A Culture Shock…
Yes, it may technically belong to the Caribbean, but everything about Havana screams of its own individuality, with its broad cultural influences creating a bewitching broth for the senses. Upon arrival for instance, an imposing trio of forts which once valiantly defended its people, now welcomes pleasure seekers to the harbour. One such structure is La Cabaña, home to the world’s longest cigar and soldier-led ‘cannon ceremony’, always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It’s an evolved Havana from Castro’s tenure, but the city hasn’t quite shaken off the 1950s just yet; on the cobbled streets, nippers still enjoy makeshift games of baseball, the older locals enthusiastically partake in close-knit bouts of dominos, while impossibly-aged women cheerily puff away on chubby Cohibos. In this part of Cuba, everyone’s having a Buenos diás.
More than just rum and sun
To look the part, rum and cigars are readily available, and their histories can be investigated further at their respective museums, both of which are equally enlightening. However, Havana’s core is teeming with superb sights, and there’s no better place to start than the bustling Plaza de Armas, the city’s oldest public square. From here, head to the baroque confines of Catedral de San Cristobal which houses an engaging maritime museum. For something a little different, why not marvel at real-time 360-degree views of the city which are projected into a dark room within Cámara Oscura. Artistic highlights are pleasantly contrasting, and include The Museum of the Revolution, with displays dedicated to Castro and Guevara, and The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, exhibiting everything from Greek ceramics to Cuban pop art. On the drinks front, the cocktails are indeed long-time renowned the world over, but Havana is making attempts to move with the times, and a neat microbrewery has popped up on Plaza Vieja. And for a taste of traditional Cuban cuisine, experience a family-cooked meal in one of the several Paladares. If in doubt that this is a Caribbean island, the nearby sandy sanctuary of Varadero beckons, and many palm-ridden refuges remind you that the “Pearl of the Antilles” truly brings the best of both worlds.
A Picturesque Palette
No trip to this city is complete without experiencing La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Although somewhat wearily decadent, the pretty pastel-hued façades adorning this Spanish Colonial masterpiece are extremely easy on the eye, with the unmistakable dome of the Capitol Building looming large over proceedings. Down below, classic Chevy’s and Ford Plymouth’s of every colour navigate the streets, creating surreal scenes that flicker from the fifties to present day. Take a tour in one to get the authentic experience. This part of town is an architectural treasure trove – from Aldama Palace’s neoclassical splendour to the Art-deco simplicity of the Bacardi Building. It’s a time-warp to a glorious era, and stepping back has never felt so fulfilling.
Havana Good Time
Boredom is not a term the habaneros’ are familiar with. In fact their after-hours ‘have fun’ policy is so infectious, there’s enough jazz, mambo, salsa and convivial revelry to get even the most rigid of tourists’ feet moving. Just mosey along the coastline-cradling Malecón after the sun sets with a bottle of rum and see for yourself. But the live music is prevalent throughout the city, and is a welcome distraction in many of the hotels, bars and restaurants. Built in 1939, the Cabaret Tropicana is a spectacular showcase of singers, dancers, flamboyant costumes and tropical surroundings, and is considered a must-see. Fans of Hemingway’s work may wish to follow in the great novelist’s footsteps to El Floridita or Bodeguita del Medio, where one can ‘salud’ his statue with a Daiquiri or mojito. Elsewhere, there are plenty of other festivities throughout the year to keep the party atmosphere ticking over.