Vedado is the neighbourhood I stayed in when I was in Havana. It’s a residential neighbourhood frozen in time, abundant with classic American cars and crumbling grand mansions that I fell head over heels in love with, the kind of love that pushed me to consider buying one of those grand old mansions if only I could (foreigners are not allowed to buy property in Cuba). Built at the beginning of the century around a linear plan, it was inhabited by Havana’s rich families. The streets and sidewalks are large and every house has a garden, which makes it a lovely neighbourhood to walk around. La Rampa (calle 23 between the Malecón and calel N), Avenida de los Presidentes, Calle Linea and Paseo are all calles (streets) worth exploring. I especially liked Paseo, with its long and narrow center park which you can stroll down while admiring the mansions along each side.
I stayed in a gorgeous 10th floor apartment on Calle E and Linea. The 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom apartment took up the whole floor and had breathtaking 360-degree views of Havana. If you’d like, copious meals cooked by talented locals can also be part of your stay (check the breakfast photo at the end of this post!). Thanks to Raúl Rodríguez of Suite Cuba, my “man in Havana”, I moved there after a one-night stay at a hotel that did not meet my standards. Havana is a very affordable city, especially if you rent a casa particular (private home) and Raúl has an extensive collection of casas to offer in all neighbourhoods. Raúl was also instrumental in providing long distance transport (from Trinidad to Havana), airport transfers and restaurant reservations when I couldn’t make them on my own. Cuba is unlike other countries and it can still be difficult to book everything via the internet. Raúl is your man if you’re in need of anything and he can help you customize your trip in order to make it as stress free as possible. I really cannot recommend him highly enough. You can email him for any question or inquiry.
WHAT TO DO IN VEDADO
I remember climbing up the stairs of Universitad de La Habana on my first visit to the city and wishing I could move to the tropical capital and enroll in some classes. My wish never came true but I highly recommend a walk around the university’s campus and perhaps paying a visit to the Museo antropológico Montané, which contains one of the largest collections of pre-columbian artifacts in the world.
Why would you want to visit a cemetery while on holidays? Because cemeteries are usually peaceful and old and a testament to a city’s history and because this cemetery in particular, Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (or Necropolis de Cristóbal Colón) is one of the most impressive and ornate I’ve ever seen (yes, I’ve visited many). It’s considered to be one of the most important of its kind in Latin America and one of the largest in the world with its reported two million graves! It will cost you 5 CUC per person to get in but you can get a guide for free (or rather, for tip) if there’s one available and I highly recommend getting one. The varied architectural styles of the tombs alone are worth the visit, so is the history of Havana as told through its buried citizens. Did you know that mausoleums were the only properties that were never nationalized? Which means that there are some in the Colón cemetery that haven’t been used since 1959 when their owners fled the country after the revolution. The richest citizens are buried in the front and along the central axes of the cemetery, which are the areas that are worth visiting. These well-to-do families were constantly trying to outdo each other with the size and elaborately sculpted memorials of their family tombs. It’s fascinating stuff and I highly recommend a visit! It will take you about two hours to walk about the most important parts of the cemetery. The cemetery is open daily from 8am to 5pm (although schedules in Cuba are often a suggestion).
When you’re done with your visit to the cementario, take the 15-minute walk through residential neighbourhoods all the way to Plaza de la Revolución, one of the largest city squares in the world. The Monumento a José Martí, a tall, star-shaped grey marble structure towers over the plaza on one side while the famous mural of Che Guevara proclaiming “Hasta la victoria siempre” dominates the other side. The plaza is surrounded by government buildings and offices. It’s one of the most visited sites in Havana although in my opinion, not its most interesting one. You will have your choice of transport to take you back into town, from the famous coco taxis, to vintage cars or regular cabs.
Other things to explore in Vedado include these museums: Museo de la Danza, Museo de Artes Decorativas, Museo Napoleónico and La Casa de la Amistad, a cultural center on Calle Paseo with a restaurant and bar.
A perfect–and very full!–day in Vedado would start with breakfast at Hotel Nacional followed by a visit to Havana University. Lunch would take place at Café Laurent, followed by ice cream at Heladeria Coppelia. The afternoon would be whiled away with a long stroll through the neighbourhood and a visit to Plaza de la Revolución and the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. The day would end with a sunset stroll on Paseo, dinner at Atelier and an evening walk along the Malecón.
WHERE TO EAT IN VEDADO
Hotel Nacional is the most famous hotel in all of Cuba and is worth a visit even if you can’t afford to stay there. The Nacional has played a consistent role in Cuba’s history. From 1930 to the end of the 50s, it was the stomping ground of many international stars, including Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Walt Disney and Fred Astaire. You can go there for breakfast, lunch and dinner or to catch a show at its famous Cabaret Parisien. I personally love their gardens and the surrounding arcades for a bite and a drink. The outdoor menu is not the best and is comprised of somewhat mediocre sandwiches but the drinks are good and the surroundings are unparalleled. Make time to take a historic tour of the hotel, including its Cuban Missile Crisis exhibit and its underground maze of tunnels.
I didn’t get the chance to try Café Laurent but it was on my short list for the few days I spent in Havana. It looks like it has a lovely rooftop terrace with stunning views of the city. The menu is Spanish-influenced since the chef worked in Spain. It’s gotten rave reviews and has carved a spot among Havana’s best privately-owned restaurants. Reservations are recommended.
Heladeria Coppelia is a state run ice cream parlour established in 1966 that has since become an institution in Havana. It originally served an impressive 26 flavours of ice cream, however, today, you’d be lucky to be served two or three. Its flying-saucer-shaped building is one of the largest ice cream parlours in the world and can seat 1000 people. It is definitely worth a visit, not so much for the ice cream since you can get much better quality elsewhere, but more for the experience and for the history. You can’t be in a rush when visiting la catedral del helado (the ice-cream cathedral) since a long line-up is almost guaranteed. Helpful hints: Walk around the city block that the Coppelia park occupies to verify the line-ups at all entrances before you stand in line / Go early in the day (before noon) if you want to get more flavours (they usually run out of flavours early on) / Take the wait as an opportunity to chat up your fellow ice-cream seekers / Bring a container if you want to take some ice cream home / Bring a hat and some water since the wait can be long and it can get quite hot in the sun / There’s a line up for Cubans who pay in moneda nacional and one for tourists who pay in CUC (pesos convertibles) so be aware of which line up you’re in, although standing in line with the Cubans may result in more interesting conversations.
Atelier is located on a residential side street in Vedado. It’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, which would be a shame. This is a high end restaurants as far as Havana restaurants go. Located on the top floor of a two story mansion, the restaurants takes up the whole floor of the villa as well as the lovely rooftop terrace. Decorated with antique wood furniture and vintage typewriters, Atelier’s menu changes on a daily basis. If you’re a carnivore, this is a good place to indulge in a grilled steak or some roast pork. Although every menu in Cuba usually has some form of braised meat on it, grilled steak is rare. Although standard, desserts here are also good and include items such as the classic Cuban flan. Reservations are highly recommended.
I am convinced that Havana must be one of the most photogenic places on earth. I can only fit so many photos in one blog post. To see more photos of my Cuban trip, click here.