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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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. Although many of its citizens still live in poverty on a minimum of resources, new housing developments springing up on the city’s outskirts and improvements in travel infrastructure speak of important social investment and the efforts made to address the city’s increasing inequalities.
If you’re wondering where to visit in Cuba, it’s fair to say no trip would be complete without a visit to the potent capital, Havana. A unique and personable metropolis characterized by a small-town atmosphere, its time-warped colonial core, Habana Vieja, is crammed with architectural splendours, some laced with Moorish traces and dating as far back as the sixteenth century. Elsewhere there are handsome streets unspoiled by tawdry multinational chain stores and restaurants. Urban development here has been undertaken sensitively, with the city retaining many of its colonial mansions and numerous 1950s hallmarks.
Hotel Nacional This luxurious twin-towered hotel still embodies 1930s Havana glamour. A perfect setting for a mojito.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
While many visitors don’t make it to the Parque Morro-Cabaña, across the bay from Habana Vieja, those who do are rewarded by the uncrowded sights of an impressive, sprawling complex of fortifications that, along with the two fortresses in Habana Vieja, comprised the city’s colonial defence system. A stalwart part of both the Havana skyline and timeline, the two fortresses here dominate the view across the channel into the harbour, and mark key events and periods in the city’s history. Beyond the forts, further into the bay, a gargantuan statue of Christ, El Cristo de La Habana, was one of the last public works completed before Cuba was taken over by Fidel Castro and his revolutionary – and subsequently atheist – government.
On the hill above the picturesque village of Casablanca, 1km southeast from the entrance to the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña, is El Cristo de La Habana, a17m-high Christ figure commissioned by Marta Batista, wife of the dictator, and sculpted from Italian marble (blessed by Catholic Pope Pius XII prior to being shipped to Cuba) by Jilma Madera in 1958. Although impressive close-up, where you can ponder the massive scale of the sandaled feet and the perfectly sculpted hands, said to weigh a tonne each, there’s precious little to do on the hillside other than admire the views over Havana. The best perspective of the statue itself is from Habana Vieja, especially in the evening, when you can gaze across the bay and enjoy its floodlit grandeur.
The sculpture provides a warm welcome, as it sits at the entrance to Old Carenas port and is the first thing sailors see when entering the city. The figure looks over Havana and appears to be blessing the city however locals often joke that the El Cristo de La Habana Christ statue is gestured to depict a cigar in one hand and a mojito in the other, to honour popular Cuban culture.
The construction of the El Cristo de La Habana took several years to complete and was finally finalised on December 24th 1958. Just 15 days after its unauguration, the famous Fidel Castro entered and dominated Havana during the Cuban Revolution. Madera did not have a particular figure in mind whilst sculpting but was rather inspired by her own ideal of masculine beauty. Note the oblique eyes and voluminous lips, features that are very much associated with the racial miscegenation of the island.
Two years after it's completion, a lightning bolt struck the head of the statue causing significant damaged and the Cuban sculptor, Jilma Madera, was called to duty once again to restore the Christ figure to it's former glory.
Over the years, the statue had suffered general deterioration due to exposure before a 10 month restoriation programme, concluded in January 2013, brought it back to life.
The El Cristo de La Habana can be reached by road, by an open top vintage car in typical havana style or by an ordinary car, taxi or bus. There is also the option to arrive in the way of a pleasant short ferry ride, a delight to gaze upon the sparkling water. Once at the site, an uphill 10 minute walk is required to reach the actual statue and the beautiful views at the top. From the view point, you can spot the Dome of the National Capitol Building and the Baroque architecture that is the Cathedral of Havana.
The statue itself is fascinating, as our the views over Havana, at any time of the day. It is appealing to visit at night, to see the Christ figure lit up in illuminating white lights and looking rather glorified, and for the view of Havana to be a haven of shining lights simmering against the water. To view the statue from afar and to see it standing tall and proud, the best view is from the Old Town.
Aside from the Cristo de La Habana statue, the only other diversion in Casablanca is the terminus of the Hershey train, one end of Cuba’s only electric train service (the other is in the provincial capital of Matanzas). Regularly used by Cubans travelling to stations in Mayabeque and Matanzas, the line is not an official tourist attraction, but the loveable little trains, built in the 1940s, are a great way to take a slow, relaxing ride through picturesque landscape to Canasí, Jibacoa or all the way to the city of Matanzas, which takes about three hours and costs just under $3CUC.
For many visitors the crumbling buildings and bustling streets of Centro Habana, crammed between the hotel districts of Habana Vieja and Vedado, are glimpsed only through a taxi window en route to the city’s more tourist-friendly areas. Yet this no-frills quarter has a character all of its own, as illuminating and fascinating as anywhere in the capital. Its late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century neighbourhoods throb with life, particularly around San Rafael and Avenida de Italia, renowned shopping streets where many of the most glamorous department stores were located before the Revolution, when the Avenida de Italia was known as Galiano, the name most locals still use. Near the southern end of Galiano is El Barrio Chino, Havana’s Chinatown, small by international standards but still a busy focal point for the area.
For the most part, Centro Habana is not that attractive on the surface. Full of broken sewage systems, potholed roads and piles of rubbish, it isn’t for the faint-hearted, and hasn’t yet enjoyed the degree of investment and rejuvenation lavished on Habana Vieja. However, the famous Malecón seafront promenade is starting to regain its former glory, with many of its buildings given face-lifts in recent years, and there’s nowhere in the city that feels more alive. Centro Habana’s streets buzz with people and non-stop noise, ringing with an orchestra of street vendors shouting their wares, bicitaxis blasting their sound systems, schoolchildren’s screams and doorstep politics.
About a block inside Centro Habana from Habana Vieja’s western border, the grand entrance to El Barrio Chino, Havana’s version of Chinatown, is likely to confuse most visitors, as it’s placed three blocks from any visibly ethnic change in the neighbourhood. The entrance, a rectangular concrete arch with a pagoda-inspired roof, is south of the Capitolio Nacional, on the intersection of Amistad and Dragones, and marks the beginning of the ten or so square blocks which, at the start of the twentieth century, were home to some ten thousand Chinese immigrants. Today only a tiny proportion of El Barrio Chino is discernibly any more Chinese than the rest of Havana, principally the small triangle of busy streets comprising Cuchillo, Zanja and San Nicolás – collectively known as the Cuchillo de Zanja – three blocks west of the arched entrance. Indeed, the first thing you are likely to notice about El Barrio Chino is a distinct absence of Chinese people, the once significant immigrant population having long since dissolved into the racial melting pot. The Cuchillo de Zanja itself does, however, feature its own tightly packed little backstreet food market, composed mostly of simple fruit and vegetable stalls. It’s lined with eccentric-looking restaurants, many still charging in national pesos, where the curious and unique mixture of tastes and styles is as much Cuban as Asian. Among the better restaurants here is Tien Tan.
During the 1950s, Havana’s most prestigious shopping destination was the Centro Habana intersection where San Rafael and Neptuno converged with Galiano. At its heart, on the corner of San Rafael and Galiano, stood El Encanto, the most renowned of the department stores, occupying an entire block and boasting the patronage of Hollywood stars like Lana Turner, John Wayne and Errol Flynn. In 1961 the store, which by this time had been nationalized, was burned to the ground, the result of a bomb attack in the tumultuous early years of the Revolution.
Five decades later and general neglect coupled with the effects of the US trade blockade has left the area sorely dilapidated, and instead of swanky shopfronts, it’s now peppered with a selection of artless hard-currency stores and murkily lit peso shops. Rather than unearthing great retail finds, the real pleasure here is spotting the vestiges of a glamorous past in the old shop signs, marble pavements, faded interiors and elaborate tiled frontages that dazzle amid the ruins. In particular, look out for the Hotpoint mosaic on San Rafael esq. Industria; and the stylish flourish of lettering spelling out Fin de Siglo along the building on the corner of Aguila and San Rafael, once a fancy five-floor department store featuring a hair salon decorated with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, now the scene of a huge, jam–packed ground-floor market selling secondhand clothing and other goods; and the Flogar logo imprinted on the dusty glass frontage of the large, half-empty store at Galiano no.42, where once mannequins displayed the latest fashions in the Macy’s-style window displays.
The only department store to have been fully redeveloped since the Revolution is La Epoca, reborn a little less than a half-a-century after it first moved into its home on the corner of Galiano and Neptuno in 1954, becoming the third largest department store in Havana at the time, employing over four hundred staff. Locals flock here today to buy counterfeit brand clothing, electrical goods and homewares, though the current design of its five floors owes more to modern supermarkets than the chic interiors of yesteryear.
The most picturesque way to reach Vedado from Centro Habana or Habana Vieja is to stroll down the famous Malecón sea wall, which snakes west along the coastline from La Punta for about 4km. It’s the city’s defining image, and ambling along its length, drinking in the panoramic views, is an essential part of the Havana experience. But don’t expect to stroll in solitude: the Malecón is the capital’s front room and you won’t be on it for long before someone strikes up a conversation. People head here for free entertainment, particularly at night when it fills up with guitar-strumming musicians, vendors offering cones of fresh-roasted nuts, and star-gazing couples, young and old alike. In recent years it’s grown in popularity for the city’s expanding clique of gays and transvestites, who put its sinuous length to good effect as a nightly catwalk and meeting place, especially the area close to the Hotel Nacional in Vedado. At weekends and in the daytime it’s crowded with children (intent on hurling themselves into the churning Atlantic), while wide-eyed tourists and anglers climb down onto the rocks below.
The Centro Habana section, referred to on street signs as the Malecón tradicional, has been undergoing tortoise-paced renovations for over two decades now. Lined with colourful neo-colonial buildings, it’s the oldest, most distinct and characterful section in the city, though – potholed and sea-beaten – it looks much older than its hundred or so years. Construction began in 1901, after nearly a decade of planning, and each decade saw another chunk of wall erected until, in 1950, it finally reached the Río Almendares. Today there are a few places worth stopping in for eating and drinking with enjoyable sea views.
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.
Catch a view of Havana from the roof terrace or get a “guided tour” of parts of the city through a telescopic lens.
The restaurant at the top of the city’s tallest apartment building offers a winning combination of food and great views.
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.
Climb the wooden staircase to the top of the church bell tower and enjoy a great perspective of the old city.
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.
The most blissful way to view the city from above is by lounging in one of these two rooftop hotel swimming pools.
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.
The cultural heart of the city, graceful Vedado draws the crowds with its palatial hotels, contemporary art galleries, exciting (and sometimes incomprehensible) theatre productions and live music concerts, not to mention its glut of restaurants, bars and nightspots. Loosely defined as the area running west of Calzada de Infanta up to the Río Almendares, Vedado is less ramshackle than other parts of the city. Tall 1950s buildings and battered hotrods parked outside glass-fronted stores lend the downtown area a strongly North American air, contrasted with the classical ambience of nineteenth-century mansions; the general impression is of an incompletely sealed time capsule, where the decades and centuries all run together.
Vedado is fairly easy to negotiate, laid out on a grid system divided by four main thoroughfares: the broad and handsome boulevards Avenida de los Presidentes (also called Calle G) and Paseo, running north to south, and the more prosaic Linea and Calle 23 running east to west. The most prominent sector is modern La Rampa – the name given to a busy section of Calle 23 immediately west from the Malecón, as well as the streets just to the north and south. Presenting a rather bland uniformity that’s absent from the rest of Vedado, it’s a relatively small space, trailing along the eastern part of the Malecón and spanning just a couple of streets inland. A little to the south of La Rampa proper is the elegant Universidad de La Habana, attended by orderly students who personify the virtues of post-Revolution education.
Southwest of the university is the Plaza de la Revolución, with its immense monuments to Cuban heroes José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and, more recently added, Camilo Cienfuegos. Although generally considered part of Vedado, Plaza de la Revolución (also known just as Plaza) is actually the municipality to which the Vedado neighbourhood belongs, and with its huge utilitarian buildings has a flavour quite distinct from the other parts of Vedado. The uncompromisingly urban landscape of the plaza itself – a huge sweep of concrete – is a complete contrast to the area’s other key attraction, the atmospheric Necrópolis de Colón, a truly massive cemetery.
In the part of Vedado north of Calle 23 up to the Malecón, west to the Río Almendares and east roughly as far as the Avenida de los Presidentes, the backstreets are narrow and avenues are overhung with leaves. Many of the magnificent late- and post-colonial buildings here – built in a mad medley of Rococo, Baroque and Neoclassical styles – have been converted into state offices and museums. Particularly noteworthy is the Museo de Artes Decorativas, an exhausting collection of fine furniture and objets d’art. Further west from the Malecón, dotted around Linea, Paseo and the Avenida de los Presidentes, are several excellent galleries and cultural centres. Not to be missed is the Casa de las Américas, a slim and stylish Art Deco building that was set up to celebrate Pan-Americanism.
Few venue openings have caused the stir that this avant-garde arts-centre-cum-club has, with profiles in international papers including The New York Times and The Guardian. Housed in an old peanut oil factory in the far reaches of Vedado at Calle 26 esq. 11, and decked out with sleek lines, minimal shades and multiple rooms, Fábrica de Arte Cubano follows the tried and tested route of counter-culture colonization of industrial spaces that has transformed Shoreditch, Berlin and New York’s Meatpacking District. Yet despite the cosmopolitan air, from the contemporary art displayed in the gallery space upstairs to bands playing in the rooms downstairs, FAC – as it's usually shortened to – is quintessentially Cuban.
Opened by X Alfonso, a Cuban musician and artist, what’s particularly surprising is that FAC is classified as a community project rather than being either a private enterprise or a state-run facility. As such, it enjoys a cultural autonomy evident in the sometimes politically challenging artwork, eclectic clientele and mix of performance artists. A night here might involve sipping cocktails on the moonlit patio, watching a local theatre company, listening to classical music – or the latest Cuban hip-hop artists – or letting loose at a weekend club night. Whichever side of FAC you see, you can’t miss the fact that you’re watching Havana’s arts and cultural scene being forged.
At the southwest corner of the Quinta de Los Molinos grounds, the Avenida de Los Presidentes becomes Avenida de Ranchos Boyeros and continues south for about 1km to the Plaza de la Revolución. For much of the time, the plaza comes as a bit of a letdown, revealing itself to be just a prosaic expanse of concrete bordered by government buildings and the headquarters of the Cuban Communist Party. You’ll find a more animated scene if you coincide your visit with May Day or other annual parade days, when legions of loyal Cubans, ferried in on state-organized buses from the reparto apartment blocks on the city outskirts, come to wave flags and listen to speeches at the foot of the José Martí memorial. Tourists still flock here throughout the year to see the plaza’s threefold attractions: the Memorial Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Memorial José Martí and the Memorial Camilo Cienfuegos.
The Plaza itself is one of the world's largest city squares (although ranking at 31st!) and was designed by French Urbanist, Jean Claude Frostier. Until 1959 it was named Plaza Civica, translating to Civil Square, but the infamous Fidel Castro changed its name to Plaza de la Revolucion - for obvious reasons, during the Cuban Revolution.
In 1953, a revolution began to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt dictator of Cuba. Batista was known to allow the USA to take advantage of sugar cane plantations for his own wallet, whilst the rest of the country suffered high unemployment rates and poor water infrastructure. Leaders of the revolution against Batista were the infamous Fidel Castro, his brother Raul Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The guerilla campaign lasted 6 years and eventually came to an end in 1959 with Fidel Castro as prime minister. The armed uprising had many setbacks but eventually won for the people of Cuba, something the Cubans respectively acknowledge even today.
The Plaza de la Revolucion is a meaningful place that holds a valuable place in the hearts of local Cubans. The square represents peace and freedom and serves as a memorial for the great 'four horsemen' of the Cuban Revolution. Unfortunately, Camilo died at sea in a plane crash that was never recovered, now each year on the 28th October, Cubans leave flowers on the ocean as a ceremonial remembrance for Camilo.
The plaza itself does not have much in the form of things to do, surrounded by political buildings, all you can do is admire the important of the square whilst taking a look at the memorials and taking photos. Nearby on Tulipan Street is the Tulipan market, the largest market in Havana and notoriously cheap for produce and foods. The market is very popular with the locals and a great insight into authentic Cuban life.
On the opposite side of the square to the north, the ultimate Cuban photo opportunity is presented by the Memorial Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a stylized steel frieze replica of Alberto “Korda” Gutierrez’s famous photo of Guevara, titled Guerrillero Heroico – the most widely recognized image of him. The sculpture that you see now on the wall of the Ministry of Interior building, where Guevara himself once worked, was forged in 1993 from steel donated by the French government. Taken on March 5, 1960, during a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre freighter explosion on Calle 23, Korda’s photograph, with Guevara’s messianic gaze fixed on some distant horizon and hair flowing out from beneath his army beret, embodies the unwavering, zealous spirit of the Revolution. It was only in 1967, after his capture and execution in Bolivia, that the photo passed into iconography, printed on T-shirts and posters throughout the 1970s as an enduring symbol of rebellion.
Korda, who died in 2001, famously received no royalties from the image, and even gave its wide dissemination his blessing. As a lifelong supporter of the Revolution and Guevara’s ideals, he believed that spreading the image would allow Guevara’s ideals to spread alongside it, which neatly allows for the image’s commercial use in Cuba itself.
Almost every Cuban town, large or small, has a bust or a statue of José Martí somewhere, and if they don’t already know, it doesn’t take long for most people who spend any time touring round Cuba to start wondering who he is. Born José Julián Martí y Pérez to Spanish parents on January 28, 1853, this diminutive man, with his bushy moustache and trademark black bow tie and suit, came to embody the Cuban desire for self-rule and was a figurehead for justice and independence, particularly from the extending arm of the US, throughout Latin America.
Although widely seen as a symbol of the Revolution, the star-shaped Memorial José Martí had been in the pipeline since 1926 and was completed a year before the Revolution began. Its 139m marble super-steeple is even more impressive when you glance up to the seemingly tiny crown-like turret, constantly circled by a dark swirl of birds. Near the base sits a 17m sculpture of Martí, the eloquent journalist, poet and independence fighter who missed his chance to be Cuba’s first populist president by dying in his first ever battle against the Spanish on April 11, 1895. Carved from elephantine cubes of white marble, the immense monument captures Martí hunched forward in reflective pose.
Behind the statue of José Martí, the stately ground floor of the memorial tower houses the exhaustive Museo José Martí, which charts Martí’s career mainly through letters and photographs. The lavish entrance hall, its walls bedecked with Venetian mosaic tiles interspersed with Martí’s most evocative quotes, certainly befits a national hero and is the most impressive aspect of a museum that tends to stray off the point at times. The most eye-catching exhibit is close to the entrance to the first room: a replica of Simón Bolívar’s diamond-studded sword, which was given to Fidel Castro by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2000.
Five blocks northwest from Plaza de la Revolución along tree-lined Paseo, there’s a worthwhile detour to the left at the Zapata junction: the Necrópolis de Colón, one of the largest cemeteries in the Americas. With moribund foresight, the necropolis was designed in 1868 to have space for well over a hundred years’ worth of corpses, and its neatly numbered “streets”, lined with grandiose tombstones and mausoleums and shaded by large trees, stretch out over five square kilometres. A tranquil refuge from the noise of the city, it is a fascinating place to visit – you can spend hours here seeking out the graves of the famous, including the parents of José Martí (he is buried in Santiago), celebrated novelist Alejo Carpentier, photographer Alberto “Korda” Gutiérrez, and a host of revolutionary martyrs.
Home to the city’s flashiest neighbourhoods, Miramar and the western suburbs comprise Havana’s alter ego, replete with sleek Miami-style residences, swish new business developments and brash five-star hotels. Among the last sections of the city to be developed before the Revolution, this is where the wealth was then concentrated, and it’s slowly trickling back through a growing clique of international investors and wealthy foreign residents. The area still has its share of broken sewage systems, unlit streets and overcrowded buses, but a gentler pace of life exists throughout the western suburbs, calmed by the broad avenues and abundance of large drooping trees.
Though there is an aquarium, one or two small museums and plenty of wonderful houses and embassies to gawp at, most visitors to this part of the city come here for the nightlife and entertainment, particularly the famous Tropicana cabaret, as well as for the area’s swanky international restaurants and its upmarket paladars, which between them offer the most diverse and sophisticated eating options in Havana. You’ll have to go all the way to the western extremities to find the only proper beach, at Club Habana and, just beyond that, Marina Hemingway, where boat trips and diving expeditions are the main draw.
The whole area west of the Río Almendares is occasionally mistakenly referred to as Miramar, but this is in fact the name only of the oceanfront neighbourhood closest to Vedado, the two linked together by a tunnel under the river. Most of this western section of the city, including Miramar and its even leafier neighbour Kohly, belongs to the sprawling borough of Playa, stretching out for some 15km along the coast.
Not for nothing were the female dancers of the Tropicana described in their heyday as Las Diosas de Carne (goddesses of the flesh). There is something quite idolatrous about the spectacle of intricately painted showgirls clad in feathers, sequins and elaborate headdresses commanding the stage of the most famous cabaret in the world.
Evolving to cater to the north American tourist trade, Cuban cabaret really started when nightclub owner Victor de Correa cut a deal with casino operators Rafael Mascaro and Luis Bular and relocated the dance troupe and musicians from his successful nightclub Edén Concert, to the rented grounds of Guillermina Pérez Chaumont’s stately villa in Havana’s Marianao. The new business partners renamed the cabaret Tropicana in reference to the lush vegetation that would characterize their outdoor cabaret; and with a winning combination of dazzling musical shows and high-stakes casino, the club went from strength to strength.
Its heyday was in the 1950s, when the famous Arcos de Cristal glass-walled stage opened. The 1950s also saw cabaret-casinos open in various venues across Havana including at the Havana Hilton, the Riviera and the Nacional hotels – all of which still operate cabarets to this day. Following the Revolution all cabarets were nationalized and the mob, which had grown to have a large commercial interest in the cabarets, were expelled from the country.
Today the standard of both house band and dancers at the Tropicana is phenomenal, with the troupe often including several dancers who narrowly failed to make the grade at the Cuban national ballet. While some might find the sexist nature of scanty costumes and provocative dances somewhat hard to swallow, there’s no denying that this spectacle is a quintessential Cuban experience.
Sandwiched in between Havana and Matanzas, Mayabeque is one of the two new provinces created in 2010 and previously one half of the province known as La Habana. Its main draws are the relatively secluded beach resorts of Jibacoa and low-key Canasi, along the northern coast, easily reachable from Matanzas if you have your own transport but really quite tricky to get to if you don’t. Marooned inland and nearer to Havana than Matanzas, the Escaleras de Jaruco are even harder to reach, though this isolation is part of the charm of these beautiful forested hills.
Eight kilometres west of Canasí, tucked behind a barricade of white cliffs, is Playa Jibacoa, a stretch of coastline basking in relative anonymity, and hard to reach by public transport. Approaching from Matanzas on the Vía Blanca road, the first turning before the bridge over the Río Jibacoa leads down onto the coastal road that runs the length of this laidback resort area. Predominantly the domain of Cuban holidaymakers, the beach is unspectacular but pleasantly protected by swathes of twisting trees and bushes, with an appealing sense of privacy. There are modest coral reefs offshore and basic snorkelling equipment can be rented at the campismo.
Taking the tunnel in Habana Vieja under the bay and heading east on the Vía Monumental, past El Morro and parallel to the coast, leads you straight to Cojímar, a fishing village famed for its Hemingway connection. Past here the road dips inland to become the Vía Blanca and passes Villa Panamericana, the village built to support the 1991 Pan American Games, and runs south towards Guanabacoa, a quiet provincial town with numerous attractive churches and a fascinating religious history. For many, the big attraction east of Havana will be the boisterous Playas del Este, the nearest beaches to the city 18km away, where clean sands and a lively scene draw in the crowds. In contrast, Playa Jibacoa, 32km further east, offers a quieter, less glitzy beach resort, while the inland hills of the Escaleras de Jaruco present a scenic diversion. The hippie retreat at Canasí, tucked away on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, is perfect for a back-to-basics camping experience and represents the province’s final outpost before the border with Matanzas.
The scarcity and unreliability of public transport becomes even more pronounced once outside the city proper, and you’ll need a car to see many of these sights.
Fifteen kilometres east of Cojímar, the Vía Blanca reaches Havana’s nearest beaches – Playa Santa María del Mar, Playa Boca Ciega and Playa Guanabo, collectively known as the Playas del Este. Hugging the Atlantic coast, these three fine-sand beaches form a long, twisting ochre ribbon that vanishes in the summer beneath the crush of weekending Habaneros and tourists. There’s not a whole lot to distinguish between the beaches, geographically, although as a general rule the sand is better towards the western end.
Around 25km east of Havana, 20km inland from the Playas del Este, the Escaleras de Jaruco, a small crop of scenic hills, make a stimulating detour on the way to or from the beaches in Mayabeque or Matanzas. The hills are around a kilometre west of Jaruco, the nearest town of any significant size, and a trip here is only really realistic if you have your own transport. Covered in a kind of subtropical rainforest, this steep-sided mini-mountain range erupts from the surrounding flatlands. The Carretera Tapaste cuts through the area like a mountain pass, leading past the fantastically located El Arabe restaurant, one of several places where you can stop and take in the view across the lush, forested hillsides and over the palm-spotted flatlands to the Florida Straits. Despite its erratic opening hours, it provides a focus of sorts for the area: in its pre-Revolution heyday, it was undoubtedly a classic, with its splendid Arabic-style interior, balcony terrace with views to the coastline and domed tower, but it’s now as low on food as it is on staff, and there’s no guarantee it will even be open when you turn up.
Top image: Havana, Cuba © Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock