November 2, 2011
Continuing our series of features on Winter Sun Holidays, this week we’re off to Cuba for an in-the-know delve into the delights of nighttime Havana with journalist and guidebook author Conner Gorry, Cuba expert and a Havana resident since 2002…
Once the sun goes down, the musicians tune up, and the rum starts flowing, Havana is transformed into a tropical bacchanal visitors won’t soon forget. Not a night owl or fancy a party of two over a crowded club? Not to worry: there are plenty of hot spots for sunset cocktails and romantic tÃªte-Ã -tÃªtes if that’s more your style.
Havana is a lyrical city, literally, and live music punctuates the sea-scented air, from the trios wandering the iconic MalecÃ³n to guitar-strumming students at freewheeling Parque G. Both host spontaneous gatherings nightly, giving locals and visitors alike a chance to cool off and mingle – bookend your bar crawl or club hop at either to get another taste of what makes the city tick.
It can be quite difficult to discover what’s on in Havana from one day (or week!) to the next; the best listing site is Kewelta (in Spanish), where you can sort by genre, date, or club.
The smell of the sea and whispering breezes waft through the Hotel Nacional‘s expansive garden terrace overlooking the MalecÃ³n, making this a favorite hangout for drinks or a cigar, day and night.
Although the Buena Vista Social Club is now largely a marketing term since most of the original members are long gone, the tradition is kept alive with concerts by a group of the same name in the hotel’s SalÃ³n 1930. The music – traditional Cuban son – is top notch, beckoning listeners to get up and dance. Shows are Thursdays and Saturdays at 9:30pm ($25 show only; $50 with dinner).
Insider tip: The Hotel Nacional transforms into the Havana Film Festival‘s HQ every December; grab a mojito and sink into one of the terrace couches for celebrity sightings.
Calle O, corner Calle 21, Tel: 836-3564
Cuban music is legendary and the talent of the island’s artists hard to exaggerate. Get a taste at La Zorra y El Cuervo, the city’s original jazz club in the heart of Vedado. Never mind that it’s in a basement – jazz fans regularly pack this dark, low-ceilinged club to hear musical prodigies like trumpeter Yasek Manzano, pianist Harold LÃ³pez-Nussa, and saxophonist Michel Herrera. A $10 cover charge nets you two drinks and a double set of world-class jazz.
Insider tip: Look for the entrance through a red London phone booth; this club is non-smoking (a growing trend in Havana).
Calle 23 #155, corner Calle O, Tel: 833-2402
Huge and imposing, the Edificio Focsa is Havana’s tallest building and either an eye sore or modern marvel, depending on who you ask. Everyone agrees, however, that the La Torre bar/restaurant on the 36thfloor of “˜El Focsa’ offers the city’s grandest, most spectacular views and is off-the-scale romantic for sunset cocktails. From up here you can appreciate the entire seaside sweep of the MalecÃ³n, without the car exhaust.
Insider tip: Bring your camera and stay for dinner (if budget allows).
Calle 17 between Calles M & N, Tel: 838-3088
A fairly recent phenomenon which has some cheering and others nervous, Parque G is where the next generation of Cuban rockers, rastas, punks, and Goths gather to let off steam. It has become more of a mixed crowd of late, with young hipsters and intellectuals filling out the ranks; on a good night (Fridays and Saturdays, from 11pm on), hundreds turn out to frolic and flirt.
Insider tip: This park is largely the domain of Cuban “˜Millennials,’ so a good option for younger travellers looking for a parental break.
Calle G, from Calle 23 to LÃnea
Proving that there’s truly something for everyone in Havana, the “˜Yellow Submarine’ is a Beatles-themed club which opened to rave reviews in Spring 2011 and is getting “˜better all the time’. As you might expect, the décor is all Beatles, with song lyrics, giant strawberries, Blue Meanies, and the cartoon Fab Four adorning the walls – a cuter, better run club you won’t find in Havana. Live bands play here most nights, covering Beatles’ tunes and other rock classics ($2 cover).
Insider Tip: Walk across the street to Parque Lennon to snap a shot sitting next to a life-sized bronze sculpture of John Lennon.
Calle 17, corner Calle 6, Tel: 830-6808
If you hear cutting a rug in Cuba (and not Mexican hot sauce) when someone says “˜salsa,’ this is the club for you. Located on a picturesque point at the end of the MalecÃ³n, the setting of 1830 ($3 cover charge) is almost as spectacular as the couples dancing up a storm here. Think you’ve got moves? Try to get in on a rueda. A form of salsa typical to Cuba, the rueda, or wheel, is just that: two concentric wheels turning in opposite directions where dancers turn a step or two with one partner before both wheels turn and everyone instantly has another partner. Even if you don’t dance, it’s a phenomenon to behold. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays are salsa days here.
Insider Tip: Don’t worry if you don’t have a partner – head here and you’ll find one.
MalecÃ³n #1252, corner Calle 20, Tel: 838-3090
By day, this seaside restaurant caters to the tour bus crowd. By night, it becomes an outdoor concert venue drawing Havana’s jet set in droves ($5 cover charge). Its popularity is thanks to the pop stars who play here – Grammy-nominee Descemer Bueno, Kelvis Ochoa, Buena Fe – not the venue itself, which suffers somewhat from its whimsical setting. There’s a pool in the middle of the place, so you’re either pressing the stage (where the sound is good) or backed up against the sea (where waves and wind drown out the sound). Still, it’s an upscale party with quality, live tunes every Friday and Saturday night.
Insider Tip: Shows here start late (after midnight usually), so hit up some other fun spots before heading over.
Avenida 1ra between Calles 16 & 18, Tel: 204-3837
When the urge to dance strikes, head out to this long-standing live club for some of Havana’s hottest salsa and regguetÃ³n acts including Adalberto y Su Son, NG La Banda, and Alexander Abreu. Not for the faint of heart, the pulsing, erotic atmosphere (some would say aggressively so) of the Casa de la MÃºsica is a mix of Cubans and tourists dressed to the nines and ready to party. Shows start at 11pm; cover charge $10-$15.
Insider Tip: For more of a local flavor, check out the Casa’s matinees (5pm-9pm) when the cover charge drops to $2-$4, bringing out Cubans en masse.
Avenida 35, corner Calle 20, Tel: 202-6147
Finally, Havana has a rock venue worthy of the genre. One of the city’s newest clubs, Maxim Rock ($5-$10 cover charge) has a winning formula: the sound system is one of the best in Cuba, as is the stage lighting, and the space absorbs crowds well – whether you’re in the mosh pit, listening off to the side or head banging towards the back. Hardcore metal is a staple, with bands like Hypnosis and Escape gigging here regularly, plus even more in-your-face war death metal acts like Combat Noise. Forgot the aspirin at home? Look for more traditional (some say accessible) groups like Tésis de Menta and Qva Libre.
Insider Tip: Taxi drivers tend to get lost getting to Maxim Rock; bring the address and an idea of where you’re going to help them out.
Calle BruzÃ³n #62, near Carlos III & AyestarÃ¡n, Tel: 877-5925
Havana’s penchant for risqué drama and flair is on full, extravagant display nightly at the world-famous Tropicana cabaret. The outdoor setting is spectacular, the dancers luscious, and the sets over-the-top, giving a night out at the “˜Paradise under the Stars’ a lavish patina. While the Tropicana’s theatricality and raw sensuality may not be for everyone, visit here and you’ll be following in the footsteps of JFK, Marlon Brando, Rita Hayworth, and Ernest Hemingway, all who hung out here back in the day. Entrance is $70/80/90, depending on how close you want to be to the action; shows are seven nights a week at 10pm rain or shine (in the case of the former, shows are held in the Tropicana’s Arcos de Cristal space which has a roof).
Insider Tip: Skip the dinner/show package ($15 more), dining instead at a private restaurant before heading to the cabaret.
Calle 72 #4504, between Calles 41 & 45, Tel: 267-1717/18
There has been a music explosion on the western outskirts of the city, largely thanks to Cuban singer-songwriter (trovador, in local lingo) Frank Delgado. A couple of years ago, thin crowds frequented this outdoor venue in a wooded area of suburban Havana to hear Frank play his brand of insightful social commentary. Today, El Sauce ($5 cover charge) sells out regularly for fusion/dance bands like Interactivo, up-and-coming trova phenom Tony Ãvila, and Frank himself; even Sunday’s disco temba (disco for 40-somethings), draws hundreds.
Insider Tip: Spanish-speakers will enjoy the double entendres typical to trova lyrics; non-Spanish speakers not so much. Decent Cuban food is served here.
Avenida 9na #12015, between Calles 120 y 130, Tel: 204-6428
Virgin Atlantic operate direct flights to Cuba from London Gatwick. Visit Virgin Holidays for holidays to Cuba that take in both Havana and the Varadero beaches, and even combine with a trip to Panama in Central America or another Caribbean destination.
Header photo © DuÅ¡an Zidar | Dreamstime.com, Hotel Nacional by exfordy on Flickr.com, Tropicana cabaret © Mctde | Dreamstime.com, La Zorro y El Cuervo © Luiza on Flickr.com, all other photos © Conner Gorry.