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24 hours in Havana

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1 August 2012 by Alex Stewart

Wexas Online Editor Alex Stewart explores Cuba's capital, one of the most vibrant, complex cities in the Caribbean.

Stay

Hotel Santa Isabel Havana

Hotel Santa Isabel

Stunningly situated on the eastern side of the leafy Plaza de Armas, the seventeenth century hotel was the home of the Counts of Santovenia until 1867. Elegant and stylish, packed with colonial furniture and contemporary Cuban art, with rooms and balconies that overlook the square, it is a great place to base yourself in order to watch daily life unfold outside.

Calle Baratillo No 9, Plaza de Armas

Hotel Saratoga

Old world glamour and modern amenities meet at this architecturally impressive boutique hotel in the Old Quarter. Service is exceptional, there's a real eye for detail and some dramatic views of the Capitolio building and neighbouring Havana from its rooftop pool and bar.

Paseo de Marti No 603, Habana Vieja

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The enormous, slab-sided Nacional, a national monument, has a wealth of history and could tell a tale or two. Celebrities, politicians and members of the Mob have all hung out here and its celebrated music hall hosted the original Buena Vista Social Club.

Calle O, esquina 21

Casas particulares

To get a real sense of daily life, stay with a Cuban family in a licensed casa particular. These are people's actual homes, are often excellently located, very good value and full of character.

Eat

Cuba food

Paladares

These privately-owned restaurants are springing up all over Havana. Head to La Cocina de Lilliam, which has hosted the rich and famous over the years, although you don't have to be either to enjoy the delicious chicken mouse, tuna bruschetta and stewed lamb. Eat outside in an intimate garden filled with tropical plants or in an air-conditioned upstairs room. Alternatively, try the atmospheric, eccentric La Esperanza, which produces delicious dishes despite there being no menu to choose from or Casa Julia, which has been trading for more than a decade.

Calle 48 No 1311, Miramar; Calle 16 No 105; Calle O'Reilly No 506A

Café del Oriente

One of the fanciest state-run restaurants, this place serves lavish meals, prepared and presented with flair. The staff are smartly turned out and the surroundings are stylish, with marble floors, high cielings and impressive pillars. All this comes at a price though. Pause for a drink on the Plaza de San Francisco if nothing else.

Calle Oficios No 112, Habana Vieja

El Templete

Head to this popular place on the edge of the bay for delciious seafood; traditional starters set you up for some splendid seafood including Biscayan cod and red snapper served with clams, shrimp and sumptuous lobster.

Avenida del Puerto No12-14, Habana Vieja

Ice-cream parlors

Ice cream is an obsession in Havana. Coppelia is the national chain with paleticas, chocolate-covered popsicles, and bocaditos, ice-cream sandwiches, the most popular. Look out for pop-up machines selling improbably creamy flavours including coffee, condensed milk and rum and raisin, of course.

Cnr Calle 23 and L, Vedado

Drink

Bodeguita del Medio Havana

Bodeguita del Medio

Celebrated as a haunt of writer and journalist Ernest Hemmingway, this popular bar still boasts the signed message, 'My mojito in La Bodeguita. My Daiquiri in Floridita', declaring Papa's loyalty to the place. These days it's a little touristy but they still serve a superb mojito, host live music and encourage you to add your name to the autographs on the wall.

Empedrado No 207, Habana Vieja

Bar Monserrate

El Floridita may sell itself as the home of the daiquiri and Hemmingway's favourite place to down this drink - they even have a version created in his honour - but the cocktails are better and certainly cheaper elsewhwere; Bar Monserrate a couple of doors down is free from Hemmingway associations, so the drinks are half the price and the clientele far more Cuban.

Obrapia No 410, Habana Vieja

Lluvia de Oro

Attractive to look at and atmospheric when there's a band in residence, this is one of Havana's best bars to spend time in, meet people and sample the local rum. Watch out though for the jineteros and jineteras, hustlers, that also come to carouse here.

Calle Obispo No 316

Play

Car tour Cuba

50s car tour

You might jump on a bicitaxi (bicycle taxi) or take a cocotaxi (motorcycle taxi) but to really immerse yourself in the Cuban way of life, get behind the wheel of a 50's classic car. Chevy's, Studebakers, Pontiacs and Plymouths with fins and chrome fenders trundle round the city, making it a fabulously retro way to see the sites. Drivers are mandatory, meaning that you have more time to soak up the sights.

La Casa de la Musica

One of Havana's finest and most popular live music venues and nightclubs. Big names regularly play salsa and son here and entrance is cheap, although queues are correspondingly long. There's a sister venue in Miramar that's a little less edgy.

Av de Italia, Centro Habana

Tropicana

A local institution that has been going since the 1930s, this Las Vegas-style revue survived the clampdowns of the Castro regime and continues as an open-air cabaret. Immortalized by Graham Greene in Our Man in Havana, it has changed little since its 50's heyday and shimmering senoritas still dance salsa, son and bolero late into the night. Make your own mind up as to whether it's tacky or coolly kitsch.

Calle 72, No 4504

Explore

Havana Old Quarter

La Habana Vieja

Old Havana is the area most people picture when they think of Cuba; spend time strolling around the narrow streets, admire the architecture and iron balconies, duck into art galleries and museums, stop at an open-air café or bar and sample the sounds and atmosphere of this extraordinary district.

Habana Vieja, Habana

The Malecón

The atmospheric, faded seafront boulevard is a microcosm of the capital, with a parade of shabby, once-glamorous colonial and art deco buildings backing an open-air playground where fishermen, children, couples, hustlers and other habaneros gather. Drive it during a storm when waves break over the sea wall or cruise along in a convertible with salsa on the stereo.

Centro, Habana

Partagás factory

Synonymous with Cuba, cigars are big business here. Visit the oldest factory in Havana to see the extraordinarily skilled, time-consuming construction of each and every cigar by torcedores. Workers learn special techniques for rolling celebrated brands such as Montecristos and Cohibas, whilst the packaging and labelling of the cigars is just as intricate.

Calle Industria No 520

La Galeria La Acacia

The Museo Nacional Palacio de Bellas Artes holds almost 50,000 works of art and is a fascinating museum, but La Acacia, a high-end commercial gallery close to the Capitolio, is a must for art fans. It hosts a wide range of collections that showcase contemporary Cuban and avant garde art.

Calle San José No 114

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