Five Fun Things in Havana
Havana is one of most fascinating cities I have been to. Arriving here is like stepping out of a time-machine back into the 1950s with an added touch of irresistible charming decay. The city has been a victim of withering neglect for more than five decades – the once grand and fine architecture has been subdued by peeling paint and crumbling walls.
The city of Havana was founded by the Spanish in early 16th century and because of its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the continent. Due to Havana’s almost five hundred-year existence, the city boasts some of the most diverse styles of architecture in the world, from castles built in the late 16th century to modernist present-day high-rises.
Today, Havana is a sprawling metropolis of over 2 million inhabitants. Its old centre – which has retained an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a picturesque ensemble of pastel-coloured private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards – was designated the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.
In the first half of the 20th century, Havana was one of the most prosperous cities with numerous luxury homes, hotels, casinos and nightclubs being constructed for both the tourists and locals alike. Sadly everything came to a sudden halt with Castro’s seminal 1959 revolution and nowadays streets are lined with decrepit homes and decades-old cars. There is a ubiquitous feeling throughout the whole of Cuba that since the advent of Castro’s revolution time stood completely still – there has not been much noticeable progress here apart form, perhaps, introduction of smartphones and changing fashion.
However, extraordinary changes are already happening in Havana and throughout the whole of Cuba. A series of high profile events have recently put this country on the international radar. In March, Obama paid a historic visit, and Rolling Stones played a free concert to an audience of over 450,000. The latest installment of Fast and the Furious, Universal Studios’ highest grossing film franchise, is currently being filmed in Cuba capital causing traffic jams – a paradox in a country with so few cars as Cuba- to the dismay of the locals.
CHANEL also made history by unveiling its latest cruise collection at the start of May on Havana’s leafy promenade, the Prado, bring another touch of glamour to the city. (In the photo above I am sitting on the very same bench where CHANEL’s high profile guests were sitting).
So let’s see what were my favourite things to do in Havana…
1. Take a classic American car for a spin to see the city in style
Cuba is particularly famous throughout the world for its classic American automobiles. There is a proliferation of them, since it is practically impossible for Cubans to get their hands on a new car. They take incredibly good care of them, and most vehicles are in pristine condition! Touring the city in a classic and immaculately-maintained 1950s brightly-coloured convertible – they seem to come in all colours of the rainbow – is the way to learn about Havana’s landmarks and experience the surroundings in a more authentic manner. Seriously a must for any visitor!
For an evening full of energy and colour get yourself a ticket to Tropicana, the tropical version of the world-famous Moulin Rouge… You will be guaranteed a fabulous open air cabaret with a revue of glamour and nostalgia. Opened in in 1939, Tropicana remains one of the very few city nightlife institutions to survive the Revolution and remains little changed since its heyday in 1940s and 50s.
Tropicana nightclub was immortalized in Graham Greene’s Cuba novel Our Man in Havana where the author perfectly captured the pre-Castro Cuba of decadence and Cold War espionage. It was to the Tropicana that Wormold, the novel’s protagonist, brought his daughter Milly to celebrate her 17th birthday. You can watch a clip from the 1960 film above.
The extravagant spectacle remains little changed since its 1950s heyday. My favourite moment was when bikini-clad dancers appeared with chandeliers on their heads. Travel there by old American open topped car for the best experience. Upon entrance you receive a cigar, as well as a complimentary glass of sparkling wine and a bottle of rum with some coke to mix in!
3. Visit Hemingway’s Cuba House
Cuba has had a profound effect on Ernst Hemingway and his literary output. Visiting Ernst Hemingway’s house is a must for anyone regardless if you are a fan of his work or not. Personally, I have read the majority of his oevre, so it was absolutely fascinating to see Hemingway’s Cuban surroundings and personal possessions which reflect his legendary life.
Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928. In 1940, he purchased a Cuba house, Finca Vigia or “lookout house”, 10 miles east of Havana. The house was built in 1886 by a Spanish Architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer. Here, Hemingway wrote two of his most celebrated novels including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. He won a Nobel Prize for Literature for the latter. Following Hemingway’s death in 1961, the Cuban government took the ownership of the property.
Contrary to the majority of things in Cuba, the house has been maintained very well over the last few decades and it is brimming with beautiful furniture, artworks and artifacts. There is a prevailing feeling throughout the property that Hemingway has left the house momentarily and might return any minute. By the house, you can also see his fishing boat “Pilar”, named after a nickname for his wife Pauline.
In addition, Hemingway had a room at Hotel Ambos Mondos, built in the roaring 20s and now somewhat of a shrine to the great author. It was in 1932 that he discovered the hotel and took up residence in Room 511 for 7 years. Most notably, it was mostly here that he worked on his Nobel-prize winning contemporary fable, the Old Man and The Sea. Room 511 is now a one-room museum to Hemingway and one of his greatest literary works.
4. Visit the Cradle of Daiquiri and Hemingway’s favourite drinking den.
Ernest Hemingway once famously said, “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.”
El Floridita is a historic restaurant and cocktail bar located at the famous thoroughfare Calle Obispo in La Habana Vieja. It is famous throughout the world as the birthplace of daiquiris and for having been the favourite drinking hole for the likes of Ersnt Hemingway – who maintained a room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos down the street from 1932–1939 – Graham Green and Ezra Pound. The establishment first opened in 1817 with the name”La Piña de Plata” (The Silver Pineapple), and was renamed La Floridita, a diminuative for El Florida, a 100 or so years later at the request of the North American tourists.
In 1914, a Catalan immigrant Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, who started working as a bartender here in 1914 and becoming the owner a few years later, is credited with inventing frozen daiquiri in the early 1930s. This refreshing drink for rum and fruit juice is linked to the fame of the place, its motto now being “la cuna del daiquiri”(the cradle of the daiquiri). Constantino was also a good friend of Hemingway’s.
El Floridita today contains many noticeable memorabilia of Ernst Hemingway including black and white photographs photographs – my favourite the one of him in a friendly handshake with Fidel Castro – and a life-size bronze statue at the end of the bar near the wall by the novelist’s bar stool which has a velvet rope to keep the crowds at bay, a work by the Cuban artist José Villa Soberón. Albeit being a little touristy, El Floridita still preserves much of the atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s, with its Regency style decor and the bartenders’ red coats.
5. Watch ballet at the Gran Teatro de la Habana
The amazing neobaroqueGran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso is perhaps the most beautiful edifice in Old Havana, overlooking leafy Parque Centra, right next door to the Capitolio. This fine building has been a theatre since 1838. Following extensive renovations, the theatre has reopened on January 1st, 2016. Recently renovated, it’s white washed facade shines in Caribbean sun. At night it looks even more majestic, perfectly illuminated.
Gran Teatro is the seat of the acclaimed Ballet Nacional de Cuba, founded in 1948 by Alicia Alonso. In fact, just recently it was renamed to honour the Cuban prima ballerina. It is also the home of the Cuban National Opera. For upcoming events you will need to inquire directly at the ticket office.
Where to stay…
Saratoga Hotel – a timeless classic, an epitome of pre-revolution Cuban luxury, perfectly situated in the heart of Havana Vieja. The elegantly curved building was originally constructed in 1879 and expanded between 1915 and 1925. It was completely refurbished in several years ago, adding a contemporary touch within a neoclassical facade.
Saratoga hotel is also well known for its rooftop pools: from your chaise you’ll be treated to unparalleled views of the majestic Capitolio a stone throw’s away, and Central Park and the Prado beyond. Even if you are not staying here, mojitos at sunset are highly recommended here.
Where to Eat…
Sadly, Havana (and the rest of Cuba) are not exactly known for their cuisine, but if you do some prior research (ideally amongst the locals) you can come across some decent eating places.
La Terrazza – Located on the roof of a building off the Prado near Parque Central, this upper floor terrace restaurant with fantastic views over Old Havana and a great selection of simple grilled food.
A photo diary to finish off…
Hemingway’s House, Finca Vigia Another view of Gran Teatro de La Habana
Outside Russian Embassy
Lobby of Hotel Saratoga