A dream come true. Everywhere you look, an explosion of colours: vintage American cars polished with love, elegant buildings in rainbow colours, exotic fruit on market stalls… And while city breaks often call for a good dose of museums, Havana is meant to be lived, experienced, soaked in. Bars and cafés often come with live music and you will naturally be invited to dance. Or even to join a game of chess in the street. Say yes to everything! Here are a few ideas to get you started… It’s a country you will want to come back to again and again. If it’s your first trip and you don’t know where to start, get a little help with your visa for Cuba here then start packing.
Follow in the footsteps of Hemingway
The author, who had fallen in love with the island during family holidays in 1928, returned regularly the following years. So frequently he rented a room by the year at Hotel Ambos Mundos! Stop by: this is now a mini museum featuring photos, his beloved typewriter, his glasses…
He finally moved to Havana in 1939, buying a house at the edge of town. Hollywood stars, artists, politicians visited regularly and anecdotes abound: Clark Gable, too tall for the guest room bed, used to sleep on the sofa… Ava Gardner swam naked in the swimming pool, with Hemingway wondering whether he should ever allow the water, now considered divinely infused, to be changed. The rooms remain intact, filled with the trophies and souvenirs he brought from his many travels. Such an atmosphere you expect him to appear any second
Remain two addresses, should you wish to raise a glass to this legend of a man. La Terraza, a small restaurant in Cojimar, is less known by tourists. He would stop without fault there after mooring his boat nearby: his favourite table, by the window, is kept set for him in his memory. Last but not least is Floridita, a bar which has kept its exquisite 1950s vibe, and where Hemingway would savour his beloved daiquiris…
Discover Cuba’s other religion: Santeria
Walking in the streets, you will notice most houses have a little shrine near its front door, often topped with a doll in a colourful dress. Let’s go back in time a little… The Spanish, taking over Cuba, brought with them African slaves to work the sugar cane fields. Most were Yoruba, an ethnic group of southwestern and north-central Nigeria. Though forced to convert to Catholicism, they secretly refused to give up on their Orichás, their saints. Instead, they syncretized – looked for similarities in name, story, character, colour – and associated them with Christian ones. So was born Santeria.
There is no specific place of worship: the religion is weaved in every day life and celebrated at home. But do take the ferry to Regla, a mere 15 mn away from the town centre. Right by the harbour is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla where a black Madonna is worshipped. The original was, it is said, carved by St Augustine ‘The African’ in the 5th century and eventually made its way to Spain then Cuba. The ship transporting it, surviving an incredibly strong storm, thanked the effigy, now considered patron of sailors and naturally associated with Yemaya, protector of the oceans. You will find santeras sitting in front of the church. For a small fee, they will give you advice, read your future in cards…
You will also encounter, in Cuba, men and women wearing white from head to toes. Were you to convert to Santería, you would be born into a new faith, as pure as if you were beginning life again. For the first year, iyawós are asked to leave aside make-up, perfume, jewels and wear this single colour. The list of rules is simple, but long: only going out accompanied, avoid alcohol, eating meals with as spoon not a knife and fork… All this symbolises them growing in a new faith. This also applies to people wanting to turn a new leaf in their life: after a trauma, a divorce, simply wishing to give up on cigarettes.
Find amazing street art in Callejon de Hamel
Artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona was inspired, in 1990,to paint a mural in front of his house, on Callejon de Hamel. Along the years, he covered ever single wall of that street, even recycling bathtubs into benches, recycling material into sculptures… Some of the murals are inspired by Santeria, most is simply eclectic, vibrant with colour and quite hypnotising.
The artist still lives there – stop by his studio to have a look at its latest pieces! The street in the past few years has grown famous for its rumba sessions, taking place every Sunday at noon. It’s free, incredibly energising and a fantastic way to mingle with locals.
Head for the rooftops
Such a fantastic way to appreciate the city’s incredible architecture: a complex tapestry of towers, domes, flat topped building where life extends: children playing, laundry drying, plants being watered… Top of our list are Hotel Inglaterra (which overlooks Havana’s beautiful Parque Central) and Iberostar Parque Central. Both come with a swimming pool and live music from 9 pm… Don’t miss Gran Manzana Kempinski’s: exquisite elegance and cocktails made to taste.
Dance and see art in a former factory
FAC (Fábrica de Arte Cubano) is, without doubt, the trendiest place in town. In 2014, this former oil factory reopened as the most extraordinary project worthy of New York or London: 3 different floors, 4 bars, multiple rooms filled with art and screenings, a few dance floors (each with its own DJ and vibe), street food spots. There is something for everyone there and it’s not rare to come for a concert and end up having a philosophical discussion, mojito in hand with complete strangers! Time seems to exist entirely… but that alone defines Cuba ever so well, a place where music, rather than passing minutes, carries you along…