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The air is humid and smells of gardenias. The ocean crashes against the seawall facing baroque and art deco buildings surrounded by leafy parks. Soft bolero music drifts down iron-wrought balconies and onto cobblestone streets where street vendors hawk fresh fruit. This is Havana, Cuba’s bewitching colonial capital city.
Havana is truly unique. Despite recent changes, the city seems to be frozen in time around the late 1950s. It is precisely this time warp that makes Havana such a culturally fascinating place that many call the capital of the Caribbean.
This post is part of our Explore My City series – come and visit cities around the world through the eyes of local parents
The best way to absorb Havana quickly is to visit its four main squares. Walking from Havana’s central Park to Old Havana and the four main plazas will give you the best view of the city, its historic buildings and most interesting sights.
The first plaza is the vibrant and colorful Plaza Vieja, a newly renovated square that displays the work of local artists. The square is surrounded by lively and trendy restaurants with excellent musicians playing late into the night. Have a local beer (Crystal or Bucanero) at the brewery on one of the corners or coffee and home-made pastries next to the brewery.
Then head off to the more somber and elegant Plaza de San Francisco. One of the oldest squares in the city, it is also one of the most beautiful. Local Cuban families will come to this plaza to take wedding and Sweet Fifteen photos (in Cuba it’s Sweet Fifteen, not Sixteen). San Francisco Church, in the middle of the plaza is now a museum and worth a visit. In this plaza is where you’ll find some of the more upmarket restaurants in town.
A short walk away down busy Mercaderes Street you’ll find Plaza de Armas. This is where the city of Havana was founded in 1519. The lush, green park in the center of the plaza is full of colorful flowers and makes for great photo opportunities. On one side is the Museum of the City of Havana with the imposing statue of Columbus in the open interior courtyard. Make sure to go inside the museum for a tour as this is one of Havana’s best museums.
Next is the Plaza de la Catedral where you can find the elegant church, San Cristobal de la Habana. Built between 1748 and 1777 in the Baroque style, this is one of the symbols of Havana. The plaza is interesting on its own with colonial arches surrounding three sides. There is something interesting to see on all sides of the broad square. One of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite restaurants, La Bodeguita del Medio is down the street, one of Havana’s best restaurants, Dona Eutemia, is down another and the artist’s factory, where you can see artists at work is right next door.
Havana is a powerhouse of colonial architectural masterpieces. In an effort to attract tourists and the foreign exchange that comes with them, the local government has increased its efforts to reconstruct the colonial buildings in Habana Vieja (Old Havana.) This is one of the few places in the world where the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Havana is full of surprises. For example, you can stay in a converted convent run by nuns or in a private home known as casa particulares. You are just as likely to party in a nightclub created in a renovated cooking oil factory as you are to see one of the finest collections of Napoleonic memorabilia outside of France at the Napoleonic Museum near Havana University.
For a cost-efficient way to see the city beyond Old Havana, make sure to get on the hop-on-hop-off buses. These leave from the front of the Hotel Inglaterra, in Central Park about every 20 minutes. The cost is only 10 CUC for about a 2-hour loop ride. Make sure to bring a hat or an umbrella to shield you from the hot sun.
The buses stop at key sites like the beautiful Colon Cemetery, the second most impressive in Latin America after Buenos Aires’s La Recoleta, the Plaza de la Revolucion where Cubans gather to hear political speeches and Havana’s luxury hotel area.
At that same bus stop, you can catch the bus that takes you to the Playas del Este or Eastern Beaches. This is a stretch of powder white beaches with clear, azure water just about 20 minutes away. Get off at the Tropicoco stop and enjoy one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Night Time in Havana is as vibrant and exciting as it ever was. Don’t miss the Fabrica de Arte Cubano in the upscale Vedado neighborhood where you can have your choice of dance performance, cinema, disco, art exhibits, dining, shopping and much, much more all within the same venue!
Another fine nighttime option for the jazz fan is the late-night club, La Zorra y el Cuervo just steps from the legendary Hotel Nacional.
There is just so much to see in Havana you’ll just have to return again and again.
About the Blogger
Talek Nantes is an author and the founder of the travel blog, www.travelswithtalek.com, where she shares travel tips, advice and inspiration to help travelers create their own unique travel experiences. Her specialty is providing travel advice to active, over 50 female travelers.
Talek has travelled to over 110 countries and her work has appeared in several travel publications.
With thanks to Talek for her contribution to our guest series.
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