Sexual, sensual and addictive, Havana seduces the visitor with her good looks, her steamy weather, chrome-festooned American cars, zesty cocktails, pretty buildings, heart-stopping Afro-Cuban beats and hip-swivelling, story-telling, garrulous locals. With her bedrock layered with Spanish empire treasure, slave-fuelled sugar wealth and a heavy top coating of communism, Havana is simply one of the world’s most exciting, confusing and compelling capitals.
As a global show-stopper, there are plenty of things to do in Havana, from taking in the highlights of the Spanish colonial old town, with its castles and museums – including challenging art and sculpture at the Museo de Bellas Artes – to the contemporary art, music and film scene at the new Fábrica de Arte Cubano and cruising the snaking, sea-sprayed Malecón ocean road in a gleaming classic American car.
Other Havana highlights include eating and drinking in the capital’s new wave of private restaurants and bars such as stylish Le Chansonnier and the alfresco patio bar of Espacios, followed by partying in dens of musical entertainment such as basement Teatro Bertolt Brecht (no website) and jazz bar La Zorra y el Cuervo (no website) or salsaing under the stars at 1830 (no website).
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Arte Cubano) Calle Trocadero between Calles Zulueta and Monserrate, La Habana Vieja. +53 7 861 0241.Tues-Sat, 9am-5pm; Sun 10am-2pm.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano Calle 26 corner of Calle 11, Vedado. +53 7 838 22 60. Wed, 8pm-midnight; Thurs-Sat, 8pm-4am; Sun, 8pm-2am.
Classic car ride Gran Car +53 (0)5 295 0956 (Enrique Jiménez).
Le Chansonnier Calle J no.257 between Calles 15 and Línea, Vedado. +53 7 832 1576. Mon-Sat, 12.30-3.30pm, 7pm-2am.
Espacios Calle 10 no.513 between 5ta Avenida and 7ma Avenida, Miramar. +53 7 202 2921. Mon-Sun, noon-6am.
Teatro Bertolt Brecht Calles 13 and I, Vedado. +53 7 832 9359. Tues-Sun, 10pm-3am.
La Zorra y el Cuervo Calle 23 between Calles N and O, Vedado. +53 7 833 2402. Daily 10pm-2am (live music from 11.30pm).
1830 Malecón and Calle 22, Vedado.+53 7 838 3091.Best salsa nights Friday and Saturday.
Havana museums and attractions
Havana is packed full of museums from the conventional to the quirky: the Museum of the Revolution (no website), which showcases Fidel Castro’s rise from rebel commander to victor of his 1959 revolution; the opulent Napoleonic Museum (no website), home to the largest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia outside Europe; Ernest Hemingway’s (no website) books, pet graves and hunting trophies at his home-turned-museum; the museum of classic cars (no website); and the Casa de Africa (no website), which reveals the history and religion of the West Africans brought to Cuba during the height of the slave trade.
But it’s the alternatives, both iconic and esoteric things to do in Havana, that will make your visit memorable. Swing by the lush art deco headquarters of the Bacardi rum empire, tour the illustrious marble tombs at the Christopher Columbus Cemetery, ride with the locals in an almendrón (classic car taxi), sneak a peak in the ladies’ cloakroom of the art deco Teatro América (no website), sit, swoon and gossip with habaneros at dusk on the Malecón sea wall, dance salsa under the stars at 1830, catch a baseball game, or queue with the locals for ice cream at the space-age Coppelia (no website).
At night, dine at one of the new pop-up restaurants in Old Havana – arty Vedado (no website), or smart Miramar (no website) – then mingle with monied locals at the new-wave of industrial chic, boho and speakeasy-style bars.
Time your visit for Havana’s popular festivals: the October biennial ballet festival, the film festival and jazz festival, both staged in December, the cigar jamboree in February and the art bienal – held in 2015 from May 22 to June 22.
Museum and attraction details
Museo de la Revolución Calle Refugio no.1 between Calles Monserrate and Zulueta, La Habana Vieja. +53 7 8624 093. Mon-Sun, 10am–5pm.
Museo Napoleónico Calle San Miguel no.1159, corner of Calle Ronda, Vedado. +53 7 879 1412. Tue-Sat, 9.30am-5pm; Sun, 9.30am-12.30pm.
Museo Ernest Hemingway (Finca Vigía) Calles Vigía and Steinhert, San Francisco de Paula, 13km/8miles southeast of Havana. +53 7 691 0809. Mon, Wed-Sat, 9am-5pm; Sun, 9am–noon.
Museo del Automóvil Calle Oficios no.13 between Calles Jústiz and Obra Pía, La Habana Vieja. +53 7 863 9942.Tues-Sat, 9.30am-5pm; Sun, 9.30am-1pm.
Casa de Africa Calle Obra Pía no.157 between Calles San Ignacio and Mercaderes, La Habana Vieja +53 7 8615 798. Tues-Sat, 9.30am-5pm.
Edificio Bacardí Corner of Calles Monserrate and San Juan de Dios, La Habana Vieja. Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm.
Teatro América Calle Galiano no.253, corner of Calle Concordia, Centro Habana. +53 7 862 5416.
Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón Calle Zapata and Calle 12, Vedado. +53 7 832 1050. Mon-Sun, 7am-5pm.
1830 Malecón and Calle 22, Vedado. +53 7 838 3091. Best salsa nights Friday and Saturday.
Baseball Estadio Latinoamericano 302 Calle Pedro Pérez, between Calles Patria and Sarabia, Cerro. +53 7 873 2527.
Coppelia Calle 23 (La Rampa) at the intersection of Calle L, Vedado. +53 7 832 3450. Tues-Sun, 10am-9.15pm.