Cuba's digital destination
The drinking scene in the city often disappoints tourists inspired by Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Havana’s decadence of long-gone decades. The classic Hemingway haunts have become tourist traps and after midnight, Old Havana largely shuts down even while the Malecón is packed six-deep with locals and there are large queues outside some nightclubs. What Cuban bars do have, however, is great music. And in many places, there is a rich architectural heritage and a relaxed easy-going atmosphere. Generally, drinks selection is relatively limited but you will almost always be able to get a great mojito. In recent years, a number of more European-style lounge bars have opened, as well as a microbrewery in the heart of the old city. Throw in some comedy options and a thriving gay scene and there are plenty of options.
The best Cuban salsa clubs host world-class Cuban bands on a nightly basis. The energy is infectious and dancing, spectacular. Having come to Cuba, you must see a top salsa/timba band. Discos cover a multiplicity of scenes, from the glitzy tourist venue to a smoky, hectic real Cuban locale. The music often varies from night to night. In recent years, a thriving nouveau trendy Cuban party scene has emerged, giving you a glimpse of a possible future Havana. Held at different locales, this is the place to be if you want to be seen by and mingle with the Cuban cool set. There is also a blooming alternative scene where brilliant Cuban musicians improvise to a very local beat.
From Grammy winners to surprisingly accomplished minstrels plying along the Malecón, Cuba is a music Mecca. I think it’s fair to say that if you don’t experience music that moves you in the hips, heart, or elsewhere in your island travels, you’re missing the point. Unfortunately, not all the venues around town match the quality of the music being made, not to mention the technology and people hired to run it—audio equipment and lighting design can be nothing short of horrendous. Then there’s what we call ‘ambiente’ in these parts, the atmosphere of a place, which can make or break a venue in terms of audience experience.
Music is everywhere in Havana. Locals joke that Cuba is the only country in the world where you have to pay musicians not to play. Most bars and restaurants feature trios, quartets and septets. The level of musical training is very high and one of the consequences of the US embargo is that, rather than being overrun by American pop, Cuba has nurtured its own unique blends of African and European rhythms—from rumba to bolero, from cha-cha-cha to timba—and kept its level of creativity high. The best Cuban jazz is magnificent; unfortunately, you never quite know how good it will be. Experimental, daring, improvised, brilliant, terrible. Even as the actual members of Buena Vista Social Club succumb to old age, the number of events promising a ‘Buena Vista’ event seems to multiply.
Some personal tips and recent news:
1) Bars walk a thin line
Some of the hottest and trendiest bars and private clubs have been closed in recent months. Reasons vary and there probably is no conspiracy, but it is of note that the favorite haunt of the Havana farándula, Sangri-La, now seems permanently closed, following Las Piedras and Kpricho. As of now, the ever popular, if somewhat cheesy, Up and Down remains open, as does the more edgy Bolabana—both places attracting a friendly local clientele. Newly opened Sarao in El Vedado is beautiful in a slightly pretentious Miami style, while Essencia Habana and Kings Bar attract a more mixed crowd of Cubans working in the private sector. My favourite bar remains Espacios, which has just extended its garden and attracts a trendy crowd of mixed age making an effort to have something for everyone!
2) Salsa is a niche activity—Pick your night!
While visitors to Cuba love learning the appropriate pasos to the latest Havana D’Primera song, ideally with some expert assistance from a Cuban teacher, the reality is that salsa is played only in a few places now—look for Casa de la Música, Club 1830 on Thursday and Sunday evenings, Hotel Florida (most nights) and La Gruta (Wednesday nights).
3) Old Havana shuts down early
Don’t be surprised when Old Havana shuts down early—all is quiet by midnight as there are strict restrictions enforced. Apart from Hotel Florida, there are very few places to dance the night away and you may want to Uber up to El Vedado or Miramar by witching hour.
4) FAC is the death star of Havana’s cultural scene
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is the death star to the Cuban cultural scene. The fact that it is a force for good (except if you are a fan of reggaeton, which is banned!) does not diminish its increasing power. This is Havana’s defining scene. It is here that stories will be written, lives lived, lovers loved and songs played. Both rough-hewn and refined, it is unique not just for Cuba but really globally, given the cultural space it occupies. It provides a venue that proudly showcases the most authentic and daring artwork produced in Cuba today and it proves to us that it is possible to combine recreation with spirituality.
There are four large naves that have been perfectly thought out for four different specific activities. In the first one, the focus is on the visual arts, graphic design, fashion, architecture and small-format music performances. The second is reserved for photography and video-art. The third nave belongs to dance, cinema, theater and classical music, and it also has a digital library. Finally, in the fourth nave, we can enjoy pop music concerts.
The “soul” of Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a sense of style and wit that draws visitors in and allows them to feel free. There is a unique manner in which the various creative processes interact and crisscross, something that is really quite rare. The underlying spirit of the place has the physical structure framing the lovely idea of having art come together with art consumers in an intimate, dynamic and exciting way. The guiding force of this process has been X Alfonso, musician, composer and top Cuban music promoter, with the support and collaborative energies of a number of Cuban artists and cultural institutions.
From 8pm to 3am, from Thursday to Sunday, Fábrica de Arte allows us to discover a very special Havana to be part of something very special which is happening right now.
5) The best of the rest (clubs)
When a good band is playing, it is difficult to beat El Sauce as a venue to see Cuban pop and trova artists such as Raúl Torres, Polito Ibáñez, Frank Delgado, Buena Fe, Kelvis Ochoa, Diana Fuentes, David Torrens, and Descemer Bueno. The crowd is somewhat older and more Cuban middle class than in places such as La Cecilia or Don Cangrejo, which attract a much younger crowd.
And if you are feeling adventurous, don’t miss Salón Rosado de la Tropical on a night when they have a popular event on. This was once known as the legendary beer garden where Arsenio tore it up in the 40s. It’s still a big part of the live music scene today for large concerts, parties and other special events, which by their nature tend to be somewhat sporadic. Typically, there will be a salsa/timba gig on a Saturday night and a Sunday matinée with an older crowd, but you should check before heading out there.
Elsewhere, Don Cangrejo continues with its popular Friday night parties, La Cecilia with its Saturday night extravaganza and Salon Rojo (Hotel Capri) with popular bands. All these places are fun if you are in the mood and want to get noticed.