Cuba, from Fidel to Che and cocktails to salsa, holds a fascination for British visitors. And the capital, known locally as La Habana, does not disappoint. Quite simply, this is one of the world's most fascinating cities. The people are gregarious, charming and flirtatious. The old quarter is a museum piece, with city-centre areas that would be prime real estate in the capitalist world, full of family occupied crumbling buildings. Vintage American cars and Ladas trundle around the streets. And from every bar comes the seductive beat of Cuban music. For some years Havana has seemed to teeter on the verge of dramatic change, as Castro, now 78, contemplates who or what will come after him, and the US trade embargo takes its toll on the economy. The best advice? See Havana before Fidel goes.
One or two hotels have sprung up that have the edge in terms of luxury, but no visit to Havana is complete without a night or two at the venerable Nacional, Streets 0 and 21, Vedado (00 53 7 873 3564; www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com). Strangely resembling a Moorish palace, the Nacional has views across the Florida Straits. From the sumptuous lobby and chandeliers to the Beverly Hills-style driveway, the slightly faded grandeur makes this one of the most atmospheric hotels you could ever visit. The who's-who of previous guests includes Winston Churchill and Al Capone. Doubles from £100 a night.
Surprisingly, food is unlikely to be one of the highlights of your visit. Cubans have little time for spices and even the smartest restaurants will feature the everyday staple of comida criolla - beans, rice and a bit of meat. The Nacional hotel does an excellent all-you-can-eat buffet for $22 (£12) a head, which offers superb fresh fish, sizzling meats and the chance to top up on fresh vegetables. The tastiest food is often found in paladares, which are small, family establishments often in a spare room of a private house. Among the best is Dona Blanquita's (Prado 158), where huge portions include fried chicken and fried bananas. She squeezes a handful of tables on to her tiny balcony. About $8 (£4.40) per head.
Best cultural attraction
The Cuban collection of the Museum of Fine Arts stands in a sleek and air-conditioned building on Trocadero, between Zuluete and Monserrate (00 53 7 861 3858; www.museonacional.cult.cu). The collection includes paintings dating back to the early 18th century as well as much modern art. Some items, such as a painting of Cuban boxers striking the USA, are strident propaganda, but Cuban pop art is mostly imaginative and cutting-edge stuff. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-6pm; Sunday 10am-2pm. Same-day admission to both the Cuban and World collections is $8 (£4.30).
Cigars should be bought at Partagas cigar factory, 520 Industria, where a single Cohiba costs £3, but prices rise into three figures for packets of the best. The shop is open 9am-5pm. Rum, from $4 (£2.15) a bottle, is on sale at the Havana Club Foundation, 262 Avenida del Puerto (00 53 762 4108; www.havanaclubfoundation.com). An open-air artists' market runs along Prado on Sundays.
Your first stop should be the Partagas cigar factory, 520 Industria (00 53 7 338 060). Though Carmen was set in Spain, you can't help thinking that the kind of plotting and intrigues it features are an everyday occurrence here. The cigar- rollers sit at rows of desks, likes schoolchildren. At the front of the hall is a board of senior officials who read newspapers and books to the workforce. The public address system, to huge cheers, exhorts the staff to greater efforts, reminding them they are doing their bit to promote Cuba. Contrived or spontaneous? You decide. Open Monday to Friday, 9.30am-11am and 12.30pm-2pm. Admission $10 (£5.40).
Otherwise, Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) is an extraordinary sight. In the workers' paradise blocks of flats stand cheek by jowl with niftily restored, classy hotels. The atmosphere is enhanced by the many dilapidated properties, some of which seem not to have seen a lick of paint since the 1950s. Wander eastwards from Parque Central, taking in streets such as Obispo, and squares such as Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja and Havana's cathedral on St Ignacio. For information on the restoration of Old Havana, visit www.habaguanex.com.
Be prepared to catch up on sleep when you get home. From salsa, to son, jazz, bolero and trova, Havana Cuba has just about every kind of rhythm going. You can dance, drink, or just watch and admire. Palacio de la Artesania, at Cuba 64, is excellent. If you just want to shoot the breeze with a mojito (lime, mint and rum) then it's a dead heat between tapping your feet to the band at the terrace bar at the Nacional and the open-air bar on the top floor of hotel Ambos Mundos, Obispo 153, (00 537 860 9529; www.hotelambosmundos.cu), which has a skyline view across the Bahia de la Habana to the castle and the dramatically illuminated statue of Christ.
How to get there
Air France (0845-359 1000; www.airfrance.co.uk) and Iberia (0845-850 9000 ; www.iberiaairlines.co.uk) offer fares from £420. Journey Latin America (020- 8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has offers including five nights' b&b at Hotel Nacional from £795 each, based on two sharing. This includes Air France flights.
Most international flights arrive in the evening or late at night and it is best to take a taxi from Jose Marti international airport - $15-$20 (£8-£11) is the going rate. To get around town, you can flag down any Lada taxi or, more fun, a coco taxi - a bright yellow pod-shaped rickshaw. A fare across town shouldn't cost you more than $5 (£2.70).Reuse content