Havana is a city with hidden oases tucked into its urban heart. Case in point: behind grand gates sprawls Quinto de los Molinos, once the estate of Cuban Independence hero Máximo Gómez. Located walking distance from the University of Havana, these lush botanical gardens contain a butterfly house, 40 bird species and a repopulation project of the spectacularly-colored (and endangered) polymita snails.
Habana Vieja, the best preserved colonial area in the Americas, was declared a UNESCO site in 1982 and turns on three main plazas, every one enchanting. Plaza Vieja is lovely and boasts the Cámara Oscura, providing 360-degree live views; Plaza de Catedral is anchored by a 1700s cathedral and has interesting art galleries hiding down cobblestone alleys; and Plaza Vieja where the city was born.
For a crash course in Santería, Cuba's dominant religion, head to the Asociación de Yoruba where the collection contains altars and explanations of the various deities. On Fridays, they host tambores, drum ceremonies open to the public. Don't be surprised if someone, in full on trance, starts speaking in tongues. Afterwards, take the ferry to Regla for an oracle reading outside the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla, housing the Santísima Virgen de Regla, representing Yemayá in the Santería canon.
Best Day Trip
When you weary of Havana's hustle, head to the Playas del Este, 15 miles of talcum-soft, white sand just 30 minutes away. Here the ocean undulates like semi-precious stones, radiating tranquility and contrasting idyllically with the green palms dotting the shore. The most popular beaches are Santa Maria, Guanabo and Mi Cayito—the last is Havana's only gay beach.
Off the Beaten Path
After visiting Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón—one of the hemisphere's biggest cemeteries containing acres of gorgeous marble angels, cherubs, even dominos and dogs—check out Havana's Chinese cemetery a few blocks away. Heralded by an elaborate gate, all the tombs here are in Chinese characters and offer an overview of the Chinese presence in Cuba. The mini pagodas among flowering trees make a brilliant photo shoot.
Most Iconic Place
There's always a party happening somewhere along the three-mile long Malecón, Havana's seaside wall. Running from Habana Vieja to Vedado, the Malecón serves as living room, fishing grounds, spontaneous serenade spot, and lover's lounge for a healthy cross-section of society. The LGBTQI community favors the La Rampa intersection; hip youth tend towards the Melía Cohiba section; and neighbors from Centro Habana settle in from Hospital Ameijeiras to the east.
Skip Habana Vieja and hit Vedado, where Havana's real entertainment heart beats. Start with cheap, sunset beers at La Chorrera (Malecón & Túnel)—with nary another tourist in sight. Two hot live music venues are D'Pazillo (5ta between 4 and 6) featuring music nightly and jazz every Sunday and Bar Efe (Calles 23 and F), with a lounge-like feel and good local/visitor mix. Nearly everyone visits La Fábrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.; Calles 11 and 26), a multi-genre art space packed with quality work and hipster travelers.
Hop across the bay and back in time to the Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña, fortresses erected between the 16th and 18th centuries to protect Havana from buccaneers and foreign troops. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this complex is among the best-preserved in the hemisphere. Every evening at 9 p.m. you can observe the Cañonazo, a re-enactment (in period costume) of the nightly canon shot signaling to the citizenry that the gates to the city were closed.
Parks around the world draw visitors looking to score illicit substances; in Havana, everyone goes to public parks to connect to WiFi (wee-fee in Cuban). Forget checking Facebook: settling into a bench at one of the dozens of WiFi parks peppering Havana is an anthropological, eye-opening experience. Sit back and watch Cubans re-connecting with long, lost loved ones, sharing tales from recent surgeries, and showing off their new jeans or sneakers.
With so much wonderful art and history, it's hard to winnow down which museums to hit and which to miss, but if you have time for only one, make it the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Cuban Collection (Trocadero between Agramonte and Avenida de la Misiones). Here there are over 1,200 original works spanning the history of fine art in Cuba. There's a cute café and shop, too.