Cuba: A morning in Havana

First things first, if you ever find yourself in Havana, you need more than a day to soak up the city. If you can, I'd really recommend staying two or three nights to get the best Havana experience, though you will be able to see its highlights if you really can only spend a day in Cuba's cool (and slightly crumbling) capital city.

The drive from Varadero to Havana is around 2 hours and 30 minutes so be aware of that if you're doing what we did and are visiting from there. Your resort will offer excursions, and there are tour agencies in Varadero, but I arranged a private tour through Cuban Trip Compass before we went, who I highly recommend. For a cost of 150CUC (about £110) we were driven to and from Havana, as well as around the city, in the shiny head-turning 1952 Ford, pictured below. The price also includes a guide for the day, though doesn't include lunch or entrance to any museums you may visit. Isn't the car quite something?

Since we'd never been to Havana before, we were happy to go along with the "standard" tour for this sort of day, though we did add on visiting Cámara Obscura to see Havana from up high, plus rather than let our guide take us somewhere for lunch, we wanted to go to Habana 61. It's your day, at the end of the day - don't be swayed otherwise if there's some place you really want to visit or eat at and, likewise, if there are places you really don't want to visit. The whole point of a private tour is you're in control!

We learned a bit more about Cuba on our drive to Havana, which included how proud they are of their "civil engineering wonders", like Bacunayagua Bridge, pictured above. We stopped off there for a quick stretch of the legs, but then it was back in the car and back on the road to Havana. The first thing we did when we got there was drive down El Malecón, Havana's famous seawall. In the day it's not really that exciting, it's just a road by the sea, but at night the Malecón comes alive and Cubans hang out there, drinking and dancing the night away (which is why you should stay overnight in Havana!).

Next up was Plaza de la Revolución, aka Revolution Square, which is an important public space for Cubans, and where you'll find the two iconic buildings with the outline of Che Guevera and Fidel Castro's faces on them. Che Guevera was, of course, an advisor to Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution - the man whose name goes hand-in-hand with Marxism and revolution. Fidel Castro was the Cuban who introduced Communism to Cuba after overthrowing its existing government. Another Cuban hero, José Martí, the man in charge of gaining independence from Spain, is also paid tribute to in the square; there's a memorial that stands opposite the Ministry buildings where Castro and Guevera's etchings are.

We hopped back in the car and headed over to a cigar factory (I have no idea which one, but it was a few minutes' drive from Revolution Square; Google isn't being forthcoming!). Whichever factory you end up at - you'll probably be told yours is the only which lets tourists visit, but there are a few in Havana that allow tours - the entry fee will be 10CUC. It's quite something to see how the cigars are hand-made, and also to see a working environment that really would be questioned anywhere elsewhere with some of the workers puffing away at cigars whilst they deftly flatten, roll and assemble the tobacco leaves into an authentic Cuban cigar.

From there we headed to El Capitolio, the Cuban National Capital Building that was inspired by Washington's Capital Building. There's a lot of misinformation floating around about it. Some say it's one metre taller and wider than its Washington equivalent as a middle finger to the Americans that Cuba's one is grander than theirs; others say it's one metre shorter and thinner in a display of an American power-play (they were the ones who financed it). Whatever it is, it's currently under scaffolding as restoration takes place - the restoration has already taken longer than the original build took!

Right by the Capital Building you'll find Gran Teatro de La Habana, home to the Cuban National Ballet, and opposite there is Cuba's very own Central Park. Yes, this tiny square is named so because of the Americans, though it's a fraction of the size. (And look at all those old cars; Havana really is littered with them!) From there we had various ornate buildings pointed out that used to be mansions, but are now hotels - we had a lot of these pointed out - before coming across El Floridita. The bar opened in 1817, but it's more famously known for been both the watering hole of Ernest Hemingway and the birthplace of the daiquiri. But, daiquiris weren't calling us - lunch was.

Habana 61 was our choice for lunch and after spending our first week not been impressed with the food in Cuba, Habana 61 convinced us that you can get delicious dishes in restaurants. (Definitely another reason why you should spend a few days in Havana.) I enjoyed a veggie starter of sticky riceballs on chickpeas, followed by shrimps cooked in a traditional, and beautiful, Cuban sauce; Olly had ceviche, followed by a pork dish. Our mains were served with rice and beans, and we also ordered some sweet potato fries alongside them. All scrumptious, and easily the best meal we ate in Cuba.

Fuelled up, it was time to hop back in the car to see some more of Cuba's capital city, which I'll tell you about next time. What do you think to Havana so far?

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