by Claire Boobbyer, The Telegraph, July 24, 2018
Historic and hypnotic with candy coloured buildings and musical rhythms, Havana is the capital of the Caribbean’s most alluring island. Known as the Pearl of the Antilles, Old Havana was a key player in funnelling the wealth of the Indies to the Spanish monarchs in Seville. Her sun-baked churches, convents, cloisters, and courtyards mirror this extraordinary imperial fortune. Today, Old Havana’s sunny streets are bustling with new restaurants, bars, cafés and shops following a boost to Cuba’s socialist model eight years ago. Cruise ships pass impressive castles and pull right up to the edge of the old city in her deep Atlantic harbour.
Cruise port location
Cruise ships berth one at a time on the eastern edge of Old Havana, a parasol’s throw from Plaza San Francisco, one of the four main cobbled squares of Old Havana. The small cruise terminal is only 1.5 kilometres south from the city’s famous seaside boulevard, the Malecón. Havana's cruise port will be upgraded, and triple in size by 2024, after a management agreement was signed between Cuba and Istanbul-based Global Ports Holding, in May 2018.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
The eastern edge of Old Havana is on the doorstep of the cruise terminal. Central park is 15 minutes’ away on foot, or by bicycle taxi. Modern taxis, and vintage American cars whisk passengers to the central park, and districts beyond, by avoiding Old Havana’s historic core as many streets are pedestrianised or pot-holed.
Havana does not offer decent public transport. Old Havana is best explored on foot. To cover long distances within Old Havana, bicitaxis (negotiate hard) can be hired. For longer distances – starting with the cheapest – hail seen-better-days Lada taxis, yellow air-conditioned modern vehicles with seat belts, yellow three-wheeler scooter taxis (negotiate very hard), and gorgeous classic American cars. Taxis offer no working meters. Prices are currently all over the place in changing Cuba: Approximate taxi prices from the cruise terminal to central park: CUC$5-7; to Centro Habana CUC$6-10; to el Vedado CUC$10-12; to Miramar CUC$15 or more; to the international airport CUC$25 (fixed price); classic cars charge a minimum CUC$25 per hour. To hail and ride Cuban local peso classic car collective taxis (almendrones) from central park to Havana’s outer districts, and return routes, Spanish is required.
Best beaches for cruise-ship visitors
Just half an hour from Old Havana, a ripple of white-sand, azure-sea beaches fan out along the Atlantic coast known collectively as Playas del Este (Eastern beaches). For day-trippers, the easiest and most beautiful spot to catch the sun is at Santa María del Mar where sun loungers and umbrellas can be hired, and a couple of beach bars and low-key restaurants are on hand. Bathrooms are a little tricky; it’s best to use one of the local hotels. Hire a cab, or take the regular return HabanaBusTour from Havana’s the central park out to the beaches. The LGBT scene is found at Mi Cayito beach, just east of Santa María.
What to see and do?
Cuban guides usually charge per tour rather than per person. Shore excursions are charged per person and are very overpriced but offer easy options for time-pressed passengers. Classic cars rent at a minimum of CUC$30/£22 an hour for four passengers. Cruise companies, such as Marella Cruises, are charging a minimum of £22 per person. Taking in the cultural hotspot Fábrica de Arte Cubano, in a private out-of-hours trip, including a chat with a featured artist, Norwegian charges £90.82 per person. A visit during opening hours will cost a visitor around CUC$20-30 (£15-22) return in a taxi and a CUC$2 (£1.50) entrance fee. A cocktail class with Azamara clocks up at £72.27 per person. Airbnb Experiences offers something similar for nearly half the price (£39pp), and hosted by a well-known local Cuban entrepreneur.
Excursions to far-flung places outside of Havana make more sense (such as MSC’s trip to the Las Terrazas eco-community) as transport and organisation in Cuba are often very difficult, more so without language skills. Don’t waste money on the Hotel Nacional’s Parisien Cabaret, opt for the real spectacle at Tropicana.
What can I do in four hours or less?
Old Havana’s appeal lies in its labyrinth of streets, plazas, museums, markets, and ever-changing street life. Most first-time visitors plot a route through the four main squares: Plaza San Francisco, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza Vieja. The Revolution Museum, in the lofty surrounds of the former presidential palace, details Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution; the buildings’ interiors are beautiful. The newly reopened marble Hall of the Lost Steps, featuring the third largest interior statue in the world, inside the wedding cake-white El Capitolio is not to be missed.
For souvenirs, shop at Calle Obispo’s craft market, between Aguacate and Compostela, the second-hand book and curios market on Calle Baratillo, corner of Jústiz, the Graphic Arts’ Workshop, and Cuba’s first design store, Clandestina. It’s easy to soak up three hours on foot. For the last hour, hire a chrome-festooned convertible, and head up the tree-lined Prado boulevard, cruise the ocean-splashed seaside esplanade, the Malecón, spin around the 1950s hotels of the Vedado district, and marvel at the city’s vast Revolution Plaza.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Explore further and deeper. The Cuban section of the Museum of Fine Arts is well worth a few hours of exploration. Head west for a cigar factory tour (weekday mornings only; tickets must be bought in hotels); take the history tour (Monday-Friday, once on Saturday) inside the iconic, oceanfront Hotel Nacional to learn of its famous guests, missile crisis tunnels and mafia, and hire a guide to take in the glorious marble spread at the city’s enormous Christopher Columbus Cemetery. Delve further into the colonial realm by visiting the shipwreck museum inside the Fuerza Castle on Plaza de Armas, and the Spanish colonial empire inside the Museum of the City in the old governors’ general palace.
Cross the bay of the Havana for the monumental double fortress complex of El Morro, and La Cabaña, and admire the glorious views of Old Havana from the El Cristo statue at Casablanca. Other viewpoints with panoramic city views include the pool terrace of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, and sky-high Bar La Torre on the top of the Focsa building in El Vedado.
There’s more to Cuba, than Havana: bibliophiles could head to the writer Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home La Vigía, visit the lush rivers, jungle, and birdlife of Las Terrazas feasting on vegetarian cuisine at one of Cuba’s few authentic vegetarian restaurants, or head further to Unesco-protected Viñales Valley studded with jungle-dressed limestone humps known as mogotes. Offered by Carnival Cruise Line, this is a stretch, though, with six hours on the road.
What can I do with a bit longer?
Most port calls to Havana are two days. A good night out in Havana is difficult to organise due to the lack of ‘What’s On’ information. But don’t let that deter you: Head to famous cabaret Tropicana, or go more local with rumba, salsa, jazz, and nueva trova. Suenacubano, La Jiribilla and La Papeleta offer online music and culture listings. Try Bar La Lluvia del Oro (Obispo Street) for live son bands. For super cool last-minute stuff, you’ll need a guide in the know.
Eat and drink
Old Havana is buzzing with private restaurants (paladares) and bars, and state-run restaurants and bars, including the famous Hemingway hotspots of El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. Some of the funkiest spots are close to Plaza del Cristo. Busy Old Havana drag, Obispo, features no culinary highlights. Most state restaurants offer up lacklustre Cuban creole dishes (think rice/beans/pork and chicken), expensive Cuban lobster, and other seafood. Paladares offer more exciting and varied cuisine, as well as tasty Cuban creole: think ropa vieja - shredded pork/beef or lamb in tomato and vegetable sauce). Mojitos and daiquiris are de rigeuer.
Don’t leave the island without…
Cuba’s signature smokes - hand-rolled cigars in tobacco factories - can be purchased in official La Casa del Habano shops (never buy on the street). For silky rums - opt for a Ron Santiago 11 or 12 years, at Habano shops - or the Rum Museum shop. Silk-screen Cuban film posters make for beautiful, colourful souvenirs.
Need to know
Flight time from the UK
Havana is a very safe city; like any other big city, look after your valuables.
Best time to go
Hurricane season runs from June 1 until the end of October. Peak cruising season is November through to April. Events that draw large crowds are December’s International Festival of Latin American cinema, January’s Jazz Festival, and late February’s Habanos Cigar Festival; the Habana Bienal – a city-wide buzzing art fair – is a huge draw (next up April 12-May 12 2019).
Many museums are closed on Mondays; and some shops are closed on Sundays.
Day passes for multiple attractions do not exist in Cuba. The Museum of Fine Arts offers discounted entry for access to both its gallery buildings (Cuban arts, and Universal arts) in one day; the castle complexes on the eastern side of Havana’s harbour do the same.