A|S Boutique Residence is in one of the oldest parts of Havana, on Jesús María Street, a backdrop of faded glamour where still noble houses painted in various hues are trussed up with decorative balconies.
José Martí international airport is just a 30-minute drive from the hotel. Flights arrive direct here from major cities in Europe and both Americas. The hotel offers an 'Old Timer' transfer service from the airport for €70 per person (maximum two people) and €40 per person on the way back. Alternatively, the hotel can help with hiring a yellow cab (which will cost around €30 one-way). Or, you can take the leisurely route with a two-hour tour of Havana (€80 a person for up to two guests).
There’s no Metro in Havana, but trains run the length of the island and terminate at the capital’s Grand Central Station, whose plateresque architecture lives up to its name, just a five-minute walk away from the hotel.
You’re at the heart of old Havana, where each turn reveals more Unesco-protected art deco and nouveau houses in varying states of decay; you’ll make more scenic discoveries on foot. For adventures further afield, taxis are easily hailed (although agree a price before you set off), and rickshaws and the cheery yellow Cocotaxis may not be the safest option, but they are fun for short jaunts. The hotel can even provide a private, two-hour Havana tour by car for €70 per driver. If you picture yourself riding around in one of Cuba’s classic vintage cars, think again – hire cars will be modern and it’s largely resident Habaneros who’ve put the time in restoring their beloved motors that you’ll see riding around in these beauties unless you have a tour booked. Driving is fairly safe and there’s free street parking outside the hotel, but be mindful that police can be overzealous in fining tourists for sometimes minor driving transgressions.
Worth getting out of bed for
If you pictured a Caribbean getaway where you lay on a beach and don't do a whole lot else, then think again. There are sublime stretches of shore out to the east of the island (Varadero is close enough for a day trip), but Havana is a dynamic cosmopolitan hub, where you should strap on your walking shoes and wander the streets. Old Havana is a beguiling temptress with a maze of gracefully ageing colonial, Baroque and Neoclassical townhouses – that they still stand is a testament to the city’s fortitude – and arcade-ringed plazas (Plaza Vieja is one of the most recognisable for its rainbow edifices and Plaza de Armas is the oldest in the city). Amid shabbiness and splendour, spectacular historic monuments abound, say lavishly outfitted Havana Cathedral, the domed El Capitolio and the exceedingly grand former governor’s residence Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Perhaps it's due to such an arresting backdrop, but the creative energy here is palpable – the Gran Teatro de La Habana has moving ballet showcases, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes will give you a good grounding in the country’s art scene with its entirely Cuban collection. Then head to Factoria Habana to see what’s inching towards the cutting edge these days and Raúl Corrales Galería for striking black-and-white revolutionary photography. And, Havana’s oldest building (built 1720) houses the Colonial Art Museum, which is small but engaging with furniture, carriages and decorative objets. Salsa bands get hips wiggling on smoky nights crowded into old-school mansion the Miramar Casas de la Música, and along the coast, the indoor Almacenes San José Artisans' Market verges on the touristy, but is worth exploring for vibrant artworks at reasonable prices (with some haggling). To the western side of the coast, you may need a taxi to reach it, but Fusterlandia, a daydreamy folk art installation that runs through a whole Jaimanitas neighbourhood (the work of artist José Fuster) is worth the 30-minute trip. The island’s dramatic past is very present too: the Granma Memorial honours the ship in which Fidel, Che and their band of revolutionaries infiltrated the island from Mexico, and the Museo de la Revolucion (1 Refugio Street) doesn’t sugarcoat the struggle, displaying bullet-riddled and blood-stained uniforms, weaponry, and more, which sit at odds in the jewellery box of an interior, designed by Tiffany & Co. To get a snap with the famous Che relief in the background, you’ll need to head further inland to Plaza de la Revolucion. After, you could swing by art deco landmark, the Bacardi Building, designed to be headquarters for the rum purveyors (a plan abandoned after the guerilla insurgency); or, go straight to the source: the Havana Club Rum Museum. The tour will guide you through the production process, and then you get to the good part: tastings and learning how to make a mojito, and even a quick dance lesson. As the daytime dwindles, head west to the Vedado neighbourhood for drinks at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a neon-flecked gallery and club set in a former cooking-oil factory, or stock up on rum planchaos (a sort of rum juice box) and hang out with the locals singing, dancing and drinking along the coastal road the Malecón. If you want to get the lay of the land before you explore, the hotel hosts can help arrange a tour in a vintage Cabrio car. There’s plenty to do onsite too: admire the artwork in the gallery; join in sunrise and sunset yoga sessions and dance classes or dive into the hotel's movie programme in your room (after all, private businesses have no access to international TV satellites); and see what’s going on in HAV café.
Cuba’s dining scene hasn’t always had the best reputation – there was a time when what was available barely reflected the menu and what arrived might be barely edible, with the best food being served up in paladares (eateries set up in Cuban homes). But, as the country has opened up, its dining scene has had a glow up, and Havana’s become something of a culinary hub, with delights to be found from holes in the wall to haute cuisine. And, dining in Cuba is an exuberant experience – music pours forth from every doorway and terrace, and patrons provide animated chatter. Yarini Habana has a somewhat unlikely inspiration in turn-of-the-century pimp and Robin Hood figure Alberto Yarini. We’re not entirely sure what he has to do with the cuisine, but we can overlook that for zingy fish tartares, black-bean croquettes in a sweet potato sauce, pork-and-cheese empanadas and traditional Cuban stew tamal en cazuela. It’s set above Gorría art gallery, so attracts a creative crowd. Spread over a rooftop adorned with bold graffiti art, Jesús María 20 (just east of the hotel) is casually cool with a lengthy cocktail list and tacos and tapas to mop them up with, plus grilled lobster and fresh fish for the hungrier diner. Be sure to double down on the daiquiris. O’Reilly 304 also excels at seafood, especially its punchily flavoured ceviche. These are dishes to get dirty for, such as the ‘black pasta of the Caribbean’, a tangle of noodles from which emerge claws filled with delicate flesh, or the ‘pa, suck your fingers’: a tumble of saucy crustacea.
While some bars ride their reputation on Hemingway’s patronage, El Chanchullero proudly bears posters stating that he never visited. This is a decidedly local eatery and bar, with no airs or graces (or air-con, for that matter), but for very little money you can get a huge kebab or enchilada and something very potent to sip, and marinade in a sizzling ambience.
When it comes to nights out, Cubans don’t really have another mode from ‘out out’. Which is unsurprising when you see how heavy-handed the bartenders are pouring shots of rum. Evenings are measured in Afro-jazz rhythms and you may well strike up a few conversations with locals curious about life off the island. If you pre-gamed and lined your stomach at O’Reilly 304, you just need to cross the street to its fraternal bar El Del Frente (‘the one in front’) to carry on the night. The mojitos and piña coladas come out on top here, but any rum-based drink will get you good and merry, and there’s gin-based libations, too; whichever you choose, they all come in generously sized goblets. They’re so good that barkeep Wilson has acquired a following. If you’re hoping for a Buena Vista Social Club feel, Bar Monserrate, with its dark wood, bow tie’d bar staff and superlative soundtrack will scratch that itch. And, it may be clichéd, but it seems requisite for first-timers to haunt Hemingway’s watering holes. To do it right, follow his instructions: ‘My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita’. Out of the two our preferred is the Bodeguita, because it still has a compact authentic feel, and here they’ll still let you scrawl on the walls; and because the Floridita (at the corner of calles Obispo and Monserrate) has an eerie bronze statue of the wayward writer propping up the bar.