Cultural Spotlight

Paris of the Caribbean

Got a day in Havana – or, even better, a sultry night? You might want to consider extending your stay. Once a playground for the rich and famous, this Latin city has been deemed the Paris of the Caribbean. From the rejuvenated old centre to the pulsing cabaret clubs, you'll find countless reasons to ditch the beach and opt for an extra helping of Cuban culture.

The new Old Havana

Old Havana is one of the best-preserved Spanish colonial sites in the world. The streets are lined not only with Baroque and neoclassical monuments but also trendy restaurants like El Patio, housed in a 17th-century palace and offering patrons both an inner courtyard and a breezy terrace overlooking a lively plaza.

Hotel Habaguanex Saratoga

A stroll along the Paseo del Prado in Old Havana will bring you to the NH Parque Central Hotel, a prestigious property with a rooftop pool terrace and views of the grand surroundings, including the Capitolio Nacional and the Museum of Modern Art. Hotel Habaguanex Saratoga, a brand new 96-room boutique-style hotel, also features a rooftop pool and a postcard-perfect view.

Tourists flock to watering holes like El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio to sip on expensive mojitos in memory of Hemingway. A less pricey alternative is a cup of extraordinary Cuban coffee in the recently restored open-air lobby bar of the Ambos Mundo Hotel, Papa's first residence in Cuba.

El Patio, 54 Plaza de la Catedral, Old Havana, 537-861-8504
NH Parque Central Hotel, Neptuno, corner Prado, Old Havana, 537-860-6627
Hotel Habaguanex Saratoga, 603 Prado, Old Havana, 537-868-1000
El Floridita, 557 Obispo, Old Havana, 537-867-1299
La Bodeguita del Medio, 207 Empedrado, Old Havana, 537-624-498
Ambos Mundo Hotel, 153 Obispo, Old Havana, 537-669-530

The vibe of Vedado

The Vedado district has an eclectic mix of architecture, where Spanish colonial mansions meet post-revolutionary, Soviet-style buildings. Vedado's flagship hotel is the historic Hotel Nacional, featuring excellent cuisine and spectacular floor shows at the Cabaret Parisién. Built in 1930, this landmark property became a magnet for the Hollywood elite, international heads of state and a procession of young Mafioso (including the legendary Lucky Luciano). The hotel underwent an extravagant overhaul in 1992 and now, once again, offers the high life.

 Just a few blocks away on Calle 23, you'll find an impressive arts and theatre district as well as La Coppelia, a hugely popular ice cream emporium that faces the Habana Libre Hotel. Hundreds of Habaneros form long lines for the sweet stuff. The cues stretch across the length of the mid-city park, and family and friends gather on nearby benches and bordering street corners.

Hotel Nacional, 21st St. and O, Vedado, 537-333-564
Habana Libre Hotel, the corner of 23rd and L, Vedado, 537-834-6100

What's cooking

Cuban cuisine has come a long way in recent years, thanks to elegant choices like El Tocoroco, which cater to the most educated (and international) of palates. Try also to get a seat at one of many privately owned “paladares”; these family-run businesses have a maximum of 12 tables and serve up authentic Cuban dishes at excellent prices. El Aljibe, located in the upscale Miramar district, offers a full meal, including dessert and coffee, for under $20. Another notable paladar is La Cocina de Lilliam, set on the grounds of a Spanish colonial home. Lilliam's fare includes entrees of pork loin stuffed with dates, tender chunks of lamb and garbanzo beans.

El Tocoroco, 302 18th St., Miramar, 537-334-530
El Aljibe, 7th Ave., between 24th St. and 26th St., Miramar, 537-204-1584
La Cocina de Lillam, 1311 48th St., Playa district, Havana, 537-209-6514


Havana nights

When the sun goes down, Havana's bustling daily life gives way to the sultry sounds of salsa. The Paris of the Caribbean lives on in venues like the famed Cabaret Tropicana, with its Vegas-turned-Cuban floor shows and outstanding live music. Several other venues offer similar diversions. At Casa de la Musica Habana, a young Cuban crowd enjoys the preshow before some of the country's hottest salsa bands take the stage after midnight. Steamy dancing A Lo Cubano carries on until 4 a.m.

The nostalgic Habana Café at the five-star Hotel Melia Cohiba is a showcase for early Americana collectibles, including real classic cars and an airplane that hangs from the ceiling. The club has a Hard Rock Cafe-type menu with the added luxury of a live show. For a more laidback but equally authentic experience, you can enjoy a traditional live bolero at Gato Tuerto, surrounded by postmodern decor. Gato Tuerto has been the favourite locale of some of Cuba's most notable poets and intellectuals.

Cabaret Tropicana, 72nd St. and 45th Ave., Marianao, 537-267-1717
Casa de la Musica Habana, Galiano and Neptuno, Central Havana, 537-860-8296
Hotel Melia Cohiba, Paseo Ave. at the Malecon, Vedado, 537-833-3636
Gato Tuerto, O St., between 17th and 19th, Vedado, 537-662-224

(David Pye is a freelance travel journalist based in Montreal. A frequent visitor to Cuba, David has the insider's scoop on Havana's best-kept secrets.)

Getting There

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April 2006

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