Having been cut off diplomatically from large parts of the world in recent history, Cuba is a country that’s still suspended in time.
Following the death of its communist former leader Fidel Castro in 2016, tourists have visited, eager to experience it before it’s inevitably Americanised and a Starbucks is put on every corner.
But for now its capital Havana remains a city of crumbling grandeur; there are majestic buildings everywhere coming apart at the seams, live Latin music explodes from every restaurant and bar.
Advertising is still banned, but Castro’s face greets you everywhere.
Here are some things every traveller needs to do in one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
Explore the Old Town
When you think of Havana you probably conjure up an image of a classic 1950s American car cruising down the street in your mind, don’t you?
Once you’re here, you can take your pick. There’s one in every colour of the rainbow.
Take a tour around the city to visit the main sights, such as Plaza de la Revolucion, Christ Of Havana and the posh neighbourhood of Miramar.
The best way to explore the city though is on foot. It’s hard to get lost as Havana’s streets follow a simple grid.
The main squares in the Old Town are also very close together. Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco,
Plaza de Armas and Plaza Vieja are all worth exploring and a five- to ten-minute walk from each other.
Calle Obispo is one of the liveliest streets in the city, featuring lots of shops and restaurants.
Once you’re done, head to the Malecon, an esplanade known as ‘Havana’s sofa’, as that’s where everyone congregates at the end of the day to watch the sunset.
Cuban food doesn’t have the best reputation.
Years of rationing have had an impact, and this isn’t a top destination for foodies, but things are improving in the city.
There are a few staples on every menu: Ropa Vieja – translated as old clothes in Spanish – is a delicious dish of shredded beef cooked with onions and peppers, while pork escalopes and grilled seafood are also popular.
Everything is served with rice – either white or mixed with black beans – along with salad.
If you really want to acquaint yourself with Cuban cuisine, you can also learn how to cook it.
Ajiaco Café is based in the seaside town of Cojimar, where writer Ernest Hemingway used to spend his holidays.
They offer a class where you’ll be guided as you rustle up two dishes and then taught how to make your own mojito using their recipe. It’s thirsty work, after all.
It’s a fun introduction to the country’s food and you get to eat a three-course meal afterwards, which includes your hard-earned work.
Learn how to salsa
If the film Fame took place in Cuba and everyone danced salsa it would look a lot like La Casa Del Son.
The school offers private lessons at reasonable prices and makes learning incredibly fun.
It’s based in a beautiful building in Old Havana where there’s always people laughing, singing and dancing.
Teachers are friendly and enthusiastic, turning even the most awkward dad dancer into a hip-swivelling salsa sensation in no time.
Look at art
The coolest place to go out in Havana is Fabrica de Arte.
The trendy arts complex is a converted warehouse that hosts experimental plays, concerts and exhibitions.
It’s only open in the evenings, which means you get to check out the artwork with a pina colada in your hand.
Havana is full of stunning buildings and one of the most spectacular is the Gran Teatro de La Habana, home to the Cuban National Ballet, which hosts performances from Thursday to Sundays.
If you don’t manage to get a ticket to a performance you can take a guided tour where you might be lucky enough to catch one of the groups rehearsing while being shown the main hall, which is an architectural wonder.
Learn about history
The Museum of the Revolution tells the story of the Cuban Revolution, which took place from 1953 to 1959, from the Cuban point of view.
Yes, it’s biased and the exhibits are a little dry, but it’s worth going just to visit the building. The former Presidential Palace has seen better days, and is currently being renovated, but it still looks magnificent.
Check out the ceiling in the Salon de los Espejos, which is a replica of the Hall of Mirrors in France’s Palace of Versailles, and its painting of communist angels.
Go to the beach
Most people coming to Cuba head to the resort of Varadero to get in some beach time before they return home, but Playa De Este, just a 30-minute bus ride from Havana, is just as beautiful.
It has everything that you’d except from a Caribbean beach: soft, white sand, dazzling blue sea and palm trees swaying gently in the breeze.
It’s popular with locals too but it’s big enough that you can always find a quiet spot away from the crowds.
Take a day trip
If you only have time for one day trip from Havana, make it Vinales, a two-and-a-half hour drive away.
The beautiful terrain of mountains, caves and valleys makes it one of the most striking landscapes in Cuba.
The most popular way to take in the stunning surroundings is on the back of a horse.
Visit a tobacco farm on the way to watch someone hand-roll a cigar as it’s always been done traditionally.
The colourful Vinales Mural de la Prehistoria, daubed on the side of a mountain, is also worth a visit even though it wasn’t actually painted in prehistoric times.
Hotel Los Jazmines has a stunning panoramic viewpoint of Vinales so make sure you drop by on your way there or back.
Where to stay
There are just six rooms at this pretty casa particular just a few minutes away from the Old Square. Each one is styled to perfection.
The high ceilings, pretty tiled floors and colourful cushions give the place a cosy, bohemian feel.
Its rooftop is a good place to unwind after a day’s sightseeing, while the service is super friendly.
Rooms start from £165 a night.
Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
The first modern luxury hotel chain to open in Havana, the Grand Kempinski brings a touch of European glamour to the city.
Only a few months old, it’s a smart and sophisticated addition to the hotel scene.
Other five-star properties in the city tend to look more traditional but the decor here is sleek and tasteful.
Rooms are huge but the real showstopper is their rooftop bar and pool. It’s the best place to watch Havana’s sunset while sipping on a mojito.
Rooms start from £296 a night.
How to get there
I travelled to Havana and Vinales with Cuba Direct, an experienced tour operator which offers tailor-made holidays.
Their Taste of Cuba seven-day tour costs £589 per person, based on two people sharing. This includes accommodation and transfers.
Virgin Atlantic have flights from London to Havana. They take just over 10 hours, with return fares starting from £650.