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Inside Cuba

A Walk Through Old Havana

An easy tour around a Spanish Colonial gem
| By Gordon Mott | From Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011
A Walk Through Old Havana
Photos/Angus McRitchie
The Catedral de Havana is one of the oldest in the city.

What makes up a perfect day in Havana? After a week of walking the streets, exploring museums, hotels and restaurants, and spending the wee hours in jazz clubs and cabarets, there’s no single easy answer to the question. But I’m going to take a stab at it, and tell you how I would spend one day in one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere. In two words, it’s easy: Habana Vieja, or Old Havana.

So, let’s start at my hotel for this fantasy day in the city: the Conde de Villanueva—it’s one of the most charming, if slightly rustic, hotels in the old quarter and that’s why it wins out for the purpose of this story over the Marqués de San Felipe or the Saratoga. Take a right out of the hotel door and down Mercaderes to the Plaza Vieja, and in the far left corner find a seat at Escorial, facing the square. This square is almost 100 percent renovated and gives you a sense of what Havana must have been like in the 1500s and 1600s. The square is a rainbow of pastels and bright tropical hues with several older stone buildings facing the center.

From there, I would head to the end of the square, take a left on Muralla down to the port and stop in at the Museo del Ron Fundación Havana Club, or the Havana Club Rum Museum. You need to join a tour to enter the museum, but tours in English are frequent. Find out the times and plan accordingly. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen on one leaving right away and you’ll learn about one of Cuba’s iconic products. And, then top it off with a slug of Havana Club rum. Great way to start the day.

Afterwards, take a stroll down the Avenida del Puerto to the Plaza San Francisco and head up Amargura. At the corner with Mercaderes, turn right to the Museo del Tabaco (Tobacco Museum). It’s a small museum, and it has moved recently so you may need to ask where to find it. There are old lithographs, some old rolling tables from a cigar factory, and other items from the history of tobacco in Cuba. It’s a quick stop, maybe 15 minutes, but worth it for a cigar aficionado.

By this time the Casa del Habano in the Conde de Villanueva is open, so I’d backtrack to my hotel and head up the small stairs to the mezzanine and shop. With any luck, Antonio Hevea will be in the store for the day, and he’ll guide you through a cigar selection. I like a big cigar when I’m out moving around, so I’d probably pick up a Romeo y Julieta Churchill, and maybe a Punch Double Corona. Buy your lunch cigar too, maybe a Trinidad Reyes, a very flavorful smoke to go with your post-lunch coffee. Head back out and take a left on Mercaderes.

The street will lead you toward the Plaza de Armas, and the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which houses the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum). This is a classic Spanish colonial edifice with a huge inner courtyard, big stone passage ways with arches on each floor and grand salons at every turn. You’ll find a complete history of Havana, with everything from pieces of the U.S.S. Maine—the ship that was blown up in Havana harbor in 1898, serving as the justification to start the Spanish-American war. There’s the usual array of uniforms and household items. It’s worth a good hour or two there to get a sense of the city’s long and colorful history.

El Templete is one of the city's best seafood restaurants. It overlooks the port of Havana.
El Templete is one of the city's best seafood restaurants. It overlooks the port of Havana.

Now comes a tough choice: Lunch. You’re close to the Plaza de la Catedral, at the north end of which is the Cathedral of Havana. An old Spanish-colonial structure finished by Jesuits in 1777, it’s one of the most beautiful churches in the city. There’s a government-run restaurant there, El Patio, but frankly, it’s one of those places that never gets rave reviews.

But you’re also close to El Templete, another government restaurant just behind the Hotel Santa Isabel on the Plaza de Armas. The seafood is outstanding. If you’re looking for ambience: El Patio. If you’re looking for a decent lunch: El Templete.

After lunch, head up Calle O’Reilly back through the Plaza de Catedral, and walk up Empedrado. You’ll pass Bodeguita del Medio, but keep going (you’ll be coming back there later in the afternoon). You’re on your way to Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) on the Avenida de los Misiones. Right next to the museum, amongst some tanks and warplanes, you’ll see the monument to Granma, which encloses the legendary boat that carried Fidel Castro from Mexico back to Cuba in 1956. The official newspaper is its namesake. Both the monument and the museum will take you through some of the key events that led up to and occurred during the early days of the revolution.

There’s also a good art museum near the Granma monument, so if you’re up for looking at some interesting art, stop in at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes del La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana). But I’d keep walking right on to the Parque Central and the Capitol building. Its renovation is scheduled to be completed soon. Even if it is still not open to the public when you visit, find a spot on the steps or cross the street to the Parque Central and find a bench facing the street.

From there, you will see an almost endless parade of Cuba’s famous old American automobiles, many of which are completely restored; there are companies that provide tours of the city in these old cars, but if you just want to catch a glimpse of them, sit still for a few minutes in the park and they will roll on by. I saw a nearly perfect rendition of a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air with those big tail fins, among many, many others.

Is it time to start drinking yet? Depending on how much time you’ve spent in the museums, I’d say, yes. Just behind the Parque Central, on the corner of Obispo and Monserrate, is El Floridita. This is the Cuban home of the daiquiri cocktail, the favorite of Ernest Hemingway on his frequent visits. I like sitting at the bar to get a close-up view of the preparations, and since they go down so smoothly, I don’t want to wait long for a refill.

From there, just to finish off the afternoon, head toward  Bodeguita del Medio on Empedrado, and a test of its famed mojito (another Hemingway-approved cocktail). Ask the bartender, Pedro, to describe the method and the ingredients, and he’ll be happy to oblige. That should do it. You’re now ready for a siesta back at the hotel.

Make dinner reservations at El Gijones, on Paseo del Prado for about 9 p.m. in the rooftop La Terraza  setting. That way, when you’re done you’ll be ready to hear the local bands starting up all over the old part of town. To remain true to the day’s theme—Habana Vieja—you should head down toward the port and settle in wherever there is a band playing. Trust me, there will be a lot of options. I love the Café Paris. It’s small, and you can even just hang out on the street corner outside the café at Obispo and San Ignacio to hear the music. All in all, not a bad day in Havana.

Defining Habana Vieja

One day isn’t enough to see all that Havana has to offer, so to work within the limit of one day, you have to narrow the focus. But that’s pretty easy: Old Havana, or Habana Vieja, constitutes a great target. What is Old Havana? The classic boundaries are the Avenida de los Misiones, Monserrate and Ejido, which loosely follow the old fortified walls of Havana, built starting in 1519.

In practical terms today, the western boundary is formed by the Paseo del Prado, which starts in front of the Capitolio and runs down to the Malecón. That constitutes about 1.75 square miles. This is a true guesstimate, but I would say about 40 to 50 percent of the buildings inside that zone have been or are being renovated.

The Insider's Guide to Havana


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