Habana Vieja (Havana’s Old Town) is huge. Seriously huge. This isn’t a token old town with a few old buildings and cobbled streets. It is literally the size of a town, containing a myriad of streets, some pedestrianised and lined with shops, restaurants and bars; others are narrow roads where a classic Chevy will pip you from behind or a horse and cart will whizz past you. Go in, get lost and just soak it up would be my advice for your first day. It was fun coming back later and checking the map to work out where I had/hadn’t been. The Old Town essentially centres around a series of gorgeous, colonial Plazas and then all the streets that criss-cross around them.
Plaza Vieja is the most famous and perhaps the most beautiful; though Plaza de Catedral, with its amazing cathedral, is a close second. The squares all have a smattering of bars and restaurants and you can come to them from one hour to the next and see something different. One of my favourite Havana moments started in Plaza Vieja when a group of people in colourful outfits on stilts started walking through the streets playing music and literally dozens of people (myself included) started following them round the streets of Havana like the Pied Piper. Schoolchildren, tourists and locals alike were grooving in the street in the middle of the day and it was possibly the most Cuban thing I’ve ever seen.
Another pivotal square just outside the Old Town is Parque Central. Surrounded by lavish buildings and hotels, this seems to be the focal point of the city. Just across the road from it is the astounding Capitolio building, looking distinctly American for a country which isn’t exactly bosom buddies with Uncle Sam. There are some very photogenic, colourful houses along here too. This park is also where most of the convertible, classic taxis will gather to tour people around.
An advantage of staying in the hostel was that a group of 5 of us clubbed together to share a classic car and have a drive around the city. Most of the cars are pink which I don’t think look as authentic but we managed to snag a red one after a lot of walking round and endless discussions with drivers offering us everything from 30-50 CUC for an hour’s drive. We managed to secure 30 CUC which meant we paid around £5 each for an hour in a 1940s Ford – definitely not a bad deal at all. The ride itself was fantastic, going all around the city with the driver pointing out various sights, including the birthplace of Jose Marti and the North Korean embassy. Midway through, he stopped to allow us to have our cheesy tourist pictures pretending to drive the car. He definitely got into his role as photographer. Then, we rounded it off with the classic drive down Havana’s iconic Malecon (promenade) as the choppy waves crashed against the city walls. It was a really fantastic experience and one of those quintessential Cuban memories. If you can get a group together, it’s well worth it.
The 7km Malecon is also well worth a walk down (when the waves aren’t so big!) though of course you don’t have to walk the whole way. Sunset is a great time and you can spot locals fishing, chilling or listening to music with a few beers/a lot of rum. Also classic cars are constantly passing down the road so you can get some awesome photos. The Malecon is basically a long pavement, it’s not a well-maintained promenade like you would find in other cities. However, its character and atmosphere puts it head and shoulders above many other promenades around the world. Again, like the Old Town, it’s the sort of place where the vibe is different from one evening to the next and you never know quite what you’ll see.
Further away from the centre, Revolution Square is an interesting place to visit, if only to admire the gigantic Che Guevara artwork, sporting Cuba’s catchphrase, “Towards Victory Always”. You’ll more than likely pass here on a taxi tour too so you can see if the driver will stop. Across the road is an amazing memorial to Cuba’s other idol, Jose Marti, complete with a gargantuan structure, Havana’s tallest, and a statue of Marti deep in thought. They certainly know how to commemorate their heroes in Cuba. Directly off of Revolution Square is the Avenue of Presidents, a somewhat majestic road leading to the Malecon with a long park in the middle depicting various Latin American leaders/heroes – odd, I thought, for a country as patriotic as Cuba though I guess these figures all contributed to “the cause”.
One of my favourite statues along this road is of the second Cuban President, seen as a US puppet. His plinth remains but the statue was toppled during the Revolution, leaving only his shoes. The Cuban government has kept the plinth and shoes standing rather than repair or knock it down, arguably not showing allegiance either way but at the same time implicitly condoning the destruction of the statue. The road eventually leads onto the Malecon and you can stroll past the US embassy, a weird building in every sense. It’s the only place you’re going to find US flags flying in Cuba outside of Guantanamo Bay.
Havana’s food scene was more sophisticated than any other Cuban city. Cuban food still isn’t going to win any awards but there are some gems to be found in Havana, which has embraced other cuisines as well as serving the usual Cuban fare. Along the previously mentioned Avenue of Presidents is Cafe Presidente which is a fantastic breakfast/brunch spot. For around 5 CUC you can choose from three delicious breakfasts which includes food, juice and coffee. I went for an American type breakfast which featured eggs, a mini burger and bread with garlic butter accompanied with fresh pineapple juice. It was yet another example of Cuba doing breakfasts very well. In the centre, there’s an abundance of choice but some of my favourites included 5esquinas (9-15 CUC) a delicious Italian option which makes for a good lunch stop in Havana Vieja and El Biky, further out from the Old Town but serving a delicious variety of food. To be honest, though I’m not normally one to stick to guidebooks, I found most of the recommendations in Lonely Planet for restaurants were pretty spot on.
Naturally, Havana’s bar scene is excellent too. Havana Vieja is filled with hordes of cool places to grab a drink and whilst prices are more expensive than elsewhere in Cuba, they’re still pretty cheap (around 2 CUC for a beer and 3-5 CUC for a cocktail). El Dandy is a pretty hip place to stop for a super strong mojito. For a late night jaunt, I’d highly recommend Jazz Club La Zorra y El Cuervo in Vedado (this area is the go-to district for nightlife in Havana). A group of us from the hostel went to this quirky underground venue where you have to walk through a red British phone box to get inside. It all kicked off at 10pm and we had to queue a little to get inside – it’s worth getting there early to ensure a good seat. It was 10 CUC entry but this included 2 cocktails (usually 3.50 CUC each) and a fantastic live jazz band which culminated in one of the waitresses getting up and belting out an incredible rendition of “Killing Me Softly”.
Usually a capital city has got the “most” of things in a country – the most shops, the most transport options, they’re the most accessible and metropolitan. Havana though is just the most bonkers of the Cuban cities. It’s not really any more accessible than other Cuban locations – you’ll still struggle to find a decent shop, you still have to queue and pay for internet and the transport takes some navigating (especially if, as I did, you go for the super cheap airport bus option rather than a 25+ CUC taxi). It’s fashionable to dislike Havana because it’s not as chilled as Trinidad or as spontaneously musical as Santiago. However Havana epitomises Cuba in so many ways and, whether it’s your first or last stop in Cuba (or both), I think it would be difficult not to be lured in by its sense vibrancy, colour and noise.
It’s unlike any other capital city in the world but that’s hardly surprising – Cuba is unlike any other country in the world.