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Visiting Cuba’s sultry Spanish Colonial capital is like stepping back in time. But it’s changing fast: behind the crumbling colonial façades are boutique hotels and cocktail bars, and a new level of luxury that has not — yet — compromised this magical city
Where to stay in Havana
CASA DE MIRIAM Y SINAI
On a busy street in the heart of workaday Centro Habana, this fantastic first-floor flat is an oasis of calm and space. Relaxing in the sun’s rays in a rocking chair on the large central patio, it’s easy to forget you’re only a few metres from a main road. The three spacious rooms, one with a street-side balcony, are spotless and have top-drawer bathrooms. The hosts, a mother and her multilingual daughter, are extremely likeable. £
Neptuno 521, between Lealtad and Campanario, Havana (00 53 7 878 4456; havanacasaparticular.com).
This outstanding casa particular — a family hotel — knocks the socks off most of its local rivals for comfort and character. Set in a majestic apartment building less than a block from Plaza Vieja, it is more impressive still inside, with original colonial furniture all over the place and an incredible Romanesque bathroom. The colonial theme extends to the two fantastic first-floor bedrooms with their own balconies. From the verdant central patio a spiral staircase leads up to a wonderful roof terrace full of plants and lamps, and another comfortable room, this one in contemporary style, with its own bathroom. £
115 Brasil, between Cuba and San Ignacio, Old Havana, Havana (00 53 7 862 6287; cheznoushabana.com).
HOTEL AMBOS MUNDOS
This eclectic hotel was built in the 1920s and its location is hard to beat in Old Havana. The rooms are sparsely decorated, but one is a must on a literature pilgrimage: in room 511, Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. £
Calle Obispo 153, Old Havana, Havana (00 53 7 669 530; hotelambosmundos-cuba.com).
Cosy colonial is the best way to describe this friendly and relaxed hotel. On entering, you are greeted by a green-and-white marble courtyard with iron inner balconies, lush plants and songbirds in pretty white cages. The food is excellent, with fresh papaya juice and live piano music at breakfast and Cuban cooking with an extensive wine menu for dinner. Despite their occasional noisiness, the rooms at the front have the best views up ands down the bustling Calle Opisbo. The best thing, however, about the hotel is the marble bathrooms complete with towelling dressing gowns, big baths and huge old-fashioned showerheads. ££
Calle Opisbo 252, Habana Viejo, Havana (00 53 7 862 4127; hotelfloridahabana.com).
Located in a grand building from 1928, Hotel Inglaterra is the recommended hotel for visitors keen to stick together. It is centrally located next to the Gran Teatro, Paseo del Prado and the Parque Central, and the building has been declared a national monument. £
Paseo del Prado 416, San Rafael, Havana (00 53 7 338 593; hotelinglaterra-cuba.com).
HOTEL ISLAZUL CARIBBEAN
A friendly, reliable and comfortable base for independent travellers, Hotel Caribbean is small and located just outside the walls of colonial Havana. £
Paseo Del Prado 164, Havana (00 53 7 860 8210; hotelcaribbeanhabana.com).
HOTEL MELIA COHIBA
A very comfortable and modern but rather anonymous 22-storey hotel on the waterfront, Meliá Cohíba has 462 rooms — many with seaviews — and a pool. The in-house Habana Café is decked out to remind customers of the island’s glamorous 1940-50 past. ££
Avenida Paseo e/ 1ª y 3ª, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7 833 3636; melia.com).
The Hotel Nacional is the grand old lady of Havana, situated prominently on a rise overlooking the Malecon seaside sweep in the primarily residential district of Vedado. With 457 rooms, a massive hall, cabaret room, large garden, two pools, cannons and even a nuclear bunker, this famous hotel really has it all. It has seen it all as well, with famous guests including Churchill, the Mafia, Sinatra and Naomi Campbell. Two restaurants serving Cuban, fancy French and international food mean that the menus are diverse. Watch out for the extras though: US$2 for a beach towel and US$3 per day for a safe key. £
Calles 0 and 21, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7 873 3564; hotelnacionaldecuba.com).
HOTEL NH PARQUE CENTRAL
This plush contemporary hotel, situated in the dead centre of town, is run by a Spanish hotel group that mainly caters for business travellers — so things here really work! The cream exterior with modern windows hides an interior that could be anywhere in the world. Facilities include direct internet access from every room, a business centre, gym and a salon de fumadores, devoted to Cuba’s most famous export. Pamper yourself with a swim in the rooftop pool, followed by a massage and smoked-salmon sandwiches from the rooftop bar. El Paseo restaurant serves fancy French food, the Mediterráneo for Mediterranean and the rooftop bar for salads and sandwiches. ££
Neptuno, by Prado and Zulueta, Old Havana, Havana (00 53 7 860 6627; hotelparquecentral-cuba.com).
A good option on the Parque Central, Hotel Plaza is a grand four-star that has been open since 1909. The neoclassical façade is impressive, and the interiors are comfortable. £
Ignacio Agramonte 267, Old Havana, Havana (hotelplazacuba.com).
Restored in 2003, this Art Deco gem, hidden down a quiet street in Old Havana, has rooms named after Old Testament figures. Though sparsely furnished, the rooms are elegant with tiled floors on three storeys. The service is friendly and relaxed and the lobby restaurant, surrounded by Art Deco screens, serves kosher food such as chicken soup with matzo balls and shashliks. The hotel boasts a beautiful atrium covered by a magnificent orange-and-blue stained-glass roof, and views over the labyrinthine streets and alleys of the old town. £
Calle Amargua 103, Old Havana, Havana.
HOTEL SANTA ISABEL
This chic, Spanish-colonial former palace has a palm-filled courtyard, blue shutters, tiled floors, iron bedsteads and Cuban art. Located in one of the most beautiful squares in Old Havana, Plaza de Armas, all of its 27 large rooms have balconies overlooking either the square or the harbour. Breakfast is served outside on the plaza while El Condado serves Cuban-fusion food. Sip a Havana Special prepared by the smiling barman on the roof-terrace bar at sunset. ££
Baratillo 9, Old Havana, Havana (hotelsantaisabel.com).
Opposite El Capitolio is Havana’s first boutique hotel, and still one of the best. A smart rooftop pool, restaurant and bar overlook the whole city. Saratoga is run by Amado Fakhre, a charismatic, English-educated Cuban-Lebanese who, together with his business partner, Old Etonian David Bingham, has brought Mojitos and massages to the hotel. ££
Paseo del Prado 603, by Dragones, Havana (00 53 7 868 1000; hotel-saratoga.com).
A stunning, clean and well placed hotel, with a fine pool and extraordinary views over the city from its top floor restaurant. Room 510 is the inspiration for one chapter of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. £
Calle Trocadero 55, Old Havana, Havana (hotelsevillacuba.com).
Close to the commercial centre of the town, the Hotel Victoria is probably the best hotel for business travellers. It is small and elegant, with good service. £
Calle 19 and M, Vedado, Havana (nh-collection.com).
MELIA HABANA HOTEL
The Meliá Habana’s 397-room hotel is located in the heart of the Miramar residential and business area, overlooking the sea and is very well placed for business travellers. Services include a free shuttle service to and from the old city, and the five restaurants leave plenty of choice. £
Avenida 3ª e/ 76 and 80, Miramar, Havana (00 53 7 204 8500; melia.com).
TRYP HAVANA LIBRE
Those on the revolutionary trail should head for the former Havana Hilton. Symbolically taken over by Castro’s revolutionaries in January 1959, the hotel, now called the Tryp Havana Libre, stands tall at the top of La Rampa. There is a fine view over Old Havana and the harbour from the top floor. £
Calle L e/ 23 and 25, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7 8346 100; tryphabanalibre.com).
Where to eat out in Havana
The best food is to be found at the paladares, unofficial restaurants in private homes, which are not endorsed by the government. However, recommendations about specific venues are not reliable, because they open and close (voluntarily or otherwise) frequently. The following restaurants have been around for years and look set to stay:
A PRADO Y NEPTUNO
A happy mix of tourists and Cubans and performances by local ensembles give this excellent pizzeria an informal and occasionally frenetic atmosphere, making it ideal for a group night out. The pizzas are some of the most authentic in the city; the pasta, though less good, is better than the Cuban average.
Prado 408, on the corner with Neptuno, Centro Habana, Havana (00 53 7 860 9636).
Situated in a beautifully restored 18th-century mansion just off the Plaza de la Catedral. Despite all the competition, it can reasonably claim to offer the best pizzas in Havana.
Tacón 4, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 633 3560).
EL PATIO PLAZA DE LA CATEDRAL
A good place to try the Cuban standard of chicken, plantain, and moros y cristianos (literally ‘Moors and Christians’, a combination of black beans and white rice).
Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 867 1034).
A relatively recent and very welcome addition to the restaurant scene in Habana Vieja. The platters at this seafood specialist are prepared with a professionalism that’s rare around here: there’s no coincidence that the head chef is not from Cuba but the Basque Country, and dishes such as Galician-style octopus and dolphin fish with houmous and capsicum oil are dripping with flavour and a break from the national norm. The roadside location is nothing special, but who needs a colonial courtyard when the cooking is this good?
Avenida del Puerto 12-14, on the corner with Narciso López, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 866 8807).
A hangover from the days when virtually every restaurant in Havana was named after the capital of a socialist soulmate, Hanoi has survived by offering good-value Cuban cuisine, as well as the odd Vietnamese variation.
Calles Bernaza y Teniente Rey, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7867 1029).
LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
A ramshackle 19th-century residential neighbourhood in Centro Habana is not the place you’d expect to find some of the tastiest, most expertly prepared cuisine in the city, but La Guarida is not your average paladar. Scaling the winding staircase to the third floor of this withered apartment building, the set of the award-winning Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d got the wrong place, until a door opens into the atmospheric and idiosyncratic family-run restaurant. Dine on dishes such as sugar-cane tuna glazed with coconut, or fish salad with crunchy vegetables and peanuts in one of three intimate, moodily lit dining rooms, as you take in the eclectic wall displays, from abstract art and cigar labels to pictures of Castro.
Calle Empedrado 207, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 867 1374, labodeguitarestaurant.com).
LA TORRE EDIFICIO FOCSA
It may be hard to concentrate on your food when the view from your table is this stunning, but the seafood-and-steak menu does its best to match the wonderful vista from this 36th-floor restaurant. An unforgettable dining experience.
Calle 17, on the corner with M, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7 838 3088).
The best nightlife in Havana
Even if you aren’t staying at this most classic of Havana hotels, the Nacional, you can still spend an afternoon kicking back in the patio bar. The grounds are set on top of low seafront cliffs, and a welcome breeze often floats through here. You may find it hard to get up again once you’ve spent a couple of hours being waited on. Open 10am-12am.
Calle 0, on the corner of 21, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7 873 3564; hotelnacionaldecuba.com).
A famous Ernest Hemingway haunt, recommended for its daquiris. Full marks for flamboyance and atmosphere, none for the mediocre menu.
Calle Monserrate 557, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 867 1299; floridita-cuba.com).
A wonderful art-deco bar hidden away inside the Bacardi building. It is one of the most relaxing, stylish bars in Old Havana, nothing like the touristy bars nearby on Obispo: a great midday retreat for drinking cocktails or coffee while lounging on the leather sofas. Open from 9am-9pm.
Edificio Bacardí, 261 Avenida de las Misiones, on the corner with San Juan de Dios, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 862 9310).
Follow the trail left by Ernest Hemingway, who spent much of his life in Cuba, and visit the Bodegita, his favourite bar, to enjoy a cool, minty mojito.
Calle Empedrado, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 867 1374, labodeguitarestaurant.com).
One of Havana’s only authentic lounge bars, tucked away on the top floor of a neoclassical theatre, Opus has a wonderful faded chic and wouldn’t look out of place in a Rat Pack film. The slump-back sofas, soft lighting and excellent cocktails all create a sophisticated yet unpretentious venue; ideal for a sociable evening of chatting in hushed tones. Open 3pm-3am.
Teatro Amadeo Roldán, Calzada, on the corner with D, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7 836 5429).
PUERTO DE SAGUA
Opened in 1945, this sleek bar retains the character of the clichéd gangster drinking spot from that era. There’s a restaurant at the back, but it’s low on atmosphere and at odds with this classy joint. Open 12pm-12am.
Calle Egido 603, between Acosta and Jesús María, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 867 1026).
LA CASA DE LA MUSICA
Popular amongst salsa and jazz fans, La Casa de la Musica is located in an old apartment block in central Havana and hosts daily concerts.
Calle Galiano, between Concordia and Neptuno, Centro Habana, Havana (00 53 7 862 4165).
The Tropicana, a grand, brightly-lit outdoor cabaret where Carmen Miranda and Nat King Cole once performed, is expensive by Cuban standards, but shouldn’t to be missed.
Marianao, Havana (cabaret-tropicana.com).
What to see in Havana
JARDIN BOTANICO NACIONAL
Jardin Botanico Nacional has a well-kept collection of tropical plants that includes poinsettias the size of Christmas trees, hibiscus, bromeliads, coleus and bougainvillea. Open daily.
Carretera El Rocio, Havana.
MUSEO DE LA REVOLUCION
To learn a bit about the country’s history, visit the housed in a huge, ornate, dome-topped building which was once the presidential palace. The spirit of the greatest revolutionary of them all, Che Guevara, lives on in posters, statues and murals such as the one on Plaza de la Revolucion.
Refugio 1, between Avenida de las Misiones and Zulueta, Habana Vieja, Havana.
PARTAGAS CIGAR FACTORY
A national treasure that hides behind the Capitolio in Havana’s main square, Partagas — formerly the second largest cigar factory in Cuba — is worth a visit.
Industria 520, Habana Vieja, Havana.
Things to do in Havana
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, Havana was once unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in the world. Now you can watch the old city and much of its fine Spanish Colonial architecture crumble in front of your eyes. Head for Old Havana to explore the churches and reconstructed Spanish-style mansions found in and around the three stunning plazas of Catedral, Armas and Vieja.
Where to shop in Havana
CASA DEL HABANO
This low-ceilinged cigar shop for connoisseurs, in the wonderful Hostal Conde de Villanueva, is a real smokers’ den that’s worth a visit whether or not you intend to buy anything. There’s a smoking lounge where you can test the habanos, and knowledgeable staff are on hand to advise. Open Mon-Sat.
Mercaderes 202, on the corner with Lamparilla, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 862 9293).
An intriguing shop selling reproduction colonial-era items of the kind once found in aristocratic Cuban family homes, from ceramics and ornaments to jewellery, paintings and textiles.
Mercaderes 13, on the corner of O’Reilly, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 861 3388).
FOTOTECA DE CUBA
Attached to one of the city’s best photography galleries is this small but excellent shop. Everything for sale is by Cuban photographers, and the subject matter goes well beyond the usual images of cigar-smoking farmers and American cars, varying from social commentary to artistic shots and captivating landscapes. Open Tue-Sat.
Mercaderes 307, between Muralla and Teniente Rey, Plaza Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 862 2530).
The best way to get around Havana
‘Turistaxis’ are modern, Western cars with air conditioning, metered in US dollars. Local taxis are mostly Russian-built Lada saloons. These two official options are supplemented by almost anyone who owns a motor vehicle. You can flag down any car and request a ride, and usually the driver will accept a mutually agreeable price. The same technique applies if you want to rent a car for the day, but you can also get an old American car from Gran Cars: Buicks cost around £15 for an hour.
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