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How to eat, drink and dance like the Cubans – and make the most of Hemingway’s old haunts

Stephen Gibbs | January/February 2015

Do watch the opening scene from the 1959 film “Our Man in Havana” before you set off. Then walk down Obispo to see how little has changed.

Don't assume the most expensive hotels will be worth the price. In Old Havana, try the Santa Isabel or the Florida. Or stay in a private house: Casa Vitrales has beautiful rooms in a restored mansion.

Do go to the ballet. The National Ballet’s usual base, the Gran Teatro, is being restored, so performances are held in the less glamorous Teatro Nacional. Tourists pay around 25CUC ($25) in convertible pesos. Touts will offer to sell you tickets priced in Cuban pesos for Cubans, which may, or may not, get you in.

Do drink a mojito on the wicker chairs of the Hotel Nacional’s terrace. You may have tasted a better-mixed cocktail, but you won’t forget this one.

Do book a table at the Guarida, the best of Cuba’s original private restaurants or paladares, legalised in the early 1990s. Order the Californian wine and wonder how it got there.

Do explore Havana’s buzzing jazz scene. One of the best spots to hear world-class young musicians is Club Privé, on a Sunday. Entrance is just 5CUC; don’t go before 11pm.

Don't even think about wearing a tie. Or a linen suit. They went out in 1959.

Don't worry which of the two Casa de Musicas you go to. There is little to tell them apart. But try to go to a matinée (around 5pm). Admission is cheap enough to attract Cubans who want to dance.

Don't expect the no-smoking sign to be observed—even at the airport. Cubans decided long ago that rules are meant to be broken. And everyone has a cousin or a brother who can get you a box of cigars at a fraction of the official price.

Do visit Finca Vigia, the beautiful villa where Hemingway lived, in the suburb of San Francisco de Paula. It is much how he left it in 1960, complete with his handmade mahogany furniture. Climb up to the lookout tower and see the sea where he once fished.

Do buy a day pass to Club Havana, now a slowly decaying hang-out for expats and better-connected Cubans. Two pools, a beach and a cigar bar.

Don't believe it when Cubans say the sea is too cold in winter. Ask any taxi driver to take you to Playas del Este, 25 minutes out of Havana, and spend a November afternoon on the most deserted city beach in the world.

Don't believe anyone who says they can change your money. They will probably give you near-worthless local Cuban pesos, instead of convertible pesos, pegged to the dollar.

Do make a day trip to Varadero. Take a swim in the sea, and then have lunch in Xanadu, the du Pont family’s former mansion.

Don't ask the locals what they think will happen after the Castro brothers. Some will find the question offensive; others will give a speech you may not want to hear.

Do stop for Cuban hitch-hikers. In return, they will tell you what they really think.