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Sightseeing in Havana – An Insider’s Guide

If this is your first vacation in Havana, head to the wonderfully restored Old Havana (La Habana Vieja). Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, most of the area has been lovingly restored to its former glory. It’s a colonial marvel, a colorful and atmospheric riot, the quirky mix of architectural styles endlessly fascinating.

The neighborhood is worth a walk and, next to Vedado, is the liveliest part of the city during the day. It boasts four beautiful 16th-century plazas. Check out the sleepy Plaza Vieja (right). There are plenty of museums and galleries in the area and many of Havana’s most impressive attractions.

Don’t miss a fascinating craft market, the Fria de la Artesana, just behind the Iglesia de Paula on Calle San Pedro. It sells every conceivable Cuban handicraft, has CADECA, juice vendors, a kiosk, and a breezy seating area where you can relax with a drink and enjoy the view of the harbor (but note that it’s closed on Mondays).

Walk off Main Obispo and you’ll see an entirely different side of Old Town: a well-established residential area home to an estimated 70,000 people. Take a coffee break at Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja. Alternatively, avoid the tourists and head to La Barrita, the stunning art deco Bacardi building on Avenida de los Misiones. In Parque Central, the bustling main square, watch the world go by from the veranda of Hotel Inglaterra. Pop into Hotel Telgrafo’s little cafe, a quiet escape with a cascading fountain cascading over a colorful mosaic. Or enjoy one of Havana’s best mojitos at the NH Hotel. Culturally, check out the Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana’s excellent, magnificent national art museum, right next to Parque Central and just a few meters from calle Obispo. Drop in and visit the Hotel Ambos Mundos room where Ernest Hemingway wrote his world-famous works of literature standing up at his desk.

Visit the colorful and unique Arte Corte barbershop, which doubles as a museum art gallery. It has a nice selection of antiques and some interesting paintings by Cuban artists, including the owner Pepito. Calle Aguiar #10, between Pena Pobre and Avenida de las Misiones.

If all that wandering has worked up an appetite, the best restaurant in the area right now is Café del Oriente for lunch. A pleasant, well-conditioned oasis, with an elegant interior and appropriate service. Calle Oficios #112, corner of Calle Amargura. Tel. 860 6686.

Havana’s weather-beaten 8-km-long beach promenade is by far the city’s most popular entertainment spot. The famous stretch overlooking the body of water that separates Cuba from Florida is a place for dreamers, lovers and friends. It is the spiritual heart of the city, the nerve center of its social life, a 24/7 phenomenon. Most nights are bustling with people breathing in the balmy sea air; during the day it is a place to take a break. Hotel Nacional’s elegant terrace garden offers one of the best views of the Malecón.

For a stunning panorama, check out La Torre. The view from the 33rd floor of Havana’s highest residential building is breathtaking. What makes it special is that you can walk around the building, from the bar to the restaurant, and enjoy a 360-degree view of the bay and the city. Edificio FOCSA, calle 17, corner of calle M, Vedado. Tel. 832 2451.

The Vedado neighborhood itself is perhaps the most impressive in Havana. No vacation in Havana would be complete without visiting it. Funky, diverse and alternative. It’s easy to miss the charm of the liveliest avenue, Avenida 23, aka La Rampa, if you only see the rather bleak lower part that stretches from the Malecn to the picturesque Yara cinema. Located in the city’s most cosmopolitan hub, Yara is a Havana cultural institution.

The heart of La Rampa begins to beat west of the Yara. You will find relatively few tourists here and on the streets next to it – a welcome change from other parts of the city. The general mood is that of the giddy 1970s. From mulattos dressed in all white (representatives of the Afro-Caribbean Santera religion) to reggaetn hustlers wearing huge sunglasses, the area is an abundance of color and personality. Watch the world go by with the locals at the popular sidewalk bar, La Rampita.

On really hot days, Havana can feel like a pressure cooker. So instead of suffering from the downtown heat, head to the beach. The best beaches in Havana are Tropicoco (aka Santa Mara del Mar) and neighboring Megano. They are about 20 km east of the city in the Playas Del Este (Eastern Beaches) area.

The area is extremely popular with locals and visitors for its turquoise Atlantic waters and friendly, chilled atmosphere. Tropicoco is the more touristy of the two. Megano is much calmer with less people. At the Club Nautico Tropicoco branch you can rent diving equipment, pedaloes and banana boats, kayaks and catamarans.

The charm of the area is that it is still relatively undeveloped, apart from the seemingly random villas, austere Soviet-style hotels and cheap ‘n’ cheerful restaurants. Just a few yards along the beach and you will always find your own little sandy solitude.

It is a 30-minute taxi ride from the city center. Pay no more than 20 CUC and negotiate the fare in advance. A special tourist bus runs every 30 minutes between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. It stops directly in front of Hotel Inglaterra on Parque Central and takes passengers all the way to Megano (there are three stops on the beaches to choose from, Tropicoco being the first). The price of the return ticket is 3 CUC. Children under the age of six can travel for free.

Located in the dusty Centro Habana, this is the spiritual home of Afro-Cuban culture in the capital. This little pedestrian street is there every Sunday, from noon to 3 p.m. The feverish live music sessions provided free of charge by the leading rumba bands are becoming more and more popular. The event attracts huge crowds and converts to the Afro-Cuban (Santera) religion are an all-white, exotic spot. The area itself is quirky and alternative – an urban art project with gorgeously painted houses, eye-catching street murals, weird and wonderful shops and striking sculptures made from rubble. Check out the beautifully colored houses opposite the entrance. Calle San Lazaro, between calls Hospital and Aramburu.

Just a five-minute walk from Parque Central, Havana’s domed Capitolio Nacional is a replica of the Capitol in Washington. This is the most extravagant and unique building in Havana. The marble and gold building was completed in 1929 by a construction crew of 5,000 people after more than three years of work, overseen by Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. The 11-meter bronze statue of the Republic is the third largest statue in the world. At its foot is a diamond that marks kilometer zero, from which highway distances are measured from Havana to other parts of Cuba. The entrance fee is 3 CUC.Corner of calle Industria and calle Barcelona, La Habana Vieja.

Havana’s most affluent suburb, Miramar, offers a fascinating glimpse into upward mobility habaneros live. Fifth Avenue is the city’s prettiest (though traffic-filled) avenue, while the parallel Third Avenue is enticing with its quieter, more atmospheric neighborhood feel and relative lack of tourists. One of the most popular places in Havana’s thriving middle class is Miramar’s Centro de Negocios.

A mix of office buildings and malls interspersed with outdoor paved walkways and some of Havana’s five-star hotels, Mela Habana is a very pleasant area to while away a few hours. Facilities include four café/restaurants (all named ‘Amelia’), a cool new wine bar called ‘Halo’s’, a supermarket, pharmacy, several boutiques and shops selling clothes, shoes, sports equipment and jewellery. Around the corner, in the smaller Comodoro Centre, the focus is mainly on clothes, as well as perfumes and jewellery.

The large swimming pool and salt water spa of the Hotel Copacabana in Miramar is a well-kept secret. It’s pleasantly quiet on weekdays, usually just a handful of tourists and their Cuban friends and/or lovers. On weekends, it is packed with well-heeled Cubans and hotel guests.

Admission for non-residents is 10 CUC. You will receive an 8 CUC credit to spend on food and/or drinks at the pool bar. First Avenue, calle 44 and calle 46, Miramar.

The University of Havana is a beautiful, shadowy reverie of a place that looms over the rundown streets. Its area is surprisingly neglected by tourists, and all the better for it. The library consists of a series of rooms. The main library, Rubn Martnez Villena, dates from 1936. A strange place with long chocolate brown reading tables and colorful tiled floors.

Sit by the window for a while on a very hot day. Feel the breeze blow and the leaves rustle, and you’ll probably wish you were a student again. (Just don’t ruin the experience by using the rather depressing toilets!). Calle O, between Avenida 23 and calle 25, Vedado.

A Soviet-style paved square surrounded mostly by government buildings, the Plaza de la Revolucin is Cuba’s political nerve center. The best time to see this darkly impressive place is at night, when its most prominent feature – the two bronze silhouettes of revolutionary icons Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos – is spectacularly illuminated. Another major attraction is the Memorial y Museo a Jos Mart, which pays tribute to Cuba’s fundamental revolution. On the northwest side of the Plaza is El Teatro Nacional, the National Theater of Cuba. The same building houses one of the city’s most popular live music venues, Café Cantante Mi Habana. Corner of Avenidas Paseo and Carlos Manuel de Cspedes, Vedado.

What was the largest Asian community in Latin America before Castro is now located in a few streets of Centro Habana. This is El Barrio Chino: Chinatown. Tastefully mismatched and only a few minutes walk from Parque Central. Chinese food lovers should check out Tien-Tan on Cuchillo on the pedestrian street, probably the best Asian restaurant in the area. And if you have a particularly sweet tooth, give us a call dulceon the corner of calle San Nicols and calle Zanja (Dragones), where you can taste Havana’s finest pastries.

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