There is absolutely no surprise at why La Habana was recognized as one of the new7wonders cities of the world. Being the vacation hot-spot it is, you will fall in love with the architecture, the vintage automobiles, Guantanamera being played by musicians at almost every bar and restaurant and the ambiance that will take you back to the 1950's.
Where we stayed:
We used Airbnb to find the most appropriate casa particular and help local Cubans earn a better living.
Places to eat close to this Airbnb:
Here's a copy of their menu (prices are in CUC) for your perusal:
.There's also a paladar just around the corner as well but do remember that the prices at non-touristy paladares are in moneda nacional and not pesos convertibles.
El Cine Riviera:
Being close to the UH (Universidad de La Habana) and Just two blocks away from Aldo y Vanessa's apartment in Vedado, you will also find Cine Riviera which offers a varied selection of movies from Latin America, Europe and North America. From time to time, they offer concerts featuring more contemporaneous selections as rock, pop and/or rap; so do take some time to explore this neighborhood in depths and do stop by Cine Riviera to check out what's on.
El Hotel Nacional:
As you approach this hotel just a few blocks off Avenida 23 in Vedado toward El Malecón, you will come across a few parked 1950's cars awaiting for tourists willing to be driven around the city.
Once you have bypassed the drivers' offers, you will encounter the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in all its splendor which offers to the viewer an eclectic architecture which combines some Art Deco and Moorish influences among others.
Once inside, you will also notice the photo gallery of the many celebrities and dignitaries that have left their mark on this hotel since its inauguration in the early 30's but reaching its zenith in the 1950's with visitors such as "Nelson Rockefeller, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gadner, Sir Alexander Flemming, Arturo de Córdoba, Agustín Lara, Hermanos Iturbide, Ferrucio Burco, Pedro Armendáriz, Spencer Tracy, MarIon Brando, Pablo Casal, Lucho Gatica, John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Leopoldo y Balduino de Bélgica, Walt Disney, Sara Montiel, los Chavales de España, Libertad Lamarque, Porfirio Rubirosa, Esther Borja, Lola Flores" amongst others.
It is quite interest to mention that the rooms at which these and other celebrities and dignitaries have stayed are also referred to by their most prominent guest. For example, room 218 is also referred as the Nat King Cole room.
They also have 3 well supplied indoor stores where you can buy local coffee, rum as well as other bare essentials.
But also do take some time to explore the surroundings of this hotel. If you head outside, you will find yourself in front row for some beautiful vistas of the Malecón, the bay and further into the horizon, El Morro.
The premises of El Hotel Nacional is also the place where after the revolución Cubana, many of these new revolucionarios came to use the hotel as sort of their headquarters between 1959-61 while international tourism ceases, locals start to make their way here. It is not until approximately 1974 that international tourism returns to this hotel.
It also worth mentioning that during the Spanish-Cuban-American war, two great canons were placed here to defend the bay from invaders. One of them, Ordoñez, a 305 mm canon was used against the USS Montgomery on the night of June 13th, 1898. A plaque reads that this canon shelled the USA cruiser when it attempted to intercept a blockade runner; nonetheless, no hits were scored.
Heading to La Habana Vieja:
Although I was told by Cuban that they pay no more than 2 CUC from Vedado to El Capitolio Nacional, as a foreigner, you will be charged 5 to 10 CUC depending on the car you choose to be transported in.
El Capitolio Nacional:
Within the surroundings of the Capitolio Nacional you will find a row of vintage convertible cars for rent. These cars can be hired for 30 CUC for 1 hr rides around town or you can choose one of their already set 1 hr tours from el Capitolio Nacional through Chinatown to Vedado, then along el Malecón and back to el Capitolio.
Check out these photos from our tour:
El barrio chino:
Once considered the second most important Chinatown in the world after San Francisco's, this Chinatown in La Habana currently lacks a Chinese population and their businesses and restaurants. Calle de los Dragones is the main road within the 5 streets that comprise this Chinatown.
La Universidad Nacional:
Also known as simply the "Alma Mater", the UH (Universidad de La Habana) was first established in 1728 and then relocated to its current location in Vedado. At the main entrance you will be received with open arms by the most symbolic bronze statue at the university, Alma Mater. This statue is said to be inspired by the Parthenon.
Fidel Castro Ruz also happens to be one of UH's most famous alumni.
La Plaza de la Revolución:
This is the infamous huge square where Fidel Castro Ruz used to give his 5+ hrs long speeches to the Cuban population. In front of the statue of José Martí you will see the iconic silhouette of el Che Guevara with his slogan "Hasta la victoria siempre" on one of the buildings and on the building next to it, that of General Calixto García who is said that Fidel used to ask him how he was doing with his speeches and Calixto would reply "Vas bien Fidel" and so you read this slogan under his silhouette.
The Plaza de la Revolución was also our stop for photos on our rented 1950's convertible ...
It was during the time Hemingway was drafting For whom the bell tolls that he became acquainted with this drink he later popularized. Floridita is the restaurant-bar that stays busy with tourists coming and going to indulge in their famous daiquiri frappé de limón.
So we asked ... who was Joe?
Joe was a Spaniard who arrived in Cuba in 1904. His real name was José Abeal y Otero. According to an advertising brochure at the time, he worked for three years on the island as a waiter in a bar on the corner of Galiano and Zanja streets. He then quit and traveled to the United States where he continued working as a barman for almost six years in Florida.
He did return to the Cuban capital in 1916 and worked as a barman at the Greasy Spoon café. Later on he decided to open his own business and in 1917, according to some documents, he opened the doors of Sloppy. Between 1917 -1919 the island became the shelter for many U.S. businessmen dedicated to the alcohol and beverages business. Therefore, many bars were opened within the are and Joe's stood out during this time.
Nowadays, after a long and hard refurbishing work carried out by the City Historian's Office, Sloppy Joe's Bar, reopened its doors on April 2013. It now belongs to the Compañia Turística Habaguanex S.A.
Different elements and details that were part of the facility in its time of splendor such as the long bar made of mahogany and the same structure for tables and stools have been restored as part of the investment process which also has kept the ambiance and decor similar to the one existing in the 1920's and 30's.
El Gran Teatro de La Habana:
The seat of the National Ballet of Cuba, this establishment is an icon within the city center. It also reopened its door on January 2016 after a few years of restoration to bring it back to its original format from within and its outer structure.
One night, it so happened that as we walked back from wandering around, we came across the filming of the new music video of the revamped 90's song "Macarena" to a newer version called "Más Macarena" by the original duo Los del Río featuring the Cuban duet Gente de Zona.
Without further ado, enjoy the behind the scenes:
A visit to La Habana Vieja is not complete without a visit to the famous El Guajirito which will musically take you back to La Habana of the 1950's by presenting "Legendarios del Guajirito", a group of performers from the "Buena Vista Social Club" and the "Afro-Cuban All Stars".
They offer a very lively show with audience participation every night for an hour and a half starting at 9:30 - 11 p.m.
It is worth making reservations well in advance through Cubatur or any other local agency or you can go straight to them at this address: Zulueta 660/ Apodaca y Gloria or call +537.861.7761 / +53.5413.3374 / +53.5510.5939.
Prices with Cubatur:
La Plaza de la Catedral:
Within this location, you can't miss visiting these two places on the right and left side streets off the Plaza de la Catedral:
It is highly recommended to also book well in advance to avoid disappointments as it is a very popular eatery. You will notice that although there are quite a few restaurants nearby with this alley, the vast majority of people just walk straight up to this restaurant.
May I recommend:
Start with the croquetas de Leticia which are deep-fried fish croquettes; then move on to your main dish of Ropa vieja del Chorro which is shredded lamb (instead of the typical beef) accompanied with white rice and black beens, fried plantains and a fresh salad. Wash it all down with a freshly made lemonade!
You need to take a stroll through the Calle Obispo ... yes, it's full of tourists but you will find yourself surrounded by many palaces that have been restored and made into museums that host many artifacts and memorabilia that pays tribute to the great Revolution Cubana.
As you can see from the above photo, Calle Obispo will take you to the Plaza de Armas which itself is surrounded by many locations you can visit not to mention that the neighborhood itself offers self-paced recommendations as to the places you can't miss.
My highlights were finding an autographed 1st ed. book Versos Sencillos by José Martí from 1891 as well as a flag from my home country Panamá displayed amongst many other flags from the Americas.
Experience La Habana Vieja by walking through its streets and alleys:
Head out to El Malecón:
You will notice that many Cubans, especially younger Cubans, tend to spend their day and mostly their evenings hanging out along El Malecón. I was told that as many can't afford the luxury of heading to a local bar or restaurant to enjoy a cold beer in great company and camaraderie, many choose to head to El Malecón with their bottle of rum and simply line up throughout great parts of El Malecón to chat, catch up on local news, watch the sunset and simply enjoy each others' company.