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After decades at odds, Cuba and the U.S. are enjoying a major easing of tensions. While improved diplomatic relations mean that more U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba, most visitors will be part of highly structured people-to-people group tours that often leave little time for exploring on one’s own. Travel agents can assist their clients by offering some tips on how to pull off a Havana adventure when clients have time away from the group.
Any exploration of Havana should begin with its four main squares: Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza de Armas.
Plaza de San Francisco was named for the monastery that’s adjacent to the square. In the 1700s, the monastery tower was the highest point in Havana. One of the architectural beauties of the plaza is the domed Lonja del Comercio building, which served as Cuba’s first commodities market in 1909.
Some visitors may be especially impressed with the baroque architecture of Plaza de la Catedral, as well as its charming asymmetrical cathedral, Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, which dates back to 1748.
A favorite of mine is Havana’s oldest square, Plaza de Armas, which got its name in the 16th century when the colonial governor conducted military exercises there. Every day except Sunday, a secondhand book market operates under the shade of the royal palms that surround the square. Even people who can’t read Spanish will enjoy exploring the book market and examining the wide array of unique collectibles and other items found there.
Visitors should also be sure to explore the area in and around Parque Central, where they will find El Capitolio (the capitol building), Gran Teatro de La Habana, Plaza de la Revolucion and Museo de la Revolucion. Baseball fans should check out the “hot corner” of Parque Central, where locals go to talk about baseball, Cuba’s national obsession. As the name suggests, the animated conversations often get quite heated, and nose-to-nose shouting matches are common.
Finally, recommend that clients end their free time with a stroll on the oceanfront Malecon. It’s a great spot for quiet reflection during a jam-packed tour.
WHERE TO EAT Paladar Los Mercaderes: Follow a staircase strewn with flower petals to a dining room that serves Cuban and international cuisine. (Calle Mercaderes No. 207)
La Moneda Cubana: Located at the entrance of Plaza de la Catedral, this restaurant offers terrace dining with wonderful views and is a good spot to take in the nightly canon firing at the Fortress of San Carlos de Cabana.
WHERE TO DRINKFloridita: Have a daiquiri and toast Ernest Hemingway at one of his favorite bars.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba: Enjoy the sunset and a Cuban mojito from the outdoor bar at this historic hotel.
WHERE TO BE MERRYLa Zorra y el Cuervo: There are always impressive lineups at Havana’s most famous jazz club, “The Vixen and the Crow,” which is in a basement venue marked with a red English telephone box at its entrance. (Calle 23, between Calle N and O+
The Jazz Cafe: Located in a shopping mall across from the Melia Cohiba hotel and overlooking the Malecon, this club has live jazz, timba and occasionally salsa. (Galerias de Paseo shopping mall)