The Heart is in Havana

JUST 228 MILES AWAY FROM OUR HOME HERE IN MIAMI, AND A MERE 90 MILES FROM KEY WEST IS THE ISLAND OF CUBA. ROADS FULL OF ANTIQUE 1950’S CARS, PALM TREES AND BLUE WATERS, DELICIOUS EATS, AND SOME OF THE BEST DRINKS AROUND (MOJITOS, ANYONE?): THIS IS THE FAMOUS HAVANA (OOH NA NA), CUBA!

A short flight or boat ride over will leave you right in Cuba’s capital, ready to dive into a tropical adventure. Begin your journey in the UNSECO World Heritage Site, Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The cobblestone streets, unique street art, antique cars, and colorful buildings make just a simple stroll through the city a delight. The perimeters that used to act as old borders for the city during the 16th century are still there, memories left behind from when the Spanish owned it. Many of the Spanish’s initial contributions to the city’s architecture are actually still there. One of them, Plaza de Armas (Square of Arms), is Havana’s oldest square. It was originally built in the 1520’s and was used by the colonial governor to enforce military exercises. Today, you can marvel at the old buildings and shop at the daily book market.

Not too far away is one of the best museums in Havana, Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution), where you can learn about the country’s history from the Cubans’ perspective. Artifacts and other relics take you through the nation before the revolution, including the leaders and events that helped to lead up to Fidel Castro’s reign. Bullet holes from an attempted assassination of Fulgencio Batista (former leader before Castro) remain in the building’s stairway, for instance. The building actually used to house Batista and other corrupt presidents, so the whole area is just chock full of history; take time to wander and let it all sink in!

When you’re ready to see something a little familiar after all of the culture shock, visit El Capitolio (National Capitol Building). It looks a whole lot like the U.S. Capitol building we’re familiar with in Washington D.C., but apparently, the inspiration was actually drawn from the Panthéon, in Paris, France. The building blends different styles together that include neoclassical and some Art Nouveau and is currently being restored to prepare to house the Cuban parliament.

After all of the walking, it’s time to get your grub on and have a couple of drinks! Head to La Bodeguita del Medio, an iconic spot that Ernest Hemingway, the famous American novelist, used to frequent. It’s the birthplace of the mojito, and Hemingway used to drink them here as he wrote his short stories and other works. Don’t miss out on ordering the famous cocktail, along with a delicious array of Cuban food like croquetas, chicharrones, and bistec de puerco (Pork steak with onion sauce). And of course, don’t forget to order a side of rice and beans!
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Now, it’s time for a little day trip. Opt for a ride in a classic convertible— the stylish way to travel while in Cuba. Set your sights on Fusterlandia, about 30 minutes out from Havana in the neighborhood of Jaimanitas, for a truly spectacularly colorful experience! In 1975, Cuban artist José Fuster lived in the particularly rundown area, and he made it his duty to transform not only his home, but other surrounding homes into a work of art! He used intricate mosaic tilework to create the rainbow of colors that now cover his home, and it’s a stunning place to take pictures. The once impoverished area now regularly hosts tourists and has grown economically since Fuster arrived with his artistic talents.

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When you make your way back to the city, it will likely be perfect timing to catch the sunset as the locals do, at El Malecón. Known as “the longest sofa in the world,” this 5-mile long boulevard stretches out alongside all of Havana, bordered on the other side by the sea. It’s where locals and tourists alike come with loved ones to watch the sunset and unwind after a hectic day. After you take in the magnificent views, walk all the way to the end of the boulevard for another dazzling display. At Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, the largest Spanish colonial fortress in the Americas, a cañonazo ceremony is held every night at 9 p.m. Actors suited up in 18th-century military uniforms head to the top of the massive fortress after a compelling show, to fire the cannon over the harbor in a grand reenactment. You can explore the rest of the fortress’ attractions which include bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and even two museums! If you’re really trying to connect with the culture, venture into the cigar shop there—it boasts the world’s longest cigar!

For a much-needed good night’s sleep, head to the famous, nearby Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This hotel is a beacon for Cuban history that you can learn all about through a guided tour. Many celebrities have stayed here, from 1950’s stars like Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, to more current celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell, and Steven Spielberg. The hotel exemplifies a 1930’s Cuban style that will enchant you as you walk the halls to your impeccable room. A lavish restaurant, Comedor de Aguiar, serves up national and international cuisine, and they have four bars, including one on the terrace overlooking El Malecón.
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Wake up bright and early on your next day in the city to visit Centro Habana (Central Havana). A less popular tourist spot, this is where you’ll find more locals and older buildings. Wander down Paseo del Prado, an elegant street lined with trees, until you arrive upon Gran Teatro de la Habana, an incredibly gorgeous building that incorporates neo-baroque architecture, built in 1838. It includes a 1500-seat main hall, a concert hall, and an art gallery, and is the stage for the Cuban National Ballet Company and the main headquarters of the International Ballet Festival. Experience this monumental building either through a guided tour or by booking a show for the weekend!

One of Havana’s stranger, intriguing places is without a doubt El Barrio Chino, the city’s very own Chinatown. Unlike other Chinatowns in New York and California, there are barely any Chinese people left there. At one point, in the 1920’s, El Barrio Chino boasted the largest Asian neighborhood in Latin America, but in the 1960’s that changed when many of the Chinese decided to instead relocate to the U.S. It’s definitely a spot worth touring due to the Chinese restaurants that blend together traditional dishes as well as Cuban favorites, and the pagoda shaped entrance to the neighborhood that’s a cool photo opp.

For lunch, instead of dining at one of the bigger touristy restaurants in Centro Habana, choose las paladares, or self-run/family-run restaurants, to indulge in a well-made authentic Cuban meal. One of the better paladares to feast at is La Guarida, where the Cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate was filmed. Once you reach the third floor, be prepared for an outstanding meal that comes with both attentive care and a lovely ambience. If you’re not sure what to choose, get the eight-course tasting menu which also comes with a cocktail, coffee, a cigar, and a digestif!
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Crossover into Vedado, another Havana neighborhood, for two more must-see sights! Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, the city’s main cemetery, is a national monument due to its marble statues and grandeur size. There are said to be about two million graves on the property! A replica of Michelangelo’s La Pieta statue stands tall, and many notable graves of artists, politicians, writers, and more can be seen throughout. After you’re done strolling through the giant, educational cemetery, pay a visit to Plaza de la Revolución, one of the biggest city squares in the world at 11 acres wide. Political rallies are held here, and main leaders of the Cuban government have held speeches here as well. The Jose Marti Memorial is located in the square in addition to one of the most iconic images in Cuba, the giant mural of Che Guevara.

Now it is time to head back to Habana Vieja for some yummy libations! Hit up a second Hemingway hotspot at El Floridita, where the famed writer supposedly finished 13 double daiquiris in one sitting! Live music typically plays here, and you can even take a picture with the life-size bronze bust of Hemingway, appropriately placed in his favorite corner of the bar.

The last attraction that is purely a must-do is the iconic Tropicana, a cabaret club that dates back to the 1930’s that inspired all of Las Vegas’ current glitz and glamour. When you’re finally seated, the show will begin as showgirls in risqué, sequined outfits and feathered headdresses put on quite the performance! An orchestra provides the music as the performers sing and dance in Spanish to make for a beautiful, engaging show.
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Once you arrive back at your hotel to slip into a night of solace, think back on all of the fascinating sights you saw and all of the intriguing history you learned while spending time in Havana. In a couple of hours, your flight or boat will take you back to your home in the MIA, but for right now, you can fall asleep while listening to distant salsa playing, and the smell of café con leche from early morning risers drifting into your window.

By Aaliyah Pasols