Havana travel tips: Where to go and what to see in 48 hours
As winter takes hold in Britain, sunny days and warm nights await in the Cuban capital
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Friday 24 October 2014
Why go now?
November and December are the ideal months to be dazzled by the colours and charms of the capital of the biggest and most beautiful island in the Caribbean.
Virgin Atlantic (0344 209 7777; virginatlantic.com) flies twice a week from Gatwick to Havana. Connections are also available from various UK airports via Madrid on Cubana and Air Europa, and via Paris or Amsterdam on Air France/KLM.
José Martí airport is 10 miles south-west of the city. The main international arrival point is Terminal 3. Passport control and customs are usually friendly and efficient. Bring a copy of your travel insurance policy, or you'll need to buy cover on arrival.
A taxi into the heart of Havana takes about half-an-hour for a fare of CUC25 (£16).
Get your currency
The airport is a good place to change sterling for Cuba's convertible peso – the island's hard currency, written CUC and often spoken like "cooks". The rate is around £1 to CUC1.60. It is then worth exchanging a few convertible pesos for the ordinary pesos – called Moneda Nacional and written $ or CUP – at a rate of CUC1 to $24. You can spend these in the "local" economy such as on transport, snack bars and with traders.
Get your bearings
Havana has three hubs. The original is Habana Vieja – Old Havana – the egg-shaped colonial core. The Maqueta de La Habana Vieja (1), a 1:5,000 scale model at Mercaderes 114 (9am-6.30pm, CUC1.50/90p) helps you understand the layout.
Outside, in the real world, it's easy to see what appealed to the Spanish: a magnificent harbour from where ships could replenish before crossing the Atlantic to carry New World treasures to Europe.
The Parque Central (2) marks the western extent of Old Havana. Immediately west of here, Centro Habana has fascinating street life but few formal attractions.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Havana grew westward to the Vedado area, on either side of Calle 23, known as La Rampa. Today, it is dominated by the Habana Libre Hotel (3), at the corner of Calle L. It opened in 1958 as the Havana Hilton, but was taken over by Fidel Castro for his post-revolutionary headquarters less than a year later and promptly renamed as the "free Havana".
The most celebrated property in the city is the handsome 1930 Hotel Nacional (4) at Calle 21 y O, Vedado (00 53 7 836 3564; hotelnacionaldecuba.com). In its time, it has hosted Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and heavy metal legend Robert Plant – though not all at once. The hotel is a national monument, with Art Deco to Hispano-Moorish architecture. Tours take place at 10am daily except Sunday, and at 4pm from Monday to Friday. Standard doubles: CUC187 (£115).
Of the many places to stay in Old Havana, the most central is the Ambos Mundos (5) on the corner of Calles Obispo and Mercaderes (00 53 7 860 9529; hotelambosmundos-cuba.com). Ernest Hemingway created some of his best work in room 511 of this salmon-pink hotel. A standard room typically costs CUC80 (£50). You need not be a guest to visit the rooftop bar, one of the best in Old Havana.
A curious symbol – like a capital H on its side – signals a Casa Particular, a private apartment with a room to rent for foreigners. You'll save money and meet real Cubans.
Take a ride
Much of Havana feels like a Hollywood movie set. To sustain that feeling, take a ride in a 1952 Chevrolet Bel-Air or similar relic from Fifties Detroit. Drivers show off their vehicles outside the Hotel Nacional (4) and in the Parque Central (2). The going rate for an hour's drive is CUC30 (£19) for up to four people. You can appreciate the scale and diversity of Havana, and see the other forms of transport, from Chinese-made buses (fare CUP1) to bicycle taxis (negotiate a price before you start).
The Habana Libre Hotel (3) is something of a retail hub, with a shopping mall at the back of the ground floor where you can buy anything from an airline ticket to a Havana cigar. Just north of the hotel along Calle 23, a daily street market sells arts, crafts and souvenirs that distil the spirit of Cuba.
The main shopping streets of Old Havana are Calle Obispo and Calle Mercaderes, which meet at the Ambos Mundos (5).
Lunch on the run
Street snacks are widely available, but make time for the Meson de la Flota (6) – a hotel-restaurant in a former Old Havana mariners' hostel at Calle Mercaderes 257. Flamenco is on the menu; a set lunch (around CUC12/£7.50) is accompanied by Andalucian dancing.
Take a hike
Take a trail of three squares through Old Havana that starts in Plaza Vieja (7), where festivals and executions took place. Walk along pedestrian-only Calle Mercaderes (Market Street). On the east side of Old Havana, the historic Plaza de Armas (8) is dominated by the muscular 16th-century Castillo de la Fuerza and the Palacio de los Captions Generales.
End at Plaza de la Catedral (9), a showcase of Spanish colonial architecture. Note the Cuban Baroque cathedral with mis-matched towers.
Around the corner stands the the most celebrated bar in Havana: Bodeguita del Medio (10) at Empedrado 207. It is a raucous, music-filled joint. Follow the example of Ernest Hemingway and order a mojito: rum, lime, sugar, soda and mint (CUC4/£2.50). Graffiti is not only tolerated – it is encouraged. Poets and politicians have left their mark here.
Dining with the locals
Hemingway habitually bar-crawled to El Floridita (11) at Obispo 557, which claims to be the cradle of the daiquiri. El Floridita has also been serving up dinner for nearly 200 years, and you can feast here in theatrical surroundings.
Competition thrives in the shape of paladares (privately run restaurants). Originally they offered only 12 chairs but have now expanded. Paladar Los Mercaderes (12) at Mercaderes 207 (00 53 7 861 2437) is one of the best. It has three handsome dining rooms, plus a lively bar at the back.
Antique road show: atmospherically dilapidated cars and buildings (EPA) Day two
Sunday morning: go to church
The first church in Havana was Espiritu Santo (13) at Acosta 161. The church of the Holy Spirit was created in 1636, though little of the original remains. During the age of slavery, runaway slaves sought sanctuary here. Its austerity is in sharp contrast to a Baroque beauty just one block away. The Iglesia de la Merced (14), at Cuba 806, looks as though it has been transplanted from Italy, and boasts the best trompe l'oeil murals in Cuba. You might meet santeria believers, who come to pray to Obbatala – the Afro-Cuban equivalent of the Virgen de la Merced. It opens 8am-1pm daily.
Out to brunch
La Imprenta (15) at Mercaderes 208 opens at noon. The restaurant occupies a former printing works and serves up a decent three-course meal in lovely surroundings – inspect the preserved brickwork and rusting machinery between dishes. For something sweet, cross town to Coppelia (16) for the city's best ice-cream parlour, in the park at the heart of Vedado.
The Museum of the Revolution (18) is sited in the former presidential palace. It tells the story of the conflict that began badly in 1956 with the landing in the cabin cruiser Granma, which is in the grounds in a glass case, but ended with the 1959 triumph of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Opening hours are generally 10am-5pm daily, entry is CUC3 (£2).
A walk in the park
La Punta Park (19) takes its name from the fort guarding the entrance to the Harbour, San Salvador de la Punta – one of several fortifications built by the Spanish to protect Havana's port from the unwelcome attention of competing colonial powers and pirates. Today, it's an excellent place to get a fresh view on a fine city: the Atlantic to your right, Old Havana to your left, and in the background the capital's splendid seafront drive, the Malecón.
Take a view
To see the city from the water, take the funny little ferry that shuttles across the harbour from the jetty (20) every 15 minutes for a fare of one peso – just a couple of pence. There is a brief security check before you board. It will take you to Casablanca (21) (be aware that some depart instead for Regla), You will arrive in the shadow of La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, the mightiest fort in the Caribbean. San Carlos opens 10am-10pm daily; CUC6 (£4) until 6pm, CUC8 (£5) after that.
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