HAVANA, Nov. 45th. In the 26 years I’ve been visiting Havana, one theme has remained constant: I’ve never had a dull night out. From the dark days of the “Special Period” to the euphoria of The Rolling Stones at the Ciudad Deportiva in 2016, the city has always managed to put on an electrifying show, whatever the economic climate.
My most recent visit didn’t disappoint; the nighttime action was as upbeat as ever, with a surprising number of new places to sample and explore.
Here are my current favorites.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Included in Time Magazine’s list of “100 greatest places in the world” in 2019, Havana’s iconic arts venue continues to serve up a rousing menu of entertainment, from alt-dance to probing film, in a one-of-a-kind community-focused art lab.
Inhabiting an erstwhile cooking oil factory in Vedado, the contemporary art gallery, cum concert hall, cum nightclub, cum cultural gathering place, is packed with myriad stages and fueled by an ever-changing roster of Cuban and international talent.
On any given night, rather than just witnessing one type of performance, you’re treated to an eclectic mix. In previous visits, I’ve enjoyed a cappella choirs, rap artists, jazz ensembles and tango dancers all in the same evening for an entry fee of US$2.
Hip but surprisingly unpretentious, the large Bauhaus-style interior is a great place to relax and hang out with friends or mingle serendipitously on your own, soaking up the envelope-pushing art exhibits and meeting some of the creators and performers as you bounce from room to room.
I always like to arrive at the Fábrica early (around 8 p.m.) to stroll the gallery areas, check out the music schedule, and hit the bars and food outlets before the crowd piles in. Performances take place throughout the evening in a warren of atmospherically lit rooms. It’s an exhilarating ride.
An affable greeter welcomes you at the entrance, busy camareros juggle food plates and cocktail glasses at the bar, and young habaneros in “Asere ya, gracias” t-shirts (bought in the clothes’ boutique Clandestina nearby) share strong coffee and minty mojitos around the tightly packed tables inside.
Located on the southeast corner of Plaza del Cristo, El Dandy is a super-cool café with a palpable retro feel and a penchant for eye-catching photo art (ballet dancers feature prominently). After dark, it magically transforms into a romantic cocktail bar.
For me, this is a great place to flop down on your own with a cafecito and watch snippets of Cuban daily life in the square outside: noisy games of baseball, rattling bicitaxis, and people FaceTiming with their families abroad in the plaza’s alfresco Wi-Fi zone.
Situated just off the Malecón overlooking an equestrian statue of Antonio Maceo with a wide-screen view over the Straits of Florida, El Bleco has established itself as one of Havana’s trendiest places to enjoy a sundowner in the post-COVID-19 era.
Spread over the first floor of a renovated neoclassical-style building with a half-covered, half-open terrace fringed by traditional Cuban thatch, the bar emanates a sophisticated but relaxed vibe inspired by chill-out DJ sets, cushioned seating, and trendier-than-you wait staff.
High prices mean you’ll more likely be sitting next to a tourist than a local but, fear not, Bleco’s drinks are good, and the food is famous for its half-dozen unusual varieties of pizza, including an epic Nutella flavor.
Named for an infamous neighborhood chulo (pimp) gunned down in the streets of Habana Vieja in 1910, this rooftop bar/restaurant is the go-to watering hole in the up-and-coming San Isidro art district.
In the mysterious tradition of modern Havana bars, there’s no clear entrance sign, just a green neon hat logo on Calle San Isidro opposite a disconcerting mural of a cartoonish balaclava-clad minion by Havana’s premier graffiti artist: 2+2=5.
Upstairs, a handsome alfresco sitting area is book-ended by feature staircases and stocked with a healthy profusion of green ferns and yellow fairy lights.
The cool aura reflects the setting. This is San Isidro where you can expect to be sharing space with a liberal sprinkling of artists, journalists, actors, and academics. The gallery of well-known Cuban actor, Jorge Perugorría, resides next door.
There’s a full food menu featuring classic Cuban dishes if you’re hungry.
Many of the mildewed edifices of Centro Habana look as old and battered as the American cars that ply the streets outside. But as anyone familiar with the city will tell you, the interiors tell a different story.
Michifú is a classic diamond in the rough, a French-flavored piano bar on Calle Concordia whose elegant, creatively lit interior is decorated with thought-provoking art and daubed by sharp color accents (look out for the Warhol-like lampshades).
Since opening in early 2019, the establishment has garnered an enthusiastic fan base with its laid-back, Cuban-meets-Gallic ambiance and reasonably priced food, including excellent ratatouille.
For me, Michifú is a great place to warm up over an apéritif before heading for dinner at Paladar La Guarida, the granddaddy of Cuba’s private restaurants located one block to the west.
Since opening in July 2022, this quirky little space in Habana Vieja, appropriately subtitled, Sabor y Sonido (flavor and sound), has established itself as one of the city’s coolest new music venues.
Encased in an eccentrically decorated restaurant in Calle Compostela, the “sabor” comes from its classic Cuban food —including the best ropa vieja I’ve ever tasted— while the “sonido” is courtesy of the talented live bands that squeeze onto a tiny stage behind the street sidebar to entertain assembled listeners with suave music.
Expect lilting trova, heartfelt boleros, jazz and a little bossa nova. Check out their Facebook page for upcoming schedules.
Azúcar Bar & Lounge
Perched like a theater box above the animated street life of Plaza Vieja, Azúcar is, arguably, the best place in Havana to settle down on a lounge sofa and nurse a large rum-laced cocktail. Lured by the minimalist décor and mellow music, it’s usually the first place I hit when returning to Havana after a long break.
Relaxing unmolested in its light, white interior (or out on the first-floor balcony), I can re-examine the city, soak up the atmosphere and see what’s changed since I was last around.
The artistically presented cocktails are the pièce de la résistance, while my beverage of choice is usually an unsweetened café cortado followed by a refreshing jugo de frutabomba. Azúcar also does good tacos and once served me an unforgettable tres leches cake in a recycled food tin.
The Argentinian racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio had a rocky relationship with Cuba. In 1958, rebels from Fidel Castro’s M-26 group kidnapped him from Havana’s Hotel Lincoln on the eve of the Cuban Grand Prix before releasing him unharmed less than two days later. In the circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising to find a restaurant named after the sports star.
Fangio Habana is a gastronomic haven hosted in the Hotel Claxon, a boutique accommodation that opened in April 2022 on Paseo, Havana’s grand Parisian-style avenue.
Old motor-racing posters, gas pumps, and Esso signs are dotted around the eclectic early-20th-century mansion, where diners can tuck into octopus and braised lamb in a series of interconnecting rooms and pretty gardens.
But the real highlight is the live music on the rooftop terrace. Fangio is fast becoming the place in Havana to enjoy the velvety sounds of Cuban jazz as the sun sets.