Gentlemen, be warned: if you take your girlfriend or wife to Havana, prepare to have charismatic Caribbean men trying to woo her every time you turn your back with their overtly sultry allure. But there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition right? As long as you can salsa dance with hips of rubber, you’ll be fine.
The vibe in Havana is electric. And I do not mean that literally – the power will probably go out fairly often. It’s electric because of the energy in the streets. Take a stroll hand-in-hand along The Malecón – Havana’s famous seaside esplanade – at 7pm on any given night and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Cuba has never experienced tourism on this scale before and the locals are pretty excited about it. As a massive source of revenue for this scarred communist economy, prepare to be treated like royalty.
Old Havana is where the action is. Stay in a hotel in a central location such as Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Plaza or the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where the likes of Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra called home (temporarily). All the must-see attractions will be within walking distance; however, on your first day it’s a good idea to get your bearings in one of Cuba’s classic old cars. You won’t have any trouble finding one that will give you a city tour as most of the classic cars you see in Havana will be taxis, and you will see them absolutely everywhere. It’s as simple as walking up to someone and asking – but they’ll probably poach you anyway. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the price.
On your city tour (even if you’re exploring on foot) you can’t miss El Capitolio. It was the seat of government until after the Cuban Revolution (and is the building that will make you think you’re in Washington DC). You can’t escape Cuba’s revolutionary history in Havana and I really implore you to embrace it – it’s truly fascinating. Spend a solid couple of hours in the Museo de la Revolución and don’t scrimp on the audio guide like I did, thinking there will be English text next to the exhibits. There is not. There are some fantastic artefacts from Cuba’s revolutionary history here but keep an open mind as you tour this modern-day propaganda machine. It’s best to visit this museum before checking out the Plaza de la Revolución where there is the famous monument to José Martí – Cuba’s national hero – so you can truly appreciate the ground you’re standing on.
Near the Museo de la Revolución is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba’s national art gallery. You will want to spend a good few hours in here as well as the collection is very extensive. Cubans are very artistic people and embrace all different art styles and mediums. Nearby, you have the opportunity to buy some fantastic artworks at the art markets along Paseo del Prado, the tree-lined paved passage separating Old Havana from Centro Havana. Here you’ll find charcoal drawings, screen prints, collages, paintings and photographs. With its incredible old and colourful buildings, classic cars and gorgeous people, Havana is a hub for photographers – and they produce some breathtaking pieces.
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From Paseo del Prado, head to the famous Floridita bar (Ernest Hemingway’s haunt of choice). Consider this the entry point to the web of cobblestoned pedestrian streets (which occasionally feature taxis) between the tall colonial buildings which are home to countless restaurants, apartments, shops and bars. A relaxed drink at one of the alfresco cafés in the Plaza de la Catedral proves the perfect vantage point around the square, so enjoy people-watching where the individuals are varied and vibrant.
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For dinner, dine on anything – from a $1 Cuban sandwich from a hole-in-the-wall take-away to a traditional Cuban meal such as spiced meat with black beans and rice in an upscale, funky restaurant. There is no restriction on where it is appropriate to salsa dance and you will probably find yourself doing it at a restaurant to the sound of a live band crooning Guantanamera. If you are looking for the party scene, you can’t go wrong with the Casa de la Musica, the classic salsa club on everyone’s lips.
If you leave Cuba and your lady hasn’t been whisked away by a rum-drinking salsa-dancing, cigar-smoking Cuban man, your relationship will be all the stronger. After all, you’ll experience the fun atmosphere, consume to-die-for Cuba Libres, witness the incredible history and survive Cuba’s indelible madness together.
El Capitolio: Paseo de Martí
Museo de la Revolución: Calle Refugio 1, between Monserrate and Zulueta
Plaza de la Revolución: Avenida Paseo
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: Calle Trocadero e/ Zulueta y Monserrate
Floridita: Obispo 557 esq a Monserrate Habana Vieja
Casa de la Musica: Ave. 20 No. 3308 esq. a 35, Miramar
All photographs by Nichola Davies.