Havana Travel Guide
In this historic seaport, long known as the Key to the New World, classic American cars clatter along streets lined with Spanish architecture and pulsating with African and Caribbean rhythms. Old Havana’s baroque facades, massive-columned palaces, and lush patios whisper tales of Cuba’s colonial past. Everywhere, Spanish, African, Caribbean, and American flavors boil in a dynamic and sensual brew.
To see La Habana Vieja and its many colonial palaces and baroque churches at their best, plan to tour on foot. Although you could spend days here, you can easily see the highlights of Old Havana in two days. Make the fortresses across the bay a side trip from La Habana Vieja, and save the sights farther east, as well as the Playas del Este, for another day. Centro Habana also has many historic sights, and it is here that you will truly see the sprawling everyday life of Cubans. The Capitolio, Chinatown, and Parque Central are must-sees for tourists, but a stroll in the southern reaches of Centro Habana and its dusty streets are an eye opener. A tour of Centro Habana can begin and end at the Hotel Inglaterra and Parque Central. El Malecón, from La Punta all the way to La Chorrera fortress at the mouth of Río Almendares (Almendares River), is an important part of Havana life and a good hour’s hike.
Vedado stretches from Calzada de Infanta to the Río Almendares and is difficult to explore on foot. Taxi rides to objectives such as the Museo de Artes Decorativos or UNEAC can be combined with strolls through leafy streets filled with stately mansions.
The area around the Hotel Nacional, the Habana Libre, La Rampa (Calle 23), and the Universidad de la Habana teems with humanity of every kind. Miramar, which stretches southwest across the Río Almendares, was the residential area for wealthy Habaneros and foreigners before the Revolution. A tour of its wide, tree-lined avenues is best made by car.
A 20-minute drive farther southwest is the Marina Hemingway yacht harbor. (Note that pre- and postrevolutionary street names are often used in the older parts of the city; addresses contain both throughout this chapter).
Havana Restaurant Reviews
Although Havana may not, for the moment, offer a head-spinning number of irresistible gastronomical options, things are improving. And there are ways to have a good meal. Stick with the top paladares as much as possible. These privately owned establishments are, by law, allowed only a maximum of 12 seats and can be staffed only by family members. The food is usually fresh, authentic, and inexpensive. Although there are regulations on what can be served (lobster, shrimp, and beef are officially forbidden at paladares), the owners are infinitely resourceful, often serving lamb instead of beef, or crab instead of lobster. The paladares have a cozy, clandestine atmosphere, and the tastes and aromas are the best Havana has to offer. The Vedado, Miramar, and Playa districts are prime paladar habitats, as the Habaguanex chain has squeezed nearly all of them out of La Habana Vieja. Centro Habana has the most famous of all, La Guarida.
State-owned establishments, with a few exceptions (such as El Aljibe), are mediocre at best. However, they’re often in settings you may find hard to resist, despite the overpriced and uninteresting fare. Some hotel restaurants (not the cafeterias or buffets) are noteworthy, especially the Abanico de Cristal in the Meliá Cohiba, the Chez Emérito in the Hotel Presidente, and the Aguiar in the Hotel Nacional. Two caveats: beware of elegant but empty establishments, and opt for simple criollo fare over sophisticated or “international” creations unless you are in the top hotels.
Keep in mind that at this writing you will not be able to use a U.S. credit card in a restaurant even if you have a valid travel license from the U.S. State Department.
Let your interests dictate where you stay. If you love history and architecture, pick a hotel in La Habana Vieja or Centro. Just be aware that while hotels in Habana Vieja are charming and colorful, they do not offer all of the amenities that you might in large international chain hotels. Wi-Fi service is generally not available, but almost all hotels offer some kind of paid public Internet option. The Habaguanex chain hotels are based on unique and interesting concepts. For example, Hotel Los Frailes is in an old mansion and is designed as a sort of cloister, complete with monks in frairs’ robes. Conde de Villanueva is designed specifically for cigar lovers, and Hotel Ambos Mundos plays up its association with the American writer Ernest Hemingway. Most of these hotels are recommendable.
If you like to play until the wee hours, Vedado offers a Manhattan atmosphere with plenty of nightlife. If you seek peaceful sea breezes, consider staying in Miramar. If you can’t decide, head for the Hotel Saratoga, with its rooftop pool, historic setting, unparalleled service in Cuba—and a stone’s throw from the historic sites of La Habana Vieja. The closest resort areas to Havana are the Playas del Este, the best of which is Jibacoa; stay here if you want to be in relative proximity to the capital (about 30 minutes east by car) but want more of a resort experience directly on the beach.
Lodging in private houses is highly recommended but difficult to arrange in advance. Any taxi driver can take you directly to a friend or family member with rooms to rent, but you should check the place out carefully before making a deal. Since laws in Cuba change overnight, the rental of private rooms, now legal, could be illegal by tomorrow. Ask at the airport hotel reservation desk.
Nearly all the government-operated hotels take credit cards as long as they aren’t affiliated with U.S. banks or companies. For obvious reasons, private houses do not.
Music is a Cuban passion rivaled only by baseball and the Revolution itself. Everyone here knows who El Médico de la Salsa (The Salsa Doctor) is and what type of music he plays. Los Van Van, Beny Moré, and Compay Segundo are all celebrities on the order of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, or Elvis. Caribbean, Spanish, African, and American rhythms have been combined to create more than three dozen musical styles, which are themselves evolving into still more varieties. To experience the music of Cuba is to learn about it, and Havana offers plenty of opportunities for both. The city also has splashy cabaret revues as well as jazz haunts and cafés that offer quieter entertainment.
Dance performances—from traditional ballet to traditional Afro-Cuban—are also options. If your Spanish is good, you’ll appreciate the active film, theater, and literary scenes. You don’t need any Spanish to enjoy the art exhibited in Havana’s many galleries. Attire at theaters and other venues ranges from cocktail dresses and jackets and ties to blue jeans and shorts. Tickets are nearly always available (check with your hotel concierge) at box offices and are very inexpensive by European or North American standards.
Cartelera, a Spanish-English weekly published by the Instituto Cubano del Libro and usually available free at major hotels, lists concerts, plays, and other artistic events. Opciones is another bilingual weekly publication with cultural listings. The Programación Cultural, published monthly in Spanish by the Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad (Office of the City Historian), has what is probably the most complete schedule of events. Ask for a copy at Museo de la Ciudad in the Plaza de Armas.
Until recent times, shopping lists in Cuba were short: puros habanos (cigars) and rum. In recent years the availability of an increasing number of products on the market has changed the landscape. While prices are prohibitive to most locals, even cellular phones are now available to Cubans. The result of a slow-but-sure openness has also resulted in more shopping opportunities for tourists.
Look for muñequitas, little dolls representing orishas. Handmade goods—from wood and leather items to terra-cotta pieces—cinema posters and other graphics, musical instruments, and photographs from the Revolutionary period also make interesting buys. The light-cotton men’s shirt known as the guayabera is Cuba’s national garment, worn by everyone from taxi drivers to El Comandante himself. Practical (side pockets) and elegant (embroidered), the guayabera is worn loose (not tucked in) for coolness, and is considered flattering to middle-age figures.
The state agencies ARTEX and Fondo de Bienes Culturales have shops throughout Havana that sell postcards, books, CD’s, cassettes, rum, cigars, and crafts. La Habana: Touristic and Commercial Guide, a booklet published by Infotur, lists the locations of the city’s many Tiendas Panamericanas, which sell toiletries and other basic items.
Bargaining is expected, but unlike shopkeepers in other countries where this is true, Cubans ask very low prices to begin with and don’t move far. It generally feels better to pay the extra dollar or two. At this juncture, it means a lot more in Cuban hands than in yours.
Because of the trade embargo, if you’re caught bringing Cuban goods into the U.S., customs could confiscate them, and you could be subject to penalties. Even Americans who are visiting Cuba with a general or specific license or on a fully hosted basis are subject to strict limitations on the total amount they’re allowed to spend daily—for hotels, meals, transportation, and Cuban goods—and customs officials may ask to see receipts.