Cubans are renowned for their partying and the country is synonymous with superb live music, all night salsathons and so on. Yet come here as a tourist and you may think that it’s either all a ruse, or you’ve just landed in the wrong place. Scour the city centre by night and you’ll soon discover that everything shuts down by 11pm, even on week-ends.
Havana’s nightlife is a rather mysterious phenomenon, one which is usually out of reach of most tourists, who tend to either walk around town of an evening bored stiff or resort to spending their nights in one of the many tourist oriented cabaret theatres.
We’ll endeavour to help you make the most of Havana by night, but first of all it may help to understand how it all works.
Havana is like no other city on earth, and this is particularly true when it comes to its nightlife. The city has no club or bar strip to speak of; joints are scattered around town, most having no signage or elaborate entrances. The chances that you’ll come across one at random are nay impossible and this is what leads visitors to believe the city actually has no clubs at all.
Havana is a fickle, fickle place which means that clubs open and close randomly and on a rather regular basis, hence the lack of abovementioned signage. Moreover, Habaneros are such a fussy lot that popularity is highly dependent on live bands performing rather than the clubs themselves. You could find out about a great ‘hot spot’ from a local new friend, get all excited and go to much effort to reach it on a particular night, only to discover that because there’s a reputedly dud band performing…the club is depressingly empty.
But wait, there’s more!
Unlike most other cities, where there is so much printed and online entertainment material so even first-time visitors can find out what’s on where, almost everything in Havana is organized through word of mouth. If you don’t speak the lingo and don’t ‘get in’ with the locals you’ll have absolutely no idea of where to go.
On a much more positive note, there are a couple of things you can do to tap into this most exciting hidden side of Havana. You can either ensure you have a friend in the know who lives in Havana or, alternatively, you can always check out the long-established touristy joints which may not be the most authentic in town but at least they’re consistent, have been operating for decades and still offer a great night out in town.
Here are our insider tips for getting the most out of Havana’s darker side:
Get the latest info
Cuba Absolutely is a fab service which lists all up and coming festivals, concerts and events in and around Havana. It’s just about the only service of its kind in town and even locals rely on it for updated info. Our only warning (this being Cuba and all) is to not purchase tickets beforehand but confirm the existence of your desired event as soon as you land in Havana.
Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern tip of the island actually boasts a much more ‘open’ nightlife, many young tourists opting to head there on week-ends to enjoy the slightly easier to access party-life. Considered the cradle of Cuban music, Santiago hosts the most famous festivals in Cuba.
Cuba Absolutely also lists the hottest and latest restaurants, cultural tours and sporting events, making this one-stop portal truly invaluable for foreign visitors.
Consider getting a ‘nightlife’ guide
It may not seem all that romantic or spontaneous at first read, but ensuring you have a ‘friend’ waiting for you in Havana will be quite handy.
If you’re heading to Cuba for the very first time and feel a little weary about scouring the city by night, consider employing the services of what many call ‘a ground handler’. In Havana this comes in the shape of a fun and sociable guy, called Rafael Lorenzo who knows all the ins and outs of the city and can organize everything from airport pick-ups to restaurant and cabaret show bookings.
He’ll also happily escort you on nights out in town and will take you to the latest and hottest clubs and bars, which you’ll have no hope of finding on your own. This is not as business-like as it sounds! Rafael Lorenzo is a really cool guy, has lived in Europe for a while and is madly in love with his home city. He speaks several languages (which is almost unheard of in Cuba) and has simply tapped into a much in-demand niche market. Can’t really blame him for wanting to make a few extra dollars providing a service which is actually needed!
Rafael started out simply offering assistance to tourists and his reputation has since grown exponentially. While you’ll no doubt meet many people wanting to ‘help you out’, it may be safer to rely on someone whose honesty has been tried and tested.
Check out Rafael’s simple (but effective!) website for more info.
This option may be particularly handy for those staying in the Old Town Centre, as this part of town shuts down at around midnight, with neighbouring areas like Miramar and Vedado picking up the slack till the wee hours of the morning.
NB: We are in no way claiming that Rafael is the only guy in Havana offering this kind of service, yet he was certainly the first most tourists ever heard about. The main point here is to inform you that such services exist; so do some extensive research before you head to Cuba and ensure you have at least one contact in town who is willing to show you around.
The reliable choices
There are quite a few places which have been around as long as the Castros so chances that these will go belly-up before you arrive are quite low.
Here’s our top pick:
Havana is the famed birthplace of the daiquiri and the most famous bar in town, for the celebrity status at least, would have to be El Floridita. This is the spot where Ernest Hemingway downed more daiquiris in one sitting than he could ever remember (some say it was over a dozen!) and the one place which should be in your list of places to check out if you’re a nostalgic Hemingway fan.
Once you’ve got that touristy place out of the way, feel free to go on a daiquiri crawl all around Havana! Along with the mojito, cocktail making is akin to a religion here in Havana, with bartenders trying their best to outdo each other in claiming to be the very best mixologist in town. Usually this means the harder they try the more rum they put in your glass…which can only be good news for you!
If you want to check out a super-cool place head to the latest hot-spot in Havana: El Cocinero. Found on the rooftop of the old cooking-oil factory in Vedado, El Cocinero has swiftly become the playground of Cuba’s elite and, even though it’s at its infancy (so we’d normally not recommend it) it has recently received the seal of approval from you-know-who’s son. We’ll take a punt and expect it to hang around for a while.
The crowd is chic and the drinks a little on the pricey side, but the atmosphere is funky and (most importantly), the DJs are top-notch and tend to steer clear of the ever-present Buena Vista tunes one hears at every turn in Havana. Head here for some cool-kids spotting and sophisticated vibe.
You’ll no doubt want to check out some live gigs while you’re in Havana, the city being famous for its endless supply of extremely talented musicians. Most live shows won’t get started till about 10pm and clubs usually start to burst at the seams by about 1am.
Head to Prive on Calle 88A, one of Havana’s first privately owned clubs and the one renowned for showcasing some of the best jazz musicians in town.
This cabaret theatre is the one place all tourists hear about, even before they arrive. As we mentioned in our Overview article, this club has been around forever (or so it seems) and offers a brilliant, captivating and fun night out in Havana. Yes, in this case the club and show are both aimed specifically at foreign visitors but it makes it no less authentic in our eyes.
Havana Central, Ryan Ready via Flickr
Focsa Rooftop bar, Romtomtom via Flickr
Hemingway quote, Derek Blackadder via Flickr
El Floridita band, Steve R via Flickr
Tropicana, Abudoma via Flickr