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Aug 01, 2014
36 Hours In Havana - New York Times

36 Hours in Havana

They love us in Havana. Now that the Cuban government has lifted travel restrictions American visitors are getting especially warmly welcomed as seemingly everyone there already has family in the US or wants to visit.  Assuming our own Cold War-era restrictions continue to loosen, US citizens will discover what millions of South American, Canadian, European, and now Cuban-American visitors (recently exempted from our government’s travel ban) already know: There’s nothing in the world quite like Havana, Cuba’s capital and the Caribbean’s cultural hotspot. Only a 40 minute flight from Miami whisks you to a city that seems from another time and continent with a thriving contemporary arts scene, ancient narrow streets plied by immaculately maintained US vintage cars and fun-loving inhabitants who seem not to walk but to sway to a musical beat that rolls over the city every night like the mist over the Malecón. No wonder this glamorous city so beguiled our grandparent’s generation. It’s got enough new panache—and passion--to seduce ours as well.

 

FRIDAY

4 p.m.

1 A Capital Living Room

Introduce yourself to Havana --and vice versa-- by strolling the Malecón, Havana’s dramatic ocean front boulevard, fishing spot and hangout zone. Start from Havana Viejo and curve your way down the bay with the waves pounding against the seawall to the old Hotel Nacional perched on a promontory above the Art Deco bedecked district of Vedado. If you can make it that far, reward yourself with a mojito in the Nacional’s gorgeous Moorish lobby once graced by the likes of Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire and gangster Lucky Luciano.

 

8 pm

2. Capitalist Dinner

You can literally taste Cuba’s nascent experiment with a free market economy in the thriving paladares—homes and apartments turned into private restaurants—that have revolutionized the country’s formerly drab state-run dining scene. Havanaphiles will argue endlessly which paladare is best but La Guarida still rules the roost.   Wander up a dilapidated stairway in Havana Viejo to a suite of ornate rooms and balcony where lobster tacos, ajiaco--or whatever can be procured in Cuba’s heavily regulated food markets that day--are served with flair. Dinner with drinks for two are around 44 CUC (or $49 at .90 Cuban convertible pesos to the dollar). 

10 pm

3. Beat Street

Obispo Street is a lively walking lane cutting through heart of Havana Viejo lined with bars jumping to some of Cuba’s best mambo and jazz bands. Start at the southern end of the street at El Floridita that claims to be the birthplace of the daiquiri and was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite watering hole for two decades—his usual spot at the discreet end of the bar is now marked by an indiscreet life-size statue of him. Perhaps an even better stop is La Lluvia de Oro where the Cuba libres are served up with lobster snacks and outstanding live music. When you’re ready to move on, just wander and stop at whichever bar makes your foot tap the most.

 

12 am

4. Midnight in Miramar

Up for something even faster? Take a 15-minute cab ride to Casa Musica in the leafy suburb of Miramar that usually has live reggaeton—Caribbean hip-hop. More experimental music is played upstairs in the intimate Diablo Club.  For a mellower scene head for salsa, karaoke and a head-spinning array of rum concoctions at El GatoTuerta located in a colorful house surround by a mini-moat of swimming turtles near the Hotel Nacional.

SATURDAY

10 am

5. Chez Hemingway

The mutual love between US-born Ernest Hemingway and his adopted country can be seen by how carefully the Cubans have maintained the Finca La Vigía-- “Lookout Farm”-- his home for 21 years, nine miles south of Havana. Hemingway’s nomadic lifestyle is evident from the African game trophies and hordes of multilingual books adorning the rooms. His mail is still on the bed and his clothes are in the closet almost like he just stepped out for another fishing trip on the Gulf Stream. The Finca just completed a seven-year face lift under a rare joint US/Cuban venture between the Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation which provided restoration experts and the museums’ Cuban staff who ward over this hilltop man-cave as if it were a cathedral.

 

Noon

6. Lunch at the Cathedral

Reserve a table in advance at one of Havana’s most stylish and popular paladares, Doña Eutimia, scenically located in a corner street off Plaza del Cathedral.  The restaurant is squeezed into three cozy parlors but if it’s not too hot grab a table outside on the cobblestones to enjoy ropa vieja, grilled shrimp and other Cuban delicacies washed down with mojitos frappes. Lunch for two: 30 CUC.

 

1:30 pm

7. Legal Cubanos

The sweet scent of dried tobacco leaves wafting outside the picturesquely dilapidated Partagás Factory leaves little doubt what used to go on here. Now most of the cigar rolling takes place in more modern facilities outside of town. But the store and bar adjoining the entrance are Old School and sell some of the finest stogies on the planet, including the rare Cohiba Behike, rolled from a blend of scarce leaves responsible for its famed “creamy” taste. Stick around for an espresso or aged rum to balance it out.


2:30 pm

8. Hyper Capitalist Outpost

A wooden rooster? Nude portraits? Che wear? Few markets are as lively as the Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Depósito San José which operate out of a harborfront warehouse the size of two football fields. Socialist tendencies are exchanged for lively haggling amidst a cacophony of vendor stalls.  The market also has a couple of pleasant open-air grill cafes in the corner to watch the ships sail by.

 

4:00 pm

9. Art Tango

The gallery Seo D’Jesparo (O’Reilly 501, www.leodlazaro.blogspot.com) is one of Havana’s most surreal sites. Run by artist Leod Lazaro, the gallery has become a gathering space for young Havana artists and their muses. On many evenings Lazro even conducts public tango and waltz lessons or other “happenings” amidst his gallery’s provocative installations.

 

5 pm

10. A View to Kill

11. The imposing fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña (entry 6 CUC) has been defending Havana beneath its towering hilltop cannons since the 18th century and still affords the most epic view in town, especially at dusk. Next door to Che Guevara’s former home (entry 4 CUC) which is kept as a shrine with grisly relics—his bloodstained death stretcher is displayed with the reverence of the Shroud of Turin--the fortress served as Che’s post-revolutionary office when he was the head of the army. Here he personally supervised the frequent firing squads in the dry moat. Despite its grim history, the Cabaña remains a romantic spot, especially at 9 pm when Colonial re-enactors shoot off the ceremonial cannon over the rampart which can be heard throughout Havana.

 

7:30 pm

11. On Your Toes

Look up the schedule for the glorious six-tiered neo-baroque Gran Teatro de la Habana. If the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (www.balletcuba.cult.cu) is performing, you’re in luck. Not only is the ballet world-class, but the discreet socializing, flirting and gossiping amongst Havana’s chic set in the back rows and galleries during the performance and intermission are right out of Tolstoy.

 

SUNDAY

11 am

Bellas Artes - Authentic Cuba

12. Caribbean Louvre

The sprawling Palacio de Bellas Artes (entry 5 CUC) is probably the most comprehensive art museum in the Caribbean. Check out the works of Cuba’s superstars like Picasso protégé Wilfredo Lam and the Afro folkloric painter Manuel Mendive.  There’s also a fascinating section of 16-19th century Cuban landscapes and portraits many that were confiscated during the revolution. 

2 pm

13. Paging Al Pacino

Cross the street from the Bellas Artes to trace a loudly propagandistic version of Castro & Co’s adventures in the Museo de la Revolución (entry 5 CUC). Appropriately enough the Museo is housed the exquisite Tiffany-glassed, Beaux Artes interiors of the pre-1959 Presidential palace which still features bullet holes in the marble stairway.  Displays include bloody uniforms and garish caricatures of American presidents in “Cretin Corner.”  For Godfather fans there’s a special parting treat: The original gold telephone given to President Batista by ITT.


IF YOU GO

Don’t expect basic services or facilities like phone or wifi to be up to US standards in Cuban hotels. However, Hotel Raquel (Calle Amargura 103; 53-7-860-8280; www.hotelraquel-cuba.com.) in the heart of Havana Viejo, makes up for these shortfalls with considerable charm including an impressive stain-glass neo-baroque lobby and kosher restaurant. Hotel Palacio O’Farill (Calle Cuba 102-108; 53-7-860-5090;www.hotelofarrill.com) housed in a former Colonial mansion is another well-run restored gem. Doubles for both hotels start at 81 CUC.

Few things are as dramatic as waking up to your private balcony overlooking the opera that is Havana. A cheap, easy and fun option is to rent an apartment or a room in a family home through companies such as Bed in Cuba (bedincuba@bedincuba.com) or Cuba Accommodations (53-5-827-3117;www.cubaccommodation.com). Rooms start at 25 CUC.

Travel restrictions to Cuba are constantly changing. The Department of Treasury currently grants permission to visit Cuba for both study and business purposes. See cubatravel.ofac.treas.gov for the application. Tour operators like Insight Cuba (insightcuba.com) and Distant Horizons (distant-horizons.com) also offer licensed travel to Cuba.

1. Hotel Nacional de Cuba: Calle 21 y O, Vedado; 53-7-836-3564; www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com

2. La Guarida: Concordia: 418; 53-7-8669047

3. El Floridita:557 Obispo: 53-7-867-1300; floridita-cuba.com

La Lluvia de Oro: 316 Obispo, 53-7-862-9870

4. Casa Musica: Calle 20, Miramar, 53-7-204-0447

El GatoTuerta: Calle O, Verdado; 14; 53-7 -833-2224

5. Finca La Vigía: Calle Vigía, San Francisco de Paula; 53-7-691-0809

6. Doña Eutimia: Callejon del Chorro; 60; 53-7-861-1332

7. Partagás Factory: Calle Industria; 520; 53-7-862-4604

8. Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Depósito San José: corner of Avenida Desamparados and Calle San Ignacio

9. Seo D’Jesparo: O’Reilly 501, www.leodlazaro.blogspot.com

10. San Carlos de la Cabaña: Carreta de la Cabana; 53-7-862-0617

11. Gran Teatro de la Habana: 458 Paseo de Martí; 53-7 861-3077

12. Palacio de Bellas Artes Trocadero; 53-7 861-3858; www.bellasartes.cult.cu

13. Museo de la Revolución; Calle Refugio 1; 53-7-862-4091

   
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