Sunday 24 September 2017

48 hours in: Havana

A square in Havana lit up at night.
A square in Havana lit up at night.
An old Cuban pushes his loaded trolley to his cart, whose horse carries a Venezuelan flag 28 November 2007 in Havana. The strong political and economic relations between Cuba and Venezuela have led to the frequent presence of portraits of Chavez and Venezuelan flags in the island. AFP PHOTO ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA: Picture taken 06 May 2004 downtown Havana of the facades built in Cuba's brief "Belle Epoque" of colonial affluence. AFP PHOTO GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
A couple walk by a new building, whose mirror-windows reflect the facades of old buildings in Old Havana, Cuba, on November 22, 2008. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Ben Ross

Salsa, socialism and sophistication share the faded magnificence of the Cuban capital. Ben Ross prescribes a revolutionary city break.

Why go now?

If President Barack Obama carries out his pre-election promise to liberalise relations with the only communist country in the West, millions of US tourists currently barred from entry will descend on Cuba. Now, then, is the ideal time to enjoy one of the most alluring capitals while its idiosyncrasies are still intact.

Havana's tropical climate is a welcome contrast to our midwinter, with current temperatures reaching 30°C. Intellectual pursuits are also available from time to time: Havana recently hosted the 19th International Book Fair at the 18th-century San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress (1), which is currently touring the country.

Touch down

The best starting point is Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic (0044 870 574 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Havana twice weekly via London Gatwick. Cubana (cubana.cu) flies weekly via Gatwick plus Holguín in the east of Cuba.

Havana's airport lies 25km south-west of the city. European flights arrive at Terminal 3, which has ATMs and a Cadeca currency exchange bureau where you can procure convertible Cuban pesos (CUC). A taxi to central Havana should take 30 minutes and cost CUC15-20 (€11.44-€15.25).

Get your bearings

View a PDF map of Havana here

The harbourside district of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982; its stunning Spanish colonial architecture is in the middle of a remarkable programme of renewal.

The Parque Central (2) is linked to the Atlantic coast by Paseo de Martí, a broad boulevard known as El Prado. Beyond here lies Centro Habana, a poor but fascinating part of town, which in turn blends into Vedado -- a more modern area laid out in a US-style grid pattern. The Havana Libre (3) (formerly the Hilton) towers over this area, while the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba (4) lies at the corner of Calles O and 21 (0053 7836 3564; hotelnacionaldecuba.com). The casino here was run by the US mafia before Fidel Castro came along in 1959; now gambling is banned. Doubles start at CUC170 (€130), including breakfast.

Public transport in Havana is sporadic. To cover long distances, take a taxi or 'Coco', coconut-shaped three-wheeled mopeds.

Check in

For high-end style, head for the Hotel Saratoga (5) at Paseo de Martí 603 (0053 7868 1000; hotel-saratoga.com). Many rooms here have views of the grand Capitolio building (6), and there's a roof-top pool. Doubles from CUC336 (€256), including breakfast.

In Habana Vieja, the 22-room Hotel Los Frailes (7) at Calle Brasil 8 (0053 7862 9383; hotellos frailescuba.com) has a monastic theme, with cell-like rooms around a tiny inner courtyard. Doubles from CUC172 (€131) with breakfast. Nearby, the Hotel Raquel (8) at Calle Amargura 130 (0053 7860 8280; hotelraquel-cuba.com) is an Art Nouveau gem. Doubles (some without windows) from CUC160 (€122) with breakfast.

To save cash, rent a private room in a casa particular for as little as CUC30 (€23) for two. For more information, see casaparticular.org.

Take a hike

Much of Habana Vieja is pedestrianised. Begin your stroll through the district's beautiful squares with the oldest, Plaza de Armas (9) -- the centre of government in Cuba throughout the colonial period. Booksellers display their wares (communist literature, mostly) around a tiny park hung with bougainvillea.

Admire the grandly baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which now contains the city museum, then head south past the restaurants of Calle Oficios. Peer in at ancient vehicles at the Museo del Automóvil (10) at number 13, then walk on to Plaza de San Francisco de Asis (11). The impressive 17th-century monastery at the far end of the square is now a concert hall.

Take a right on Calle Brasil and you'll soon find yourself at the northern side of Plaza Vieja (12), an elegant square decked out in pastel shades, where Havana's new Planetarium sits (open Wednesday to Saturday 9.30am-5pm; Sundays 9.30am-12.30pm; CUC10/€7.62).

Turn northwards up Calle San Ignacio; at the far end lies Plaza de la Catedral (13).

Lunch on the run

Grab a snack from Café Santo Domingo (14) at Calle Obispo 159, a dinky bakery with a few tables upstairs. Here, sandwiches cost around CUC3 (€2.29), and a coffee is just CUC0.90 (69c).

Take a view

Head to the vast expanse of Plaza de la Revolución (15) in Vedado, dominated by the grandiose obelisk of the memorial to José Martí, a 19th-century Cuban poet and independence hero. Avoid the CUC5 (€3.80) fee for the museum and instead buy a CUC3 (€2.29) ticket for the lift, which will whisk you 129m upwards (9am-4.30pm daily, except Sundays).

From the top there are commanding views of the city, including the celebrated Che Guevara mural on the Interior Ministry opposite, as well as a brand-new mural to Camilo Cienfuegos. The turkey vultures that soar on the thermals nearby are equally impressive.

A walk in the park

Back in Habana Vieja, a tiny memorial garden to Diana, Princess of Wales ('Diana de Gales') lies to the north of Plaza de San Francisco de Asis (11) and is open 7am-7pm daily. It's a tranquil plot, guarded by wrought-iron gates, themselves topped by a distinctly unrevolutionary tiara. Fidel, you old softy.

An aperitif

Time to raise a glass to Ernest Hemingway, who spent a portion of his time in Cuba uttering locally celebrated aphorisms such as: "My daiquiri in El Floridita, my mojito at La Bodeguita." His patronage of the former (16), a '50s-era bar-restaurant at Obispo 557, has led to a statue of the great man being installed and daiquiris priced at a steep CUC6 (€4.57) each.

Meanwhile, La Bodeguita del Medio (17) at Empedrado 207 is just as popular with tourists (sign your name on the wall); a mojito will set you back CUC4 (€3).

Dining with the locals

The disparity between the local peso and the convertible peso used by tourists means that you're unlikely to find yourself eating in the company of too many habañeros.

For atmosphere, try an outside table at El Patio (0053 7867 1034) at Calle San Ignacio 54, the elegant restaurant that forms one side of the tiny Plaza de la Catedral (pictured) (13). Expect to pay CUC18 (€13.71) for a main course.

Alternatively, try the lively El Templete (18) at Avenida del Puerto 12, with tables overlooking the harbour (0053 7866 8807). Fish dishes dominate the menu: red snapper mains are CUC11.50 (€8.76).

Sunday morning: go to church

The 18th-century cathedral (13) is the most dramatic religious building in the city. Mass is celebrated at 10.30am on Sunday. Back in 1519, Havana's first-ever Mass was held in what is now Plaza de Armas (9), beneath a ceiba tree. A replacement tree now stands on the spot, next to the Museo el Templete -- a Greco-Roman temple.

Window shopping

Havana's craft market has just been relocated to the Centro Antiguos Almacenes de Depósito San José (19), an old warehouse on the harbourside. Inside, the stalls offer artwork and crafts, as well as souvenirs to remind you of some perennial Cuban obsessions: cigar boxes, domino sets, baseball paraphernalia and Havana Club-branded trinkets. Open daily 10am-6pm.

Out to brunch

You may smell Café El Escorial at Mercaderes 317, on the corner of Plaza Vieja (12), before you see it: it roasts its own coffee beans. Tables spill out below a pretty colonnade, and sandwiches and cakes are on offer too. A café con leche costs CUC1.25 (95c); cheese and ham croissants are CUC1.30 (99c).

Cultural afternoon

The rise of the Cuban Revolutionaries is charted at the Museo de la Revolución (20), housed in the magnificent former presidential palace. A stark tale of heroic fighters finally overcoming an oppressive dictatorship in 1959 unfolds through revolutionary memorabilia and facsimiles of contemporary documents.

Outside, the Pavillon Granma houses the yacht in which Fidel & Co sailed to Cuba in 1956. The remains of a spy plane shot down during the Cold War are also displayed, to emphasise US duplicity in their post-Revolutionary relations with Cuba. Open 10am-6pm daily; CUC6 (€4.57).

Take a ride

Some of Havana's pre-revolutionary US vintage cars do guided tours: look for the 'Gran Car' logo, but expect rates of CUC25 (€19) per hour. Alternatively, for a final, breathtaking vision of Havana, take a taxi over to the eastern side of the harbour, via the tunnel that runs below the water. The Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro (21) is an impressive fort with a lighthouse, and the view from the battlements is spectacular. Open 8am-8pm daily; CUC6 (€4.57).

The icing on the cake

Pre-revolutionary decadence has been preserved in the shape of the open-air Tropicana cabaret, at 4504 Calle 72 (0053 7267 1717) in the Marianao district, a 20-minute taxi ride west of the city centre. Open since 1939, it delivers a mix of kitsch show tunes and scantily dressed high-kicking dancers (with the odd contortionist thrown in).

Tickets cost a steep CUC70 (€53), but include a quarter-bottle of Havana Club rum per person, plus plenty of Tropicola -- ideal for DIY Cuba Libre cocktails. It opens every night except Monday from 8.30pm; shows start at 10pm.

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