Havana will be 500 years old next year. I have been coming here for 30 years, and while I have experienced just a small part of the city’s history it has had an outsized impact on my life. I fell hopelessly in love on the spot – hooked by its openhearted people and weathered beauty. No one looks you more in the eyes than the Habaneros. It is the city of stares, of sincerity and of kindness. Come here to be mesmerised by the eclectic architecture, with a surprise around every corner; to sway to the Cuban rhythms in surround sound as you stroll; to be inspired by cutting-edge contemporary art; and to taste the creative cuisine of the next gastronomic capital of the world. And whatever you do, explore beyond the borders of beautiful Habana Vieja (Old Havana), to discover the city’s distinct neighbourhoods.
Opened last year, Havana’s most striking boutique hotel is the brainchild of Sandra Exposito and her husband Orlandito Mengual. It has four guestrooms, each by a different local designer and in different styles: retro eclectic, art deco, vintage 1950s and contemporary. There is a cocktail and tapas bar on the ground floor, as well as a shop selling artisanal soaps and one-off jewellery. The roof terrace has great views of the Malecón, Havana’s famous promenade.
• Doubles from £135 B&B, malecon663.com
Niels Reyes is one of the most exciting artists on the roaring Cuban art scene, prized by collectors from New York to Beijing. Up close, his large-scale portraits look abstract but from further away they speak volumes about the human condition. After graduating from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte in 2006, Reyes was soon exhibiting around the world. He is represented in Cuba by Galería Artis 718 (Avenida 7, corner Calle 18, Miramar) and Collage Habana (San Rafael #103, between Consulado and Industria, Centro Habana).
• Niels Reyes is on Facebook
Nazdarovie is a Soviet-style paladar (privately owned restaurant) set up in 2004 by Gregory Biniowski, a Slavo-Canadian lawyer who had lived in Cuba for two decades, and wanted to bring a flavour of the motherland to thousands of Soviet expats. Russian and Ukrainian chefs cook favourites (from £5) such as borscht with smetana (sour cream), savoury varenikis(dumplings), chicken kiev, traditional beef stroganoff, and Russian black bread. They also make cocktails such as black or white Russians with Stolichnaya or Putinka vodka. Customers include ambassadors from former Soviet republics, and the place is decorated with old propaganda posters and huge matryoshka dolls. There’s also memorabilia from some of the many Cubans who studied in the USSR; the CCCP hockey shirt by the bar is my donation from 10 years in Moscow.
• Malecón #25, 2nd floor, between Paseo del Prado and Carcel, Centro Habana, open daily noon-midnight. nazdarovie-havana.com
El Bosque (the forest), between the neighbourhoods of Vedado and Miramar, is often called the lungs of Havana, where 300-year-old banyan, carob and jagüey trees are draped in vines that make them look like green monsters. It was laid out in the 1930s by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier (designer of the Eiffel Tower’s Champs-de-Mars gardens) as a “fusion of nature, architecture and city”. After the 1959 revolution, it was expanded to include Parque Almendares, with its playground, pony rides, mini-golf, lake and amphitheatre for marionette shows. This is where a new generation of Habaneros come for bike rides along the Almendares river or to barbecue and party.
Every last detail of Belview ArtCafé is carefully thought out, from the world globes over the bar to the photographs by German photographer Sven Creutzmann, who has lived in Havana for nearly 30 years and is married to owner Clara Veliz. Sit on the sleek 1957 Bel Air sofa or one of the padded Thonet chairs and order one of the house specialities (around £3) such as pulled pork crepe, sweet potato fries with tzatziki or spaghetti amatriciana. For dessert, there are brownies with ice-cream or a crepe with banana and chocolate cream. On Saturdays, it sells homemade bread including black, sourdough, ciabatta, brioche and challah, as well as croissants and other pastries.
• Calle 6 #412, corner 19, Vedado, closed Mon. laesquinadelpan.com
In the 19th century, Havana’s population spread west from the old city into what is now known as Centro Habana. Gritty and raw-feeling, this densely populated working-class area is the perfect place to experience everyday life in the capital. Michelin-starred chef Alberto González, who spent 14 years as a chef in Italy and studied at El Bulli in Spain, set up his shop and community project bakery here in 2014. At Salchipizza, González encourages everyone to taste his breads made with quality ingredients, including seeds, grains and flours he brings back from trips abroad. He also bakes gluten-free loaves (£1.80), and wholewheat sourdough made with an 80-year-old starter. Banana bread and dreamy coffee cake are sold by the slice. Look out for the photographs of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Barack Obama at the entrance.
• Calle Infanta #562, between Valle and Zapata, Centro Habana, Tues-Sat 9am-4pm. On Facebook
Enrique Suárez leads Cuba’s New Food movement and his latest venture, TocaMadera (touch wood), is the talk of the town. Suárez travelled the world to learn his trade but has returned to his Cuban comfort food roots to serve “traditional food with modern flavours”. His seasonal menu changes depending on the availability of produce, and many ingredients are sourced from Fernando Funes’s organic farm 12 miles west of Havana. His hamburgers cost £3, but fancier dishes such as truffle risotto, torched tuna with capers and black olives, penne with chicken and truffle salsa or avocado and shrimp salad start at about £9. For dessert, in season, there is mango tarte tatin with vanilla ice-cream.
• Calle 38 #118, between Avenida 1 and 3, Miramar, Tues-Sat lunch and dinner, and Sun brunch. On Facebook
Fábrica de Arte Cubano
In a former cooking oil plant near the banks of the Almendares, Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is still the hippest place in Havana. There’s always a queue around the block to get into this extraordinary venue, part cultural centre, part night spot. Imagine Bauhaus mixed with a hot avant-garde Caribbean vibe in a number of galleries and performance spaces. It’s so big you can get lost in its multimedia labyrinth: lounge, chill, think, drink, eat, meet people, shop, dance, catch a film or concert or enjoy ever-changing art exhibitions. A clever way to avoid the inevitable queue is to book a table at its new Tierra restaurant, in former shipping containters, whose globetrotting menu might include salmorejo (tomato and bread soup from Andalucía), shrimp moqueca (a Brazilian-inspired seafood stew) and South American steak with mustard and fries (around £40 for two). The interior has a comfortable country kitchen atmosphere but outside there’s an Astroturf patio with bar.
• fac.cu, Calle 26, corner 11, Vedado, Thurs-Sun 8pm-3 am, entry £2.25. To book at Tierra (essential) ring +535 565 2621
After six years working in restaurants and cafes in London, Nelson Rodríguez Tamayo returned to Havana to open El Café. It’s in a beautiful Spanish colonial building that took eight months to renovate, and is the place to go for everything fresh and local. Coffee beans from Café O’Reilly (a Havana institution), freshly squeezed guava, pineapple, carrot or beetroot juice, and breakfasts of fried eggs, tomato, avocado and bacon (around £3). For lunch, there are veggie sandwiches (pictured) with homemade hummus , avocado, red pepper, kale and grilled aubergine on homemade sourdough bread, or the pulled-pork sandwich with yucca and orange marmalade sauce (from £3.75). It also does one of the best mojitos in Havana (£2.25).
• Amargura #358, between Aguacate and Villegas in Habana Vieja. On Facebook, open daily 9am-6 pm
Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht
All the great Cuban musicians play at Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht, from Telmary (pictured), Cuba’s premier female hip-hop artist, to Interactivo, who play Afro-Cuban jazz fusion every Wednesday night. Formerly the Jewish Community Center, this intimate basement venue now hosts live music throughout the week. There is a cool bar at the back of the 1950s modernist structure (with a Star of David on the facade and elegant front doors covered in Semitic symbols), as well as a small outdoor cafe on the second-floor terrace, where local actors and artists congregate for coffee in the afternoon before rehearsal.
• Calle 13, between I and J, Vedado. On Facebook. Entrance fee around £3.70
Virgin Atlantic flies from Gatwick to Havana from £516; KLM from Heathrow via Amsterdam from £498.
Buy a day pass to the spa at Havana’s Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski and spend the day at the rooftop infinity pool and bar with a 360-view view of the Capitolio, Gran Teatro, Parque Central, Museo de Bellas Artes and the Bacardi building.
June is the hottest month, with average highs of 31C. August-October is hurricane season. Winter months are still hot and sunny by European standards.
1 CUC = £0.74.
Beer (0.5l): about £1.10.