48 Hours In: Havana

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



Click
here for the 48 Hours in... Havana map


Travel essentials

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 30C. Intellectual pursuits are also available: Cuba's 19th International Book Fair begins on Thursday (to 21 February), with literary events held at the 18th-century San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress (1).

Touch down

Start at Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; virgin-atlantic.com ) flies to Havana from here twice weekly; Cubana (cubana.cu) flies weekly via Holguí*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 Holguí*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 (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 (00 53 7 836 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 (£122) 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 and service, head for the Hotel Saratoga (5) at Paseo de Martí 603 (00 53 7 868 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 (£240) including breakfast. In Habana Vieja, the 22-room Hotel Los Frailes (7) 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 (8) 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.

Day one

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 (9), 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 which 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 (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 used as 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 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 (13) in all its baroque beauty. 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 (£2.15), and a coffee is just CUC0.90 (65p).

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 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 (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 softie.

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 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 (17) 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 (13). Expect to pay around CUC18 (£12.30) for a main course. Alternatively, try the lively El Templete (18) 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).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The 18th-century cathedral (13) 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 (9), 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.

Window shopping

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 José (19), 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 Café El Escorial at Mercaderes 317, on the corner of Plaza Vieja (12), 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 café con leche costs CUC1.25 (90p); cheese and ham croissants are CUC1.30 (95p).

Cultural afternoon

The rise of Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara and the rest of the Cuban Revolutionaries is charted at the Museo de la Revolución (20), 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, to emphasise US duplicity in their post-Revolutionary relations with Cuba. 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.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Restaurant Manager / Sommelier

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Seasonal Placement

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Hotel Receptionists...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Poole

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn