If you are looking for a weekend getaway that is a mojito and three Girls episodes-length direct flight from YYZ and gives you the experience of old Europe, three nights in Havana is the club you want to join. With American flights now going into Cuba, we thought to avoid the crush by taking a weekend trip to Havana last November. Turns out, it is a lot more complicated for U.S. citizens to fly to Cuba and there is still time to experience old Havana without the changes that large influx of tourists will bring.
A city of paradoxes
There are more marble statues, facades and floors in Havana that I have seen anywhere outside of Italy. In the pre-Castro and Communism days, Havana was a thriving city with great wealth. Today, the vestiges remain of the marble clad buildings such as the Presidential Palace (now the Museum of the Revolution) along with the bullet holes in the staircase from the Revolution and although the exteriors are still colourful and lovely, often the interiors are derelict.
There is lots to see and do in old Havana. We stayed at the Parque Central Hotel right in the heart of old Havana and walking distance to all of Ernest Hemingway’s old drinking hangouts such as El Floridita, the National Capital building, museums and the National Theatre. The Saratoga is a boutique hotel where Beyoncé and Karl Lagerfeld stayed …just down the street. The Parque Central has all the mod cons plus a rooftop pool. We were too busy to hang at the pool, although the weather was perfect, but caught several sensational sunsets from the rooftop bar.
If you’re in love with fifties-era convertibles…
You can hail a convertible taxi or hire a car in advance like we did. Havana Vintage Car Tours’ Nelson claims the best kept car in Havana and we can certainly attest to the fact that it is very clean and comfortable for four of us and Nelson is a lovely tour guide with deep knowledge. During our three-hour tour, we drove along the Malecon and stopped for a drink and a [huge] Cuban sandwich overlooking the sea at the Hotel Nacional , saw Meyer Lansky’s house, experienced Revolution Square with the neon lit “three amigos” who led the Revolution (Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos Gorriarán). We even made a stop at John Lennon park and took selfies on the famous bench with John.
And here’s the best part, even though the city’s population is three million (the size of the GTA), there is virtually no traffic. Most people take the bus. People who can afford cars preserve them carefully…hence the proliferation of gorgeous brightly coloured convertibles.
On foot you can tour the Museum of the Revolution, the Museo de Bellas Artes and simply enjoy the squares, the architecture and the palm trees.
Where to eat
There is no shortage of great eats from gourmet to outdoor cafes. One of the best meals we had was at an outdoor café in the Plaza Vieja, where apparently Madonna also dined. We came across this café after one of the most interesting sites of our trip, the Camara Oscura. Atop an old villa in a corner of the square, the Cámara Oscura provides a 360-degree panoramic view of much of Old Havana in real time, projected at 30X magnification through a peephole camera onto a pitch-dark screen. It was invented by Leonardo da Vinci and is a gift from the city of Cadiz in Spain. A truly unique experience and after climbing down the crooked marble staircase, we were thirsty. We indulged in the local speciality: a beer upside down in a mojita. Way better than it sounds. The whole fish was delicious and they put a flag on your plate signifying your country of origin.
The best restaurants are paladars, restaurants in privately owned homes. Not to be missed is La Guarida, a uniquely Havana experience. You climb a marble staircase that would be condemned here and think this can’t be the right place. And then you alight on the top floor where there is a lovely rooftop restaurant with Michelin worthy food. +53 7866-9047
On a totally different note, more modern and right on the Malecon, is El Litoral. +53 78302201. Varied menu, antipasto buffet, good wine list and lovely staff. Excellent choice for dinner.
Best to phone for reservations at any of the many great restaurants in Havana.
There are so many bars and good music spots worthy of note. Some people (not to mention my brothers) spend their entire trips to Havana walking from bar to bar, Cuban cigar included. But don’t miss The Tropicana, the brightly-lit outdoor cabaret where Carmen Miranda and Nat King Cole once performed. You’ll sense the presence of Ricky Ricardo along with the long-legged beauties and you’re sure that this is where neon lights go to die. Not to be missed.
What to take home in addition to cigars and rum
And one more note about your Havana weekend: the waterfront Market is huge and features dozens of local Cuban artists. An oil or watercolour is the perfect souvenir of your amazing trip to Havana. Welcome to the Club!