The City Guide: Havana

 

By Tina Okpo and Nadia Sesay

 
 
 A taxi near La Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana). Photo by Nadia Sesay.

A taxi near La Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana). Photo by Nadia Sesay.

 
 

Havana ranked as one of the most popular travel destinations of 2016. Many eager first-time visitors, especially those from the United States, descended in Cuba's capital to take in the colors and culture of the Caribbean nation.

One of those visitors was BLANC Modern Africa's Editor-in-Chief, Nadia Sesay, who kicked off 2017 in Havana. One day into the new year, on January 2nd, Cuba celebrated the 60th anniversary of Fidel Castro claiming victory in the Revolution. This was an especially historic occasion, as it was the first time the country celebrated the date without Casro present. Havana, now on the cusp of change, had on that day officially turned a new chapter.

Here Nadia shares her guide to Havana's best visual treats - the food, the architecture, the art - and how this vibrant capital reminded her of another capital, Washington, DC.

 

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

"I grew up in Washington, DC, which a city that's really into brunch and really into rooftops. So, naturally, I found a place that offered both: Cafe Laurent is a restaurant located on the top of an apartment building that offers awesome views of the Vedado neighborhood below, in addition to a tasty menu. Cafe Laurent has an open-air dining space draped in a white canopy. On a mildly breezy day (like the day I visited and like many days in Havana), you get the feeling of being in a cabana on a beach in the Caribbean."

"Cubans are proud of their hometown rum, Havana Club. You can get a drink any place in Havana with this rum. But for drinks with a view, head to Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Also located in Vedado, Hotel Nacional overlooks the Malecon, a roadway that stretches along the coast in Havana. This is a grand and historic hotel that was a favorite of American celebrities and socialites before the Revolution. At the rear of the hotel is a picturesque lawn with seating that overlooks the roadside and sea. It's the perfect setting for pre-dinner mojitos at sunset."

"In Havana you must have dinner at La Guarida. It's called 'An Emblem of Havana' for good reasons. The restaurant is set up in a classic mansion, so the architecture is absolutely breathtaking. To start, a grand stair case greets you at the entry. The actual restaurant begins two floors up! Walk further into the restaurant and there's also a glass-enclosed spiral staircase that leads to the rooftop lounge that offers - you guessed it - spectacular views of Havana by night. Be sure to get an order (or two!) of tacos for your appetizer. La Guarida is a paladar, a privately run restaurant. Paladars offer the best Cuban cuisine and are popular with tourists. La Guarida is very popular with celebrities, like Beyonce and Jay Z among many others. Definitely make reservations."

 Rooftop bar at La Guarida overlooks Havana. Photo by Nadia Sesay.

Rooftop bar at La Guarida overlooks Havana. Photo by Nadia Sesay.

 Courtesy La Guarida.

Courtesy La Guarida.

WHAT TO SEE

"Havana is frozen in a moment of decay and splendor that lends a unique beauty to its architecture. The colonial architecture and faded pastels are unmatched. Look in any direction in the city and you'll see details that you can't resist but to capture. Case in point, here are two entryways I stumbled upon on late night stroll." 

"Another not-to-miss sight in Havana is the art. Cuba has a strong roster of native artists that have also found success in the international art circuit. (Cuban artists are able to travel outside of the country with fewer restrictions than regular citizens). A few of these artists are Osy Milian, William Perez, and Kadir Lopez, who is a favorite of Will and Jada Smith. To discover more of Cuba's contemporary artists, check out the directory ARTempoCuba."

"Be sure to discover art spaces like Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, a museum that features modern and contemporary artists from Cuba. (There is a separate museum to showcase artists from around the world). Also, there are many art galleries in Havana, including the popular Galeria Habana. There are alternative art spaces, too. Some artists, like Frank Mujica Chavez, and have opened independent arts spaces, and art and live music venue - Chavez's spot is Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC)."

GETTING AROUND

"The colorful Chevrolet cars from the 1950s are practically the trademark of Havana. Now there are many newer yellow taxis, too. (The colored cars are popular with tourists, so the rides cost a bit more). If you prefer a slower pace, choose the pedi-cab ("bici-taxi") or even a horse and carriage. 

There are more off-beat modes of transport: My group was caught in a rainstorm one night after dinner. Too far from the main street to hail a taxi, and drenched, we eventually secured a ride in the window-less back of a boxy vehicle that resembled a milk truck. The driver joked it was a combination of a Range Rover and a Jeep. We had a memorable night in Havana for sure."

 
 
Nadia Sesay