Havana is an intoxicating city, a crumbling, culturally rich, historically captivating and sensuous place.
It’s only 150 kilometres from Cuba’s popular resort town of Varadero to the country’s fascinating capital—an easy two-hour drive. Make a day trip in a classic American car and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported much, much further. Like, back to the 1950s.
Havana’s dusty streets are filled with vintage, mostly decrepit Chevys, Fords, Cadillacs and other Detroit dowagers imported before Fidel Castro took power in 1959. After the revolution, the U.S. embargo descended and time stood still—at least for American autos. With no proper replacement parts, Cubans have, for decades, relied on mechanical jury-rigging and a spot of glue to keep their cars running.
To time-travel from Varadero to Havana, hire a classic car, driver and guide. You could book through Cuba’s state-run Gran Car or, instead, seek out licensed entrepreneurs (oh, yes, Cuban times are a-changin’) like Oscar Govea, who drives a mint-condition 1955 Chevrolet, and guide Domingo Garcia Lobelle, who delights travellers with stories of family and country.
Even with a guide as energetic as Lobelle, you can’t possibly see everything in one day. Here are seven stops to put on your shortlist.
Plaza de la Revolución
You’re forgiven for thinking this plaza is just a vast empty parking lot. In fact, it is muy importante as the site of huge rallies, past and present. Government buildings with storeys-high steel murals of revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos overlook the square.
Clouds of salty spray soak this curvaceous seaside boulevard and the walkers and fishers who linger at its wave-battered edge. Drive past monuments and once-glorious houses, then stop for some pre-revolution splendour on the terrace at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, once a decadent getaway for mobsters.
Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás
For cigar lovers, it’s a shrine; for the rest of us, it’s a captivating introduction to Cuba’s most famous export. The Partagás cigar factory, relocated to San Carlos #816 while its historic building beside the Capitolio is renovated, offers 45-minute tours that showcase how tobacco is sorted, cut and hand-rolled into premium cigars.
Paseo del Prado
Towering royal palms provide shade in this popular park. Take in views of the wildly baroque Gran Teatro de La Habana theatre and imposing Capitolio Nacional, Cuba’s former congressional building. Stroll Paseo de Martí, a kilometre-long walkway where aristocratic families once sashayed—pre-revolution, of course.
Museo de la Revolución
Marble staircases, a lofty dome and the Room of Mirrors hint at this museum’s glamorous past as a presidential palace. Now, rooms filled with artifacts tell Cuba’s revolutionary story. In the former gardens, bullet-riddled vehicles surround Granma, the yacht that transported Castro and his revolutionaries to Cuba in 1956.
Plaza de la Catedral
Old Havana offers a heady mix of crumbling streets, restored Spanish-colonial mansions and atmospheric plazas. None are more charming than Plaza de la Catedral with its baroque cathedral and 18th-century building offering an outdoor café and live Cuban music. Pop around the corner for mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio.
Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña
Expect three-metre-thick walls, moats and innumerable cannons in the 16th- and 18th-century Spanish-built fortresses on the northeast side of Havana’s harbour channel. The larger, Fortaleza de San Carlos del la Cabaña, holds an evening cannon-firing ceremony.
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