Monday, September 9, 2013

Havana, Cuba

The Gran Teatro de la Habana

Executive summary by darmansjah

HABANA VIEJA offers visitors one of the finest collections of urban edifices in the Americas – the old Town contains more than 900 buildings of historical importance. For the best, tour the four main squares: Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Frncisco de Asis and Plaza de la Catedral.

Plaza de Armas

Plaza Vieja

Plaza de San Francisco de Asis

Plaza de la Catedral

The Museo de la Revolucion is housed in the former Presidential Palace. The museum descends chrnonologically from the top floor, starting with Cuba’s pre-Colombian culture and going down to the present-day regime (00 537 862 4093; Refugio No 1; 10am-5pm; US$5 plus US$2.50 camera fee).

Museo de la Revolucion

In 1940, Ernest Hemingway bought Finca la Vigia, a villa in San Francisco de Paula, 10 miles southeast of Havana. He lived there until 1960 and it remains virtually unchanged (Carretera Central; 9am-4.3pm Wed-Mon; US$5, plus US$2.5 camera fee).

Finca la Vigia

The Malecon, Havana’s evocative five-mile sea drive, is one of the city’s most soulful thoroughfares. Laid out in the early 1900s as an ocean-side boulevard, it has long been a favoured meeting place for lovers, philosophers and poets.

The Malecon

You’re never far from an idyllic beach. Havana’s own pine fringed Riviera, Playas del Este begins just 11 miles to the east of the capital at Bacuranao. During July and August, Havana comes out to play an relax on the soft white sands and clear waters of the beautiful Atlantic coastline.

Playas del Este

Havana is a one-off. Where else can you find vintage American cars running off Russian engines, ration shops near to gleaming colonial mansions, and revolutionary slogans daubed on walls of houses hosting all-night parties? Havana also spawned salsa and mambo, Havana Club rum and Chohiba cigars.

Joint in the carnival celebrations in July and August, or go in October for the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music (  The most active hurricane period is September to November.

To reach Jose Marti international Airport, Cuba’s main aero-gateway in the capital city of Havana, you can fly into Miami before connecting there with American Airlines ( or Delta Air Lines ( Cubana de Aviacion ( flies direct to Havana from Beijing, London, Paris. Public transport from the airport is practically non-existent, but a taxi will cost from US$24. You can change money at the bank in the arrivals hall of the airport.

Los Nardos is one of handful of semi-private Havana restaurants operated by the Spanish Asturianas society. Portions are huge and flavourful, and dishes include lobster in a Catalan sauce, garlic prawns with sautéed vegetables, and authentic Spanish paella (Paseo de Marti 563; mains from USD5).

At Restaurante el Templete, the speciality is fish, succulent and perfectly prepared without any pretensions. Enjoy Basque chef Arkaitz Etxarte’s marmitako – a tuna, potato and capsicum stew (00 537 866 8807; Ave del Puerto 12; mains from US$8).

Paladar La Guarida’s food is Nueva Cocina Cubana, showcasing dishes such as sea bass in a coconut reduction, and chicken with honey and lemon sauce. Reservation required (00 537 866 9047;; Concordia 418 between Gervasio & Escobar; lunch and dinner; mains from US$10).
La Imprenta has raised the bar for government-run places, serving specialiaties such as raw fish ceviche, grilled lobster with rice, and a stash of decent wines (00 537 864 9581; Mercaderes 208; mains from US$13).

Just beyond the Darsena de los Franceses lies one of the big guns, Divina Pastora, offering an international and Cuban-inspired menu, with seafood a highlight. There’s also a credible wine list, cocktails and live music (Parque Historico Morro y Cabana; lunch and dinner; mains from US$13).

Metered tourist taxis are available from all upscale hotels. State owned yellow and black taxis are cheaper, but don’t use the meter – agree a fare before you get in. the Havana Bus Tour operates three main routes (all day tickets US$6.50; 00 537 831 7333).

Casa 1932 affords a glimpse of Art Deco Havana. Everything you touch in this house is antique. The owner is a designer, local history expert and mine of information on everything from Cuban film to the history of Pharmacy (; campanario 63 between San Lazaro & Lagunas; from US$40).

The two rooms at Marta Vitorte are deluxe with lovely furnishings, not to mention the delicious breakfasts, laundry service, lift attendant and a glass-fronted waraparound terrace that soaks up 270 degrees of Havana’s memorable panorama (00 537 832 6475;; Calle G 301 Apt 14 between Calles 13 & 15 from US$40).

Mason de la Flota is an old Spanish tavern located right beside the gracious Plaza Vieja. Five individually styled rooms have tiled floors and wrought iron balconies. Downstairs, the busy restaurant specializes in tapas and flamenco (00 537 863 3838; Mercaderes 257 between Amargura & Brasil; from US$105).

If you want to splash out, try the Hotel Conde de Villaneuva, it’s been converted from a colonial mansion, the rooms centered around a courtyard. The suites contain stained-glass, chandeliers and sculptures (; Mercaderes 202; from Us$170).

Baroque meets modern minimalist in Palacio del Marques de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal, where you admire artworks from renowned Cuban artists in a bright Caribbean palette (; Calle des los Oficios 152 esquina a Mercaderes; form US$255).

For Your rum Diary by Chico Kidd

Havana Club Museum is housed in an 18th-century colonial mansion. If you’re after a lot of information crammed into a short time, a tour with a knowledgeable guide is well worth it. The museum is interesting, offering an overview of the distillation process. However, the bar is the place to be, serving some of the best mojitos in town and hosting some fanstastic local brands (; avenida del Puerto 262, esq Sol; entry US$8). 

National Pastime by Debbie Wickens

You should treat yourself to cocktails one evening at the Hotel nacional de cuba, just off the Malecon. Dating from the 1930s, this imposing building is full of style and character. Sip a large mojito on the terrace as the sun goes down and imagine all the gangsters and celebrities who have hung out here in the past (; Calle 21 y O, Vedado Plaza)

Obscure Choice by Clare Moscrop

Situated at the top of a building in Plaza Vieja in the Old Town, the Camara Oscura allows you to get a fantastic panoramic view of the city in real time – ideal for working out which bits of the city you’re keen to see close up. Even better are the views you get from the building’s roof. It’s a great place to get a different viewpoint on the day-to-day happenings of the city (; Plaza Vieja; admission Us$2)

For  Cuba before Castro, pack Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, and for something contemporary, try Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutierrez.

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