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neighbourhood stroll

Centre of it all

Havana's Centro neighbourhood is the perfect spot to start exploring the Cuban capital, Drew Limsky reports

Amazingly, what most guidebooks, articles and websites fail to do is to provide pithy lay-of-the-land guidance about where you should base yourself in Havana.

So here it is: Centro lies between Old Havana and Vedado. All three neighbourhoods have sights worth experiencing. All three are off the waterfront and the famed Malecon promenade. Stay in Centro. It is home to several full-service hotels around the bustling Parque Central, but none so impressive and glam as the palatial Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, which opened this year.

Centro provides the best soft landing in the city. You can use the open, sun-lit park as a way to orient yourself, and Parque Central is also the best place to arrange a tour or cab ride in a pedicab or a classic 1950s American auto (opt for a convertible). You don't have to go looking for a ride – just cross the park and five different guys will offer you one.

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Centro is also the location of the gorgeously ornate Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso (right off the park); the domed El Capitolio, modeled after the U.S. Capitol Building; and the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana. The latter's entrance is positioned conveniently – right across the street from the new Kempinski hotel.

You can also think of palm-filled Parque Central as dividing Centro from Old Havana, though the technical boundary is the heavily trafficked Paseo del Prado (a.k.a. Paseo de Marti), on the park's west side. However, you won't feel as if you're in Old Havana until you venture a few blocks east of the park – preferably along the Calle Obispo, the shop-lined pedestrian street.

STAY

Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana

From the lilac-colored LED strips on the lobby columns to the gold-clad restrooms to the purple tiles that surface the rooftop pool, the Kempinski inaugurates a new era of hospitality in Havana. Radical present and storied past come together, as the choice of the site honours proud Cuban history: The decorative building dates from a century ago, when the address served as a shopping arcade to emulate those found in stylish European cities.

Guests of the 246 rooms can swing open their French doors to enjoy such sites as Parque Central and the façade of the National Museum. The decor is tasteful yet festive, in shades of mauve, cream, grey and burgundy. The guest rooms meet a Four Seasons-style of luxury level not previously seen in Havana, with Italian coffee and ample working desks. Some rooms are equipped with separate tubs and showers and those rain-shower fixtures we all love.

The decorative building that hosts the Gran Hotel dates from a century ago.

The hotel features the Evocacion Tobacco Lounge in which to enjoy fine Cuban cigars and rums, as well as the eight-treatment-room Spa Albear by Resense – though guests will likely spend an inordinate amount of time on the roof, which boasts spectacular city views and Havana's top pool. The San Cristobal Panoramic restaurant's cuisine tilts toward excellent seafood, from ceviche to grilled octopus and lobster, but also features excellent croquetas and fun, sculptural desserts including two types of sponge cake, a Cuban specialty: one made from cocoa and beetroot, the other lavished with lemon cream and olive oil.

Most of all, the Kempinski gives you a peek of what the grandeur of Havana can look like given a healthy dose of foreign investment and luxury expertise (based in Geneva, the brand operates 75 five-star hotels and residences in 30 countries). The staff throughout is sweetly solicitous, especially at San Cristobal. Rooms start at $709 Canadian. Calle San Rafael. kempinski.com/en/havana/gran-hotel-kempinski-la-habana

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EAT & DRINK

Gran Teatro Café

Indulge in seafood to the sound of live music at Gran Teatro Café.

Adjacent to the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, this white-tablecloth dining room is decorated with arresting portraiture murals and sheer, textured curtains. Anchored by a long, illuminated carved bar set behind glass, the room has an aesthetic that felt formal, but on the day I went, lunch diners were smartly casual.

Best of all, a musical trio lit up my lunch with the Cuban classic Chan Chan as my lunch companion and I indulged in seafood casserole and lobster enchilada in creole sauce. I asked the friendly waitress for the bartender's most colourful cocktail, which turned out to be a crushed-ice lime daiquiri. 458 Paseo de Martí

Cabaret Parisien

Hotel Nacional, a Vedado institution that opened in 1930, is a peerless part of Havana history. In its heyday, it rivaled the top casino resorts in Las Vegas, playing host to such guests as Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn and Marlon Brando. I wanted a taste of that mid-century glamour, and booked a ringside table at the hotel's nightclub, Cabaret Parisien. Mojitos, floral head dresses and a staggering number of costume changes ensued. Calle 21 y O. hotelnacionaldecuba.com

ChaChaCha

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One of the few restaurants in Havana run privately and not by the government, this swank and popular eatery near the Museum of the Revolution came highly recommended from several corners. I wanted a seat on the main floor or near the upper-level rail, but without reservations I was only afforded a rear table. No matter. I was waited on by a friendly, muscular server and was impressed by the menu, which included steak tips, lamb with curry and coconut, and beef carpaccio. Avenida Monserrate #159. facebook.com/chachachahavana

EXPERIENCE

Tour Havana in style in one of its many vintage cars.

Classic car tour

You can't miss the old Buicks, Fords and Chevys in pastel colours lined up in front of the Gran Teatro and the Museum of the Revolution – you can take a $10 (U.S.) taxi ride or an hour tour (around $50). All the drivers I hired spoke fine English, pointed out various sights along the Malecon, and were eager to talk about their cars and what they do to keep the vintage autos in good working order – no easy feat given the age of the cars and continuing U.S. sanctions.

Havana's plazas

My top three were Plaza de Armas, Plaza Catedral and Plaza Vieja. A café along Plaza de Armas is the perfect place to stop for a beer and some tunes – I was roused by a group performing Represent with its lively rap – after a walk along Calle Obispo. The lanes that radiate out from Plaza Catedral teem with talented artists and craftspeople, and Plaza Vieja struck me as intensely local, with kids playing soccer and a local capoeira troupe wowing the onlookers.

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