There are few island clusters in the world quite as unique as the Caribbean, whose hundreds of vibrant yet laid-back landmasses have seen influences from every major European power over the centuries. Of course, today they’re outstanding communities in their own right, made all the more personable and popular for their cultural contributions to the world, from the music of Jamaica to the party atmosphere of the Dominican Republic.
However, for many holidaymakers it’s Cuba, the largest of all the Caribbean islands, that holds the most appeal for breaks abroad today. Combined with its climate, beaches like Varadero draw the crowds every month of the year, yet its the capital of Havana that sums up everything we love about Cuba.
The city’s made plenty of advances since Cuba started getting chummy with the wider world again in recent years, and that gives it a distinctive character locked between the 1950s and the modern age that you’re going to love. A weekend in this amazing city is something that has to be experienced, and we’ve got plenty of reasons why.
Begin with the history
It only takes a glimpse at the colonial architecture of Cuba’s old town to feel whisked away to a bygone age, and Cubans are massively proud of their history. The Museo de la Ciudad gives a brilliant window into Cuba’s past with its sublime array of antiques, including implements from decades past to information of Havana’s beginnings as a leading port and stronghold of the Empire of Spain, bravely defended against pirates and corsairs.
Of course, for many of us, those iconic images of Che Guevara and his compadres evoke the modern spirit of Cuban identity like nothing else, and the Museo de la Revolucion tells that tale from the Cuban perspective. Nearby is the Plaza de la Revolucion, where memorials to Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and other figureheads of Cuba’s fight for freedom draw visitors by the score, day after day.
Palaces and fortresses galore
Havana’s buildings tend towards the tall, showing off the craftsmanship and iconic elegance in their design. Nowhere is that more true than the Capitolio Nacional, which dominates the skyline with its pristine white visage. If you do get the chance to delve inside, you’ll be swept away by La Estatua de la Republica, an immense commemorative sculpture that’s one of the largest indoor statues in the whole world.
Grand buildings in Havana don’t stop there though. The Plaza de Armas combines Hispanic styling with imposing military ambience, all lit up in the sun of course. Meanwhile, those of you seeking to see how Havana staved off troublesome pirates in centuries past will love El Morro Castle, great guardian of Havana’s bay, as well as easternmost Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a coastal stronghold that has fired cannonballs into the ocean at 9pm every night since the colonial age. Make sure you see it for yourself.
Spend Saturday night on the town
Cuban nightlife is a true delight, and you already know that Havana will keep things lively until sunrise. The Malecon is an avenue that traces the northern shore of Havana in a beautiful and upbeat seaside promenade. It’s here that dating couples stroll, playful young adults bounce about laughing and joking and street hawkers come to ply their trade, so a visit is a definite must.
It seems like there’s music around every turn, and every street house’s a bar where live music soars out into the crisp night air. A mojito is always a good idea, and you’re bound to find a few locals happy to teach you some salsa steps. When mealtime comes, travellers in the know head to Old Havana, historic and grand, because it’s where the best restaurants await, with authentic flavours that many tourists miss out on at more mainstream venues. Plaza del Cristo is regarded as a top hotspot for good cuisine here.
Sunday morning means Sunday driving
Classic cars are going to be seen throughout Havana, so you can be assured they’re not just a stereotype or myth. Colourful and elegant, they lace the centre of grand squares like Parque Central near Capitolo Nacional. The reliable Malecon is another place you’re bound to find some of these vehicular masterpieces, and they’re well worth trying out. No tour around Havana is complete without a drop-top ride in an old-school convertible, sunshine blazing and your chatty driver giving you insider knowledge on the best places to see, eat and experience.
The more tourist-focused Coco Taxis, bright yellow and bulb-shaped, make for a pretty playful way to get from A to B, although more standard taxi options also exist. Of course, nothing truly compares to those classic cars though.
Shop among the sights
Obispo is a pedestrian-only street where boutiques rub shoulders with old school storefronts, including classic pharmacies with 1950s cash registers shining as proudly on varnished counters today as they did in decades past. Continue pounding the pavement and you’ll eventually come to Plaza Vieja, framed by buildings of every colour, where shops and restaurants await in each direction. Just remember to keep your pesos handy, since the majority of Cuban venues do not take credit cards.
Discover the delights of Cuban rum
One of the best benefits to Cuba’s modern relationships with the rest of the world is that Havana Club rum, formerly one of the most secretive tipples in the Caribbean, has become available to all. A tour of the distillery is a fantastic way to round off a Sunday afternoon before you head out for a few drinks elsewhere, and the fact that each tour of the unique rum’s history and cultural influence across the island is topped off by a free sample always helps. Of course, if exclusive spirits are your thing, you can pick up a bottle to bring home, proving yourself the envy of fine drink fans of every sort.
Families, couples, groups of friends and even enterprising solo travellers are finding more and more reasons to either visit Havana for the first time, or dash back to once again enjoy the sun, fun and splendours that this city gives in abundance.
What would be your perfect Cuban weekend?