After the gradual opening up of Cuba as a travel destination that can now be experienced by American travellers, over the last years (and almost immediately after the official announcement of rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba governments with the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington) many expert travellers and independent bloggers have joined in the trend of listing their favourite things about Cuba and their top reasons why the time to see it and experience is now.
Plenty of loud voices in the world of travel (from Lonely Planet to National Geographic and CNN) have echoed this sentiment of urgency in travelling to Cuba and seeing it now before its opening to the world (but more particularly US tourists) could change its unique quirky and virtually untouched landscapes and (most particularly) streetscapes.
We ourselves at Cuba holidays also published our very own list of Top 15 things to do in Cuba Now, before it changes and many others have followed suit and joined the trend of publishing their top attractions in the island and top tips on how to spend your time there, join in local customs and adhere to the regulations for exporting goods, exchanging money, using credit cards or accessing internet.
And now, yet another independent U.S. writer eager to expose his experience of Cuba (in this case Havana in particular) with his opinion on what things in Cuba constitute the best reasons for more American travels to take the plunge, book their tickets and dive right into the Cuban culture to discover why Cuba is in Vogue and attracts not just ordinary tourists but a really long (and still growing) list of international celebrities and politicians who are falling for Cuba's timeless, romantic and time-warped appeal, as well as for the incredible music and dancing.
Drawing from his very own recent experience of visiting Cuba, upon his return to the US, TV writer and producer, David Latt; was quick to enlighten readers of the Huffington Post with his impressions of the island in an article outlining his top 12 reasons everyone should make their way to Cuba and see it now. Rather than reasons he actually listed his favourite 12 attractions in Cuba and then added 10 tips for making the most of a trip to the island’s strikingly multi-faceted capital.
David Latt’s 12 reasons to visit Cuba’s capital now are as follows:
Strolling around Old Havana
According to Latt the most touristic part of the old city is (La Habana Vieja) a definite must, with getting lost among the crowds on one of its busiest streets (like Obispo or Mercaderes) being one of the highlights of a visit to the capital. He particularly advises making your way from Calle Mercaderes near the Havana Harbour, west to Avenida Belgica.
As you navigate your way through the winding cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways he says to keep your eyes peeled in every direction to spot tiny shops selling everything from handmade crafts and fridge magnets to marionettes, Che Guevara motifs on T-shirts and other similar paraphernalia.
Absorbing the history
A most interesting part of a trip to Havana (which may prove somewhat uncomfortable for US travellers nevertheless) is perusing the local plaques marking special moments in history, like old battles and victories but also big billboards criticising the US embargo or denoting a particular US attack or attempted invasions to Cuba.
Latt says that Americans typically describe themselves as the good guys so it might take US visitors a bit of an effort and a hard-to-swallow gulp to come to terms with this. Still not all the history to be absorbed is about American interference, there’s also reference to the wars against the Spanish colony and many interesting historical facts to be absorbed.
Spotting unique vintage car wonders
One of the top things on anyone’s bucket list of must-photograph or must-ride-on or at the very least must-see is Cuba’s outstanding collection of classic American cars from the 50s and 60s. It’s a living museum of old cars that still roam the streets, some with visible decay, wear and tear whilst others immaculately preserved with gleaming fresh paint. Havana is a classic car wonder, from Chevys to Pontiacs, Buicks and Chryslers to Dodges, Ford Fairlanes and more.
Latt advises you don’t miss your chance to take a ride on one of these with the best parked around hotels and major squares like the Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolucion Jose Marti). His top tip here is to make sure you agree the fare and journey you want to make with the driver before hopping on.
Visiting the Revolution Museum
Or Museo de la Revolucion, as its official Spanish name reads. Once know as the presidential palace (Palacio de los Presidentes) this impressive building has been converted into a museum with exhibits documenting Spanish colonial rule over the island all the way to the years of The Republic and the period spanning Batista’s dictatorship, which Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew in 1959. The building itself is a living piece of history and in it you can still see the bullet holes from when Castro’s army took hold of it in the final moments of the revolutionary battle.
Other great items to peruse around the museum, Latt says, include war planes, a tank used to defend the country against US invasion and:
“...a Russian designed SA-2 surface-to-air-missile like the one that brought down a U-2 spy plane during the Cuban Missile Crisis”.
Taking in the Museum of Fine Arts
While Latt calls it the Palace of Fine Arts what he meant was Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana) and conveniently standing just across the Museum of the Revolution described in the above bullet point, I agree with him that it is certainly one of the city’s highlights. The collection of art pieces there is so rich and varied he recommends you devote several hours to perusing its art works and later enjoy a cup of strong Cuban café in the open-air cafeteria next to the ground floor.
Among other outstanding displays and beyond admiring the fine local art, Latt also recommends to check out Peter Turnley’s recent photograph exhibit there which will be on display until 15th February 2016 and which consists of an excellent curation of people living in conflict zones.
Walking along the Malecon
Probably one of the most recognisable features of Havana, the long curvature of the long Malecon seawall promenade is a sight to take in, to walk on and to let inspiration overwhelm you. It’s also one of the best spots in the city for people-watching as fishermen come to try their luck with the catch of the day and youngsters strip down to their shorts or pants to dive straight into the often choppy waters during the day.
At night it’s the city’s favourite hang out spot, where friends and lovers meet, where musicians serenade the walkers-by and set the mood for romance, where some flirt, others gossip and others try and get online at one of the Wi-Fi hotspots called telepuntos. It’s a centric point to all the activity that goes on in Havana, and at sometime during the week, whether they live close by or not, Cubans will make their way here to unwind, take in the sea breeze or simply meet up.
Checking out quality street art
Mr Latt insists that when in Havana you will want to check out the street art that’s to be found virtually everywhere around the city. But, since there are no guide books on the subject to give you pointers of which spots to hit to see inventive and colourful graffiti as well as colossal murals and caricatures, you should let your feet:
“...be your guide as you wander the main boulevards and off-the-beaten-path streets.”
His personal highlights were the murals outside the Museo Nacional de la Musica (currently under renovation at the time of writing) on Aguiar and Avenida de Belgica and the more famous Callejon de Hamel, where the collection of sculptures and murals are everywhere you look in a pedestrian walkway.
The more trodden of the two, it is likely to be invaded by crowds of tourists on weekends, so my personal advice if you head there for the striking art instead of the popular weekend rumba parties (which are a definite crowded tourist trap), is to head there at quieter times during weekdays.
Attending a live performance at F.A.C
Also known as Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) this hip new joint has been on everyone’s lips as of late and has rapidly become the capital’s number one haunt for the city’s hip young crowds of fashion influencers, artsy crowds and Bohemian souls. Its various stages have hosted some of the latest international stars that have recently come to the island to perform (Bob Gibbons from ZZ Top, to QuestLove) and beyond concerts and music halls this “sprawling complex” also houses art galleries to peruse, a disco, screening room, bar, café and lecture space.
David Latt’s top tip here is more of a warning about one peculiarity of this place:
“...tell your friends to hold on to the tickets they were given when they entered. Instead of paying for food and drinks in the café and bar, each person's ticket is marked. When you leave, your bill is totalled. You will patiently explain to your friends that if they lose their tickets, they cannot leave without paying a substantial fee.”
Eating out at the iconic paladares
As Latt says, no reader would be surprised to find this as it’s one of the most cliché things to do in Havana. He recalls the time in the late 90s when he first ate at the most iconic (and one of the oldest) paladares in Cuba, La Guarida, and says it has grown and evolved massively since then to offer excellent food on par with European five-star standards “and prices to match”.
He adds that while the earliest paladares were often nothing to be too impressed about with average food and makeshift improvisations inside locals’ homes, there are ones that now rival the best in the country with many still having that homely feel with beautiful artifacts and homely ambience, but with a variety, freshness and quality of the food that together with the service beats the government-run competition flat-out.
He recommends the one recently on the spotlight after having been visited by Katy Perry - El Cocinero in downtown Havana, La Guarida in Centro Habana, Chef Ivan Justo in Old Havana and Rio Mar in Miramar.
Drinking cocktails at rooftop bars with a view
Before he gets onto recommending the best viewpoints in which to enjoy a drink, Mr Latt devotes some time to the restaurant scene with a view. To dine while taking in the sights he recommends El Litoral on the Malecon, where food is a big highlight too and its Cuban-Italian menu doesn’t fail to please all (he adds that the French fries are “especially good”). For coffees accompanied by sweet treats like delicious crepes in a cobblestone narrow street setting he recommends Cuban designer, Jacqueline Fumero’s Café in the Barrio del Santo Angel (Old Havana).
And if you want to eat out among locals then hitting the Kasalta Sports Bar-Restaurant will give you incredible value for money with amazing tasty food (although he warns you must beware none of the waiters here speak English). For cocktails with a view Latt recommends the Bar Piscina Mirador at the Saratoga Hotel, the rooftop terrace at El Cocinero and the rooftop bar at Hemmingway’s favourite hotel, the Ambos Mundos.
Viewing the recently reopened US Embassy
Even when it’s officially reopened and resumed normal diplomatic relations, David Latt is quick to emphasise that you cannot enter the US Embassy in Havana without special permission. You’ll find it across the street from the Malecon seawall promenade and its most striking and surprising (also heavily photographed) feature is the mass of flag poles flanking it.
These once used to wave black flags as a form of response by the local government when the U.S. installed a display broadcasting news the Cuban government had blocked. After normalisation of relations the black flags are gone but the poles remain as yet another symbol of the lengthy battle of wills between the two nations.
(the most unusual one) Getting introduced to the local population of dogs and cats
According to David here, street dogs and cats in Havana look happy and well-fed (this might be because not all of the ones you spot roaming the streets are actually stray, but, and trust me if you don’t want to avoid disappointment, there are exceptions and you might come across some gaunt and ill ones).
Latt describes them as the other citizens of Havana (indeed they are) and says you’ll find them everywhere (agree again) whether that’s peacefully sleeping on sidewalks, begging for food outside restaurants or simply looking content and enjoying the daily grind of people passing by. As David states:
“The dogs come in all colours and sizes. Cats with thick, clean coats watched people walking to restaurants and in and out of curio shops. Their unhurried manner suggesting they had owners who love them."