Ten and a half hours across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe and you land at José Martí International Airport, 15 km southwest of Havana. The blitz on your senses has just begun! Jan Homden has just returned from a trip to the Caribbean and has one piece of advice about Cuba – go now!
It is the start of the peak tourist season (which runs roughly from mid-December to mid-March, though July and August are also busy). Planes are landing from all over the world, and judging from the tour buses lined up outside the airport exit many visitors to the island are travelling as part of an organised tour group. But increasingly independent travellers are arriving and smaller, boutique hotels are springing up in renovated villas to offer a welcome haven at the end of a busy day. They are not necessarily cheap – but they are great fun! As the sun goes down retreat to an outdoor terrace and sample a pre-dinner glass of Cuban rum.
Boutique hotels to check out
Two days in Havana:
Put the latest DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Cuba Paperback in your bag and start to read Graham Green’s classic espionage thriller Our Man in Havana (vacuum cleaner salesman turned secret agent, and wonderful description of Havana at the start of the Revolution) – you’re good to go.
Cuba’s chequered past has made Havana the city it is today and the architecture pays tribute to this – from Baroque to Neo-Classical to Art Nouveau and Art Deco to high-rise disasters from the 1950s. It’s all here!
Drive along the Malecon (a 7km promenade where locals fish and the waves crash over the sea wall on stormy days) to experience a fleeting glimpse of Havana’s past and present. Stop off at the Hotel Nacional, considered a symbol of history, culture and Cuban identity and once the place to rub shoulders with Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Alexander Fleming to name but a few. Have a drink on the terrace and enjoy the view over Havana Harbour.
The history of Cuban painting also tells a story, from 1818 when the San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy opened its doors. After 1959 the National School of Art and the Institute for Advanced Art Studies were founded which has led to local artists achieving international status.The Bienal de La Habana is staged every three years, the most recent in November 2018. Visit the Bellas Artes de La Havana (The National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana) to view Cuban art collections from colonial times to the late 20th century (1930s – 1990s)
Music and dance
And then there is music and dance, everywhere in the city centre – bars, restaurants, in the street, where Spanish melodies fuse with African rhythm (son). Every song tells a story – and people just dance! Mambo and cha-cha-cha in the 1950s gives way to the rumba and salsa. If you are in Havana on a Sunday then head to Callejon de Hamel – an alley where art (vibrant murals depicting religious cults and movements of African origin) meets dance and music.
Areas to walk around:
Plaza do la Catedral (this is an area of Old Havana that UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 1982) – the facade of Catedral de San Cristobal is a wonderful example of Cuban Baroque architecture that was completed in 1777 by the Franciscans. Opposite is the Museo de Arte Colonial dating from 1720. Wander through the rooms aided by the ‘elderly keepers of the house’ to view the exhibition of furniture and objets d’art.
- Plaza de Armas (Square of Arms) is Havana’s oldest square that was laid out in the early 1520s. In the centre of this palm lined square is a marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the man who set Cuba on the road to independence in 1868. The square plays host to a second hand book market which opens every day except Sundays. Walk down the Calle Obispo (a very busy narrow street awash with tourists – the docking station for the cruise ships is not far from here!) and admire the colonial architecture. If possible dive into one of the old pharmacies (Museo Farmacia Taquechel) cased in floor-to-ceiling cedar and mahogany shelves displaying French porcelain apothecary’s jars. Restored and reopened in 1996, it functions as a pharmacy and museum.
The Parque Central – take a guided tour of the Gran Teatro do La Habana Alicia Alonso, one of the world’s largest opera houses. The theatre has been home to the Cuban National Ballet founded by Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballet dancer, and responsible for the Festival Internacional de Ballet de La Havana. A beautiful statue of Alicia as Giselle, her signature role, graces the foyer.
- The theatre underwent a two year programme of renovation and reopened in 2016, the facade at night looks truly magical. Next door is the historic Hotel Inglaterra. Wander into the lobby, have a look at the Moorish interior then sit outside on the sidewalk terrace, order a coffee and watch the world go by. Walk through the little park and down Calle San Rafael to the iconic Bar Floridita, the favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. In bronze, he stands silently at the end of the bar, leaning on counter, surveying all . . . . . . , read Hemingway’s signed quote on a small plaque hanging in La Floridita: “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita”.
- Vedado – the Plaza de la Revolucion. The square is dominated by the José Martí Memorial, The National Library, and other government ministries. Opposite the memorial are the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications, whose facades feature matching steel memorials of the two most important deceased heroes of the Cuban Revolution: Che Guevara, with the quotation “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) and Camilo Cienfuegos, with the quotation “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel)
Head to a gem of a restaurant called Paladar Mediterraneo Havana, for lunch or supper – great seafood and fresh pasta. Set in an unpretentious villa along a residential street, Paladar Mediterraneo serves good, local organic food, ‘from the farm to the table’
Havana, a vibrant, friendly city of treasured vintage cars, rich culture, amazing architecture, world famous cocktails and cocotaxis . . . . . . what’s not to enjoy?
Learn to salsa and book your flights!
Jan Homden, Consilium Education
An early years teaching specialist and designer, Jan has taught in international
schools around the world and is now responsible for design and research at Consilium Education.
Listen to – Havana mañana
Feature Image: Along the Malecon – Pixabay