Havana great time

By Vickie Marie Cossar, Metro

Last updated at 15:56 15 May 2003

Why go there?

When you think of Havana, you probably envisage Al Pacino's role as Tony Montana, from the Hollywood blockbuster Scarface.

But the image of violence, drugs and communism he portrayed is a world away from the colourful, vibrant city that Havana is today.

Horse-drawn carts, classic American cars, little shanty towns and buildings that look like they could crumble in your hand: the city is a huge melting pot of cultures.

What to do

One look at Havana and it's evident that Cuba is only just starting to recover from the severe economic recession caused by the collapse of its major trading partner, the Soviet Union.

It's a dishevelled jewel and most tourists stay in Old Havana, rather than visiting the Central area (the former red-light district) or East district with its Soviet-era workers' high rises.

Old Havana, with most of its buildings erected in the 18th century, was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1982, kickstarting a period of restoration that has seen many of the old homes turned into museums - just exploring this part of the city is enough to give you sensory overload.

The Calle Obispo road was the colonial heart of the city and is still the main drag for shops and nightlife.

Little shops adorn the cobbled pavements and a few steps down is the enchanting Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) - dominated by the towers of the Catedral de San Cristobal de La Habana.

Central Havana lost its sleaze-central tag after the revolution of 1959, yet still manages to look unwelcoming.

Visit it for two reasons: to say you had the cajones and to see the magnificent Capitolio Nacional Cuba's erstwhile seat of power, which now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Most of the city's famous cigar factories are based nearby.

Vedado is the city's bustling entertainment district, modelled on Miami by American settlers about 100 years ago.

Fidel Castro marked the end of the old era when, after the revolution, he made the area his HQ.

The Plaza de la Revolucion is a must-see - it's the place where, on public holidays, Fidel makes his best speeches.

The Nacional de Cuba Hotel - built by the Mafia when the country was an American playground - is one of the city's best and a legacy to old-world charm.

Out of the city are some fantastic sights little more than a two-hour drive away. Picturesque Vin les Valley has underground caves discovered in the 1940s; Cienfuegos is a scuba-diving hotspot with amazing coral reefs and sandy beaches, and Playa Giron has the Revolution Museum telling the sorry story of America's attempted occupation at the Bay of Pigs.

Where to eat and drink

Old Havana and Vedado have the best bars and restaurants. El Patio - on Plaza de la Catedral - is a delightful place to dine.

Sit back and enjoy being serenaded under the stars: the moonlight hitting the cathedral gives off a strangely eerie, yet beautiful glow.

A few minutes' west of the plaza is one of the town's Ernest Hemingway shrines - the bar-restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio that he used to frequent.

Serving traditional Cuban dishes, it's been visited by many a famous person and has intoxicating mojitos and a quaint ambience. It's also somewhere you can leave your signature in Cuba - on the restaurant walls.



  • Vicki-Marie travelled with Air Jamaica (020 8570 7999; www.airjamaica.com). She stayed with Gran Caribe Hotels at the Hotel Inglaterra and Hotel Nacional, both in Havana, and the Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos. For more information, contact 020 8959 9933 or visit www.gran-caribe.com

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