’t crank up until well beyond midnight, good justification for an afternoon siesta.
Taberna de la Muralla
At this Old Havana brewpub, seating spills onto Plaza Vieja.
Dedicated sudsters may be heartened to know that the operation was set up and is co-managed by Austrians. It serves a refreshing pilsner and a heartier dark brew. Serious drinkers (or groups) can order a three-liter dispensa – a tall glass cylinder with a tap and an ice-filled center tube to keep the beer cold.
Café Concierto Gato Tuerto
You half-expect Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack to show up at this classy 1950s-style dive, steps from the Hotel Nacional. Any night is potluck for live music – acts can span from sultry bolero to funk to reggaeton.
It makes a great date spot, although it lacks space for dancing and can get smoky. Still, it’s a great place to put on the list when thinking about what to do in Havana. There’s an upstairs restaurant, but the club gets packed, so you’ll have to eat early if you want a prime seat for the show.
Shopping / Attractions
For an overview of the city and what to do in Havana, there’s no better option than jumping on an open-top, double-decker anywhere along the HabanaBusTour circuit. The fare (CUC5) is good for 24 hours, and you can jump on and off at any of 44 stops. If you want rays at the beach, board a single decker at Parque Central and head to Playas del Este.
The most magical of the colonial quarter’s four major squares recently emerged from a decade-long restoration. Centuries-old buildings on each side now gleam like confections of stone.
The checklist of “musts” includes the Museo de Naipes (Playing Cards Museum) and Planetario (planetarium). An elevator climbs to the rooftop of Edificio Gómez, where you can enjoy a 360-degree look at real-time life viewed through a Cámara Oscura. Now you’ve earned a cold one at the Taberna de la Muralla.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Housed in an impressive 1950s Modernist structure, the three-story Fine Arts Museum (Cuban section) mesmerizes with its best-of paintings, lithographs and sculptures spanning four centuries.
The highlight is the 20th-century collection exhibiting such hallowed names as Armando Menocal, Wifredo Lam and René Portocarrero. For insight, you’ll need to hire an English-speaking guide (CUC2).
Plaza de la Revolución
Gone are the days when Fidel bewitched crowds here with his obfuscating oratory, but this vast plaza will cause gasps of appreciation.
Wow-inducing sights include the 18-meter-tall marble statue of national hero José Martí fronting the government palace (where the Castro brothers hatch state policy).
Keeping an eye on things is a five-story-tall iconic visage of Che Guevara affixed, appropriately, to the facade of the spooky Ministry of the Interior. If possible, time your visit for the May Day Parade (May 1).
Museo Ernest Hemingway
The ultimate shrine for fans of “Papa” is the Nobel Prize-winning author’s former home, Finca Vigía, on the southeast outskirts of town, a 30-minute drive.
The hilltop estate is maintained just as Hemingway left it, with his priceless possessions in situ. You can’t actually go inside, however. You peer through open doors and windows. His sport-fishing vessel, “Pilar,” is poised atop stilts in the garden.
Playas del Este
On hot weekends, half of Havana seems to head to the “Eastern Beaches” to tan, party and flirt. The sugar-white sands dissolve into turquoise waters perfect for lazing and swimming – in winter you might encounter jellyfish in the water.
You can rent pedal-boats and windsurf. Thatched ranchitos sell grilled fish and offer respite from the heat. Tarará is the nicest section and has the most facilities, but it charges for entrance (CUC10).
This sustainable community is where habaneros head for a breath of fresh mountain air. Hiking trails and colonial-era coffee estates await exploration, and specialist birding guides will take you in search of the tocororó, the national bird. Landscape artist Lester Campa’s pleasant studio is worth a stop. You can grab an al fresco lunch at Fonda de Mercedes, and a cappuccino at Café Maria.
Las Terrazas, Autopista Nacional Habana-Pinar del Río, Kilometer 52; +53 48 57 8600
Parque Nacional de Viñales
Nothing in Cuba rivals the Valle de Viñales for scenic beauty. It’s a popular destination for nature fans who hike, horseback ride and gape at dramatic limestone formations called mogotes.
This is also primo tobacco country. The best time to visit is winter, when the fields are planted; or spring, when the tobacco is harvested.
Parque Nacional de Viñales, 26 kilometers north of Pinar del Río and 212 kilometers west of Havana