In the backseat of an old vintage Chevrolet, I am having my first encounter with Cuba. My taxi driver is listening to Frank Sinatra while singing his heart out. We pass by dozens of beautiful vintage cars, colorful buildings, and old yellow American school buses. When people say being in Cuba feels like being stuck in a time capsule, they are absolutely right, and I am about to get a glimpse of what life was like in the 50's, before fast food and social media.
Like most big cities, Havana is split up into smaller neighborhoods. Habana Vieja, Vedado, Miramar, Malecon, El Barrio Chino and Centro Habana.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site, more commonly known as Old Havana is extremely popular among tourists. Making it feel less authentic than other parts of the city. However, this historic part of Havana is packed with old, beautiful and colorful buildings and the main square is a must-see for anyone visiting Havana.
From the busy main street Calle Obispo, make a turn onto O´Reilly street. There you will find one of the few good restaurants and bars in the area. Some of the most popular places are usually packed and have a long waiting list for reservations, but if you have time, get in line at O´Riley 304 and enjoy the amazing drinks and good food.
17th century Vedado was once a banned forest area with limestone racks. There was a wall around the old city and it was not allowed for poor people to enter. Vedado is the more up and coming area of Havana. Here you will find the Universities and a young and trendy population that are pushing the boundaries and trying to modernize certain parts of their own culture. In Vedado, you will find one of the city´s most popular nightclubs. Fabrica de Arte, more commonly known as F.A.C is the Bauhaus like club in an old Factory. If Havana had anything remotely close to being hipster, this would be it. The Afro-Cuban Fusion musician x-Alfonso has one of Havanas finest art projects inside. The club has live music, art exhibitions, fashion shows, dance rooms, restaurant and small shops and it is more or less packed from Thursday to Sunday. The crowds start arriving before 8 and people are still rolling out of the club at 6 in the morning. If you want to experience nightlife in Havana, this is definitely the place to be.
Before the revolution, Miramar was home to the some of the wealthiest people in Cuba. The area has some of the biggest and most beautiful houses in Cuba. During the revolution, a lot of the owners fled the country and the houses were left empty. In 1960 the remaining servants still living in the houses would benefit from the Urban Reform Law. Giving them the right to take over the houses for themselves. The houses that were left empty was later turned into Embassies and today the area is still known for being the more "posh" neighborhood of Havana. Miramar has some great restaurants and bars, but one, in particular, stands out. Every Thursday on the second floor of Casa De La Musica Miramar a local, well-known band is playing live music from the afternoon and to about 9 0´clock. The place is packed with young Cubans and young tourists, who are lucky enough to have found out about this place. The music is an amazing mix of salsa, jazz, and the atmosphere is simply fantastic! People are dancing and singing while enjoying their 1$ Cuba Libres.
If you are in Havana on a Thursday, do not miss this place.
My favorite area in Havana is also the cities most densely populated. This area has not been restored and perfected like the more popular tourist areas in Old Havana, but here you are more likely to see the "real city life". You can easily blend in with the local people and the chances of seeing other tourists or hearing someone speaking English is a lot less. Get lost in the streets and take in the vibe of this place. There is one restaurant in this area which has gotten a lot of praise and international recognition. Almost impossible to find and in a very cool location, this restaurant is a gem you do not want to miss out on (La Guarida). Centro Habana is also one of the cheapest places to stay in the city, with tons of homestays and Airbnb's to choose from.
Colonial architecture in all the colours of the rainbow, music playing on every corner, the smell of cigars and people dancing in the streets. Havana can make you feel like you are in a 1950´s movie and its streets is the stage. The crowd of people gets bigger as you move towards old Havana, you manouver through cats, dogs and others tourists, who are all here for the same reason as me. To experience the "real" Havana, before its too late.
After spending a week in this vibrant, exciting and anything but ordinary city it is clear to me that the hype is real. This is a city for all of the senses and a place I recommend everyone to experience for themselves. This city will take you back in time. To a time without internet and smartphones. to a time where people talked to each other around the dinner table, to a time where people used a map instead of a GPS, and to a time where life was still moving at a slower pace.