It took them a long time. 500 years no less. Yet they made it in time for a grand celebration that marked the Cuban capital’s 500th anniversary.
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain arrived in Havana last Tuesday for an official 3-day state visit that included lots of walking tours, meeting with official authorities and even supporting Cuban local entrepreneurs by lunching at a paladar.
No, they didn’t meet casa particular owners during their Cuba trip. And no, they didn’t (understandably) stay in a casa particular either. Yet this wasn’t an ordinary Cuba holiday for ordinary tourists and (for royal visitors) they showed closeness in a way no other head of states ever have when in Cuba, not even Prince Charles and Camilla during their visit to Havana last March (and they indeed had some fun there!).
The Spanish King and Queen enjoyed the warmth of the Cuban people as they were cheered on by local crowds and had the luxury of a little privacy to choose a last-minute dining venue in Havana (and walked there and back). But what else did they do in Cuba? Did they go beyond Havana? What Cuban capital landmarks did they visit? What special ceremonies were they a part of? Where did they go? What did they see? And also, royal blood aside, could you too enjoy Havana in a royally spectacular way?
Walking tour around Old Havana
The obligatory guided walk around Old Havana was a must for the King and Queen of Spain, who were seen at ease enjoying the old part of the city’s baroque beauty and saluting the crowds as they cheered them on. Queen Letizia had comfortable wedge shoes for a smoother walking journey along cobblestone streets and the King of Spain, donning a Cuban guayabera for the occasion, showed his outstanding knowledge about some city landmarks as he gave his entourage information about the characteristics of the Havana Cathedral and the palace of Marqués de Arcos.
It was the first time the King of Spain walked around Havana and took in the sights, yet this was a place he seemed to know very well and at least have read a lot about.
Their royal highnesses felt so at ease, they even walked hand-in-hand, seemingly careless and oblivious to the dozens of cameras pointing at them, looking like any other tourist couple on a relaxing break.
On a second day they enjoyed a more formal tour with the guidance of the Historian of the City, Eusebio Leal, the man behind the restoration of Old Havana – a service he was rewarded for, as during a special ceremony held at the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, his majesty bestowed him an honorary title, the Royal and Distinguished Spanish Order of Charles III.
So yes, if going on holiday to Cuba, and particularly Havana, you should do the mandatory walking tour of Old Havana, just like every royal who has arrived in Cuba of late (Prince Charles and Camilla did it too). Doing so with an expert local guide is highly recommended, but you can also do a bit of advance homework like King Felipe and get a feel of the landmarks and their history before you see them in person.
Donning traditional Cuban clothes
The most special touch during their trip and the one that showed the most closeness and won Cubans’ hearts, was seeing King Felipe VI wear a traditional Cuban guayabera not just once, but on two different days during his 3-day Cuba trip. The fact that the Spanish head of state wore a traditional T-shirt with its iconic four-front-pockets design was positively received by crowds of onlookers as a nod to “cubanía” (Cubanness). On the first day he wore it blue, and on the second he changed it for a white garment, the more traditional colour.
Getting close to the real Cubans
Letizia and Felipe had plenty of opportunities for encountering Cubans during their trip. Like you probably just read, they walked the streets like virtually any tourist would and greeted onlookers (not just with royal waves, there were some handshakes and words exchanged too). But beyond casual encounters, their itinerary included stops at cultural venues to meet average Cubans in the world of arts and on the Cuban nascent culinary scene too.
Meeting ballet dancers
As part of their official visit, Queen Letizia and King Felipe stopped by the Gran Teatro de la Habana “Alicia Alonso” (named after its recently deceased founder and prima ballerina) to enjoy a live performance. During their time there they not only enjoyed a classical piece by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, they later posed for pictures with the dancers and exchanged a few words.
If in Cuba, we definitely recommend that you follow in their steps and catch a ballet performance at the Gran Teatro de La Habana. Ballet tickets in Cuba are incredibly cheap compared to the rest of the world and the local talent is outstanding. You might not get a private audience with the dancers after the show but we bet that’s not that important to you!
Eating at a paladar
Their royal highnesses not only ate at a Cuban paladar during their time in Havana, but they also did so as any couple would, in private, with no entourage or escort in sight. Just the two of them, eating a romantic meal for two and they got to the restaurant and back by foot, on a scenic stroll. They wanted privacy and a real Cuban meal without prying eyes, so understandably the restaurant was closed up during their visit. For their lunch in Havana, they chose the popular paladar Ivan Chef Justo and its proud owner later revealed that they were only announced of the royal visit a couple of hours prior to their arrival. It’s nice to see that their majesties made a spur of the moment decision in Cuba and chose for themselves where to eat at least once. Despite the fact they weren’t tourists on a Cuba holiday, they managed to break away from their packed official itinerary and go rogue for a bit. We applaud that!
What did they eat? According to restaurant sources, the Queen had a crab salad for starters, a taste of their famous liquid croquettes and a portion of roasted piglet. The king finished off the meal with liquor as is his tradition and wined on a special Marqués de Cáceres wine bottle, a gift from the house.
Eating in a paladar is one of many unmissable experiences on a Cuba holiday, one you simply cannot afford to forgo. It’s not just royals who make it an obligatory stop in paladars, many other celebrities in Havana have done so too, from the Kardashians to Zoe Saldana and Natalie Portman who have all dined at legendary paladar La Guarida, to Barack Obama who propelled the San Cristobal paladar to fame after his family meal there. Beyonce, Jay Z and Rihanna chose La Fontana paladar in Miramar while Katy Perry went for El Cocinero. Cuban paladars, in short, are very much in vogue. Our recommendation for your Cuba holiday – dine in as many as you can!
Stopping in Santiago
Before ending their official Cuba trip and returning to Spain, the King and Queen flew to Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second city, once its blossoming capital (the island’s first) and a kaleidoscopic, vibrant place full of history and colonial symbolism. During their brief time here they visited the UNESCO-listed Castillo del Morro de San Pedro de la Roca, to pay tribute to the Spanish soldiers who lost their lives in July 1989, where the U.S. got involved in the Cuban-Spanish war and sank the fleet of Spanish forces (Battle of Santiago de Cuba War).
Staying in a Havana casa particular?
While they might not have stayed in a casa particular and instead opted for more regal accommodation at one of the latest luxury hotels to open in Havana by a Spanish hotel chain (hence a nod to bilateral commercial relations between Cuba and Spain), during his speech in Havana, King Felipe VI noted the important contribution of Cuban entrepreneurs to the struggling Cuban economy, and that includes owners of casas particulares in Havana and beyond.
And before you go off thinking that casas particulares in Havana can´t compare to a luxury hotel…think again! Some casas particulares in the Cuban capital have evolved to look, function and feel more like boutique hotels. They are offered to tourists as standalone properties, like our Casa Gertrudis Martorel in Vedado, with sweeping room sea views over the Malecon and Penthouse Artedel, also in Vedado and with its own rooftop pool (talk about chic design and modern interiors).
In Old Havana, for superior luxury with antique colonial feel you could opt for Hostal El Angel, the beautiful Casa Colonial Zaiden or the elegant Casa Pedro y Maria. You can’t go wrong with either of these bespoke options, all of which include delicious breakfast and personalised attention.