We travel for many reasons. Some travel to escape, some to get a tan, and some even travel to transcend time. It’s something we’ve all thought about. What if we could transport to the Sixties? Experience the roaring Twenties, or explore Ancient Egypt? And while we haven’t quite cracked the space-time continuum yet, there’s nothing closer to it than travelling to Havana, Cuba.
The moment you step foot onto the colorful Caribbean nation, you step back in time. It is as if the last fifty years on this planet have been seemingly lost on Havana. It’s a place where people still dine without iPhones, where colonial architecture remains untouched, and music is still made on instruments. Cuba’s alluring and exotic sense of timelessness is attracting more tourists than ever. But if you want to travel Havana like a pro, here’s everything you’ll need to know.
WHERE TO STAY
Havana’s hotels remain authentic through a lack of external influences, and, of course, a bright, tropical aesthetic, which you’ll find in places like Hotel Plaza (267 Agramonte, 0053 7 8608583), an unspoiled treasure close to the Capitolio and scenic Old Havana. This cinematic stay is ideal for those looking to travel on a budget, with necessary comforts like air-conditioning and complimentary breakfast.
If it’s a more luxurious stay you seek, look no further than the newly opened Kempinski (Calle San Rafael, 0053 786 99100). While this lush experience may not give you any insight into local culture, it comes with a stunning rooftop infinity pool in a prime location with inimitable comfort. Also in the high-end spectrum is the famous Hotel Nacional (Corner 21 and O, 0053 7 8363564). Whether you stay at this storied hotspot, or merely stop by for a coffee on the waterfront gardens, add Hotel Nacional to your Havana itinerary.
WHAT TO EAT
Cuban cuisine has garnered quite the reputation. When we think Cuban, we think croquetas, cortaditos, Cubano sandwiches, and fresh island fruits. And while bananas and mangoes are abundant, our perception is not quite the reality. Restaurants in Cuba are either state-run, or ‘paladars’ held in private homes. Stick to paladars, starting at the hip Sia-Kara (No 502, Calle Industria, 0053 78 67 40 84). This trendy hangout charms with old artifacts, quirky paintings and live music alongside one of Havana’s best lobster dishes. If you’re out with the new and into the old, opt for a more traditional Cuban taste at La Guarida (418, Concordia, 0053 7 8669047). This famous paladar is a celebrity favorite (just ask Beyonce and JayZ), housed in a majestic colonial building that transports diners to a different era. Make a reservation via email.
Continue eating your way through Havana at El del Frente (303 Calle O’Reilly, 0053 7 8630206). When you’re done with rice and beans, come here for a sunset drink, ceviche, and probably the only croquetas you’ll find in the city. El del Frente is the type of place where travelling strangers quickly turn into new friends, who’ll most likely tell you to also stop at El Cocinero (Calle 26, 0053 7 8382260). Atop the famous Fábrica de Arte Cubano, this local haunt attracts an international crowd with a flare for art, and offers rooftop dining.
WHAT TO DO
The soundtrack to your Havana stay will be filled with many moments of lively music. It seems that every new corner brings a lusty wave of locals playing rhumba, Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, and serenading you in song. You’re sure to naturally stumble upon some great live music, but if you’d like to do it on purpose, Floridita(Obispo no.557, 0053 7 867 1300) is a great place to start. Take your two-step talents to this tourist spot better known as Hemingway’s old watering hole. Another musical must is the 10pm show at Hotel Nacional’s Cabaret Parisien (Corner 21 and O, +53 7 8363564). Amid a luxurious theatre lined with red velvet, revel in an eclectic display of Cuban culture told through song.
Take a break between dances to soak in other facets of Havana. One of the best ways to experience the city is with an inevitable old car tour. You can find these famous four-wheelers anywhere, but a sure bet is in front of Hotel Inglaterra (416 Paseo de Martí, 0053 7 608 593). Aside from the all coveted Instagram pictures you’ll get to take with you, tell your guide to take you to: Bosque de la Habana; Plaza de la Revolución; El Malecón (great for people-watching), and on a ride through the reclaimed mansions of Vedado. If you have the time, have your guide take you to a last stop at El Cañonazo, the nightly firing of a cannon onto Havana’s night lit waters.
Once you’ve let the Havana wind blow through hair, suss out the local art scene. At the center of it all is Fábricade Arte Cubano (Calle 26, 0053 7 838 2260), a contemporary gallery in a former cooking oil factory equipped with cafes and a rooftop restaurant that we’ve already covered, El Cocinero. Other galleries that warrant a peek are Factoría Habana (308 O’Reilly) and Diago Galería (La Casona, Plaza Vieja).
One last item to check off your to-do list is a tour of a Cuban cigar factory. If you can’t make the day trip to the tobacco farm town of Viñales, head to Partagás Factory (Calle Industria, 0053 7 338 060) within the city. Witness over 20,000 cigars being rolled daily in an industrial building dating from 1845, and leave with one or two of your own.
You’re in the Caribbean, and a trip to Cuba would be incomplete without taking advantage of its many gorgeous beaches. Perhaps the most alluring option can be found by the crystal clear waters of Varadero. While this seaside town is a two-hour drive from Havana, many hotels organize all-inclusive day trips to partnering resorts. Alternatively, you could embark on a less daunting 40-minute drive to Santa Maria, but if you simply can’t wait to get in the ocean, the closest option is Playa del Este. A 15-minute cab ride from the town center, this local beach comes without the comforts of daybeds, but in turn attracts fewer tourists.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
Visas can be purchased through airlines, and will usually cost around $50. Once in Havana, make sure to write down the exact names and addresses of the places you want to visit and keep these notes with you; with little Wi-Fi access, you many need this information to hand. You’re probably wondering about the Wi-Fi, because it’s 2017 and how on earth are your friends going to know how much fun you’re having if you can’t upload your pictures? Don’t worry; there is Wi-Fi access but it’s limited. Head to any hotel and ask for the vendor selling Wi-Fi cards. Each card warrants an hour of Wi-Fi and costs around $3, depending on the hotel’s pricing. The card has a code that gives you access to Wi-Fi anywhere it’s available. Keep in mind, these cards are only sold during the day from 9am to 5pm, so stock up on the first day to avoid running out. Also, be warned, you’ll be hard pressed to find an ATM. Make sure to bring plenty of cash, because Havana isn’t necessarily cheap. Places accept Euros, but the local currency is the Cuban peso, or CUC. The average taxi found on the street will charge you 10 CUC to get anywhere, and around 25 CUC to get from the airport to town. Most attractions will also require a 10 CUC entrance fee.
Above all else, don’t forget your camera. Cuba is a photographer’s dream. Here’s looking at you, Havana!
*Written by Natalie Stoclet for Conde Nast Traveller, Middle East