Havana, Cuba - Stein Travel
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Havana

Situated on the north coast of the island and built around a natural harbour, Havana (La Habana), is one of the most lively and colourful cities in the Caribbean. Much of the city's charm can be found among the narrow, derelict streets packed with crumbling buildings and fascinating people. Every open door and overhanging balcony allows glimpses of rocking chairs and colourful washing, accompanied by the strains of music. On the streets Chinese-made bicycles, yellow, egg-shaped coco-taxis and two-humped camello (camel) buses weave among the melee of 1950s Chevy's and Russian Ladas.

The historic old town, Habana Vieja or Colonial Havana, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and fast becoming a major tourist destination. The Spanish left behind some superb colonial architecture, and many of the great buildings and grand plazas are being restored to their former glory. Central Havana (Centro Habana) boasts some of the most important museums and architectural highlights, including the Revolution Museum, and the National Capitol, resembling the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. The trendy suburb of Vedado boasts high-rise buildings and modern hotels, and draws locals and visitors alike with its theatres, art galleries, restaurants, cafes, and cabaret shows; however most of the city's sights are in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. The five-mile (8km) seawall, or malecón, stretches from Vedado to Habana Vieja, and is lined with architectural gems in various states of dilapidation or restoration.

Havana's nightlife will exhaust even the most seasoned partygoer. After dark, nightclubs and bars come alive and the famous rum cocktails flow freely. The city has plenty of cultural entertainment too, and its fair share of monuments, museums and statues. For those travellers needing rest from all this activity, the beaches are only twenty minutes east of the city.

Information & Facts

Climate

The Cuban climate is mild and sub-topical with cool tradewinds to provide relief from the heat and humidity. There is not much variation between day and night temperatures along the coast and average sea temperatures are 77°F (25°C). The rainy season, from May to October, is also the hurricane season, but most hurricanes strike between August and October, while the wettest months are May and June, particularly around Havana. Summer temperatures average around 81°F (27°C) with humidity at about 80 percent. Temperatures of about 68°F (20°C) are usual in winter.

Eating Out

This city isn't known for fine food, and eating out in Havana can be disappointing if you don't know where to go. There are two kinds of restaurants in Havana: government-run and privately-owned. The state-run restaurants have improved dramatically since the country reopened to tourism and tend to be cheaper, but the independent restaurants, called paladares, are often the best place to go for good food and lively atmosphere.

Restaurants in Havana lack the international variety of many other large cities. You won't find great Asian, French or Italian, but the Cuban and Creole options make up for it at restaurants like La Cecilia or La Fontana Habana.

There are a few fast-food chains, including El Rápido, which serves burgers, pizzas, fried chicken, and other watered-down options. For something a little fresher look out for Pain de Paris outlets, which bake bread and croissants, and offer a variety of sandwiches.

While dining out is beyond the reach of most Cubans, there will often be a second, higher-priced, menu for tourists. Be sure to ask for prices before ordering. Scams are common in Havana restaurants, and check your bill for extras that may appear. Some restaurants may add a service charge, if not then generous tipping of at least 10% is customary and appreciated.

Getting Around

Cubans rely heavily on an unreliable bus system that is cheap, but overcrowded and slow with long queues and inconsistent routes and schedules. Large buses called 'camellos' (camels, for their two humps) are pulled by truck engines and are particularly crowded, but very cheap (20 centavos). Most visitors to Havana avoid the buses and rely instead on numerous, inexpensive taxis to get around the greater part of the city. Renting a car is not the best option as car hire is expensive, roads are not well sign-posted, and numerous one-way streets make driving a real challenge. Different types of taxis cruise the streets, including tourist taxis, two-seater bici-taxis, colectivos (classic vintage cars) and the yellow scooter coco-taxis. Most tourist taxis are air conditioned, metered and well maintained and charge in Convertible Pesos, but there are also vintage car owners who operate as unofficial taxis, although a rate should be negotiated beforehand as passengers are likely to be overcharged. Bici-taxis, coco-taxis and colectivos are officially not supposed to take tourists. A couple of vintage cars can be hired by tourists for tours around the city and can be found outside main tourist attractions like the Revolution Museum or the Capitolio.

Kids Attractions

There are many fun places for children in Havana, both educational and recreational. The Acuario Nacional has dolphin and seal shows, while the Camara Obscura will give them a great look at the city through its telescopic lens. The Isla del Coco amusement park is the largest in Havana, located in Playa.

There are a few parks in Old Havana with play areas for children. Some have entry fees, but these are usually in Cuban Pesos and amount to a few cents. Lenin Park is enormous, and has everything from swimming pools and horseback riding to a zoo and an amusement park. Parque La Maestranza in Old Havana is less extensive, but has play areas, pony rides and a train ride. In Old Town you'll also find a bowling alley and arcade, along with La Colmenita children's theatre and the Cinecito, which plays only child-friendly movies.

Language

The official language is Spanish, but English is spoken in the main tourist spots.

Money

The official currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), divided into 100 centavos, but the 'tourist' currency is the Peso Convertible (CUC), which replaces the US Dollar as currency in tourist related establishments like hotels, restaurants and so called 'dollar shops'. US Dollars are no longer accepted as payment, and a 10% commission or more is charged to exchange them, therefore the best currency to bring along is Euros, the British Pound or Canadian Dollars. The CUC is almost equal in value to the US Dollar. Some places only accept Cuban pesos and others only Pesos Convertible (usually tourist related establishments). Money should only be changed at official exchange bureaux or banks to avoid scams confusing the two currencies. Visa and MasterCard are generally accepted only in major cities and hotels as long as they haven't been issued by a US bank; Diners Club has limited acceptance, and American Express is not accepted anywhere on the island. Travellers cheques are less readily accepted than credit cards, but all major currencies are acceptable, except for US bank issued cheques. No US-issued credit or debit cards will work in ATMs, but those holding other cards issued in other countries should be able to get pesos at most major tourist destinations. Euro or Sterling travellers cheques are accepted at Cuban banks and Bureaux de Change.

Night Life

The nightlife scene in Havana pulses with Latin rhythms, sultry dancing, Timbal drum beats and a whole lot of energy. Live music is a focus and a highly popular pastime in Havana, and visitors can enjoy the unique experience of partying it up to local jazz, samba, and salsa, while clubs, bars and discos abound too.

In general Cubans love to look chic and stylish so don't be afraid to bring out your party outfit when hitting the streets for a night on the town. Head to La Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana, which is very touristy, but a great place to get warmed up to the local flavour before hitting nearby clubs like Bar Montserrate where a local quintet jams the night away and the rum keeps flowing. El Chévere, in Parque Almendares, is a gigantic open-air disco that keeps the music pumping all night long with pop, hip-hop and salsa beats, the Habana Café in the Hotel Melía Cohiba in Paseo is the place to be seen, and the rooftop bar at the Hotel Ambos Mundos is super trendy. Clubs don't get busy until after 10pm, and often stay open all night long.

Those looking for a quieter, more intimate setting should head to Calle 21 in La Roca where good whiskey, cigars and good conversation can be shared. For live music, venues like La Tropical in Playa feature live bands, while Jazz Café and Jazz Club La Zorra y el Cuervo in Vedado are Havana's top live jazz venues.

Havana also has a thriving arts community, with internationally-renown groups like the Cuban National Ballet performing in the Gran Teatro de La Habana, or the national symphony orchestra in the Teatro Amadeo Roldán. A weekly highlight is the Sábado de la Rumba at El Gran Palenque, which is a charismatic mix of secular and Afro-Cuban religious dancing and drumming.

Shopping

Havana may not be known for its shopping, but it's a good place to check out the local wares and enjoy the shopping geared at tourists - a sad reality of the country's capitalist stance as most Cubans can't afford the luxurious products on sale, though some locals can be found strolling through the streets and malls, browsing, shopping and mingling with international visitors.

The biggest market in Havana is open daily on Calle Tacón in La Habana Vieja, with local arts and crafts, t-shirts, and other popular souvenirs. Or you can head to the ultra-modern Tiendas Carlos Tercero on the Avenida Salvador Allende where everything from clothes and shoes to electrical and sporting goods can be found while for local fashion and designer goods, La Maison in Miramar is the place to go.

Old Havana is a great place to browse too as the area is becoming increasingly popular with small boutiques and specialist shops lining the streets and while you're there, head to the local craft market behind the Plaza de la Catedral where stalls selling Cuban paintings, sculptures, wooden statues and embroidery abound and haggling is welcome.

Cuba's most famous export is undoubtedly its cigars. Regarded as among the best in the world, 'cubans' make great gifts from Havana for smokers. Cigars should only be bought at La Casa del Habano shops, as the black and grey-market cigars available on the street are often low-quality substitutes. Authentic boxes of cigars are sealed with 'Hecho en Cuba' (made in Cuba) branded at the bottom of the box.

Another well-known product of Cuba is its music, with salsa, folk, jazz, and reggaeton being popular. As with cigars, it is advised to buy cds from official state-run stores, as albums bought from the black or grey market are often low-quality bootlegs.

Visitors will notice that Che Guevara's likeness adorns just about everything from t-shirts and bags to mugs and coasters. Ron Caney or Havana Club rum makes a great Havana souvenir, or Cuban coffee. Men may like to pick up a colourful guayabera, an embroidered tropical shirt. Most shops in general open from 10am to 6pm and 10am to 1pm on Sundays.

Sightseeing

With a rich and fascinating history, Havana's sightseeing is centred around its varied architecture, with everything from museums and churches to colonial forts and elaborate city squares. With friendly and colourful people juxtaposed by elegantly dilapidated buildings and occasionally derelict streets, there's nothing quite like Havana.

Just breathing in the scents and watching the vintage cars roll down the streets makes for a great day of sightseeing, but head into the historic old town, La Habana Vieja, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to explore the magnificent colonial architecture. Take in the sights and sounds as you stroll down the Calle Obispo as this pedestrian boulevard takes you through the streets, past the Parque Central and to some of the more hidden away gems of the La Habana Vieja. You can get the best view of Havana from the Camera Obscura, which provides a 360-degree look from atop the Plaza Vieja.

Havana is special for visitors simply because there are none of the tacky tourist developments that have overrun other destinations. That said, you'll find plenty of places claiming to be significant to Ernest Hemingway, but few are. You can visit the Ernest Hemingway Museum on the outskirts of town, set in his old residence.

Visit the cigar factories and rum distilleries to sample some of these world famous exports, visit the Plaza de la Revolución where political figures such as Fidel Castro have addressed the crowds and peruse the Museo de la Revolución - a must for all history buffs. And after a long day of sightseeing in the city, head to the nearby beaches, most of which are located no more than 20 minutes away to soak up some Caribbean sun and sip on a rum cocktail.

Time

Local time is GMT -5 (GMT-4 from the second Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October).

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