Top 10 Things to Do in Havana
by Cecilia Yee.
No matter what you've read in the news or seen in documentaries, nothing can prepare you for Havana, Cuba. Get ready to take in incredible sites, experience a colourful 1950s-fuelled culture and disconnect from the rest of the world.
Get lost in Habana Vieja
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Habana Vieja, the atmospheric old town, is the most visited spot in the city. Walk through its streets and you'll feel like you've entered a time warp – you'll need no reminder that the country has been largely cut off from the outside world since the Cuban Revolution (1953 to 1959). In any given alley, you'll find old ladies people-watching from crumbing Spanish-colonial balconies, kids playing soccer, dogs barking and bands playing. The narrow streets lead to busy plazas, imposing forts, beautiful cathedrals and interesting museums.
Drink Ernest Hemingway-approved Mojitos
Cubans take their rum seriously, and you'll be offered a Mojito or Cuba Libre (Rum and Coke) just about everywhere you go. Why not follow in Ernest Hemingway's footsteps, and check out two of his favourite bars – La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. Watch and learn as the barmen mix you the perfect rum cocktail.
Visit Habana Catedral
Dominated by two asymmetrical towers and framed by an ornate, coral facade, Habana Catedral is a fine example of Baroque architecture. In the grandiose, light-filled interior, you'll spot many paintings and frescoes you recognise – copies of original works found in cathedrals and museums worldwide. The remains of Christopher Columbus were housed here until the Cuban War of Independence (1898) when they were returned to Spain.
Dance salsa on the street
You won't have to look far for free entertainment during your stay in Havana – simply follow the music until you reach a crowd of locals showing off their dancing skills. Find a partner and dance to the lively reggaeton (Latin-Caribbean music). Afraid you have two left feet? Just let the rhythm lead you.
Stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba
No trip to Havana is complete without a nostalgic stay at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Opened in 1930, when the country was a prime travel destination for the world's elite, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando and even Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were among its early clientele. While the hotel no longer carries the clout it once did, its Art Deco interior still oozes old-world glamour.
But if you're after a more authentic experience, stay in a 'casa particular' (or homestay) instead. It's a great way to get to know the locals and live like a local.
Flag down a vintage taxi
Havana is awash with colourful, classic cars, which the locals use to ferry tourists from point to point. This makes for a fabulous taxi ride, and the (1950s-vintage) cars are kept in ok condition, but be sure to buckle up – these vehicles are old and Cubans drive fast.
Stroll along the Malecón
Stretching 8 kilometres along the coast from the mouth of Havana Harbour, the Malecón is the city's most soulful boulevard, where the locals come to meet, greet, date and debate. Visit in the early evening, when the sunset casts an orange glow over the bay, before spilling over the sea wall and illuminating all the action.
Play chess or dominos with the locals
As you stroll through Habana Vieja, vendors try to sell you pre-1960s books, musicians serenade you, kids play and Latino music blares. On every street corner, you'll find groups of men playing chess or dominos – get chatting and they're more than likely to invite you to a game.
Brush up on your Cuban history
Visit the Museo de la Revolución for exhibits devoted to the Cuban Revolution that saw the advent of communist rule. Formerly the Presidential Palace, the museum provides a good introduction to Cuban history, past and present. The Granma Memorial, close by, houses the yacht that transported 82 revolutionaries (including the Castro brothers and Che Guevara) from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956.
Party the night away
Cubans love to party, and Havana's bars, tango houses and nightclubs stay open into the early hours. Vedado has every kind of dance venue you could dream of, and you're guaranteed a good time, whether you are into salsa and Latino, R&B, hip-hop or rock.