Havana is an enchanting and captivating city, with the twists and turns of its compelling history and rich culture laid bare in the surprising diversity of its architecture and kaleidoscope of citizens. Nowhere is there uniformity, with the hotchpotch of buildings and people presenting a different set of stop-and-stare images on every street. Policemen on military service lean against Soviet-era Brutalist office blocks; adherents of Santería, dressed all in white, stroll past Neo-Gothic churches; queues of smart, elderly socialites form outside Art Deco theatres; and taxi drivers in baseball caps tout rides in their fifty-year-old Buicks and Chevrolets in front of Neoclassical shop fronts. In the centre especially, almost every street seems to have an intriguing story to tell, whether one of colonial grandeur, bygone glamour, economic hardship or revolutionary change – and sometimes all of these, wrapped up in just one block.
The past and the present are closely interwoven all over this sprawling metropolis, with tenement buildings moulded from the mansions of imperial counts, 1950s department store signs hanging over entrances to community centres and government agencies occupying eighteenth-century convents. An infectious vitality pervades every neighbourhood, as life in Havana unfolds unselfconsciously and in plain view: front doors are left open, washing is hung out on balconies, domino players sit at tables on the kerb, conversations are shouted between buildings and families watch TV in exposed street-side living rooms. Even in the most touristy parts of the city, which double up as residential neighbourhoods, the locals make their presence felt.
Havana’s diverse districts mark distinct eras in the capital’s evolution. What was once contained within seventeenth-century city walls now forms the most captivating section of harbourside Habana Vieja, the old city, and the capital’s tourist centre. Soldered on to Habana Vieja is gritty, lively Centro Habana, often bypassed by visitors on their way to more tourist-friendly parts of town but home to the most striking and idiosyncratic section of Havana’s oceanfront promenade, the Malecón. Sharing the Malecón with Centro Habana is Vedado, heart of the city borough of Plaza, its attractive, leafy, open plan neighbourhoods blessed with most of the city’s abundant theatres, cabarets, nightclubs and cinemas. From here you could walk the couple of kilometres to the vast and famous Plaza de la Revolución, with giant monuments to two icons of the Cuban struggle for independence, Che Guevara and José Martí. Beyond Vedado to the west, on the other side of the Río Almendares, Miramar ushers in another change in the urban landscape. Modelled on mid-twentieth-century Miami, this part of the city comes into its own at night, with some of Havana’s most sophisticated restaurants and best music venues scattered around the leafy streets.
Havana’s success and riches were founded on the strength and position of its harbour – the largest natural port in the Caribbean. However, the original San Cristóbal de la Habana settlement, established on July 25, 1515, St Christopher’s Day, was actually founded at modern-day Batabanó, on the south coast of what is now Mayabeque province. It wasn’t until November 25, 1519, that the city was relocated to the banks of the large bay known as the Bahía de la Habana.
Port, bridge and gateway
The early settlement began to ripple out into what is now Habana Vieja, with the first streets established down on the waterfront between the present-day Plaza de Armas and Plaza de San Francisco. However, it was with the discovery of a deep, navigable channel through the treacherous shallow waters between Cuba and the Bahamas that Havana really took off as a major city, becoming a bridge between Spain and the New World thanks to its strategic location on the newly established trade routes.
As the Spanish conquistadors plundered the treasures of the Americas, Havana became the meeting point for the Spanish fleet on its way back across the Atlantic. For several months of the year, ships returning from all over the Americas laden with precious cargoes would slowly gather at the port until a force strong enough to deter possible pirate attacks in the Caribbean had been assembled. An infrastructure of brothels, inns and gambling houses sprang up to cater for the seamen, and the port itself became a target for frequent attacks by buccaneers.
Fortification and free trade
In 1558, after consolidating shipping operations by making Havana the only Cuban port authorized to engage in commerce, Spain started a long period of fortification with the construction of the first stone fort in the Americas, the impressive Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Work started on the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and the formidable Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro in 1589 and was finally completed in 1630. Three years later a protective wall began to be built around the city, and was completed in 1740.
Assaults on the city persisted, however, and in 1762 Havana fell to the British. The free trade that the port enjoyed during its brief eleven months of occupation – the British swapped Havana for Florida – kick-started the island’s sugar trade; previously restricted to supplying Spain, it was now open to the rest of the world. Spain wisely kept British trade policies intact and the consequential influx of wealthy Spanish sugar families propelled Havana into a new age of affluence.
The building booms
The nineteenth century was a period of growth, when some of the most beautiful buildings around Habana Vieja were constructed and the city enjoyed a new-found elegance. At the same time, crime and political corruption were reaching new heights, causing many of the new bourgeoisie to abandon the old city to the poor and to start colonizing what is now Vedado. By the 1860s the framework of the new suburbs stretching west and south was in place.
In 1902, after the Wars of Independence, North American influence and money flowed into the city, and the first half of the twentieth century saw tower blocks, hotels and glorious Art Deco palaces like the Edificio Bacardí built as the tourist industry boomed. Gambling flourished, run by American gangsters like Meyer Lansky, who aimed to turn Havana into a Caribbean Las Vegas.
Equality, decay and rebirth
The Revolution put an abrupt end to all this decadence, and throughout the 1960s the new regime cleaned the streets of crime and prostitution, laying the basis for a socialist capital. Fine houses, abandoned by owners fleeing to the US, were left in the hands of servants, and previously exclusive neighbourhoods changed face overnight. With the emphasis on improving conditions in the countryside, city development was haphazard and the post-Revolution years saw many fine buildings crumble while residential overcrowding increased, prompting Fidel Castro to take action. Happily, since the 1990s there have been steady improvements, with redevelopment work recapturing some of the former glory, especially in the worst-affected areas of Habana Vieja.
Today there is a growing prosperity in Havana, evident from fancy restaurants full of locals, increasingly well-appointed houses, and new cars on the roads. However, many of its citizens still live in poverty on a minimum of resources, and the capital shines a bright light on the growing inequalities in Cuba today.Read More
While Havana puts the hotels, restaurants, shops and clubs of all the other Cuban cities to shame, hanging around outside most of these places, and patrolling the streets in between them, are legions of jineteros – street hustlers and opportunists. The government now takes the high levels of tourist harassment here very seriously, posting policemen all over Habana Vieja and the streets around the Habana Libre hotel, areas where jineterismo has traditionally been most concentrated. Even so, many foreign visitors are still surprised by what can seem like an onslaught of touts peddling anything from cigars and taxi rides to a place to stay and a young woman to stay with.
Habana Vieja, the old town, is not only a magnet for jineteros but is also the bag-snatching centre of the city, with an increasing number of petty thieves working the streets, so take the usual precautions. Even at night, however, there is rarely any violent crime.
Many of Havana’s most glorious hotels, especially those in Vedado, were built in the 1950s with a casino attached and the funds for their construction put up by members of the American Mafia, who were busy building an empire in the Cuban capital. With a booming tourist economy, a shortage of top class hotel rooms and American mobsters queuing up to take advantage of lax Cuban gambling laws, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, in cahoots with the Mob, passed Hotel Law 2074 in 1955. This provided tax exemptions to any hotel providing tourist accommodation and guaranteed government financing and a gaming licence to anyone willing to invest $1 million or more in hotel construction, or $200,000 for the building of a nightclub. An unprecedented boom in hotel and casino construction followed as the Havana Mob expanded its portfolio, which already included the Hotel Nacional, the Sevilla Biltmore and the Hotel Comodoro, establishing landmark hotels like the Habana Hilton, the largest hotel in Havana when it opened in 1958, renamed the Habana Libre after the Revolution; the seafront Hotel Deauville, built in 1957 by Santo Trafficante, the Florida crime boss and long-time investor in Cuba; the luxurious Hotel Riviera, inaugurated in late 1957, having been conceived and funded by Meyer Lansky, the Don of the Havana-based mob; and the Capri, which also opened in 1957 and where the Mob installed the Hollywood tough-guy actor George Raft as a meeter-and-greeter, the personification of the hotel and casino industry in 1950s Havana, with its mixture of celebrity glamour and gangster backing.
Santería and Catholicism
Santería and Catholicism
Walking the streets of Havana you may notice people dressed head-to-foot in white, a bead necklace providing the only colour in their costume. These are practitioners of Santería, the most popular of Afro–Cuban religions, and the beads represent their appointed orisha, the gods and goddesses at the heart of their worship.
With its roots in the religious beliefs of the Yoruba people of West Africa, Santería spread in Cuba with the importation of slaves from that region. Forbidden by the Spanish to practise their faith, the slaves found ways of hiding images of their gods behind those of the Catholic saints to whom they were forced to pay homage. From this developed the syncretism of African orishas with their Catholic counterparts – thus, for example, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, embodies the orisha known as Oshún, the goddess of femininity, in part because both are believed to provide protection during birth. Similarly, Yemayá, goddess of water and queen of the sea – considered the mother of all orishas – is the equivalent of the Virgen de Regla, whom Spanish Catholics believed protected sailors. Other pairings include San Lázaro, patron saint of the sick, with Babalu-Ayé, Santa Bárbara with Changó, and San Cristóbal with Aggayú. There are some four hundred Afro–Cuban orishas in all.
Havana from a height
Havana from a height
With its architecturally distinct neighbourhoods dating from separate eras, Havana looks stunning from above, but since the city is laid out on relatively flat land, you have to go to the southern outskirts or over to the eastern side of the bay for hills high enough to afford a decent view. There are, however, numerous tall buildings open to the public dotted around the city proper, with fabulous vistas across the boroughs. The best of these are detailed below.
Plaza Vieja, Habana Vieja. Catch a view of Havana from the roof terrace or get a “guided tour” of parts of the city through a telescopic lens.
Calle 17 no.55 e/ M y N, Vedado. The restaurant at the top of the city’s tallest apartment building offers a winning combination of food and great views.
Calle L e/ 23 y 25, Vedado. You’ll have to eat at the restaurant or pay the nightclub’s entrance fee to get up to the top of this famous Havana hotel – but either way, it’s worth it.
Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís
Plaza de San Francisco, Habana Vieja. Climb the wooden staircase to the top of the church belltower and enjoy a great perspective of the old city.
Memorial José Martí
Plaza de la Revolución, Vedado. An obligatory part of the tourist circuit, the memorial offers the best vantage point for bird’s-eye views of Havana, reaching as far as the western suburbs.
Saratoga and Parque Central hotels
Paseo del Prado, Habana Vieja. The most blissful way to view the city from above is by lounging in one of these two rooftop hotel swimming pools.
Torre del Oro Roof Garden, Hotel Sevilla
Trocadero no.55 e/ Paseo del Prado y Agramonte (Zulueta). One of the swankiest restaurants in the city, in a cavernous balustraded hall with marble floors and towering windows – the food is only average, but the views across the city are superb.
Accommodation in Havana is abundant and, as in the rest of Cuba, splits into two distinct categories, hotels and casas particulares (private houses). From sumptuous boutique-style houses to more bijou apartment rooms, the city boasts a fantastically broad range of casas particulares which, broadly speaking, grow more luxurious the further west you venture. All areas, however, possess a significant number of casas that are far classier than the cheapest hotels, and it’s a mistake to assume that a stay in a house means a compromise in comfort. And as there are only one or two hotels with rooms for less than $50CUC a night, casas particulares have practically cornered the budget market, which they do with such panache and comfort that there really is no need to seek out budget hotels at all. On the other hand, if you want a pool, international food and all the mod cons, very few houses can compete with the classier hotels.
Eating out in Havana is on the up. A new wave of paladars has given the dining scene a lease of life, particularly in Centro Habana and Habana Vieja, where standards have long lagged behind those set in Vedado and Miramar. Traditional Cuban food does still dominate, but paladar owners are becoming more ambitious and innovative, creating alternative menus and designing memorable, eye-catching interiors. The best state restaurants and many of the superior paladars are in Vedado and Miramar, still the home of the city’s finest dining and where you are more likely to have a truly unforgettable meal out. The capital’s cafés are often indistinguishable from restaurants, serving meals as much as drinks, and there are also a few places more akin to coffee shops, worth searching out if you are looking for a relaxing, hassle-free snack or drink.
There are surprisingly few straight-up bars in Havana. Most drinking venues are part bar, part café, offering rum, beer, coffee and tea in equal measure, while many also serve light meals (some of these are listed with restaurants). They are invariably small, single-room venues and many in Habana Vieja feature live music. A bar crawl in Havana can involve a lot of walking, as there are very few areas with a concentrated buzz – it often makes sense to find a likeable venue and stay there. Obispo in Habana Vieja can lay claim to the biggest concentration of drinking spots – and of jineteros – while the nearby Plaza de la Catedral district is also quite lively at night. In Vedado, the Habana Libre hotel is the best starting point for evening drinking, and the Riviera hotel is another good option, while the La Rampa area has a good clutch of bars and clubs that heat up after 11pm. It’s also worth checking out theatre bars and gardens in Vedado for atmospheric and discerning tipples even if you haven’t attended a performance. However, for sheer joie de vivre you can’t beat taking some beers or a bottle of rum down to the Malecón and mingling with the crowds beneath the stars.
Nightlife and entertainment
Nightlife and entertainment
Havana’s nightlife doesn’t jump out at you, but instead works its magic from isolated corners all over the city, in secluded clubs, hidden courtyards, theatre basements and on hotel rooftops. Spontaneous nights out are difficult as there’s no single area with much of a buzz and the headline venues are widely dispersed. The only way to find out who is playing, and where, are the fliers (usually cheap photocopies) at Infotur offices and in hotel lobbies, promoting club nights and live musical. As schedules are so unreliable it’s wise to call the venue itself.
Havana stands out, refreshingly for some, as one of the few capitals in the West whose centre is not dominated by a shopping district – Obispo, in Habana Vieja, is as close as it gets. Elsewhere, although new malls and boutiques are mushrooming steadily around the city, the general standard of merchandise is quite low, with rum, cigars, coffee and crafts the exceptions. For everything else the large hotels and the Artex and Caracol state chain stores have some of the best-quality products. Standard opening hours are Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm; only a tiny minority of shops stays open after 7pm. Some shops are open all Sunday but most either don’t open or close at lunchtime. Havana still has a significant number of national-peso shops, especially in Centro Habana, mostly half-empty and stocking used, old or shoddy goods – the fading signs and barely stocked outlets along Avenida de Italia stand as testament to a bygone era.
Sports and outdoor activities
Sports and outdoor activities
You only need to spend a few hours wandering the streets of any part of the capital to appreciate the prominent role that sport plays in the lives of Habaneros. Fierce arguments strike off every evening on basketball courts all over the city, and you’ll rarely see an open space, at any time of the day, not hosting a game of baseball or football. On a professional level, Havana is the finest place for live sport in Cuba, with teams in all the national leagues and a number of large stadia. Entrance to most sports arenas is only $1–2CUP and booking in advance is unnecessary and rarely possible.