Staying with Cubans at their licensed casas particulares (private homes) is a fine way of getting to grips with the realities of daily Cuban life. Antique collectors and art enthusiasts will adore the Casa de Eugenio y Fabio (Calle San Ignacio #656, entre Jesús María y Merced, 862 9877) and Casa de Dr José Mario Parapar de la Riestra (Calle 70 #912, entre 9 y 11, Miramar, 203 7269, firstname.lastname@example.org), an elegant mansion which has retained its original 1948 furniture, decor and artwork. Casa de Évora Rodríguez García (Paseo del Prado #20 – altos, entre San Lázaro y Cárcel, tel/fax 861 7932, email@example.com) has a very classy apartment with a magnificent sea view over La Punta, the entrance to the Bay of Havana.
2. Step into Old Havana
With an architectural heritage spanning more than five centuries, La Hababa Vieja (old Havana) is a virtual time machine of styles and techniques. While the area’s sights are big crowd-pullers – Plaza de Armas (the oldest square in Havana and the site of the city’s foundation), El Templete (the oldest neo-classical building in Havana), Casa de la Obra Pia (notable for its curvaceous baroque portico, which was carved in Cadiz in 1686. Today it houses a museum of 18th century furniture and goods) and the Covento de Santa Clara (a pre-baroque nunnery with rammed-earth walls and beautiful cloister) – visitors are as likely to be excited by the commotion of daily streetlife. So, put your walking shoes on and soak it all up.
3. Check out the state of the art
Opened in its current location in 1954, the Muse Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) (861 3858/www.museonacional.cult.cu) was reopened in 2001 to unanimous praise, following a five-year closure. The art collection – totalling nearly 50,000 works – has been divided into two separate buildings: the Cuban art collection (Arte Cubano), and the international collection (Arte Universal). The international collection is a passable survey of world art but the main draw is the building itself.
4. Find your Rumba rhythm on the street
Authentic Cuban rumba is a raw call and response format in song and dance, driven by pulsating African rhythms and tinged with Hispanic influences. Rumba is sometimes and impromptu happening. However, as a visitor, your best bet is to find the regular rumba spots around town, where the event is more formal but does still attract as many Cubans as tourists. The most atmospheric is the brightly painted alley, Callejón de Hammel (entre Hospital y Armamburu, 871 1661), where several rumba groups play on Sundays; the best known is Clave y Guagancó, which also performs at the UNEAC (Calle 17, esquina H, 837 5305). Sábado de La Rumba at Centro Cultural El Gran Palenque (Calle 4, entre 5ta y Calzada, 833 9075) is another good venue, and less touristy than Hammel.
5. Have a religious experience
The most widely practised religion in Cuba is santería, known also as the regla de ocha or Yoruba religion after the orishas or gods from western Nigeria. During the ceremonies in honour of the orishas, each one is invoked by using his or her distinctive drum rhythm and dance. Some of the initiated participants may appear to become possessed and assume certain aspects of the orisha’s personality. Just how far you wish to delve into such rituals is entirely at your discretion. The annual festivals of the most popular orishas draw huge crowds. On 16 December, eve of the feast of San Lázaro or Babalú Ayé, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the sanctuary at El Rincón in southern Havana. Some of the more devout drag themselves along on their hands and knees, often with large stones tied to their legs. Another great place to learn more is the Museo de los Orishas (Paseo de Martí (Prado) #615, entre Máximo Gómez (Monte) y Dragones, 863 5953, www.cubayoruba.cult.cu) – the first museum in the world dedicated to orshas of the Yoruba panrheon.
6. Shout Viva la Revolución!
Rising above the city on Catalanes Hill, the Plaza de la Revolución is Cuba’s political centre. Given its political importance – a key location for May Day marches and other festivities – it’s an essential stop on any itinerary. The awesome Memorial y Museo a José Martí (59 2351/2347) is the centrepiece of the square. Attracting as much attention as Martí’s memorial is the bronze silhouette of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the work of Cuban sculptor Rafael Avila, pinned to the Ministry of Interior building.
7. ‘Playas’ around on white sand
The Playas del Este are frequently overlooked by tourists, but more than hold their own against the slicked-up resorts elsewhere in the country. Just 20 minutes by car from Old Havana the beaches are really a single, eight-kilometre (five-mile) stretch with changing names (from west to east): Tarará, El Mégano, Santa María del Mar, Boca Ciega and Guanabo. Each with their own differing scenic nuances and unique feel, they offer something for everyone.
8. Get a taste for authentic Cuban cuisine
Cubans started welcoming paying diners into their houses to enjoy home-cooked food in the mid 1990s, as part of the government’s introduction of limited private enterprise. Family members are (in theory) the only employees at paladares, so there are usually plenty of dramatic domestic outbursts for you to enjoy while you eat. Particularly fine paladar cuisine can be found at La Cocina de Lilliam (Calle 48 #1311, entre 13 y 15, Playa, 209 6514) and La Esperanza (Calle 16 #105, entre 1ra y 3ra, 202 4361).
9. Toast Hemingway, then go to a real Cuban bar
The classic Hemingway haunts – La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado #207, entre San Ignacio y Cuba, 866 8857/867 1374/5) and El Floridita (Calle Obispo #557, esquina Bélgica (Monserrate), reservations 867 1299, switchboard 867 1300) – are particularly under-patronised by locals, and have become little more than photo opportunities and places to rip off tourists with watered down mojitos at extortionate prices. Of course, Hemingway would be not want to be seen dead in such spots, so make like the great man himself and situate yourself appropriately for cultural osmosis: Bar Monserrate (Avenida de Bélgica, #401, esquina Obrapía, 860 9751) consistently comes up with the goods and Lluvia de Oro (Calle Obispo #316, esquina Habana, 862 9870) has a fabulously raucous atmosphere when a band plays.
10. Roll a fat one in the Cigar Museum
Cuba is the country that historically produces the best tobacco in the world; and Cuban cigars reel in millions of tourists each year. Of the major cultivating areas, Vuelta Abajo (Pinar del Río Province) and Vuelta Arriba (Villa Clara Province) are considered to have the best vegas (small plots). Havana, however, is cigar city, home to the habano. This is where the torcido (rolling) takes place, transforming the tobacco leaves – already dried and aged – into habano cigars. Of the guided tours, the best is at the Partagas factory (Calle Industria #520, entre Dragones y Barcelona, Centro Habana, 866 8060, tour CUC 10) – nicotine patches optional.
11. Watch out for Cuban Banksys
In the last five years an urban graffiti style has started to emerge, and collaboration with foreign artists is also increasingly common. The essence of Cuban murals is colour. Bold primary colours and oranges, pinks and other hues glow in the Caribbean sun. A trip to Regla is rewarded with the 100-metre-long (328-foot) mural in the centre of the village showing off the best of Cuban and Brazilian artists. Eagle-eyed visitors will spot iconic images by British graffitist Banksy, including a ghetto rat on the corner of Obispo and Aguiar in La Habana Vieja, and cool animal stencils by the French graffiti collaborative Mosko et Associés in Centro. To see homegrown artwork at its best, head to the ebullient barrio of Callejón de Hammel in Centro Habana where the work of local artist Salvador González Escalona has given his neighbourhood a makeover.
12. Witness the evolution of Cuban music
In order to best understand the evolution of Cuban music, it’s best to take a peek at Havana’s historic music halls and clubs. El Gato Tuerto (Calle O, entre 17 y 19, 833 2224) is a club with a strong tradition. During the wild nights of the 1950s it was one of the main haunts of the writers and singers credited with creating filin. These days it’s a prominent venue for bolero, and the bill usually features first-rate artists who play three sets with interludes until 4am. For a spot of real old-time spirit head to the Salón 1930 ‘Compay Segundo’ (Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Calle P, esquina 21, 836 3564/3567). This luxurious hall at the Hotel Nacional was the place to see the original Buena Vista Social Club in Havana a few years ago, and even though the big names of the Buena Vista Project have passed away, the remaining musicians are masters in their instruments and play with real zest.
13. Tour the city in a classic 50’s car
What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Cuba? Rum, you say. No, not that one. Cigars? Close, but no… That’s right, cruising around town in a 1950’s classic car is the only way to take in the sights. Make sure you ask your driver to cruise along the Malecón, the atmospheric ocean road lined with lovers, fisherman and dogs peering out to sea set against a backdrop of a long parade of coloured but fading, dilapidated and salt-eroded colonial and art deco buildings.
Bookable through Gran Car at all hotel tour desks. Cars are recognisable by their highly preserved state and black logo. They cannot be hailed on the street.
14. Shimmy down to Cabaret Tropicana
More Vegas than Berlin, Havana’s caberet-espectáculos are song and dance variety shows performed by G-stringed mulatas. With the state aware of their huge popularity with foreign visitors, the primary function of cabarets these days seems to be to fleece tourists. Dress appropriately – avoid shorts, sleeveless T-shirts and sandals – and keep your mind on your money and you’ll be sure to have a good time. Shimmy down to the Copa Room (Hotel Riviera, Malecón, esquina Pasea, Verdado, 334051 ext 119) to see some of Havana’s finest groups perform at the weekends but the real coup de grace is Cabaret Tropicana (Calle 72 #4504, Linea del Ferrocarril, 267 171/0110, www.cabaret-tropicana.com) – tucked away in the western neighbourhood of Marianao, it’s the grandest of Havana’s cabarets with an outdoor theatre seating up to 800.
15. Get fanatical about Baseball
For an introductory glance at Cuba’s main national sporting obsession, taking a visit to a Cuban ballpark during the Serie Nacional de Béisbol (late October to April) or during the play-offs (April/May) is a relaxing escape into baseball’s innocent past – it’s free of luxury boxes and giant electronic scoreboards – which belies just how deep baseball runs in Cubans’ veins. Havana has two teams in the Serie Nacional, Metropolitanos and Industriales (or Los Azules, the Blues), the latter the most successful team in the league’s history. The home ground for both teams is the Estadio Latinoamericano, which is transformed into a veritable lion’s den during the local derby. For a measure of how seriously Cubans take their baseball, and how fanatical they can be about it, head for Parque Central on the edge of La Habana Vieja. Here you can witness a daily gathering of baseball aficionados arguing passionately over the game.
16. Take a day trip to Che’s mausoleum
Santa Clara was the scene of one of the most significant events of the Revolution: Che Guevara was the leader of the rebel column that took the city in 1958, after a battle that effectively spelled the end of Batista’s rule in Cuba. The city is now a mecca for worshippers of Che and there are several monuments around the outer neighbourhoods where the famous rebel is commemorated. A huge statue of him, the Monumento a Che Guevara, towers over the entrance to the city at Avenida de los Desfiles on Plaza de la Revolución. Below the statue is the hero’s mausoleum, which also houses the remains of the other Latin American guerrillas who died with him, and the Conjunto Escultórico Memorial Ernesto Che Guevara (042 20 5878, closed Mon). The museum contains displays on Che’s involvement in the Revolution, and some of his personal belongings.
17. Go beyond the Buena Vista Social Club
Some people still think today’s Cuban music scene can be summed up in four words: Buena Vista Social Club. While there’s no denying that it was Wim Wenders’ 1996 film that catapulted the BVSC musicians to international fame, they were already well-known major talents. But what of new musical talents emerging from the island? Recent winners of the Gran Premio Cubadisco, the most important record industry event on the island, are Equis Alfonso (2005) and the collective Interactivo (2006) – all of whom are in their early 30s, with a long and promising future ahead of them. Another such impresario, Roberto Carcassés is the undisputed leader of Interactivo and is regarded as a spiritual guru who believes the purpose of playing music is to find the legendary ‘lost chord’. Check these and many others out at the beautifully appointed Longina (Calle Obispo #360, entre Habana y Compostela, La Habana Vieja, 862 8371) music shop and at Casa de la Música de Centro Habana Avenida Galiano #255, entre Neptuno y Concordia, 862 4165).
18. Go sport fishing in the Gulf
Fishing fanatics flock to Cuba to try their luck with the huge number of fish that swim in the Gulf Stream. The country hosts numerous major fishing competitions, the most famous of which is the annual Ernest Hemingway International Marlin Tournament in May or June. You can charter a boat for sport fishing from Marina Hemingway and Marina Tarará. To go ocean fishing, you have to bring your passport and check out with the coastguard and immigration at Marina Hemingway. It’s also important to know which fish can be eaten; barracuda can be contaminated with a highly venomous coral toxin.
19. Have a glass of cold chocolate
To call Museo del Chocolate (Calle Mercaderes, esquina Amargura, 866 4431) a museum is an overstatement, perhaps, though there are some nice artefacts relating to the history of chocolate in Cuba. In any case, it’s a lovely place to stop for a breather, whether you opt for a warming cup of hot chocolate (thick enough to stand your spoon in) or a soothing glass of cold chocolate. You can also watch chocolates being made at the back of the premises. Make sure you buy some truffles to take away. Note that there are often long queues for tables, and that the museum sometimes closes when the chocolate runs out or a VIP turns up for a visit.
20. Take in the view from Cuba’s most famous hotel
Havana’s most famous hotel, and the only one in Cuba that’s a national monument, the National first opened its doors in 1930 hand has been frequented by the rich and famous ever since – there’s something about cruising through the lobby in the knowledge that you’re following in the footsteps of so many famous names, including Winston Churchill and Al Capone. Head up to the hotel bar La Terraza for a cocktail and a magnificent views of the Malecón.