Sitting in El Floridita in Havana‘s Old Town, perhaps on the very seat American novellist Ernest Hemingway was once perched, sipping the very cocktail – a Daiquiri – he loved to sip, I was aghast at just how many of these sweet tipples the bar tender knocked out every 15 minutes. He adeptly filled eight cocktail glasses at a time for a clamouring clientele. Continuously. All night long.
It is of course a wonderful experience, but in that moment I was glad I was in Havana at this time. The city is busy now but I’ll bet (but not in Cuba as there are no casinos) that within 10 years the crowds will have swelled, the streets will be filled with guided groups and the joy of discovery will be elusive. And enjoying an evening at El Floridita will be nigh on impossible – unless you are a sardine.
So, if you don’t want to miss the gorgeously ramshackled 16th century buildings that sit alongside posh architecture or the iconic, colourful American classics (Cadillacs, Chevys, Dodges, Buicks, Fords) which may disappear due to lack of parts, get there now. I can report that Japanese Kias and Hyundai cars are already far too prolific on Havana’s roads and though perfectly functional they are not nearly as much fun.
Start at Parque Central which leads to the old town – Havana Vieja. Prepare to be dazzled by the neoclassical Capitol on Prado street – the former seat of the Cuban Congress and once home to the Cuban of Sciences. After 8 years of restoration this impressive building has reopened as the home of Cuba’s national assembly. Use this building as a landmark and a point of orientation as it faces east and everything in front of it is Old Havana.
Near to it is the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, named after Cuba’s most famous prima ballerina, probably the most beautiful building in town. Take a moment to gaze at the sculptures, the marble and bronze works. The four groups of sculptures in white marble in the front are by Giuseppe Moretti and represent charity, education, music and theatre.
Walk into Parque Central, a shady, leafy and palm filled square and see the statue of Jose Marti, a Cuban poet and journalist. He masterminded the revolution but was not a military man in combat.
Opposite is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – Arte Cubano which some say is the finest art gallery in the Caribbean. Look out for works by Guillermo Collazo, a Cuban great; Rafael Blanco, Raúl Martínez of 1960s Cuban pop art fame and Wifredo Lam whose work can easily be compared to that of Picasso.
In two minutes get to Calle Obispo, a long narrow road hemmed by tall buildings and quirky shops such as an apothecary museum where you can buy headache pills and an intriguing al fresco art and craft market.
Along with Calle Mercaderes it is one of the most popular shopping streets and the two streets converge at Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway had a room – which you can visit. If you are ready for a rest, make your way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar for a beer or two and a pretty good view over the harbour.