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Havana Travel Guide

About Havana

Among the most dynamic and vibrant spots in the region, Havana pulsates with all the art, music, tropical sensuality and bustle that befits the largest capital city in the Caribbean.

Famously a riotous medley of laughter, politics, culture, and poverty, contemporary Cuba is going through unprecedented changes. The withdrawal of the late Fidel Castro from politics in 2008, and the arrival of his more open-minded brother Raúl, has seen economic and political reforms that have even resulted in the lifting of some US sanctions.

The ground-breaking transformations, known in Spanish as lineamientos, have introduced a modicum of modernity into daily life, and are akin to a revolution within the revolution. Today’s Havana may temper radical fervour with a craving for hard cash, but the city remains true to its heart, its passion permeating its steamy alleys and salt-sprayed sidewalks.

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is the best-preserved colonial centre in the Americas, and its exquisite architecture is a top draw for photographers, artists and musicians looking for inspiration.

Taking a stroll through shady plazas to the world famous Malecón, with no specific goal beyond a minty mojito, feels like stepping back in time – until you note the iPhone-toting teens, sporty motorcycles built for speed and street entertainers.

But despite a UNESCO-funded restoration programme, Habana Vieja is falling apart, and you also may encounter the jarring sight of a brightly painted, restored house sitting alongside something crumbling and no longer habitable. Wandering outside the historic core guarantees an eye-opening look at the daily struggle faced by many families. Perennial problems including insufficient housing, low salaries, outdated infrastructure, and resource scarcity all continue to plague the country.

Yet Havana has an undeniable charm and a unique character. Even the worldliest travellers can suffer a degree of culture shock in a city where Al Capone-era cars cruise alongside late-model Audis, and children in pressed uniforms skip to school. Contradictions are rife, but trumped by a live-for-the-moment attitude embodied in Cuba’s ubiquitous rhythms.

Key facts

Population:
2100000
Latitude:
23.133711
Longitude:
-82.405155

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Featured Hotels

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Parque Central Hotel

This well-situated, upscale hotel straddling Central Havana and Old Havana has been setting the standard for luxury lodging in the Cuban capital for years. In 2010, the Parque Central added 149 rooms in its new, chic La Torre building, further cementing its reputation as one of the city's best places to stay. Connected to the original building (with 277 rooms), La Torre is more low-key and the rooms fresher. The rooftop pool with panoramic city views is a real draw here.

Park View Hotel

A great location combines with a nice price to make the Park View a perennial favourite. Close to both the famous Museo de la Revolución and the exquisite Museo de Bellas Artes, this small Havana hotel provides a warm welcome to the city. Functional rather than fancy, rooms have air conditioning, satellite TV and a safe deposit box. The on-site restaurant has awesome city views and hotel staff are friendly.

Hotel Sevilla

One of the city's most striking examples of Moorish architecture (the façade and lobby, anyway), this historic hotel is a feast for the eyes, from the exotically tiled lobby to the sweeping city views from the Roof Garden Restaurant. Its location (steps from the Paseo del Prado, Gran Teatro and many museums) puts Havana's highlights at your beck and call. The rooms are rough around the edges, however; best to check one out before checking in. The lobby is always abuzz with live music, clinking cocktail glasses and laughter.

Hotel Santa Isabel

To date, the only (supposed) 5-star hotel in Old Havana's historic core, the Santa Isabel occupies a privileged spot on picturesque Plaza de Armas. The setting is charming, with many of the 27 rooms overlooking the Plaza or Havana Harbor, which is largely what attracts famous guests including Jimmy Carter and Robert Plant. However, like many historic buildings (this one dates from the 1700s), interiors can be dark and musty, plus hotel staff can be bristly and less than efficient.

Hotel Habana Riviera

Once upon a time, this hotel overlooking the Malecón was a major mobster hangout (it was built by infamous mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky) and everything from the retro, low-slung couches in the lobby to the legendary shows at The Copa Room cabaret throw back to that bygone era. Unfortunately, it can feel like the rooms haven't been updated since then. On the upside, even standard rooms are giant, each has city or sea views (go for one on the upper floors, with a balcony), and the windows actually open. The seawater pool here and lobby bar are attractions in themselves.

Hotel El Terral

One of Havana's newest properties, this boutique hotel is superbly perched overlooking the Malecón – and every room has a private balcony from which to appreciate the killer sea views. One guest says it's like being on a ship, you're that close to the water. So chic and popular is this place, you'll be lucky to land one of the 14 rooms. Doubly lucky are those that book a corner room (with two balconies) or one of the two suites each with long, deep terraces. The staff are friendly and pay meticulous attention to detail, plus you can walk to some excellent restaurants and sites.