As the birthplace of salsa, it is no surprise that cuban beats pulsate from most bars in Habana Vieja late into the night, attracting phenomenal dancers who will leave you spellbound as you watch them in wonder whilst sipping on your mojito or cuba libre. Some bars cater more to those who want to just drink and listen, but the music will remain fairly similar.
International acts (albeit often with Cuban or latin american heritage) are more likely to be found in Vedado. Jazz musicians, in particular, attract big crowds and locals will pay several months salary to see the very best play here.
Here are some of the best places to hang out in the evening:
There is something very romantic about hanging out on the seawall of the Malecon, drinking home brew rum with the locals and listening to groups signing Cuban favourites accompanied by nothing but a guitar. This is the place that couples come to stare longingly into each other’s eyes as the sun sets behind them, making declarations of love and dancing to the music that floats across the sea breeze.
You will also find old war veterans will meet up here to regale their stories of the past, playing Cubilete (a dice based game). Share your rum, and they will most likely offer to share their evening (and stories) with you.
Cafe Madrigal – over in Vedado, and tucked away behind a hospital down a residential street. This is a local bohemian style rooftop bar with an arty underground feel. Great cocktails and cheap tapas style dishes, the draw is more for the atmosphere and musicians than the food.
Jazz Cafe – on the corner of Avenida Paseo and Calle 3 you will find fantastic jazz bands playing every day of the week, with options for food and the usual Cuban cocktails on offer, what better way to spend an evening. Drinks here are a little more expensive than in other bars, and service isn’t quite as quick but the music more than makes up for it.
El Floridita – I mention this for its nostalgia only. Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar, that has turned into a bit of a shrine to him (a must visit destination just to say you have been). It is always packed, and can take half an hour to be served a low quality overpriced daiquiri. The music here is fantastic, but that is its only saving grace. Best to go for one, then move on.
Restaurante Europa – a restaurant in the evening which makes use of the vast space during the early afternoon with the house band and salsa dancers. The dancers are happy to swap partners and teach you a little salsa as well as encourage those who are trying to put their best foot forward. Ask around the locals for recommendations, we came here after being told that one of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club was playing, and stayed on until dinner.
La Caribena – the most traditional of Cuban bars. Here you will find an amazing band playing until 11 pm and cheap strong cocktails that are well made. There are lots of locals here, despite being in a touristy area, and there is a real community feel. Be warned there are a few bands that play here that ask for a bit of audience participation; mostly from unsuspecting tourists asked to try to dance! This is somewhere that I kept coming back to. Be warned however, you will need to tip the toilet attendant if you need to use the facilities.
Cafe Paris – a slightly more modern version of La Caribena but with a much smaller space. The large 9 piece band mix up salsa with cha cha cha and a few other latin favourites until well after midnight, but the lack of internal space results in patrons spilling out to the tables outside. Don’t expect quick service here – especially if you are there late at night.
Monserrate – Pizza restaurant by day, bar and live music space by night. Here they serve some of the best cocktails I had in Cuba, with the open windows bringing in a much needed breeze, cooling down the heat of the band and people dancing late into the night. This is definitely the best place to go to once you get fed up with La Floridita next door.
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