Photo by Aaron Hicklin (pink wall, La Guarida). Andres Giusto (Babaret). cubasi.us (Hotel Nacional)
Everything you've heard about Havana is true. And also not true. Yes, many of the cars are more than 50 years old, buildings are in a state of collapse, and the food is largely mediocre. On the other hand, many of the cars are shiny new European imports, the city center is being carefully renovated, and a recent wave of private restaurants has improved dining options in a country where most production is still owned by the government.
Not surprisingly, the best eats are seafood -- go for the fresh red snapper carpaccio at La Guarida (418 Concordia), the dilapidated, gothic setting of Cuba's groundbreaking 1994 gay movie, Strawberry and Chocolate. You won't be the first to dine here -- there are photos of Uma Thurman, Jay-Z, and Beyonce on the walls -- but nothing about it feels cliche.
It was Ernest Hemingway, however, that was the trendsetter long before Queen Bey, and since his death in 1961 he's become part of the country's iconography, third only to Che and Fidel. Hemingway's house, Finca Vigia, about 15 miles east of Havana, is immaculately tended -- you get the sense that he's just popped out to stock up on Montecristos. There's a bottle of Wild Turkey in the living room, a radiogram stacked with records, a pickled bat in the bathroom, and an inspiring view from the study.
When Hemingway wasn't writing, he could often be found at Hotel Nacional, still one of Havana's best digs, in large part because of its spectacular location on the seafront. Built in the late 1920s by American starchitects McKim, Mead & White (best known for the original Penn Station and the Boston Public Library), it's a great place to while away an afternoon. Look for the tiny Churchill Bar, named after another prominent guest, and ask for a mojito (like many Havana bars, they cut the sweetness with a dash of bitters). Or stay for Cabaret Parisien, the cheaper of two cabarets at the hotel -- and as camp as you might wish. The male dancers are easy on the eyes, too.
With a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, and commercial flights from Miami and New York resuming soon, Havana is set to become a popular short-haul destination, but it's still a country with a noticeable lack of tourist-friendly infrastructure -- the Internet is hard to find, and you won't be able to use American credit cards or draw cash from an ATM.
The compensation, however, is a dynamic panorama of daily life, particularly in the more impoverished areas just beyond the renovated old city, where the streets thrum with vitality. This is not the place for five-star luxury, but if you go with the right attitude and an open mind, you'll be richly rewarded.