This post features tips about places you will probably visit in Havana, whether you are travelling alone or with a guided group. Your guide book (or my book Travels in Cuba) will have more background information, but my insider tips will hopefully help you get more pleasure out of your visit.
Tip #1 Take photos in the Cemetery of Colon (Necropolis de Colon)
If you like taking dramatic black and white photographs, you should visit the Cemetery of Colon in Vedado, which is overflowing with extravagant white marble statues and mausoleums from the 19th and 20th centuries. The cemetery is vast and park-like and contains the elaborate tombstones of famous as well as not-so-famous Cubans.
One tomb you shouldn’t miss is that of Amelia Goyri, a well-to-do lady who died in childbirth and was buried with her child. Her fame is based on two miracles connected with her burial. The grave is marked by a life-size statue of Amelia holding a baby in one arm and a large cross in the other. Local people – mostly women – visit the grave to pray for the health of mothers and babies, leaving flowers at the feet of “La Milagrosa”, the miraculous one.
Tip #2 Visit restaurant El Patio in Cathedral Square
For me, this is the most beautiful restaurant and outdoor café in central Havana. It’s located in the Plaza de la Catedral, right in front of Havana cathedral. You can sit at heavy metal tables under its hallmark white umbrellas and sip your freshly squeezed juice or coffee for hours.
El Patio is my favorite place for people-watching. What can you see? Well, scenes like: a photographer posing fashion models on cars, tables and steps, Creole ladies dressed in colonial costumes planting big kisses on male tourists’ cheeks, a man pushing a bike loaded down with an entire ice-cream store, several 80-year-old locals dancing to the rhythm of musicians who have installed themselves on the opposite side of the plaza.
My extra tip: the restaurant toilets are located on the other side of the gorgeous inner courtyard or ‘patio’ for which the restaurant is named. Take your camera. As you walk through the courtyard, admire the elegant fountain of cut stone decorated with flowers, admire the windows of the floor above (featured in the photo at the top) and, finally, bask in the balm of silence and splashing water.
Tip #3 The Hotel Nacional for vintage 40s and 50s atmosphere
The Hotel Nacional oozes with pre-revolution tradition. From a distance it reminds me of a giant Spanish mission as seen in cowboy movies. Closer up, as you walk down the palm-lined driveway, you’ll enjoy the vintage cars, and as you enter, you’ll feel like you’re in a 1940s film with uniformed bell hops, cigar-girls, grand ballrooms and many other hotel features of yesteryear.
But don’t let the layers of tradition scare you away. If you go through the lobby to the back veranda, you can sink into one of the comfortable couches and enjoy a (very reasonable) drink or snack. Even the indoor bars and cafés are reasonable. (In my book I describe my first drink in Cuba, consumed in the Churchill room with signed photographs of the formerly glorious and gorgeous looking down.) Last but not least, the hotel’s back garden, which overlooks the bay bordered by the Malecon, offers vast and inviting scope for visitors who just want to sit in the breeze and talk, or read, or discreetly sip a very fresh mojito.
Tip #4 El Convento de Santa Clara de Asis
I’ve already devoted a full blogpost to this hidden oasis of tranquility in the old town of Havana, with its extensive gardens and beautifully restored 350-year-old buildings. My tip is that this restored convent is also a hostel, where you can book a room for your stay in Havana, e.g. with TripAdvisor. Lots of atmosphere, lots of space, centuries of tranquility.