Anchored by the gracious Plaza de la Cathedral, Havana’s Old Quarter (La Habana Vieja) is a magnificent architecture ensemble of monuments, fortresses, cobblestone streets, and grandiose townhouses that once belonged to an affluent bourgeoisie. With some 800 buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, it is the most extensive and best-preserved colonial city in the hemisphere.
Paradoxically, the 1959 revolution responsible for the island’s decades-long isolated has helped keep the city’s finest architecture intact by banning private investments and real estate development – there’s barely an incongruous modern structure to be found among the arcades and palm-shaded courtyards of the old Spanish core. Foreseeing a great future in tourism, Cuba has tidied up parts of the Old Quarter to mirror the Colonial Havana that was once the richest (and most heavily fortified) city in the Americas. Even its dilapidated corners have a charmed melancholy about them and a sense of decaying glory. Lovingly maintained classic American cars from the 1950s still cruise the streets, making you feel like you’ve stepped onto a movie set.
The Old Quarter’s swankiest place to stay is Hotel Saratoga, whose 19th-century facade conceals a stylish 96-room hotel built in 2005. Set right on Parque de la Fraternidad near the must-visit Capitol, the famous Partagas Cigar Factory, and Havana’s Gran Teatro (the most important opera and ballet house in this lively city’s unrivalled arts scene), the hotel has a glamorous rooftop pool and from which to take it all in. Another impressive metamorphosis is the Hotel Raquel, a 1908 former bank that today provides surprisingly affordable splendour.
The grand Hotel Nacional is the city’s nest-known accommodation, built in 1930 to look like the Breakers in Palm Beach and still more places than hotel. Overlooking the Melecon, Havana’s great 4-mile waterfront drive, this landmark was spruced up recapture its glory days by restoring the opulent beauty of its Moorish arches and hand-painted tiles. Its Cabaret Parisien evokes 1950s Old Havana, when mobster Meyer Lansky operator Cuba’s most glamorous casinos here. But there’s no topping a show at the open-air Tropicana Cabaret. Since 1939 it has offered the city’s most over-the-top spectacle of color, sound, and movement, with scantily and spectacularly clad showgirls strutting their stuff to son and salsa. For the everyday Habaneros who love to dance, Casa de la Musica is one of countless laces to hear good music and try out your own moves. The apex of Havana’s music scene comes with its International Jazz Festival, when musicians from around the world perform alongside many of Cuba’s revered old-time stars.
Ernest Hemingway spent most of the 1940s and 1950s in Havana, creating some of his greatest works between time at La Bodeguita del Medio (The Little Bar in the Middle) and the slightly more formal El Floridita. A visit to these unabashed tourist-trap watering holes is de rigueur, to sample two of Cuba’s classic rum-based cocktails: La Bodeguita’s refreshing mojito and El Floridita’s frozen daiquiri, which Papa is said to have helped perfect. Hemingway’s home, La Vigia, is 10 miles outside Havana, in the village of San Francisco; it has been left untouched and is open to the public.
Havana’s historic bars are atmospheric and great fun, but Cuba cannot be considered a fool destination – yet. Things have improved considerably with the arrival of paladares, private homes that serve traditional rustic fare at a handful of tables. One of the best is La Cocina de Lillian, known for its romantic garden setting and ropa vieja (which means old clothes), a traditional, long-simmered dish made with beef or lamb.
BEST TIME: Nov – Apr for nicest weather; Mar for Celebration of Classic Cars; Nov for Festival Internacional de Ballet; mid-Dec for International Jazz Festival.