I arrived in Havana on 3 July 2019, with no preparation of what I wanted to see or do, except that I wanted to learn to dance the Salsa. I was lucky that a slightly out of date ‘Cuba
’ Guide by Lonely Planet
was lying in the lounge of the San Lazaro BnB I stayed at. I annexed it for the more than three weeks that I stayed there, and found useful background information in it, but perhaps it contains too much information, not just focused on Havana, my only destination in Cuba, therefore making a large part of the book irrelevant to me. Much more useful was the Guidebook ‘300 Things to love about Havana
’ by Heidi Hollinger, focused on Havana, divided into the various suburbs of Havana, with an address, a good representative photograph, and largely accurate in its descriptions, even if published in 2018.
I must have seen at least 100 of the 300 recommended Havana highlights in the 26 days in Havana, and I have selected my favourite 21 Havana spots below, in no particular order, ending this story off with a warning against Tourist Traps.
My 21 Best Havana List
1. All things Ernest Hemingway
: Despite never having read any of this esteemed author’s
books, I have had an uncanny relationship with Hemingway, first in Pamplona whilst walking the Camino Frances in 2018, and now in Havana, where he is larger than life.
I have written a separate story about the links to Hemingway in Havana, which are the following:
#. El Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite lunch time bar. He hangs over the bar for eternity. Even though a Daquiri costs 6 CUC, it comes with delicious fried and salted banana chips, is buzzing with tourists, and always has Cuban music playing.
#. Hotel Ambos Mundos has created a museum out of room 511, which is where
Hemingway lived on and off, and where he wrote some of his novels.
#. Cojimar, a little fishing village on the outskirts of Havana, where Hemingway moored his boat Pilar, and where the La Terazza restaurant and bar was another of his drinking holes. Sadly La Terazza was closed for renovations when I went to visit it, reopening in October 2019.
#. The Museo Ernest Hemingway, on the outskirts of Havana, at the Finca Vigia where he lived for 21 years, and in which his home with its furniture, his books, and hunting trophies can be seen, with his yacht Pilar, the swimming pool, four graves of his dogs, a tower he used to see Havana city from, as well as a guest bungalow.
#. One of my destinations evaded me each time I went to Old Havana, not so centrally located, was another Hemingway drinking hole, La Bodeguita del Medio, known for its Mojitos. It looked exactly like that, jam-packed, not interesting me to stand in a queue to order the Mojito there. There was no music, as promised in the Guide.
A detailed story on Ernest Hemingway follows in the link below:
2. The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
, a locally owned hotel operated by the international Kempinski Group. Being very depressed about the state of the Centro suburb I was living in,
seeing dilapidation and poverty, it was a delight to enter a First World Hotel, with a sixth floor pool bar, serving cocktails, other alcoholic beverages, and international cuisine, and accepting payment with a credit card, without a surcharge. Sadly its service was a let down. The view from the pool bar over Havana is attractive, the pool area looks inviting, its rooms modern in design and style, and its hotel staff is extremely friendly, compared to a number of five star hotels I checked out for a last spoiling night in Havana. The rack rates look intimidating, but one is advised to book via the internet, a saving of 20%. Downstairs in the same building is a range of the most modern shops in Havana, including Mango, Cohiba Expressions cigar lounge, Giorgio Armani, Montblanc, and more. The Kempinski Hotel became a refuge when I needed some First World spoiling, and could use my credit card for this.
To make my booking at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, Ingrid the hotel PR showed me a room, and helped me make the booking on her laptop, the hotel having better offers online than at their front desk. When I did my WiFi later in the afternoon, there was the confirmation, with no deposit payment or credit card details requested. A surprise in a service-deficient Havana, but the hotel is German-managed! I did not leave the hotel on my last day in Havana, swimming in the pool, and utilising its bar. And there is constant WiFi connection, even though I experienced some problems.
, the seat of the government. I tried twice to get to buy a ticket to see it from inside, it being a landmark in Havana, and always helped me find my bearings when I wasn’t sure about my way back to the BnB. I regret giving up on finding the ticket office, and not seeing the amazing gilded statue from close up inside, which I was given permission to photograph.
Tour guide for an afternoon, Cintia Guevera explained that the building is not the same as the Capitol in Washington DC, despite having the same architect. The Capitolio is older, 1 meter higher, 1 meter wider, and has inner yards. The building is 91,7 m tall, and the gilded figure in its entrance is 17,5 meters tall, the third highest indoor statue, after a Buddha figure, and that of Abraham Lincoln.
4. Three special shops in Calle Amargura, even though government-owned, reflecting three special crafts, with superb interior design, and with dedicated staff, although the government salary is shockingly low :
#. Abanicos Habana
, selling fans, as is, or hand painted to add to their specialness and
individuality, a perfect gift for lady friends. What an amazing discovery. It is a beautifully decorated shop only selling fans, half imported from Spain, and the other half hand-painted by 21-year old Alejandro, who recently completed his art studies, and hand paints/decorates fans, selling them at a premium, and also can write a name, or do a specific drawing on a personalized fan, adding up to 3CUCs to the fan price. I ‘commissioned’ him to decorate some fans I bought. I sat down next to Alejandro, while waiting for the fan paint to dry, and we talked and talked. This talented young man earns the basic wage (read minimum) of 200 CUPs, about 10 CUCs (or Euro) per month! Shocking. He is supported by his mom and Gran, and saves every peso. He recently bought himself a camera for 200 CUCs from his savings. He spontaneously asked me if I am a writer, perhaps because of my many questions, and he proudly told me that he has written short stories and poems. I loved my chat with him. He said that I’m the first South African that he has met. I didn’t want to leave, but he had to serve a customer.
#. Apisun la Miel de Cuba, selling honey, in the most novel beehive-design shelving inside the tiny shop. It is an interesting joint venture between a private owner and the government.
#. Las Carolinas Flores, a florist, smelling beautifully of fresh flowers, a government-owned shop.
Saturday or sometimes Wednesday afternoon concerts at 18h00, often classical music, at the Basilica Menor Del Conventico San Francisco De Asis,
a most beautiful although very large venue, with excellent Cuban musicians performing, at an attendance cost of 10 CUCs. I attended a concert of the music of German Baroque composers, including Bach, Telemann, Handel and Böhm, in the massive 16th century Basilica, it being so sad that we were so few people to appreciate this beautiful music. It felt like a Camerata Tinta Barocca concert from back home, with harpsichordist Moisés Santiesteban, flautist Yiliam López, and amazing countertenor Frank Ledesma singing two Handel arias. The Havana Guidebook author suggests that the shepherd in the painting on the stage resembles Fidel Castro. I felt he resembled the countertenor Frank Ledesma.
In the immediate vicinity of the Basilica are
#. Although not signposted, the Guidebook guided me to visit the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Garden behind the church, with some greenery and a number of statues and gravestones.
#. Frederic Chopin sits on a bench nearby, and one can join him for a photograph.
#. Outside the church is the statue of the loved character El Caballero de Paris, who was known by all in the city, attracting all passersby for a photograph. One is to put one foot onto his, and rub his hand and beard for good luck. Children in particular love him.
Nearby on the Square Plaza de San Francisco de Asis is the Café del Oriente, a fine dining restaurant that I popped into briefly. The Guide Book suggests that it is the restaurant at which diplomats dine. It is government-owned, and
exudes old world luxury, with a menu of international dishes.
6. Walking the Malecón Promenade along the ocean, either walking west in the direction of Vedado, downtown Havana, passing mainly residential buildings that have a superb view, and will one day become Millionaire’s Mile when these buildings are renovated, a meeting and cooling off place for the locals after the heat of the day, in the late afternoon and early evening, with fisherman hoping to get lucky with a catch; or heading east, originally going ‘inland’ to get past the undersea tunnel taking one to Casablanca and other areas on the other side of the estuary, and then connecting to the promenade circumventing Old Havana, a more attractive walk to reach this popular tourist area.
7. The Paseo Del Prado
, a beautiful wide
marbled walkway leading one from the Malecón in Centro to the heart and start of Old Havana, and the most popular tourist area in Havana. It is a meeting place for all Haberneros, cooling off at the end of the hot humid day under shady trees; allows children to safely travel at great speeds on anything that has wheels, including skateboards, roller blades, bicycles, and toy cars; allows teenagers to meet up and hang out in huddles with cellphones in hand; to buy art by emergent artists on weekends; and the highlight for me, the late Sunday afternoon Cuba Tango demo dancing, beautiful sensuousness. I always felt safe on it, by day or night, it is well-lit in the evenings, and there is always police presence on it.
quickly became my favorite ice cream store in Old Havana, and I introduced other tourists to it too. I lost track of the number
of times i went there over my 25 days in Havana. One day I sat next to a young man of 10, who was there with his Gran, speaking the most perfect English he had learnt at school, with a lovely pronunciation too. He told me that his name is Rigo, Maths is his favorite subject, he likes playing soccer, and this is his favorite ice cream shop. I said he must be top of his class, and he admitted that he usually is. It followed that his dream is to become a lawyer. His parents own a BnB. I can see this boy going far. A delightful conversation. I met a Dutch/Mexican couple here too, and we had a long chat, having got caught up in the store during a very heavy thunderstorm and pouring rain.
I stumbled onto the street on which Helad’Oro is in, the best known best quality ice cream served in Havana, chilling its customers as well as the ice cream……., it is so cold inside the shop. Flavours which I had are Salted Caramel and Chocolate, in a beautiful waffle cup, at 2,50 CUCs. They also offer Mojito, Oreo, Peanut butter, Tiramisu, Rum & Raisin, Lemon, Pineapple, Dulche de Leche, Nutella Brownie, Mango Sorbet, Lemon pie, White Chocolate, Mixed fruit, and Spekulaas flavours. It is jam-packed most of the time, being so popular.
9. Cuban Music
is lively and rhythmic, and can be heard from a distance, played by bands in top end hotels, as well as in restaurants in many parts of Old Havana, and especially in the pedestrian walkway Obispo. There is no entrance fee, but a basket to collect a donation does the rounds, and CDs are sold. Ordering a drink in the venue would be the right thing to do, to enjoy the music. If one is up to it, one can
spontaneously dance Salsa to the music. I could not find a decent place with a good band and interested attendees to practice my newly acquired Salsa dance skills. I found one Cuban band playing Buena Vista Social Club style music at the Opera Bar and Restaurant.
10. Taking Salsa classes
at the Marsuri Dance School in Centro, to learn the base steps to the rhythm of 1-2-3/5-6-7/ of Cuban music.
The staff are very friendly and helpful, and receptionist Cintia Guevara speaks excellent English.
11. Of all the buildings I saw in Havana, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral took my breath away, with a dome painted in gold, and an unusual ‘holy’ turret. It’s official name is Catedral Ortodoxa Nuestra Señora de Kazán (Our Lady of Kazan Russian Orthodox Cathedral), which was opened in 2008. I went inside, and could not believe the gold on the altar. Weird was that there were no chairs inside at all. A lady sat inside, safeguarding this precious possession. The building of the Cathedral was initiated by Fidel Castro, as a symbol of the Russian/Cuban relationship.
While I am not religious, I wanted to visit the El Cristo
statue of Jesus Christ in Casablanca. As I walked the Malecón Promenade heading east, I saw the statue, smaller than its Rio counterpart, at the top of the hill on the other side of the water, in a suburb called Casablanca, which one can get to by car or bus, or in my case, by ferry. In my Guidebook this outing was suggested, so I decided then and there to do so. The ferry boat was something else, ancient old, all of us in cattle class, it felt like, paying 1 CUC in each direction. Everyone pushes to get inside first, to grab one of the eight scarce seats. The ride took about 15 minutes, I choosing to head to Casablanca, my only goal being to get up close to the El Cristo de La Habana statue. I asked for directions, and I did a little Camino to get to the top of the hill. And there it was, 20 meters tall. It was made by Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera from Carrera marble, weighing 300 ton, carved in Italy, and brought across to Cuba in 67 pieces. It was erected in 1958. The tall statue was hit by lightning three times, before a lightning rod was installed next to it.
On our way to the Casablanca port I was shocked that a Cuban threw a plastic water bottle into the ocean – the only protection one has against the ferry and the ocean is an open doorway and a metal bar. I gave him an earful! When I got to the statue, there he was, and as a true gentleman he hauled me up a little wall, to get to the statue. I sort of forgave him his sins… There is a good view from the lanchita boat, there not being many yachts or boats visible on the water around here (I saw a yacht once). It is ramshackle but we got there and back safely. While I was waiting for the ferry to take
us to Casablanca, a tour guide sat next to me, and started talking. He was trying to sell me his services, challenging me to ask him questions, and despite saying that I didn’t need a guide, he still tried his luck!
13. The Havana Cathedral impressed me, closed on my first visit, but open on a second visit. It is in a lovely square, and I met a lovely family from Johannesburg here, recognising their South African English.
14. The Museum of Modern Art
was recommended to me by Austrian guests at the BnB.
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a generous collection over three storeys of modern Cuban Art. I did not know any of the artists or the work. But one I did recognize, and I got goosebumps. I had met the young artist Jose Manuel Mesia with an American family I bumped into and connected with three times in one week. When we visited his art studio, he showed us this painting on his laptop, a politically correct rectification, in his expression, of an important historical event regarding the injury and subsequent death of General Antonio Maceo, his painting and the original by another artist hanging side by side. José’s painting is huuuuuuge.
When leaving the Museum, I saw a boat-shaped collection of objects, consisting of mainly small boats and shoes. So clever. Well worth the visit and the 5 CUCs entrance fee. I went to the loo whilst at the museum, and the loo lady in a Duchess-type blue overall (do you remember those?) came running after me, with a loo roll in her hand, giving me my allocation of loo paper…. priceless. Clearly this is a luxury here in Cuba. In the San Lazaro BnB we did not get any spare loo rolls, you have to request another when the one in the bathroom is done.
15. The majestic Gran Teatro De la Habana Alicia Alonso,
a majestic building merged
together, named after the prima ballerina of Havana, now aged 98 (5CUC entrance fee). In the foyer of the building is a statue of ballerina Alicia Alonso, who retired from ballet at the age of 74.
Tour guide was prima donna Michael. He would tell us things, but then skip details, so that there would be an information gap, and then he would seem irritated when I asked questions, as if it was so obvious that I should know for example who Mr Tancon was, once a governor of Spain, after whom the theatre was named in the 1800s! He would read my notes on my phone as he
spoke, and reprimand me if I misspelt something. The Gran Theatre Tancon was completed in 1837, has 1247 seats, and in 2016 it was reopened after extensive renovations. At the time, its crystal chandelier was damaged, and fell. A new one was donated by the Havana City Historian Office, sourced from the Czech Republic. The Theatre is used as an Opera House, a ballet stage, and a music performance stage. Sadly it is closed for performances until the end of August, Michael sparing us no details as to what happens to the sewerage in their bathrooms when it rains…. this plumbing problem being fixed now. We were allowed to go up to the stage, and see its orchestra pit taking up to 90 orchestra members. Then we were to be impressed by all the famous names which have performed on the stage, including Sarah Bernhard, Pavlova, Baryshnikov, Arthur Rubenstein, Sergei Rachmaninov, Plácido Domingo, Simply Red, and even Barack Obama was on the stage, addressing Cuban dignitaries.
New people kept joining our tour, which meant that Michael had to start telling them things from scratch. Two men joined, and the minute one of them spoke, he was clearly from SA. I asked him. He denied his origin, stressing that he is from Australia. There was no Oz in that accent! I wondered why he denied his SA heritage.
To confuse matters, the building has a second half, which is owned by the Galician Social Club. I did not get why the province of Galicia in Spain (the one that is the home of the Camino) bought the then building next door, offering a massive space (2000 square meters) on the top floor for hosting events. The two buildings were amalgamated over time but with two entrance doors, with angels on two of three turrets (one fell off), and a facade created to unite the buildings into one. On the exterior, marble designs represent the muses Education, Music, and Theatre.
16. The Partagas Cigar Factory
, at 10CUC entrance fee with a guided tour led for the English visitors by Tamara, who has a big fat Cuban cigar in her mouth while leading the tour, lasting for just less than an hour, and is interesting for anyone who has or plans to smoke a cigar, in understanding
how the majority of Cuban cigars are hand-rolled,
and how to light and smoke them properly.
17. The beautiful and elegant Edificio Barcardi
building, of which the visitor may only see the building lobby, a shrine to Art Deco in this majestic building. It is just short of 90 years old, and was built by the Barcardi rum owners, Havana’s first skyscraper at the time. I loved the gold-like lift doors, almost hidden from the security desk. The walls and floors are a mix of terra-cotta, granite, and marble. A bat, the Barcadi logo, crowns the top of the
building. One cannot get to see any other part of the building, sadly.
18. The Museo de la Revolución is housed in a building often referred to as a palace, and not far from the San Lazaro BnB. It is housed in a beautiful building, described in its brochure ‘as a jewel of the Cuban eclectic architecture’. A history of the revolution is presented over more than 100 years. The building was once the Presidential Palace until President Battista’s reign ended in 1959, and honours the country’s leaders Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Cecilia Sánchez (female Guerilla fighter), and more. Sadly, half the museum was being renovated, with entrance to some rooms not allowed, so one could not see its interior decor by Tiffany of New York, and only a glimpse of its Versailles Palace-style Hall of Mirrors. A statue of highly revered Cuban author José Marti on horseback crowns the walkway leading up to the Museum. He was shot by the Spanish, who did not like his critical writing.
Bar and Restaurant is named in honour of Cuba’s best known music band Los Van Van, with an interior decor dominated by a music theme, with menus designed to look like LPs, with musical instruments dangling from the ceiling, fitted with lightbulbs at night to provide lighting from above, and a live band playing daily on weekdays from 16h00 until 22h00. One day I had almost spent all my pesos in my purse, but was lusting
after another delicious pineapple juice at VanVan Bar, where I had been two days earlier. I was 0,40 CUC short, so I asked the nice Barman Carlos if he could make me one in a smaller size. He took my money, gave me a regular size one, and came to the table to add the rest of the liquid in his blender into my glass. Oh my goodness, what kindness. Muchos gracias. On my third visit the same Barman was in attendance, making me yet another delicious ice cold fresh pineapple juice. …… oh my goodness. And then the flirting started. I hadn’t even finished the first one, when he brought a second one to the table, as a gift he said…. Then he wanted to know my name, and introduced himself as Carlos. I paid for my one juice, plus my debt of the previous day.
20. The Hotel Nacional
is a five
star government-owned hotel, worth a visit to see a large hotel with bellboys dressed the part from another era, and guided tours of the building at 10h00 daily, in English and in Spanish. It has a little ‘Fawlty Towers’ about it, the lift door not lining up to the passage floor, and giving a hefty jump when it moves between floors. It has a great location, overlooking the Malecón and ocean. At the hotel, the Bar is on the terrace outside, shaded, and I heard music playing in the background. The musicians came to our side eventually, not shy to ask for a tip and to sell their CDs. Service is slow. Seating is cane couches with red leather seats. Staff wear black slacks and white shirts. The 500ml government water costs 3CUC, about R45. I asked for a S. Pellegrino, but they were out of it! A German next to me was smoking La Paz cigars, from Holland, and shared that the hotel cigars are madly expensive. The room rates in High season vary from 247 – 1700 CUC, the latter for the Presidential Suite.
is a Gaudi-type Walter Battiss-style Fook Island fantasy world, created in North Havana by artist José Rodrigues Fuster. Inspired by his hero Picasso, Fuster created a fantasyland created with interesting shapes and figures, and covered in pieces of tiles. I found my heart-land in Fusterlandia, Fuster and I sharing a love for red hearts (main
Fuster is 72 years old, a painter, ceramicist, and sculptor, and started transforming his home in the poor suburb of Jamainitas in 1992. He saw Picasso as his spiritual father, and was influenced by Miro, as well as by architect Gaudi, who has created such colourful architecture and decoration in Barcelona in the main. It is impossible to describe what Fuster created in his own home, in a three storey house, each level with outside terraces, from which one can see his creations in the neighborhood. For me this is wilder than Walter Battiss’ Fook Island, with images in the pool, a table in the shape of a fish, benches with heart shapes, and in fact red hearts everywhere. I found my Heart-land in Fusterlandia ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️
I saw giraffes, human forms, one feeling child-like in climbing up and down sets of steps to see something new at each level. The most ‘normal’ of his property is the art gallery downstairs, which one is not allowed to photograph, in which Fuster artworks can be bought. I found
his surreal art on his building far more interesting than his paintings.
His neighbors so loved his crazy artwork in decorating his house, that they asked him to do up their houses too, resulting in parts of two streets forming Fusterlandia, now a thriving tourist area, with the neighbors selling mainly art and some other tourist offerings, as does the Fuster house sell parts of tiles, his paintings, and ceramic work.
Down the road are two visuals of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, each of the neighboring houses has a different look, its outside walls having been ‘Fustered’ by the artist. Taxis park down a side road, and half the wall has been transformed into a United Republic of South America (my words), each country represented visually, a project which is not yet complete. The Guidebook says that he has been allowed to decorate more than 100 houses in the neighborhood without charge, but I certainly did not see so many.
1. The Packard Hotel IberioStar, offering the most expensive Jameson whiskey at 8 CUC of anywhere I requested the price, with an automatic 10% service charge slapped on top of this price, not deserved for its non-existent service. The food is not worth trying, if the three ice cream balls I ate there were a benchmark.
2. The ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ show at El Guajirito should be avoided like the plague. It is overpriced at 60 CUC including dinner, with poor food served, while I paid 25 CUC for a show-only price, which included three drinks. Even at the reduced price it was a rip-off, only one song from this well-known CD performed, and the rest being a show with huge audience participation, working the room in asking each tourist where he/she was from and then playing a few bars of a well-known song associated with the country (mine was ‘Pata Pata’). At the end of the show we all landed up on the stage.
shared a table with the lovely Annemarie from Uruguay, learning a lot about her country. And about cocktails, having a Mojito, followed by a Daiquiri (pronounced here as die-kiri). For each cocktail we had to order it without sugar, the standard specified ingredient of the Cuban cocktail, making it too sweet. I am so happy that I didn’t fall for the dinner package. An Italian couple next to us pulled a face when they saw their steak, being an unappetizing looking mince dish! Very little BVSC in this show, and therefore a rip-off… 😱
3. Renting a convertible old timer, at 100 CUCs for two hours, for a Havana sightseeing tour, money I was not prepared to spend for an ego trip. My feet were an excellent means of transport.
4. The Feria San José Market, in a massive warehouse, with art, art, and art (I liked a painting of a dancer, and one of Marilyn Monroe, but the prices were outrageous), clothing, cigars, jewelry, t-shirts, caps, etc.
Visiting Cuba is not for the faint-hearted, and it is important that you read my introductory Blogpost to Havana and Cuba:
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein