Got 24 hours in Havana? Nowhere does faded glamor better than here

Get lost in its Old City and let the sultry rhythms and fascinating history sweep you along

Georgina Wilson-Powell
Georgina Wilson-Powell - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Sultry Havana has been attracting the bourgeois, the intrepid and the brave for hundreds of years.

One of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite cities, Havana flourished in the early 20th century with a huge influx of American money (some legal, some not so much). Before the revolution in the 50s, Havana was a playground – full of opulent cabaret clubs, all night parties and a heyday for early Hollywood glamor – it was an offshore, tropical Las Vegas.

Last year, travel and economic embargoes for Americans started to lift after more than 60 years, and undoubtedly Cuba will start to change. But it hasn’t yet – so embrace old school, crumbling, exotic Havana before the brands set in.

Start your day in Habana Vieja (old Havana) – the whole area is a UNESCO heritage site. Head for Catedral de San Cristoal de la Habana at the Plaza de la Catedral – it’s one of the city’s best examples of the Spanish Baroque style – there’s 400 years of colonial history to discover in the tight network of streets that make up old Havana.

UNESCO-declared historic center of Havana, Cuba. (Shutterstock)
UNESCO-declared historic center of Havana, Cuba. (Shutterstock)

These streets are worth a wander, you’ll find musicians, dancers and drinkers no matter what time of day and there’s nothing better than coming across an unexpected café, full to bursting with laughter and music. The key to Havana, is don’t hurry and don’t plan too much – just go with the flow.

Don’t miss however, the Plaza de Armas, the oldest and the most charming square that’s full of second hand bookstalls and souvenir sellers. (You can also pick up a horsedrawn carriage or 50s car tour from here.) Wander down Mercaderes one block back from the square and take in the slumped grandeur of these proud streets. It will lead you to one of the most stunning squares in the old city - the Plaza Vieja. It was here that bullfights and fiestas would have been held under Spanish rule, but now under the shady arches along each side you’ll find tiny art galleries and museums (opening times seem to be completely arbitrary in Cuba). Stop at Café el Escorial (Mercaderes No 317), ensconced in an old mansion, its cool courtyard is a welcome haven in the midday sun. It serves some of Havana’s best café con leche (milky coffee) and sandwiches.

One of the most stunning squares in the old city - the Plaza Vieja. (Shutterstock)
One of the most stunning squares in the old city - the Plaza Vieja. (Shutterstock)

Head slowly west along Muralla until you come to Avenue Belgica and take a right. You’ll find the Floridita – one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spots. Inside it’s a 1940s time-warp. Further up the street you’ll find both the Museo National de Bellas Artes and the Museum of the Revolution. To get a feel for the facts and the feeling of Cuban history, pop into both. The latter is housed in a former Presidential palace, that’s worth a visit in itself.

Take in the gleaming 50s muscle cars as they cruise. (Shutterstock)
Take in the gleaming 50s muscle cars as they cruise. (Shutterstock)

A sunset walk down the Malecon is a must-do. While the actual promenade (and busy traffic) isn’t very romantic, taking in the decrepit buildings along the seafront, people watching and taking in the gleaming 50s muscle cars as they cruise the strip is a truly Cuban experience. After you’ve walked far enough, hop in a cool coco taxi – they look like open air yellow bubbles - (agree the price upfront) and head for the Hotel Ingalterra, the city’s oldest hotel, which is legendary for its roof terrace. Take in the evening breeze and listen to the sounds of Cuban music that drift on the wind.

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