The real Havana
Of course you have got to see Havana. Un-typically for the Caribbean, Havana is a large and very old city of 2.1 million people. Most international flights come to Havana's airport, though many charters go direct to the main beach resort of Varadero about 2-3 hours away.
Havana is divided into several districts. Some of the most worthwhile are often missed by visitors. First a quick tour of the city. Then a guide to the real Havana which visitors often miss.
La Habana Vieja old Havana founded in 1607 is a ripe seventeenth and eighteenth century higgle of market squares, lush courtyards, colonnaded arcades, fountains, churches, lofty beamed ceilings, old lamps and shady benches almost untouched since the high-days of Spanish colonial power.
Next is Havana Centro, a nineteenth century city next to the old funded by the nineteenth century sugar boom. Centro was developed by architects from Havana University's School of Architecture whose professors were assiduous students of the Paris Ecole des Beaux Artes. They built a district of elegant parks planted with coconut and Royal Palms, smug bourgeois mansion blocks and grand hotels constructed during an era when Havana was one of the world's richest cities. Centro is more like Rome, Barcelona and Paris combined than the quaint clapboard colonial outposts of the British or French Caribbean.
Independence from Spain in 1898 brought in the Americans and a tourist boom. This was Havana's "dance of the millions". Hotels, restaurants, casinos and colonnaded mansions were thrown up in the new boom town, Vedado to the west. The resulting zone of semi-high rises nicely blends sub-Miami South Beach deco and pre-war Cincinnati. It includes the Hotel Capri, hang-out of the mob, with its casino and rooftop pool. From here Bugsy Segal, Meyer Lansky and Vito the Genovese controlled many of Havana's rackets.
Next to it is Miramar, a suburb of elegant pre and post-war villas with closely cropped lawns and waving coconut palms. Miramar is so nice, in fact, that almost all of the houses are occupied by embassies, foreign companies or Cuban government organisations. The dollar-strapped government has also sold many off to tourism entrepreneurs and friendly foreigners. Needless to say Hemmingway hung around here. There is a marina named after him from where, being a tough man's man, he took off to slaughter the local aquatic wildlife.
In 1959 Fidel took over. Out poured Americans and the Cuban professional classes. In poured Russian technicians and advisers. Cue a new phase for the city of Havana: an outer ring of neo-brutalist Soviet architecture designed by the same people who gave us Karl Marx Stadt in former East Germany.
Where to stay
Many of the largest hotels are in Vedado, including the Hotel Nacional, once the smartest in Havana and now somewhat faded, but still a favourite with visitors. Typical costs are $80-150pn. However, the Nacional is big and crowded, some of the rooms are manky and the ones overlooking the back, rather than the sea, suffer from night-long noise from taxis and tour buses revving their engines. Other atmospheric Vedado hotels include the Capri and the Habana Libre, the former Hilton which Che and Fidel made their headquarters after their victory in 1959. It is now managed by a Spanish group and prices are on the high side.
The two main new 5-star hotels are also in Vedado the Western run Melia Cohiba and the Cuban-managed Gran Caribe. Both are modern towers - the latter dating from just before the revolution. Both offer all Western comforts mini-bars, satellite TV, room service etc and good food. Both charge near-Western prices.
But although Vedado is worth a stroll, as is neighbouring Miramar, most of what is worth seeing is in Centro or Vieja, a 10 minute taxi ride away. Some of the most evocative and best value hotels are also in Vieja and Centro. Ideally, therefore, this is where you should stay.
A couple of very upmarket, small, boutiquey hotels have been opened in Vieja. The best by far is the Hotel Santa Isabel on the Plaza de Armas, situated in a palace which became a hotel in 1867 and recently refurbished. Rates vary from around $100-160, though off-season walk-ins have been known to get rooms for $80 or less. It's a great spot and the hotel has a good reputation and reasonable food. The Hotel Florida is a colonial-style merchant's house situated on Obispo, one of the main pedestrian streets linking Centro with Vieja. Converted into a hotel in 1999, the Florida has loads of atmosphere, but avoid the slow and poor restaurant. Room rates are $60-110pn.
The Hotel Ambos Mundos, also on Obispo, is where Hemmingway stayed. Rates are around $80-140pn, but the Ambos Mundas has been not very sympathetically renovated and lacks charm.
The hotels in nearby Centro are a better bet. A good budget choice is the Hotel Deauville, a '50s block on the Malecon about $30-50pn. The Hotel Lincoln on Avenida de Italia is another fair budget choice in the same range. Hotel New York on Dragones is a bit more basic at$30-40pn.
A little more upmarket is the Hotel Sevilla, originally the Biltmore Seville built in 1908, now a French-run joint venture. It's bang in the best part of Centro and in a fairly quiet location off the Paseo de Marti. The Sevilla is large with most facilities, the beautiful Moorish lobby has style and the food is fair. Prices are around $80-130pn, though you will be able to get a better deal on a package or for a week's stay. The Sevilla also has a garden swimming pool a rarity in Centro. It can also can get full, so book, and seems to be in a permanent state of renovation. Beware of half-renovated rooms with no or intermittent water and do not be afraid to complain if allocated one of these, which the staff do when they are busy. If you get a dodgy room, insist on a move and if you have any doubts, best avoid the Sevilla until their 'refurbishment' is finished - probably sometime in 2004.
The nearby Hotel Plaza also has style, if not as much class. An elegant, four-storey hotel rooms are around $70-90pn. The oldest Havana hotel is the Hotel Inglaterra opposite Parque Central. The Inglaterra can be noisy, but the high ceilinged rooms are great, it is right in the middle of Centro, the Moorish tiled lobby is a must-see and the place is in reasonable nick. However many rooms have been 'renovated', for which read sub-divided and tackily decorated, leaving many without style or windows. Insist on an old room with an outside window. Prices are around $70-100pn - you can usually negotiate a double for around $80 if they are not too busy or you book in advance, which is advisable. The food is a bit iffy, but the pavement cafe is a good place for coffee.
Two new upmarket hotels have recently opened in Centro. The Western-run Golden Tulip Parque Central stands where a fine old building was demolished so that this completely out-of-place modernist monstrosity could been erected overlooking one of Havana's main squares. It does offer 5-star comforts, though at a price to match rooms begin at $160, though are much cheaper with package deals. The Tulip also has the only seriously functioning business-centres in Vieja or Centro and good, though pricey food. The 4-star Hotel Telegrafo near to the Inglaterra has only just been opened in a tackily renovated block. Early reports of the accommodation are good, but the food is average. The Telegrafo's bar is popular. Room rates are around $100, but it may be worth a walk-in try for a lower rate as business does not seem to be brisk.
The undoubted budget-priced jewel of Centro's hotel is the Casa de Cinetifico on the Paseo (212). This elegant mansion with marble stairways, columns and courtyards was turned into a hostel for scientists and latterly a hotel to raise dollars. Facilities are basic, but intact. Rooms with shared bathroom costs from $25-30pn and rooms with private bathroom are $40-50. The restaurant looks grand, but is poor. It is almost impossible to book the Casa through agencies, so you either have to show up and hope for the best or call them on 62-4511/63-8103.
Avoid staying in Playa and Mariano, well to the west of Havana. Many tour operators and booking agents will try and book you into the several large, soulless hotels in these districts, including the Mirazul, Costa Sol, Copacabana, Melia Confort, El Comodoro, Neptuno, Novotel, Sofitel and Palco. The area is a long way from Vieja and Centro, the beaches are windswept and unattractive and the hotels mainly used by business travellers and conventioneers they are also expensive.
There are also plenty of casa particulars private flats to rent throughout Havana. See Hotels & Private Accomodation.
La Habana Vieja
Most of what you will want to see in Havana is in Vieja or Centro, all within an hour or two's stroll. Most visitors go to Vieja which has recently been extensively renovated with UNESCO money and in the main well restored, though the 16th century Plaza Vieja, a former market, has been given ugly reconstituted paving and the fountain has been fenced off with unnecessary railings.
The downside is that Vieja has been transformed into something of a tourist ghetto. Many Cubans have been moved out to make way for twee cafes see Eating and Drinking in Cuba. The police tend to move Cubans on fairly rapidly. As a result Vieja can be a little sterile.
Vieja is an easy stroll, however, and should be seen. It was the part of Havana close to the old port originally developed by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries. Highlights are the lovely Plaza de la Catedral with the baroque Catedral de San Cristobal finished by the Jesuits in the late 18th century and the resting place of Columbus before the Spanish took him home in 1898. Before the revolution this was also the favoured worshipping spot for Havana's glitterati, but the Catedral is usually closed except for Sundays. There is an attractive bar-restaurant on the square in an old palace the El Patio. It usually has Salsa bands, but is really a tourist-only spot and the food is poor and overpriced.
Close by is the Plaza de Armas, an 18th century square of royal palms. There is a second-hand book market at weekends and some weekdays. The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales on the square was the residence of Spanish captains general and later US military governors were based here. On the north-east side of the square is the oldest colonial fort in the Americas, the Castillo de la Fuerza, finished in 1577 which has just been restored.
The 16th century Plaza Vieja four blocks away is also worth a look. La Habana Vieja extends to an area of around 700 by 700 metres and is very manageable. There are plenty of museums, but one of the most pleasant things is just to stroll around and imagine what the city was like three or four centuries ago.
You have to go to Centro to get real atmosphere, however. The best way from Vieja is to walk up Obispo, a narrow pedestrian street which begins in the south-west corner of Plaza de Armas. Obispo was once one of Havana's finest shopping streets and also the centre of Havana bar life, with several semi-open air bars, given some privacy by typical Cuban turned dark wood screens. These are all now fairly touristy, but worth a visit and there is often live Salsa music.
Near the top of Obispo, going away from Vieja towards Centro, you can turn left into Avenue de Belgica where there are more bars. On the corner is the famous El Floridita bar see Eating and Drinking in Cuba for more.
Things now begin to get interesting. Within an area of about 1,500 by 1,500 metres lies most of Centro, but many people miss some of the most fascinating parts.
The Paseo di Marti is a must, originally modelled on Madrid's Prado in the early 1800s, the wide street was only later named after Jose Marti, the greatest of a long line of failed Cuban heroes. Not all cab drivers know it as Paseo di Marti, however. Some still call it Prado.
Marti was a late nineteenth poet who rebelled against Cuba's Spanish colonial masters. He fled to New York where he published rude pamphlets about his host country, predicting correctly that the Americans would eventually take over Cuba. "I have lived inside the monster," Marti wrote, "and I know its entrails". Marti returned to Cuba in 1895 to lead a failed uprising in which he was shot from his white charger. He also wrote a poem the words of which are sometimes sung to the tune of Guantanamera, the chorus of which Guajira Guantanamera means 'the peasant girl from Guantanamo'.
A wide, marble pavement runs down the centre of the boulevard, guarded on both sides by a bronze lions and shaded by spreading evergreen oaks. Courting couples amble, young children chase each other, dogs snooze, old men sit on the stone benches shooting the breeze the usual Latino scene. And, of course, there are chicas, by the truckload.
You will probably also begin to notice the holes. You will notice them because you fall in to them. Holes in the pavements, holes in the roads and great chunks missing from the buildings. Although Vieja and the more prominent buildings on the Malecon have been restored, much of Havana is crumbling away.
On either side of the Paseo are ornate nineteenth century four and five storey bourgeois blocks in styles varying from neo-baroque to Moorish. Many are now over-crowded apartments with several families squeezed into what was one flat. Most are in poor condition, but the old azulejos Moorish-style Spanish tiles on the floors and walls are an indicator of the former wealth, as are the coloured glass windows and fan-lights. The Bar Prado is on the west side, advertised with an old neon. Few tourist go there and the bar is worth a stop, though the restaurant is pretty awful.
There is a huge amount to see within two or three blocks of the Paseo. The Hotel Sevilla borders the Paseo. The Museo de la Revolucion is also close by in Batista's former presidential palace, a block from the Sevilla. This is worth a visit. Like all revolutionary museums it has at least one revolver on display, large, fading black and white photos on the walls and AK-47 toting dummies with whisps of unhealthy, gingery hair stuck under berets.
But the Museo de la Revolucion does has something which no other museum of its type can offer. 'Granma', the boat which brought Castro, Che and their band to Cuba from Mexico in 1956. Granma is exactly what it sounds like. Castro bought the cabin-cruiser from an American who had named it after his favourite relative. Granma is now imprisoned outside the museum in a large, metal-framed greenhouse reinforced with wire mesh possibly in case some-one nabs it to get to Florida.
One block from the Sevilla is a 12 storey Gotham City-style mini-skyscraper with a large lit-up bat outstretched on the roof. Not the Havana residence of Bruce Wayne and the Boy Wonder, but the Bacardi building built in 1929 and "donated" to the Cuban people when the Bacardi family fled Cuba after the revolution, taking their best-selling rum brand with them.
A couple of hundred metres on the other side of the nearby Parque Central is the faded splendour of the neoclassical Hotel Inglaterra, Havana's oldest hotel built in 1875 for tourists from what was then the world's richest nation. Next to this is an extraordinary baroque confection, the Gran Teatro de La Habana.
A block further on is the Capitolio Nacional, a US Congress look-alike built in 1929 for the Cuban Congress, but which is now a science library. Behind this is the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, the oldest Havana cigar factory and the one most visited by tourists. It is, however, very touristy. You would be better off at the old Monte Christo factory several blocks to the south-west of the Capitolio ask a cab driver as it is difficult to find.
These are the must-sees and are contained in a manageable, easily walkable area. Move a little off the beaten track and you begin to see the real Havana. To the west of the Paseo the far side from the Sevilla, and behind the Inglaterra, are street upon street of 19th and early 20th century mansion blocks (take Colon, Trocadero, Animas or Neptuno off the Paseo). Once very splendid, these are now steadily falling apart. Most of the original owners have long since fled to Florida, the buildings have been taken over by the state, families have been crammed in and virtually no money has been spent.
Some are frankly Dickensian, but during the cool of evening the streets come alive with children playing baseball, men and women sitting and talking on doorsteps, girls walking arm in arm and dogs on the prowl. There are plenty of local, very basic looking bars on the street corners where you will be welcome for a drink. You might want to avoid the food which a few of these establishments also offer.
Back around the Parque Central, on the opposite side from the Inglaterra, are former shopping streets with stores most of which have not had their fittings upgraded since the Americans left. Old neon signs still hang above the windows. The names of the original establishments are set in mosaic into the pavement: KLM, Washington Provisions and Sloppy Joe's, the bar Wormold, the anti-hero of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana mentions as being strictly for the tourists. In one store the stainless steel lunch counters and chunky revolving stools of a former Woolworthare intact, if battered.
Walk up to the end of Paseo di Marti, with the Inglaterra and Capitolio on your right, and you come to Ave Simon Bolivar across the small Parque de la Fraternidad. Turn right and close to the old Hotel Isla de Cuba there is a local market in a gutted shop. Books, home made tat and clothes are on sale daily.
Carry on south on the streets off Simon Bolivar (Agramonte, Economia, Aponte or Suarez) and you are in another little visited area of Havana close to the Estacion Central de Ferrocarilles the railway station and the small peasant food market just off Agramonte.
Here the roads slope from the smarter part of town to the new docks. The houses and apartment blocks are smaller, well-to-do workers' dwellings, two or three-storied, some stone, some painted white long ago with faded azure shutters and doors reflecting the sky and sea. These were mainly built in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century to house the influx of Spanish colonists from Latin America as the empire collapsed, followed by a further million immigrants from the poorer parts of Spain, such as Galicia and the Canaries, in the early part of the 20th century when Cuba was a wealthy country. Many Cubans have Spanish grandparents and regional identities are still maintained through clubs and associations.
Again, children play baseball with sticks and balls made of tightly wound string in the streets. Old men cluster round domino boards and dogs yap from balconies.
To the east and then north you can curve through the back-streets round into Vieja again. Or go west through more similar streets and you can then turn north and cross Ave Simon Bolivar to the streets behind the Capitolio where you will find Havana's small Chinatown. Keep going north and you will be back behind the Inglaterra.
The point about these areas is not that there is anything stunning to see though many of the buildings are lovely, even in their crumbling state but rather that you get far more of a feel of what Havana is really like. You will generally feel completely safe from everything except the odd hustler and there will be fewer of these than in the main tourist spots.
Back at north end of the Paseo di Marti, passing the Sevilla on your right, you reach the Malecon, the wide, sweeping road which runs along the sea connecting Centro and Vieja with Vedado. It is worth strolling a kilometre or two along the Malecon, especially in the evening when there are plenty of Cubans taking a promenade.
Havana is definitely worth at least a day or two. The fact that so much of it is un-restored can be a bonus and once away from the tourist spots of Vieja you will probably not see another foreigner. But many people find the polluting old cars and buses get on their nerves after a while and want to move on. Fortunately, the rest of Cuba has a huge amount to offer.
Eating and drinking three Havana classics, special recommendations
See the section on Eating and Drinking in Cuba for some general advice, but here are some tips on eating in Havana outside of the hotels.
Three state-run Havana restaurants are of note. La Zaragozana on the Avenue de Belgica in Havana Centro was a fine old restaurant founded in 1830 by a Spanish chef which specialised in seafood. It is also one of the few places in Havana to have been refurbished since 1959. The floor is now machine-made terracotta tiles and a soulless bar is festooned in Spanish football scarves and pennants. They do, however, serve just about passable seafood.
El Floridita next door was one of Ernest Hemmingway's hang-outs literally. The great writer used to hang out of the window during the '40s and '50s and alternately carouse with or abuse and occasionally thump passers by. Above all, El Floridita is the birthplace of the daiquiri. The starched barmen still look the pre-revolutionary part and the cocktails are good, though pricey. The linen-service dining room is very expensive and offers standard Western-style dishes. El Floridita is now a tourist-trap, but worth a look though not to eat.
La Bodeguita del Medio on Empredrado off Plaza de la Cetedral is Havana's most famous restaurant and the place where the Mojito cocktail was invented. Originally a grocery, La Bodeguita became famous as the watering hole of artists and intellectuals after the war. It was another of Hemmingway's hang-outs and the Creole cooking of the owner's wife became famous. Now it is primarily a tourist spot and the food is mediocre, but again La Bodeguita is worth a look and a Mojito.
The many old bars on Obispo, which runs from La Habana Vieja to Centro, and Avenue de Belgica, which runs into it, are also good for a drink and often have live Salsa music and loads of chicas, usually with their pimps not far behind.
Special recommendations: one of the few decent state restaurants is Restaurante Hanoi on Brasil and Bernaza which serves half-way edible Cuban-Vietnamese food. Few tourists go there and prices are reasonable at $3-5 a head.
You might also try the Restaurant El Morro in the lowering El Morro Fort, used as a place of torture and execution by the Spanish and every Cuban regime since but now, more happily, a tourist spot and OK state-run restaurant.
More than 100,000 Chinese came to Cuba in the mid-19th century and early 20th century to labour on the railroads and most stayed, developing a distinctive Chino-Cuban cuisine though a lot also left after the Revolution and their cooking largely died. Havana still has a small Chinatown a few blocks behind the Capitolio look for the Chinese arch and follow the road through for about 400 metres.
The handful of restaurants mostly offer basic variations of Chow Mein and Chop Suey, but there is some atmosphere and the food is passable pay $5-10 a head. Watch out for overcharging a common trick is to try for $3 per mojito or cocktail on the bill. The right price should be $2 only pay more in a smarter bar hotel where the price can be as high as $6.