Unique Havana Holidays

One of earth's most extraordinary cities, the Cuban capital fizzes with energy, colour and cultural verve, while its streets are a bizarre time-capsule of colonial and modern grandeur and 1950s Americana.

Havana exudes time-worn charm and character - from the crumbling Art Deco and Spanish colonial architecture of its skyline to the lively culture, cafes and dance halls found in its streets. A fusion of influences has sparked magic, creating music and dance found nowhere else. And a truly unique, paradoxical history woven into the very fabric of the city makes it a destination in its own right.

From £2389 per person

Holidays in Havana, Cuba

One of earth's most extraordinary cities, the Cuban capital fizzes with energy, colour and cultural verve, while its streets are a bizarre time-capsule of colonial and modern grandeur and 1950s Americana.

Havana is like no other city in the world. The Cuban capital intoxicates visitors with its potent cocktail of premium cigars, high-quality rum, pulsating music and dazzling dance mixing with the sultry sea air in colourful streets of faded colonial grandeur and atmospherically dilapidated buildings. Shielded from globalisation, the usual billboards and branding is replaced by socialist propaganda posters and iconic revolutionary images. These sit peculiarly beside the miraculously preserved 1950s Americana that is another hallmark of Havana - Chevrolets and Studebakers still ply the streets in a city that has been at odds with America for more than fifty years. But that's set to change with the recent softening of US-Cuba relations, which could slowly open the door to globalisation and unthaw a city virtually frozen in time for more than half a century.

Hugging a natural harbour on the island's north coast, the capital city fans out into several districts that are home to five times more people than anywhere else in the country. And it is the Habaneros that make Havana such a bright, interesting and friendly place to visit. A fusion of diverse cultures from Spain to Africa has sparked creative magic in the city, spawning original forms of rumba and salsa that are unique to the island.

A symphony of architectural styles - 500-year-old heritage, Neoclassical, Baroque, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Eclecticism, and Modernism - jostle for space in the city's skyline. Tumbledown Spanish colonial mansions lean precariously on the shoulders of restored buildings painted in bright ice-cream shades and peeling in the tropical sea air. The city's old colonial core is Habana Vieja (Old Havana), while to the west is rundown Central Havana and the more spacious and leafy Vedado district, which is the city's cultural and entertainment hotspot. Further west still and travellers can explore the palm-lined avenues of the modern Miramar district, with grand hotels and mansions evoking the glamour of 1950s Havana and a trade centre that marks it out as the business and financial centre of the city.

The city that time forgot

Visiting Havana is like stepping through the looking-glass into a parallel world where the march of industrialisation and capitalism has been held back for decades. Most visitors are first captivated by Habana Vieja - the UNESCO World Heritage site- where a grid of atmospheric 16th-century streets and cobble-stoned plazas are lined with restored reminders of Cuba's Spanish colonial past. Street performers fill the squares with song while live music leaks from a bevy of cafe-bars, vendors peddle their wares and hustlers attempt to make a quick buck. There are open-air restaurants, bakeries and paladares (private eateries) tucked behind the facade, and book-sellers and countless museums offering food for thought. Lots of locals live here too, giving the old city a certain vital and authentic air that's often missing in the old quarters of world cities.

Of the many atmospheric squares in the old city, Plaza de la Catedral, named for its grand baroque church, is one of the prettiest. Dominated by the concave, columned facade of cathedral, the square is enclosed by elegant old mansions. Perhaps the most visited and lively square is Plaza de Armas, flanked by 16th-century Castillo de la Fuerza and the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Around Parque Central, where Havana Bus Tour departs on a number of hop-on hop-off sightseeing routes, the early 20th-century architecture is distinctly stately. The spectacular Gran Teatro building, home to the national ballet, overlooks the park and, nearby, the huge domed Capitolio Nacional is the former seat of governance.

One of the best ways to experience a snapshot of local life is to walk the length of Havana's splendid 4km-long seafront promenade - the Malecon - that stretches from Habana Vieja to Vedado. Fisherman, troubadours and locals converge here, simmering in the sun, diving into the surf and enjoying free entertainment day and night.

Rum, cigars and revolution

Havana is awash with museums dedicated to everything from fine art to chocolate. Many of them showcase Cuba's unique heritage, but some are devoted its most emblematic products - namely rum and cigars. The atmospheric Museo del Ron, housed in an ochre-coloured colonial mansion, takes visitors through the story of traditional rum production and includes an on-site distillery with tastings of the resulting Havana Club rum at the end of the tour. For a close look at Cuba's cigar industry, you can take a tour of the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas - one of Cuba's oldest cigar factories, dating back to 1845 - which produces Montecristos among other famous Habanos brands. Here you can climb through the factory to see more than 200 workers complete the cigar-making process from raw leaves through to rolling and boxing, and purchase some of these prized products at the end of the tour.

Legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway once made Havana his home and is celebrated in Cuba, and you can seek out his haunts on a tour of the old town. Hemingway famously said 'My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita' and El Floridita is just as atmospheric today as in Hemingway's time where you can enjoy Havana Club rum and local cigars at the bar and listen to live music every night. Less swanky than El Floridita, La Bodeguita has a more local feel, serving tasty traditional Cuban food, as well as Hemingway's favourite mojitos. The author's former home, the Finca La Vigia, has been preserved as a museum dedicated to him, which you can also visit on the outskirts of the city.

No visit to Havana is complete without learning a little about the revolution that has shaped this fascinating country. The city's vast Revolution Square in Vedado is the obvious place to begin, where you can see statues of revolutionary icon Che Guevara and a memorial to Cuban national hero Jose Marti, and witness one of the rallies and political marches that are often held here. Havana's most famous museum, the Museo de la Revolucion, is another important stop on the revolution trail, which is triumphantly housed in the opulent palace of toppled Cuban dictator Batista. To delve further into Cuba's history, visit the Museo de la Ciudad de la Habana, which charts the island's colonial heritage in great detail.

Captivating culture

The vibrant culture in the capital is testament to Cuba's creative energy and spirit and Havana is one of the best places on the island to experience traditional salsa and son, Cuban jazz and a myriad of other Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Simply strolling the streets of Old Havana is enough to bring you into contact with music. On Calle Obispo, for instance, live music wafts from a series of cafe-bars, while bands play Cuban songs in the streets and squares. In fact, Havana is heaven for music lovers. Famous groups like Buena Vista Social Club and Los Van Van are virtually house bands in the capital, regularly popping up at Casa de la Musica or Cafe Taberna as well as other local venues. Cafe Cantante Mi Habana is a favourite haunt for both locals and visitors, where you can dance to live salsa and enjoy great cocktails.

Havana's Vedado district is the cultural heart of the city with a thriving art and music scene, stomping dance halls and a whole host of venues to choose from. Jazz fans should not miss a trip to the Jazz Cafe, which draws locals as well as travellers from all over the world for the quality of its live music. For a taste of Afro-Cuban culture, you can visit El Gran Palenque on a Saturday to see the scintillating Sabado de la Rumba performed on the shady patio.

For a more dazzling display of Cuban music and dance, the legendary Club Tropicana is an experience not-to-be-missed, while Gran Teatro's bewitching ballets are living proof of Cuba's dedication to the arts. Fine art fans will not be disappointed by Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes' stunning collection. Divided into two galleries, the Palacio de Bellas Artes exhibits Cuban art and Centro Asturiano showcases works from around the world. You can find lots of cool contemporary galleries around Havana too. If you want to take the city's creative pulse, Fabrica de Arte Cubano can give you an insight into a myriad of art forms with a theatre, gallery, music venues and bars housed in the atmospheric confines of a converted peanut oil factory.

Quirky hotels and restaurants

Havana's converted colonial mansions and palaces steeped in history offer one-of-a-kind accommodation options, where travellers can experience total immersion in the fascinating story of this unique city. You can check into Hotel Beltran de Santa Cruz, the former mansion of a marquis, for instance, or other boutique hotels such as Hotel Los Frailes and Hostal Valencia. Alternatively, for a touch of old world glamour, consider a stay at the revived Saratoga hotel, which was a favoured Havana hotspot in the 1930s and has been repeatedly listed as one of the Caribbean's most ambient and glamorous hotels. But perhaps Havana's most well-known place to stay is the handsome Hotel Nacional in Vedado, seemingly styled around an Arabian palace of delights, which has been welcoming celebrities for decades.

Unique boutique hotels have begun to emerge in the city too. El Terral takes pride of place as the only hotel amid a restored section of the Malecon, with spectacular seafront views. Reflecting the city's arty edge, Hotel Residencia Habana 612 is a quirky, recently-opened hideout that would not be out of place in the fashionable districts of San Francisco or London. Housed in a haunting renovated building that embraces Cuban concepts of sustainability by using local recycled materials in its furnishings and decor, it's one that certainly stands out from the crowd.

Though Havana generally lacks the luxurious suites and gourmet restaurants of other cosmopolitan cities, it does offer something really special. The choice of accommodation options has mushroomed to include homestays, known as casas particulares, where locals rent out rooms in their private residences to travellers. While the quality varies, some are on a par with the standard you would expect from a boutique hotel. Similarly, private restaurants, known as paladares, have sprung up around the city offering welcome additions to its state-run dining scene. Dona Eutemia by Plaza de la Catedral in the old town is one popular option.

These unique enterprises, hidden among Havana's architectural marvels, perfectly encapsulate the resourceful and warm hospitable nature of the city's inhabitants. Though the city has many cultural delights and classic sights to offer, visiting a paladar or staying in a casa particular will bring you closer to a culture that exists nowhere else in the world.


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Unique Havana Holidays

Unique Havana Holidays

Havana exudes time-worn charm and character - from the crumbling Art Deco and Spanish colonial architecture of its skyline to the lively culture, cafes and dance halls found in its streets. A fusion of influences has sparked magic, creating music and dance found nowhere else. And a truly unique, paradoxical history woven into the very fabric of the city makes it a destination in its own right.

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