Nowhere on earth pulls off a night scene quite like Cuba’s capital. Here’s the lowdown on our pick of Havana haunts…
Tropicana – Mariano district
The home of Cuba’s reigning cabaret show has been a national institution since New Year’s Eve 1939. That’s when the first troupe of scantily-clad showgirls came shimmying down palm trees to take center-stage. It’s one of the few nightspots to survive Castro’s clampdowns and, as such, there’s a touch of nostalgia about the place. But before you go all dewy-eyed on us, that’s not what draws the crowds. This is where a 32-piece orchestra and a cast of over 200 dancers, musicians and acrobats combine hot Cuban rhythms with costumes that’ll blow your mind. All we’ll say is choose your seat carefully – high-kicking limbs have those on the front row ducking for cover in a flurry of feathers, ruffles and sequins.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Vedado district
Like the Tropicana, this place popped up on Havana’s cityscape in the Thirties. What’s more, it also does a mean line in cabaret. The hotel’s Cabaret Parisien is the place for a feathery floor show that has more than just a grace note of Vegas. Sparkles aside, it’s a regular stop-off for the Buena Vista Social Club. But what most people love about Havana’s landmark hotel is its old-world glamour. If you’d have spun through the revolving doors in its early days, you’d have seen Frank Sinatra flirting with Ava Gardner in the lobby, Churchill unwrapping a Monte Cristo in the cigar lounge, and a brooding Brando sipping hushed mojitos in the bar. Head for the lobby bar and you’ll see a faded-fabulous collage of the stars who’ve laid their heads here. Another place to keep in mind when you’re coming here is the top-floor cocktail lounge. From these giddy heights you get an eyeful of Old Havana served with your drink. Beats a bowl of peanuts any day.
La Zorra y El Cuervo Jazz Bar – Vedado district
In the heart of Havana beats this place, arguably the best Cuban jazz temple in the city. A Superman-style red phone box provides the entrance, but instead of transforming into the Man of Steel once you’re in, you emerge, blinking into what feels like the 1940s. It’s dark, it’s smoky, it’s atmospheric – in short, it’s everything a decent jazz haunt should be. It’s buried down in the basement, too, which adds to the authenticity of it all. It’s not unusual for Cuba’s top musicians to drop in for a jam so it’s the first place to check if you’re hoping to catch any A-list performers while you’re in the city. Legends that have appeared here include Chucho Valdes, Wynton Marsalis and Danilo Perez. Our advice is to get there early. There’s only room for 120 and it fills up faster than a phone box – perhaps that’s what inspired the entrance.
El Floridita – Old Havana
If you’re a long-time fan of the daiquiri, this is where you can pay your respects. Early last century, a bartender called Constantino allegedly perfected the famous cocktail here. Hence why you’ll see ‘The Cradle of the Daiquiri’ embossed in bronze on the ice chest over the bar. That’s not the only bit of bronze that garners attention – there’s a life-size statue of Hemingway leaning with an elbow propped on the bar. Turns out he was a big fan of this place, too – even his stool has been preserved as a shrine, roped off to stop any unwanted bottoms perching on it. In terms of El Floridita’s fame, a 1953 edition of Esquire declared it one of the world’s seven best bars – up there with the Ritz in London and Raffles in Singapore. Today, it maintains a rather regal air – red-jacketed staff fetch your drink from the dark mahogany bar while you take your pick of plush velour sofas.
Bodeguita del Medio – Old Havana
What this cubby-hole boho bar lacks in size, it more than makes up for in personality. Once upon a time it was a drinking den for arty types. These days it’s a restaurant-come-bar, churning out Creole cuisine and cocktails. As good as the food is, most people come here for the décor – every inch is plastered in photos, graffiti and autographs from past visitors. The more famous penmanship comes from the likes of Errol Flynn and Nat King Cole. Plus you’ll spot an old sign above the bar whose handwritten scrawl reads ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita. Ernest Hemingway’. Order your own minty rum blast, pull out a marker pen, and leave your autograph for future generations to admire.