The Cuban capital has always had cultural appeal, but as it approaches its 500th anniversary, there are smart hotels and restaurants too
24 Hours in Havana, Cuba
After years of being misunderstood and ignored even by avid travellers, Havana is still in the spotlight after former United States President Barack Obama lifted some of the travel restrictions to Cuba in the last few months of his term. Although relations between the US and the Latin-American country remain strained under current President Donald Trump, it is still easier to visit the country now than ever before, as some of the investments that were in the pipeline have come to fruition.
With new luxury hotels opening up, private homes turning into guesthouses and restaurants, and home-grown travel agencies offering customised itineraries, there is change in the air. This has all but put paid to Cuba’s reputation as a tricky country with poor infrastructure and food, with most people spending time in the country transiting through its capital.
Like the rest of the island, Havana is the stuff of complex cultural themes, drawing from varied African, Caribbean and Spanish influences. The city manages to be gritty and glamorous at the same time, with music and dance everywhere on the streets, as locals look forward to a better future.
08.00: Walk by the sea
The Malecon is a 7-kilometre promenade, which doubles as Havana’s al fresco lounge. Locals use this avenue in various creative ways – from catching up with friends for a gossip session to offering salsa lessons in a rent-free space. This waterfront began life in the early 1900s as a pleasure boulevard for influential residents and is lined with some of the most beautiful old homes and hotels from those times. Watch the city wake up and go to work from a shaded spot on the low seawall; look out for gleaming vintage American cars from the 1950s that pass through.
10.00: Explore the old town
Habana Vieja, the old colonial centre, is the best place for those visiting to get an idea of the city’s long and chequered history. Explore this warren of cobblestoned lanes with a guidebook in hand to figure out the stories behind the baroque churches and piazzas. There are four main plazas that form this neighbourhood’s heart and are largely responsible for its Unesco World Heritage Site status – Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco de Asis, Plaza Vieja and the Plaza de la Catedral. When tired, rest your feet and grab a cup of coffee at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway stayed for seven years.
Noon: Enjoy a Cuban meal
Chef Raulito Bazuk learnt to cook with uniquely local and Latin-American recipes from his Cuban mother and Uruguayan father, and has now set up Grados (www.facebook.com/restaurantegrados) at home. It is modelled on the style of old Cuban paladares, a term that refers to restaurants run by chefs. Gone are the days of black beans and rice with a side of fried chicken, if you are lucky. Young chefs such as Bazuk are cooking up a storm in their kitchens, which you are allowed to explore and even learn in. The small menu includes classics from Cuban homes, such as the lamb slow-cooked in pru (a herbal drink) and pescado en blanco (fish in white sauce).
14.00: Have an art attack
After lunch, make your way to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba (www.bellasartes.co.cu), the art museum that spans over four floors and has an outstanding collection of works from the island. There are more than 30,000 pieces of art, divided into six sections, tracing the development of art in Cuba from the 16th century to present day. Most of it is neatly labelled, but be warned that the signage is inconsistent in quality and detailing. The museum is massive, so choose your interest carefully. The Contemporary Art (1959 to present) section towards the end of the museum features some of the best exhibits, including a number of bold and radical installations on political themes.
18:00: See sunset from the roof
Skip the tourist traps that claim to have historic significance, such as La Floridita and Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Instead, head to El Del Frente in the heart of Habana Vieja and find a spot on the rooftop. Sip on a cooling mint lemonade and tuck into banana chips with a spicy salsa or the ceviche tacos the house is justly famous for, as you wait for the sun to set.
20:00: Experience art with dinner
Havana’s newest cathedral of cool is the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (www.fac.cu), or the Cuban Art Factory, created on the site of an old oil factory. There is always some kind of avant-garde exhibition or show (often several at a time) going on at this complex: theatre, jazz, photography, art and music. Book in advance for dinner at Tierra, the chic restaurant with its global travel theme, which offers a wide variety, from Mediterranean mezze platters to Mexican tacos. For dessert, head to La Casa del Gelato in the Playa neighbourhood and indulge in a creamy gelato (it also has sugar-free and non-dairy versions) in unexpected flavours such as guava and sweet potato.
23.00: Salsa under the stars
At a time when most people across the world want to go to sleep, Cubans get out to party. And on this island, partying takes the form of energetic salsa dancing with strangers, friends and family. The best place to experience this and shake a leg yourself is the Jardines del 1830, the outdoor garden in the Vedado district, right by the sea. This is where both locals and foreigners gather to sway under the Cuban skies.
Midnight: Wind down
The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana (www.kempinski.com) is the latest addition to the city’s accommodation scene, and the island’s only five-star hotel. It has been built on the location of an old shopping arcade dating back to the late 19th century. The hotel, which boasts 246 spacious rooms and suites, is within walking distance of old Havana and has great views of the Capitol and the Great Theatre from its rooftop. Double rooms cost from Dh1,715, including taxes.
Air France and KLM fly from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Havana, via a European airport, with return economy fares from Dh6,180.
The easiest option is to fly via Canada or Mexico, where you can purchase an entry permit from the airline counter for a fee of US$25 (Dh91) just prior to boarding the flight.
If you fly via a European or American airport, you need to apply for a visa at your local embassy or have a Cuban travel agency send you the visa from there by post (cost $100/Dh367).
At American airports, you need to fill out a short form declaring your reason for travel by selecting from one of 12 suggested categories; visitors are advised to choose “Support for the Cuban People”.
Although it is possible to visit as an independent traveller, check out Cuba Private Travel (www.cubaprivatetravel.com) to arrange visa, hotel bookings and itinerary in advance. The official tourism website is www.cubatravel.cu.