Havana is changing at a fast rate, yet in some ways it stays frozen in time. The past and the present could not mix any better. See century-old fortresses, arresting eclectic architecture, a magical urban jungle and cutting-edge contemporary art galleries. For many, this is the most exciting place on Earth. Visit the five main squares of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and explore beyond its borders to discover the city’s distinctive neighbourhoods. Touring the city by bike is an exhilarating adventure. And whatever you do, do not miss the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a one-of-a-kind art space and nightclub.
See some community-conscious street art
A new arts district has emerged at the southern tip of Habana Vieja in what used to be the red-light district, pre-revolution. It all began with a pioneering move in 2015 by beloved Cuban actor and artist Jorge Perugorría when he created Galería Taller Gorría, a contemporary art space on formerly forlorn San Isidro Street. Since 2017, murals have spread out from this epic centre all along San Isidro on a zigzag path to super hip restaurant Jesús María 20 (Instagram page), thanks in large part to the visionary boost by Perugorría’s son Adán, who is spearheading the project.
Insider tip: Look out for works by international muralists such as Cuban-American Abstrk and local talent Luis Casas – all doing wonders to boost the community and mirror Havana’s new cultural movement.
Address: Calle San Isidro #214, between Picota and Compostel
00 53 7 8646713; galeriatallergorria.com
Hop on a bike and explore Havana's backstreets
Cubyke is the most exhilarating way to see the city. Almost too good to be true, hopping on the ingenious Cuban-inspired electric bike (manufactured in Germany) allows you to pedal normally or use different levels of assistance to soar through the streets and see it all. Expert guides take you on a hypnotising tour through otherworldly routes, uncovering a side of Havana you may not otherwise see.
Insider tip: Ask for the 'One day in Havana - Lost Places' exploration tour, which includes lunch in one of the trendiest restaurants and drinks in the hottest cocktail bars.
Contact: 00 537 214 4383; cubyke.com
Visit an enchanting urban jungle
The most spectacular natural wonder in Havana is El Bosque (the forest), which divides the suburbs of Vedado and Miramar. You will be amazed by the mammoth 300-year-old banyan trees covered in vines that look like big leafy green monsters. The moment you enter this lush sanctuary, you are in another dimension. It's great for a romantic walk or a mountain bike ride along the zig-zagging paths, and it’s one of the most fascinating places to take photos. Don’t forget to breathe in the fresh air in this unique microclimate.
Insider tip: Don’t be surprised if you see someone chanting and slitting the throat of a chicken and throwing it down the river, it is all part of a Santería ritual.
Have a Hemingway-themed day
If you have white hair and a beard, don’t be surprised if locals smile and call you Papa, which was Ernest Hemingway’s nickname in Cuba. Hemingway loved the Cuban people and made Havana his home for nearly 30 years. Visit his first residence – room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Calle Obispo #153, corner Mercaderes, Habana Vieja) now a museum containing his single bed, typewriter and fishing rods. Stroll from there – as did Hemingway – along Calle Obispo to El Floridita (Calle Obispo #557, corner Monserrate) where his bartender Tino concocted the Papa Doble – a daiquiri with two shots of rum, no sugar. Look for the life-size bronze statue of Hemingway, seemingly ready to converse, but instead resigned to endless selfies.
Insider tip: For a private Hemingway tour, contact incloud9.com (00 537 833 0510). Ask for Toby Brocklehurst or Tanja Buwalda.
Browse the design shops in Habana Vieja
For non-touristy gifts or souvenirs, head to the handful of trendy design shops in Habana Vieja, all run by ingenious female entrepreneurs. Start at T-shirt mecca Clandestina, Cuba's first independent sustainable fashion brand (Villegas #403, between Teniente Rey and Muralla). A few buildings down, on the corner of Plaza del Cristo, is Cris Cris, a high-end lingerie shop (Villegas 361, corner Teniente Rey). Next head around the corner to Dador (Amargura #253, between Habana and Compostela) for contemporary Havana-chic couture. Then continue on Amargura to San Ignacio, turn left and continue for a few blocks until you arrive at Piscolabis (San Ignacio #75, between Callejón del Chorro and O’Reilly) for handcrafted, often recycled one-off decorative items, art, clothing and jewellery.
Insider tip: Two blocks further north and two blocks left you will discover Color Café (Aguiar #109, between Chacón and Cuarteles), where you can climb up huge concrete blocks into their tiny clothing and jewellery shop with irresistible unique pieces.
Explore a mini-village on the waterfront
In anticipation of Havana’s 500th anniversary, out of nowhere sprung Paseo Marítimo, a mini-village of restaurants, bars, souvenir stands and a tiny kids' amusement park on a small stretch of barren waterfront property. The pièce de résistance is Muelle 70 (Avenida 1, corner Calle 70, Miramar; 00 535 243 2560), an impressive two-storey bar made from shipping containers designed by Cuban contemporary artist, JEFF (José Emilio Fuentes Fonseca), who partnered up with Espacios bar owner Raúl Silva García. You can lounge with a cold Cristal beer, nibble on pizza and fish croquettes or join the swimmers who brave the rocky shore to immerse themselves in the clear water right in Havana proper.
Insider tip: Kundalini yoga classes (Facebook page) are also offered on this same shoreline followed by a sea-plunge.
Cross the Havana Harbour
Hop on the lanchita (ferry) to Casablanca, a district across the Havana Bay. The ferries are run down and you may see a chicken or two aboard, but they run like clockwork, going back and forth every 15 minutes and costing just a few cents. Get on at Emboque de Luz ferry terminal and head to Casablanca to see the 20-metre high white Carrara marble sculpture of Jesus Christ with the best view of Old Havana and El Morro Castle with its emblematic lighthouse.
Insider tip: For a completely different take on Havana, instead take a ferry to Regla, a quaint hilly fishing village filled with old wooden houses and the mecca for Santería practitioners.
Contact: Emboque de Luz ferry terminal (Avenida del Puerto, corner Calle Santa Clara)
Relax on an untouched beach
Twenty-five minutes east of Havana you will find one of the rare stretches of white sandy beaches untrammelled by commercialism. Wild, bare and beautiful, Playas del Este extends for miles but the nicest bit is Playa Santa Maria del Mar. This serene beachscape, with its warm Caribbean water an inconceivable shade of turquoise, is a secluded gem.
Insider tip: To get there, grab a cab and ask for a return trip (about £40 for three hours) or the more economical beach bus from Parque Central in front of the Hotel Inglaterra. For beach chairs and services, camp out near Hotel Tropicoco but if you are into a raw experience with a barren beach head to the eastern edge to 'Mi Cayito'.
Sit with a bronze Beatle
In 1964 Fidel Castro declared a nationwide ban on Beatles music – to him, it epitomised capitalism. However, in time, Castro reversed his opinion and saw John Lennon, with his crusade against war and injustice, as a fellow revolutionary. On December 8, 2000, the 20th anniversary of Lennon’s death, Parque John Lennon was inaugurated by Castro himself unveiling a life-sized bronze sculpture of the beloved Beatle. Look out for the bench with Lennon and have a seat for a photo op.
Insider tip:Magically someone will conveniently appear to place a pair of round glasses on the statue to momentarily replace the original bronze ones – stolen years ago.
Contact: Corner Calle 6 and Calle 17
Take a trip to colourful tiled neighbourhood
Called the Antoni Gaudí of Cuba, José Fuster has transformed his poor neighbourhood in Jaimanitas into a whimsical wonderland built of colourful tiles. He wanted to live amidst art and did so by covering every inch of his studio home with vivid mosaics that also adorn the sidewalk, front gates, benches, stairs and rooftop. He then asked more than 100 neighbours to let him (free-of-charge) transform their homes into equivalent multicoloured ceramic masterpieces. The result is Fusterlandia and it is something to behold.
Insider tip: A few blocks away, take a stroll through Parque del Unicornio (Unicorn Park), a dilapidated playground with a solitary blue unicorn at the centre, a nod to legendary Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez and his song 'Mi Unicornio Azul'.
Contact: Avenida 3A, between Calle 222 and 226, Jaimanitas