Havana, Cuba: a friendly-faced city of derelict buildings, run-down balconies and cobbled pathways teeming with activity. The bustling alleyways are filled with intoxicating smells, vivid sights and a cacophony of sound. Nowhere else on the planet has been so stalled in its development, but in recent years, Cuba has restored diplomatic relations with the US and other countries, and is slowly emerging from its Soviet-era stasis. Not just about the cigars and rum, Cuba is vivid and arresting, capturing and ensnaring you with its colourful culture and its vibrant daily life.
WHAT TO DO
Take a walk through historically and culturally rich Old Havana with its beautiful, dilapidated buildings, majestic museums and churches. Venture down bustling side streets and hidden alleyways and you are more than likely to stumble upon little gems where incredible live music, impressive salsa dancing and inviting company are waiting. Be sure to visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba showcasing the finest colonial to contemporary art. Top-tip: hire a guide to take you around Havana to get an insider's view and in-depth knowledge of the city and its history.
WHERE TO STAY
If what you are seeking is an honest, affordable and authentic Cuban experience, staying with locals in a 'Casa Particular' (private home) comes highly recommended.
Alternatively, Havana's hotels are all beautifully renovated colonial buildings, rich in history and culture, offering a slightly elevated experience. The Parque Central hotel, located right in the beating heart of Old Havana, has kept its traditional, old-world charm but offers all of the amenities you would expect from a modern-day five-star establishment.
Take it up a notch at the grand and opulent, Hotel Florida which has been welcoming guests since 1885 and is home to two bars, a restaurant serving tasty traditional Cuban food and an extensive wine list, and a palatial marble courtyard housing songbirds in white cages.
La Guarida paladar has been gaining traction as one of the island's most impressive eateries thanks to its old-world glamour and grandiose decor. The rooftop bar offers panoramic views of the city and is the perfect way to end a night in Havana.
Hemingway’s Floridita, a favourite haunt of novelist extraordinaire, Ernest Hemingway, offers a refreshing relief from modern mixology bar culture. You'll encounter skilled bartenders who produce perfectly-crafted frozen daiquiris at incredible speed while visitors look on.
Be sure to pose for a pic with the copper statue of Hemingway himself, perched against the bar in his favourite corner, daiquiri in hand.
For street-cred, step into Bodeguita Del Medio. A quality restaurant first and bar second, this establishment is the place where Hemingway sipped many a minty mojito. Venture out the back and upstairs to escape the tourist hordes and enjoy incredible food washed down with quality Hemingway-prescribed and approved mojitos.
Once you have taken in all that Havana has to offer, head to the westernmost end of Cuba to explore the lush tobacco fields of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and origin of Cuba's finest export, the authentic Cuban cigar. Ride on horseback through the fertile fields of leafy green tobacco and interact with locals harvesting.
Words by www.monicawalton.com