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 world’s most alluring capitals while its idiosyncrasies are still largely intact. Havana’s tropical climate is a welcome contrast to our bleak midwinter, with February temperatures reaching 30°C. Intellectual pursuits are also available: Cuba’s 19th International Book Fair runs until February 21, with literary events held at the 18th-century San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress.
Start at Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Havana from here twice weekly; Cubana (cubana.cu) flies weekly via Holguín in the east of the island. I travelled with Thomson (0871 231 5595; thomson.co.uk), which offers twin-centre holidays staying for 11 nights at the resort of Guardalavaca and three nights in Havana from £1,876, including return flights to Holguín and connections.
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 some convertible Cuban pesos (CUC). A taxi to central Havana should take 30 minutes and cost CUC15-20 (£10.70-£14.30).
Get your bearings
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, 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 (formerly the Hilton) towers over this area, while the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba lies at the corner of Calles O and 21 (00 53 7 836 3564; hotelnacionalde cuba.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 (£122) including breakfast.
Public transport in Havana is sporadic. To cover long distances, take a taxi or ‘Coco’, coconut-shaped three-wheeled mopeds.
For high-end style and service, head for the Hotel Saratoga at Paseo de Martí 603 (00 53 7 868 1000; hotel-saratoga.com). Many rooms here have views of the grand Capitolio building, and there’s a roof-top pool. Doubles from CUC336 (£240) including breakfast. In Habana Vieja, the 22-room Hotel Los Frailes at Calle Brasil 8 (00 53 7 862 9383; hotellosfrailescuba.com) has a monastic theme, which is carried into cell-like rooms arranged around a tiny inner courtyard. Doubles from CUC172 (£123) with breakfast. Nearby, the Hotel Raquel at Calle Amargura 130 (00 53 7 860 8280; hotelraquel-cuba.com) is an art nouveau gem with a stained-glass ceiling. Doubles (some without windows) from CUC160 (£115) including breakfast. To save cash, rent a private room in a casa particular for as little as CUC30 (£22) for two. For more information see casaparticular.org.
Take a hike
Much of Habana Vieja is pedestrianised, which means you can enjoy this concoction of colonial palaces, churches and monuments in relative peace. Begin your stroll through the district’s beautiful squares with the oldest, Plaza de Armas, the centre of government in Cuba throughout the colonial period. Here book sellers display their wares (communist literature, mostly) around a tiny green park hung with bougainvillea. Admire the grandly baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales that dominates the western side and now contains the city museum, then head south past the smart-looking restaurants of Calle Oficios. Peer in at ancient vehicles on display at the Museo del Automóvil at number 13, then walk on to Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. The impressive 17th-century monastery at the far end of the square is now used as a concert hall. Take a right on Calle Brasil and you’ll soon find yourself at the northern side of Plaza Vieja, an elegant square decked out in pastel shades, where Havana’s new Planetarium opened for the first time last week (open Wednesday to Saturday 9.30am-5pm, Sunday 9.30am-12.30pm; admission CUC10/£7.15). Turn northwards up Calle San Ignacio; at the far end lies Plaza de la Catedral in all its baroque beauty.
Lunch on the run
Grab a snack from Cafe Santo Domingo at Calle Obispo 159, a dinky bakery with a few tables upstairs. Here sandwiches cost around CUC3 (£2.15), and a coffee is just CUC0.90 (65p).
Take a view
Head to the vast expanse of Plaza de la Revolución in Vedado, dominated by the grandiose obelisk of the memorial to Jose Martí, a 19th-century Cuban poet and independence hero. Avoid paying the CUC5 (£3.60) fee for the ground-floor museum and instead buy a CUC3 (£2.15) ticket for the lift, which will whisk you 129m upwards (9am-4.30pm daily except Sunday). 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, another hero of the revolution. The turkey vultures which soar on the thermals nearby are equally impressive.
A walk in the park
Cuba may be a Socialist Republic, but it’s not immune to a bit of royal razzle-dazzle. 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 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 softie.
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, a Fifties-era bar-restaurant at Obispo 557 has led to a statue of the great man being installed and daiquiris to be priced at a steep CUC6 (£4.30) each. Meanwhile, La Bodeguita del Medio at Empedrado 207 is just as popular with tourists (tradition demands that you sign your name on the wall); a mojito will set you back CUC4 (£2.85).
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 one of the outside tables at El Patio (00 53 7 867 1034) at Calle San Ignacio 54, the elegant restaurant that forms one side of the tiny Plaza de la Catedral. Expect to pay around CUC18 (£12.30) for a main course. Alternatively, try the lively El Templete at Avenida del Puerto 12, with tables overlooking the harbour (00 53 7 866 8807). Fish dishes dominate the menu: red snapper mains are CUC11.50 (£8.20).
Sunday morning: go to church
The 18th-century cathedral is the most dramatic religious building in the city: a vast limestone edifice that is baroque on the outside, neo-classical within. 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, beneath a ceiba tree. A replacement tree now stands on the spot, next to the Museo el Templete — a Greco-Roman temple complete with Doric columns and a decorative frieze.
Havana’s craft market has just been relocated from a site north of the Plaza de la Catedral to new quarters in the Centro Antiguos Almacenes de Depósito San Jose, an old warehouse on the harbourside. Inside, the stalls are arranged in neat rows and 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 well smell Cafe El Escorial at Mercaderes 317, on the corner of Plaza Vieja , before you see it: it roasts its own coffee beans. Here tables spill out below a pretty colonnade, and sandwiches and cakes are on offer as well as an array of different brews. A cafe con leche costs CUC1.25 (90p); cheese and ham croissants are CUC1.30 (95p).
The rise of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the rest of the Cuban Revolutionaries is charted at the Museo de la Revolución, housed in the magnificent former presidential palace. The Tiffany-decorated interior is quietly crumbling, but the displays housed inside are razor-sharp in their polemic. 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 from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. The remains of a spy-plane shot down during the Cold War are also displayed. Open 10am-6pm daily; admission CUC6 (£4.30).
Take a ride
Some of Havana’s pre-revolutionary US vintage cars accept passengers for guided tours: look for the ‘Gran Car’ logo, but expect rates of CUC25 (£18) 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 (currently being renovated, but due to reopen in time for the International Book Fair), and the view from the battlements is spectacular. Open 8am-8pm daily; admission CUC6 (£4.30).
The icing on the cake
Pre-revolutionary decadence has been preserved in the shape of the open-air Tropicana cabaret, which lies at 4504 Calle 72 (00 53 7 267 1717) in the Marianao district, a 20-minute taxi ride west of the city centre. Open since 1939, it delivers a boggling mix of kitsch show tunes and scantily dressed high-kicking dancers (with the odd contortionist thrown in). Tickets cost a steep CUC70 (£50), 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.