Havana nights. It wasn´t by coincidence that the sequel to Dirty Dancing was named after the Cuban capital´s sultry nights, famous for being filled with a frenzy of hypnotic dancing, melodic sounds reverberating everywhere, echoes of laughter and singing, as well as evocative (and at times theatrical) streets laden with a serious dose of nostalgia.
They might not be what they once were in the 40s and 50s, the so-called golden years of the Cuban capital, when the finest of Hollywood’s elite used to roam through its streets and add glamour to the city´s evening scene. Yet, Havana nights are making a comeback, they are recovering its bohemian spirit and adding a sense of adventure to the night-time wanderer, and here I am to let you in on some of its secrets.
There is not one single Havana, there´s many of them, and within them various microcosms peacefully coexist – much like parallel universes where every taste is catered for, each with its own peculiarities, its own variations, its own temptations.
I venture to say that maybe, the most intriguing Havana of all is the one that awakes at midnight and comes to life during the earliest hours of the morning, vibrating with the aftermath of raging parities and nightlife overindulgences. It´s easy to get lost in the allure of Havana nights from sunset to sunrise in a flurry of cinemas, theatres, dance halls, bar hopping… a bite in a "paladar", a stop for coffee? Anything goes.
Well, not quite anything perhaps, as Cuba doesn´t have any official “bars” per se. At least, not ones that solely or exclusively function as such. Instead, most restaurants, "paladares" and even some cafes, have an ample cocktail and drinks menu, a bar and expert barmen to prepare your favourite libation. On the very bare minimum, any hospitality establishment in Havana has some Cuban cocktails on offer, even if options are reduced to the Mojito, Daiquiri and Cuba Libre.
You can also come across bars that offer a small "tapa" with your drink (and charge you separately for it), pubs that have no English beer in sight, small joint that are all about gin tonics, and places that are more about the atmosphere than about the drinks on offer. Like I said, there’s a lot of pretty much everything here, so much that many could get lost amid all the temptations unless they’re equipped with a map to help them find those top places that Cubans adore, and that you should prioritise on visiting if you really want to experience the most authentic Havana nights.
9 places to find the spirit of Havana nights
On the biblically named “Alturas Belen”, a neighbourhood in the Marianao municipality of Havana, you’ll find Cuba’s oldest, most legendary cabaret under the stars – the one they spoke about in countless Hollywood films and the one that has inspired so many songs. An all-in-one restaurant faced by the stage, where the meal is certainly not the main attraction. Almost two hours of non-stop cabaret show lull the audience into a sense of tropical intoxication. Scantily-clad dancers move to the beat of rumba, conga, mambo and son in ruffle of feathers and sequins. This place continues to be, since its inauguration in 1939, the quintessential symbol of Havana nights, intense; fast-paced and different.
You’ll find that many hotels in Havana sell excursions to Tropicana, sometimes combined as part of other full-day city tours.
One of the first bars in Havana’s new wave scene, its name defines its intention of elevating you to Nirvana. A place frequented by popular Cuban singer, Leoni Torres, this old converted basement is famous for also hosting private parties, special events and accommodating international celebrities like Mick Jagger, who made a stop here during his private holiday in Havana.
The entry cover is cheap, the ambience varies between electronic music and Havana’s salsa pop elite, warming up the stage. You’ll find it in the corner between streets 21 and 42, in the Miramar municipality.
This is where the stars in the Cuban music scene come to chill out and lay low after their concerts. Full of character and personality, this urban bar also benefits from exceptional service and attentive staff, making it an ideal place to relax with friends, especially in its quieter outdoor area. National drinks are king here, but you’ll also find a few international beverages, albeit a little higher priced than at other venues.
Also in the Miramar vicinity, this bar is very easy to get to from Vedado, as it’s just steps away from the tunnels that join both municipalities: Miramar and Vedado. It’s on Calle 10, number 513, between 5th and 7th Streets (although it looks more like Avenue 31).
You will fall in love with the concept of this modern space, with a visually (and gastronomically) pleasing appeal. This place is truly in vogue and the mood changes and transforms as the day goes on, becoming an exclusive club once night sets in, hosting the likes of Usher and Katy Perry, to name but a few of its most famous foreign visitors.
With Havana’s most extensive bar selection, its creative chefs also deserve to be mentioned. The place also stages live concerts and you’ll find it on Street 17, between E and F streets in the Vedado municipality, at the heart of Havana’s downtown, not far from the also popular Madrigal.
5. Humboldt 52
This is one of the very few openly-gay bars in Havana; cosy, inclusive and with an intoxicating vibe that enchants everyone. It regularly hosts drag shows and karaoke nights, while colourful cocktails are served to an open-minded clientele. It has an ample dance floor, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling and reserved spaces at the back for smokers.
As its name hints, it’s located at 52 Humboldt Street, close to where the centric 23rd Street and Malecon converge; a bohemian spot in Havana if there was any.
6. Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC)
This avant-garde multi-cultural complex has been polished to such perfection that frankly, it doesn’t look Cuban, much. Hosted in what once was an oil factory, FAC (its name translates as Cuban Art Factory) comprises an art gallery, various concert halls of all sizes, a disco, a decent bar and perhaps the biggest crowd of hipsters you’ll find in Havana.
A few steps from Puente de Hierro and the Espacios bar mentioned above, you’ll find FAC on 26th Street and 11th corner. It’s an obligatory stop for night owls on the prowl in Havana.
7. Casa de la Musica de Miramar
Raw Cuban timba and hot salsa with aggressive rhythmic twists are the staple here. Not suitable for the faint-hearted and shy dancers. After 10 p.m. reggaeton music usually takes over, although it’s occasionally replaced by rumba or electronic music. This is a place where the atmosphere heats up to boiling point, where passion and rum are added to vibrant, infectious music.
But the piece de resistance here are the concerts by Ray Fernandez, on every Thursday at 5 p.m. at the onsite piano bar “El Diablo Tun Tun”. A fun and interactive experience not to miss. It’s on 20th Street, 11th corner in Playa, close to the Espacios bar and a block away from the Cira Garcia hospital.
8. Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht
This subterraneous hall in Vedado hosts the Interactivo band every Wednesday, the kings of alternative and fusion music in Cuba. Bohemian by nature, this place attracts Cuban youngsters with its good ambience and music that excites and relaxes at the same time, good for dancing but also a great backdrop to friendly chatter or amorous encounters.
9. Submarino Amarillo
A nostalgia-filled trip to the past, getting onboard this submerged musical ship is like stepping back in time. Generations of Cubans that for years had to keep their love for the Beatles a secret, revel in this space, honouring the British band after which its named. Local bands perform live covers of Beatles songs as well as other famous rock hits of all time.
Appropriately located just steps from the John Lennon sculpture in the John Lennon park, this club is the place to get a break from Latin rhythms and let nostalgia take over.
Havana is one and many
This list is, after all, only a selection of some of the best places to spend your Havana nights. Every day new places pop up all over the city, catering to more specific needs and diversifying your options. Finding them is an interesting activity full of fascinating delights and encounters, a confirmation that in Havana, the wonderful and the surreal are not to be taken for granted.