October 23, 2015
The timeless quality of historic Havana attracts hordes of visitors each year. But, away from the tourist trail, there’s much to be discovered along the streets Ernest Hemingway once walked. From captivating artwork to symbols of the country’s eclectic past, our guide to hidden Havana offers an insider’s perspective on Cuba’s vibrant capital.
Known as “˜the Picasso of the Caribbean’, Jose Fuster is one of Cuba’s most remarkable artists. Eighteen years ago he set about transforming a small area of northwestern Havana, Jaimanitas, into one of the most colourful, surrealist projects on the planet. With the support of his neighbours, he redecorated his studio and over 80 surrounding houses in Gaudi-esque fashion. Welcome to Fusterland.
A small alleyway may seem an unorthodox location for a shrine to Afro-Cuban religion but, thanks to the artwork of Salvador GonzÃ¡lez, that’s exactly what this street in Centro Habana has become. Lined with myriad brightly coloured murals, it is quite a hit to the senses. Sundays are the best time to visit, when rumba groups fill the street with dancing and music.
A pharmacy may be the last place you’d hope to visit on your holidays, but this 19th-century farmacia has been beautifully restored to its former glory. One of the largest and most beautiful pharmacies in the world, the floor-to-ceiling mahogany shelves house a collection of original French porcelain apothecary jars and amazing surgical instruments found at excavations across the city. It’s an unconventional portal into the past but one well worth taking.
Despite its slow descent into picturesque neglect, this decaying ode to Art Nouveau on the outskirts of Havana is a real find. Home to exotically decorated pavilions commissioned by the Blanco Herrera family, this Cuban pleasure garden was once the domain of high society. Walking around the gardens and the Spanish modernist architecture, it’s easy to wonder what it must have been like in its prime.
This fully functioning antique hairdressing salon may appear to be centuries old, but established just eight years ago, it’s in fact the result of Gilberto Valladares’ flamboyant enterprise. Filled with an astonishing array of Cuban artwork and vintage hairdressing pieces, this site in Old Havana is one of the best ways to submerge yourself in the history of the capital. While you’re at it, why not get a new “˜do?
With a mere four tables, this tiny hole-in-the-wall place can barely call itself a restaurant. Inspired by the pintxos bars of San Sebastian, what it lacks in space, it makes up for in food. El Chanchullero serves unpretentious Cuban-style tapas that deliver on flavour: think shrimp enchiladas and chicken kebabs.
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Havana from London Heathrow, bringing these hidden attractions well within reach.
Header image: Old Havana at dusk © nikada / iStock
Written by Ben Winstanley