Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana

Post originally Published January 14, 2024 || Last Updated January 15, 2024

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Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Old Havana's Colonial Allure

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana

Step back in time and immerse yourself in Old Havana's captivating colonial architecture and vibrant culture. This UNESCO World Heritage site will transport you to a bygone era with its elegant Baroque and Neoclassical buildings. Wandering the cobblestone streets, you'll discover majestic cathedrals, lively plazas, and homes frozen in time.

Let's start in Plaza de Armas, Havana's oldest square, ringed by exquisite colonial structures and shaded by royal palm trees. Gaze up at El Templete, a diminutive neoclassical temple marking the spot where the city was founded in 1519. Meander through Plaza de la Catedral, centered around the 18th century Cathedral of Havana, and snap photos of vintage cars parked out front.

Don't miss Plaza Vieja, once the site of executions and now home to vibrant art galleries and restaurants. Check out Plaza de San Francisco, teeming with artists and buskers. And saunter down Calle Obispo, a lively pedestrian street dotted with shops and musicians. At dusk, grab a mojito at Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway's favorite watering hole.
Beyond the plazas, you'll find architectural gems around every corner. Stand beneath the impressive stone facade of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, built in the 1770s as the seat of colonial government. Marvel at the baroque details of Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio, constructed in the early 1700s.

And peek inside writer Ernest Hemingway's preserved home, Finca Vigía. Stroll the lush grounds where he penned classics like For Whom the Bell Tolls. You can almost picture him typing away on the typewriter.

What else is in this post?

  1. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Old Havana's Colonial Allure
  2. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Savoring Cuban Cuisine
  3. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Enjoying Local Nightlife
  4. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Discovering the Arts Scene
  5. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Strolling the Malecón Seawall
  6. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Experiencing Cuban Music and Dance
  7. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Visiting Revolutionary Sites
  8. Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Cuban Cigars and Rum Tasting

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Savoring Cuban Cuisine

With its vibrant blend of Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, Cuban cuisine offers an explosion of flavors waiting to be discovered. Havana brims with paladares - family-run restaurants housed in locals' homes that provide an authentic taste of Cuban cooking. From juicy ropa vieja to savory moros y cristianos, sinking your teeth into classic Cuban dishes is an essential experience.

Start your culinary journey in Old Havana, where you'll find some of the city's best and most atmospheric paladares. At Los Nardos, dine like Hemingway once did on mouthwatering seafood enchilados and succulent roasted pork. Or try Doña Eutemia, serving up heaping plates of ropa vieja (shredded beef), black beans, and fried plantains in a charming colonial courtyard.

Next, head to El Cocinero in Vedado, housed in a converted peanut oil factory. Order the delectable eggplant caviar dip and roast pork shoulder with a mojito while enjoying the hip, industrial-chic ambiance. For a more local vibe, venture to Atelier in Gleido, where you can sample creative takes on classics like camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp) and congrí (rice and beans).

Don't leave Havana without trying a Cuban sandwich, called a sandwich cubano here. Head to El Dandy in Centro Habana, where the melted cheese and ham sandwich is simply to die for. Pair it with a refreshing hand-pressed sugar cane juice. Or try Casa Miglis in Centro Habana, where the Lechón Asado sandwich with juicy roasted pork, ham, and cheese hits the spot.

To taste Havana's buzzing nightlife, check out La Guarida's rooftop bar, one of the city's hottest locations. Sip a classic Hemingway daiquiri or mojito while nibbling on yuca frita (fried yucca) and chicharrones de pollo (fried chicken) - the perfect marriage of Cuban cocktails and cuisine.

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Enjoying Local Nightlife

Nightfall transforms Havana into a sultry tropical playground pulsing with live music and hip bars. Once the sun goes down, habaneros let loose and get their dance on at the city's legendary clubs and cabarets. Going out on the town here is an unforgettable experience.

No visit to Havana is complete without spending an evening at the Tropicana. This world-famous open-air cabaret has been captivating audiences since 1939 with its high-energy spectacle of music, dance, and eye-popping costumes. Snag a table, order a mojito, and take in the electric atmosphere as dancers and singers take the stage to perform rumba, mambo, cha-cha-cha, and other Afro-Cuban beats. The Tropicana evokes the glamour and excess of Havana's heyday so tangibly you'll feel transported back in time.
Trendier nightlife enclaves like Fabrica de Arte Cubano are also essential stops. Housed in a converted cooking oil factory in hip Vedado, this is Havana's pioneering arts and music space. On any given night, you might catch live salsa or jazz, contemporary dance, cinema screenings, art exhibits, and more. The vibe is alternative and edgy, drawing a young artistic crowd. Order a craft cocktail at the bar, check out the galleries, and dance until dawn—it's an only-in-Havana experience.
Jazz aficionados will love getting their fix on live Cuban jazz at numerous venues around town. Head to La Zorra y El Cuervo in Vedado to catch intimate late-night jam sessions in a former library basement turned music hot spot. Long an underground scene staple, it's known for impromptu concerts where you never know who might show up. Another top jazz pick is Jazz Club La Zorra, set in a gorgeous converted theater in Old Havana. Sip rum while grooving to mellow jazz trios in this classy 1930s setting.
For traditional son cubano dancing, Cafe Cantante Mi Habana in Centro Habana is a vibrant local favorite. Occupying a colonial building with striking stained-glass skylights, its live bands get everyone moving to this quintessential Cuban musical genre. Or check out Casa de la Musica in Miramar to experience timba, another lively Cuban dance style. Its outdoor patio hosts top groups that will have you dancing the night away in no time.

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Discovering the Arts Scene

With its captivating blend of Spanish colonial, African, and contemporary influences, Havana's arts scene offers a vibrant glimpse into Cuban culture past and present. Exploring the city's galleries, studios, and cultural centers provides an illuminating window into the Cuban experience that you simply can't find in guidebooks or tours. Havana has an electric creative energy pulsing through its streets, captivating artists and art lovers from around the world.

Wandering through the converted warehouses of Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) in Vedado, you'll discover this creative spirit come alive. Here young artists craft avant-garde conceptual installations using everyday objects that highlight the resourcefulness forged by scarcity. Crocheted thread becomes feminist social commentary. Discarded wood morphs into abstract interpretations of Cuban life. The exhibitions change constantly, preventing stagnation. You may encounter photography exploring gender identity or impromptu poetry readings giving voice to everyday struggles. Transcending propaganda, this is art as catharsis.

Next dive into Cuba's thriving underground urban arts scene. Stroll the sun-bleached streets of humble Centro Habana, where colorful colonial facades become canvases for some of Latin America's boldest graffiti art. Massive surrealist murals juxtapose dreamscapes with harsh realities, channeling the hopes of locals. Gaze up at dizzying 3D works that seemingly pierce the crumbling walls, creating the illusion of secret dimensions. This street art reveals Havana's burgeoning creative underground, pulsing beneath the surface.
No visit is complete without experiencing Cuban dance - the physical embodiment of the country's rhythmic soul. Attend a performance by Cuba's internationally renowned contemporary dance company, Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. Nurtured by Fidel Castro, their work fuses Afro-Cuban folkloric and popular dance with rigorous classical training, creating enthralling hybrid forms. Or check out a show at Gran Teatro de La Habana, an ornate pre-revolutionary theater and hub of classical arts. Emerging and established Cuban dancers unleash their athletic artistry across this grand stage, transporting you on journeys transcending space and time. Through unbridled movement, the resilience of the Cuban spirit unfolds.

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Strolling the Malecón Seawall

No visit to Havana is complete without an evening stroll along the Malecón, Havana’s iconic 8 km seaside esplanade. This vibrant waterfront promenade offers an intoxicating glimpse into Cuban culture and community.

As the sun begins its descent over the Florida Straits, habaneros from all walks of life flock to the Malecón to relax, socialize, and soak in the sea breeze. Fishermen cast their lines along the rocky seawall. Teens show off extravagant quinceañera gowns and suits while posing for photos. Couples canoodle on concrete benches. Shirtless boys fearlessly leap off the wall into crashing waves below, as nervous parents look on.

Meanwhile, timeworn colonial buildings that once housed Havana’s elite line the opposite side of the promenade, their faded grandeur still hinting at the opulence of bygone days. Classic cars from the 1950s cruise by, completing the backdrop that feels suspended in time. Glimpses of daily life reveal themselves through open windows and balconies. The underlying grittiness that pervades much of Havana comes into full view here, unfiltered and unabashedly on display.
As darkness descends, the Malecón transforms into a lively social hub, pulsing with an infectious energy. Makeshift street side cafés emerge, offering ice-cold cervezas that are perfect for sipping while people watching. Local bands and street performers entertain the crowds, conjuring impromptu dance parties fueled by Cuban rum and easy camaraderie among strangers. You may even brush shoulders with Cuban baseball stars or striking transvestites dressed to the nines.

This communal spirit embodies the soul of the Malecón. It’s where habaneros come together, forgetting their troubles for a moment and embracing the promise of possibility that always seems to linger here like the sea mist. Despite hardships, their indefatigable joy of living perseveres.

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Experiencing Cuban Music and Dance

Immerse yourself in the intoxicating rhythms of Cuban music and dance to uncover the country’s exuberant soul. In Havana’s streets, dance halls, and nightclubs, these art forms meld Africa’s powerful drumbeats with Spanish flare, fueling a cultural phenomenon that captures the essence of Cuban joie de vivre. Experiencing live performances firsthand provides an unparalleled portal into the Cuban psyche.
Spend an evening at Havana’s famed cabaret Tropicana to witness the spectacle and sensuality of Cuban dance unfold before your eyes. As the music crescendos, watch the dancers’ lithe bodies twist and undulate to the complex polyrhythmic beats of rumba, mambo, and cha-cha-cha. The blur of limbs and swirl of voluminous skirts entrance audiences just as they did over 80 years ago when the cabaret first opened. The raw athleticism and sultry passion of routines like “Arrollando en la Habana” will leave you breathless, exemplifying Cuba’s enchanting vivaciousness.

Venture into steamy late-night dance clubs like Casa de la Música to feel Cuban dance music pulse through your veins. Timba, the fast-paced modern style that blends Afro-Cuban folkloric beats with jazz, will get even novice dancers moving. As you get swept up in the pulsating rhythms, you’ll understand how music and movement are so intertwined here, feeding the Cuban spirit.
Attend a performance by renowned contemporary dance company Danza Contemporánea de Cuba to experience the gravity-defying physicality of formally trained Cuban dancers. Watch their athletic bodies intertwine and contort to boldly fuse Afro-Cuban traditions with classical techniques. This exhilarating blend catalyzed the unique Cuban contemporary dance phenomenon that now sets stages worldwide alight.

Every neighborhood has its own Casa de la Trova, intimate music houses that showcase live bands playing Cuban son, the quintessential genre blending Spanish and African influences. At these local treasures, you’ll tap your feet and maybe join some impromptu dancing as sweet melodies transport you. For a particularly moving experience, catch a performance by nonagenarian son master Ñico Saquito, whose powerful voice and wizardry on the tres guitar will stir your soul.
Cuba’s world-famous musicians also perform at venues like the historic Teatro Nacional and Plaza Vieja’s Casa de la Música Miramar. Imbibe the mastery of icons like Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista Social Club fame as they unleash their musical genius honed over decades. These living legends’ performances illuminate why Cuban music so profoundly moves global audiences.

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Visiting Revolutionary Sites

Retrace the footsteps of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban revolutionaries who reshaped world history by visiting the sites that granted Havana an eternal place in the revolutionary canon.

Start at the imposing Monumento a José Martí, Cuba's national hero who spearheaded the fight for independence from Spain. His soaring triangular tower memorial dominates Plaza de la Revolución, where Castro once stirred crowds of thousands with fiery speeches. Gaze up at the controversial steel visage of Che Guevara, an Argentinian doctor turned guerilla leader, which sprawls across the Ministry of the Interior building nearby.

Next, explore the Museo de la Revolución, housed in the former Presidential Palace. Wander through rooms still pockmarked by bullet holes from the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. Marvel at artifacts like the Granma, the decrepit yacht Fidel and his band used to return from exile in Mexico to start the revolution. Glimpse Fidel's study and bedroom, frozen in time. Outside, straddle the very bronze footprints where Batista stood when he fled Cuba on January 1, 1959, ceding victory to the revolutionaries.

Head underground to tour Fidel's former top-secret bunker, now the Museo de Comandancia del Che. Enter through a hidden trapdoor to explore this clandestine nerve-center where Fidel and Che directed operations and broadcasted speeches. Climb lookout towers, see decoded CIA cables, and imagine the tension crackling through its paranoid halls during the Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly ignited nuclear Armageddon.

Gain new perspective at Finca Vigía, where Che Guevara lived with his family after the revolution. Peek inside his well-preserved house, including his study where he penned classic works analyzing Latin American economic development. Stroll the lush grounds where he enjoyed photography and baseball, humanizing this larger-than-life icon.

Conclude your journey through the revolution at Santa Clara, where Che Guevara led rebel troops to decisive victory, cutting Cuba in half and proving instrumental in toppling Batista. See the iconic armored train that Che and his guerrillas derailed, now a triumphant memorial exhibit. Climb the mausoleum housing Che's remains, returned from Bolivia in 1997 where he met his death, and pay respects to the 20th century's most iconic revolutionary.

Cuba Libre! 12 Cant-Miss Experiences in Havana - Cuban Cigars and Rum Tasting

No trip to Cuba is complete without savoring two of the country’s iconic indulgences – cigars and rum. Cuba’s unique climate and terroir make it an ideal location for producing these world-class goods, which hold a hallowed place in Cuban culture and hospitality.

Aficionados worldwide laud Cuban cigars as the finest available, thanks to the island’s ideal tobacco growing conditions. The rich soil, abundant sunshine, and ocean breezes all contribute to the full-bodied flavor that makes Cuban cigar brands like Cohiba, Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta so prized. In Havana, you can watch master rollers craft these stogies by hand at landmark cigar factories like H. Upmann. Or pop into any cigar shop to chat with knowledgeable attendants called lectores who can recommend the perfect smoke based on your tastes. Don’t miss savoring a cigar at an historic tobacco lounge like Sloppy Joe’s while listening to live Cuban music – you’ll channel Hemingway’s Havana heyday. Many leading hotels also have luxurious cigar lounges where you can order premium aged rums while puffing away amidst old-world ambiance.

Cuba also provides ideal conditions for producing rum, the quintessential Caribbean spirit. Cuban rums like Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba hail from a centuries-old rum-making tradition dating back to the colonial era. Sipping smooth Cuban rum cocktails like mojitos and daiquiris at open-air bars or paladar restaurants provides an authentic taste of the island. For insight into the rum production process, tour the original Havana Club factory in old town Havana. Watch workers hand-fill oak barrels, sample various aged rums, and peruse decades-old bottling equipment. They’ll explain how Cuba’s climate enables rum to mature rapidly, creating an exceptionally smooth sipping experience. To immerse yourself in rum culture, time your visit with the International Havana Rum Festival. Join locals and aficionados celebrating Cuba’s most iconic spirit through tastings, cooking classes, and lively musical performances.

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