Ever since President Obama re-instated US diplomatic ties with Cuba in December 2014 the Caribbean island has become the en vogue place to visit. Whilst my previous Cuba post recommends travelling with a tour group my Cuba Independent Travel series is for those who want to tackle the country on their own terms.
Havana, the capital, is the most obvious starting point. The airport is quite a distance from the city centre and with no obvious public transport a taxi is the only choice. The city centre is divided into three segments: Vieja, Centro and Vedado.
Havana Vieja (Old Havana), the area west of the Bay of Havana, is where visitors spend most of their time, meandering through a labyrinth of colonial squares and narrow streets lined with architectural gems ranging from restored splendour to crumbling marvels.
Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza de San Francisco de Asís were two of my favourite squares for people-watching whilst Obispo is possibly the best shopping street in the city. My best advice is stroll along to whatever street or square takes your fancy.
Avenue de las Misiones to the west is where Havana Vieja ends and the Centro (Centre) region begins. However, the most interesting street in Centro by far has to be the Prado or Paseo de Martí as it’s also known as. Over 1km long it begins at the harbour front and runs right up to Parque de la Fraternidad.
Along its route one will find Havana’s finest hotels such as Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Telégrafo and Hotel Saratoga at the Paseo’s southern end. With a constant soundtrack of live salsa music and an atmosphere evoking Cuba’s laissez-faire past, Hotel Inglaterra, Havana’s oldest hotel, comes highly recommended.
The area around Hotel Inglaterra and Parque Central is a transport hub of taxis, buses, bici-taxis, horse-drawn carts and anything else with wheels. The picture below of the Capitolio Nacional shows this multitude of vehicles. The design of the Capitolio is based on the Capitol Building in Washington DC
From Parque de la Fraternidad one can head for Vedado via Dragones, the main artery through Chinatown, or via Avenue Simón Bolivar which after approximately 1km morphs into Avenue Salvador Allende. At the western end of Avenue Salvador Allende lies a major junction.
Southbound along Avenue de la Independencia leads to Plaza de la Revolucion and Memorial Jóse Martí, an area which looked grey even on the sunny day I visited. West from Plaza de la Revolucion lies Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, one of the largest cemeteries in the world and the resting place of celebrated Cubans.
The most notable sights in Vedado are located in its north-eastern segment. Heading towards the sea front one will pass the University of Havana buildings but it is the hotels which serve as the best education for visitors. The boxy Hotel Habana Libre is where Fidel Castro’s office was located in the early days of power in 1959. But it’s the art-deco Hotel Nacional which became one of my favourite sights in Havana not just on aesthetic grounds but for the story of Cuba it tells.
For more insight into the Hotel Nacional, check out my Our Woman in Havana post which is a guide to the sights featured in the Graham Greene novel Our Man in Havana.
A playground for the pre-revolutionary rich and corrupt the gardens overlook the Straights of Florida and a decidedly biased exhibition is housed in the bunkers and tunnels underneath the gardens. I left the exhibition attendant stunned when I informed him that both Che Guevara and John F. Kennedy were of Irish origin. There’s always an Irish connection and in this instance the attendant indecisively pondered the pros and cons of such!
All three parts of central Havana have two things in common. The first is the iconic Malecón, the 8km water front dual-carriageway, the wall of which doubles as a social hub at night. The recently re-opened US Embassy is located at its western end.
The second commonality is the constant haranguing a visitor will experience although the further one travels from Vieja the less the intensity. For independent travellers the haranguers don’t entertain no as an answer. It’s constant, bothersome and for female independent travellers a frequent source of threat. So travel with a tour group. Cuba is there to be enjoyed not endured.
For further information on other Cuba travel destinations check out my Cuba Solo Travel post.