Travel Guide Draft Havana
A magnetic charm coming from a fascinating history, a rich culture and the diversity of its people. Havana is a city of contrasts.
Havana is a genuine mix from colonial to post revolution soviet era atmosphere, a historical testimony where the time seems to be frozen, where each district marking a different part of its history, colonial grandeur, art deco, neo gothic or gigantic concrete buildings… Centuries old UNESCO sites of ‘Habana Vieja’ (in a renovation process), lively ‘Centro Habana’, nine kilometers long oceanfront promenade ‘El Malecón’, modern and touristy district of ‘Vedado’, monumental ‘Plaza de la Revolución’, Miami like Miramar, ‘Playas del Este’ paradise; districts crowded with colorful and glamorous ‘almendrones’, famous 1950’s vintage American Chevrolets, Fords and Buicks…
Havana shows flippancy, a vital and laid back atmosphere at the same time, front doors left open, families watching TV in street side living rooms, washing hung up out on balconies, people shouting conversations between buildings, domino players sitting at tables in the streets…
Imagine drum and guitar rhythms, danzón salsa mambo or bolero dances, paintworks, waves crashing nearby, sun casting its evening faded light on dilapidated buildings, tourists thinking of Hemingway, dreaming of Che Guevara.
Arrive open minded, ready to understand the city’s contradictions. Havana’s tropical atmosphere, hectic hustle and bustle, warm people, glorious history, audacious beauty, is inviting you!
Let yourself being slowly, sweetly and smoothly seduced.
The first Spanish settlement, « San Cristobal de La Habana » was founded in 1515 by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez on the South coast of the Island. In 1519, the city was relocated North, on the banks of Havana’s Bay, and renamed ‘San Cristobal de La Habana’.
Thanks to this strategic location, it became the main Spanish port in the Caribbean. The discovery of deep navigable channel between the Bahamas and Cuba marks the opening of a new trade route making Havana and its port a major bridge from the Americas to Europe. All the ships carrying gold and silver from the new world (Mexico and Peru mostly) to Europe were transiting through its harbor, which quickly became the meeting point for the Spanish fleet. Ships were gathering until a force strong enough would prevent them from pirate attacks. To protect this commercial route, fortresses were built. Havana became the only Cuban port authorized to engage in commerce. Thanks to the flourishing commerce of sugar and tobacco, the settlement began to grow from the harbor to what is now “Habana Vieja”. First streets linked the harbor to the “Plaza de Armas” and “Plaza de san Francisco”, and then to the many churches, inns, brothels… The Settlement became a city, and then the capital of the island in 1607. For more than 200 years, the port of Havana was the biggest in the Caribbean.
The prosperous port became a target for the many pirates and buccaneers attacking the cities and ships of the Caribbean.
In 1555, French pirate Jacques de Sarre took the city. Havana is plundered and burnt down. Philip the Second, king of Spain, decided to strengthen its colonial ports in the new world and to fortifications and forts. The “Palacio de los Capitenes Generales” was move from Santiago de Cuba to Havana in 1556, and were built the “Castillo de la Real Fuerza” and the impressive “Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro” from 1589 till 1630, as well as a protective wall.
The island and the city will still assaulted many times by other European kingdoms looking for new territories and willing to dominate this strategic location. Thus, French attacked the city, Dutch took the city for one month… In 1762, the British army attacked the city and the center of the island, and Havana fell to the British which occupied the island for eleven months. Free trade is instituted and many slaves are brought to Cuba. One year after, Spain exchanges Cuba to the British against another colony, Florida. Spain kept the free trade policy with the rest of the world, exporting sugar and tobacco. The trade of coffee started in the late XVIIIth century.
In the XIXth century Havana experience a sumptuous period of growth, the city is more influential and is going through a thriving period accompanied by an innovation boom with the construction of many new buildings and development of railways, telegraph, electricity… Many beautiful buildings are popping up around the old town and the newly erected neighborhood of Vedado where the bourgeoisie is now living. After the 1902 War of Independence, North American money flowed in, and so the influence. It is the beginning of a new architectural era, Art Deco towers, hotels, palaces, casinos… following the new boom of the tourism industry.
The Revolution stopped the corruption, dictatorship and decay the city was going through and put the set up a socialist capital. As the newly established government was focusing on equality all over the island, the post revolution era was synonym of deterioration of many of the city’s historical building and neighborhood, while new overpopulated districts were created around the new factories in the south of the capital.
Since the 1990s, many of the dilapidated buildings went through a renovation and redevelopment work giving back Havana its former beauty.
See and Do
Havana is divided into 15 municipalities pointing to different eras of the development of the city.
“Habana Vieja”, the Old Havana, is the oldest part of the city. It was before hooped with defensive walls and gathers most of the colonial sites and attractions the city has to offer. True piece of historical jewelry, it is, since 1982, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
West of “Habana Vieja” is the district of « Vedado ». Hosting the vast majority of the hotels and restaurants, it is also the cultural center of the city, regrouping art galleries, theaters, concert halls…
Next to “Vedado” is the renowned “Plaza de la Revolución” and the administrative district which developed around the square in the 1950’s.
At the extreme West of the city is the municipality of “Miramar”, the most modern of Havana’s district. Mostly fancy residences, this neighborhood shows a very different atmosphere compared to the city center.
“Habana del Este” is the part of the city on the other side of the river. Taking the tunnel East, past the residential area, you will go through fishing villages, « Alamar » or E. Hemingway’s favorite « Cojimar », until you reach beaches appreciated by locals, the “Playas del Este” from “Bacuranao” to “Guanabo”, through “Tarará”, “El Mégano”, “Santa María del Mar” and “Boca Ciega”.
Most of the Havanese are living in the industrial municipalities located South of Havana.
“Havana Vieja” takes you back in the most soulful way to the origins and of the city. Five centuries of history are contemplating you.
Founded in 1519 by Spaniard colons, the settlement grew around the port and was circled by walls until 1860. Paved ‘plazas’, narrow streets, colonial mansions, romantic arches courtyards and balconies, churches, fortresses… Even if time and weather damaged a lot of buildings, Havana’s historical center is the most well preserved in all the Americas, first thank to the economic and political situation of the country between the 1950’s and the 1990’s that permitted this neighborhood to be saved from modernization, second because “Habana Vieja” was elected in 1982 a UNESCO World Heritage Site thus being under a huge restauration project for the last 25 years, restauration still in progress.
The best way to discover “Habana Vieja” is on foot, walking down the shadowy streets from ‘plaza’ to ‘plaza’. The grid of the city is very simple and you cannot get lost wandering around. Ideal starting point will be the “Plaza de Armas”. It is the historical core of the old city and was the first square to be built just after the foundation of the city, in particular the “Placaios de los Capitenes Generales”. From there, going in any direction, you can reach many of other sites and squares, going North to « Plaza de la Catedral » and its… cathedral, maybe the most beautiful square of the city, or going South to “Plaza Vieja” hosting many events such as ‘fiestas’ and ‘corridas’. Another picturesque square is “Plaza San Francisco” where is located the impressive church and convent « San Francisco de Asis », hosting the highest bell tower of the city, offering a very scenic view of Havana’s skyline.
Make a detour by Havana’s authentic streets and parks and other historical sites. “Calle Obispo” is one of the nicest street of the neighborhood, while “El Prado” is a busy and very animated boulevard, planted with trees and lion statues. They are taking you to a more modern part of “Habana Vieja”. Up to the “Parque Central”, you’ll pass by “El Capitolio” and many museums among which the “Museo de la Revolución” and the “Museo de Bellas Artes”.
For the most courageous, located a little bit further across the bay is the “Parque Morro Cabana”, an impressive complex of military buildings and fortifications that once defended the city. You will enjoy the views over the bay and the channel leading to the harbor and will take a break from the flow of tourists you can meet in the historical center.
It is cultural epicenter of the city. Palace hotels, art galleries, live music concerts and a plethora of restaurants, bars and nightspots.
In opposition to “Havana Vieja”, Vedado is a cocktail of past glory and modern development where tall buildings contrast with XIXth century mansions and busy avenues contrast with charming boulevard. The district is divided into four main parts by the “Avenida de los Presidentes” and “Paseo” going North to South, and the “Linea” and “Calle 23” going East to West.
The major sector is the highly animated “La Rampa” with its bars, restaurants and music venues. Between “Calle 23” and “El Malecón”, a quieter sector, you’ll find an eclectic mixture of baroque and neoclassical architecture with a lot of post-colonial building now hosting many museums. Away from “El Malecón” are numerous art galleries and cultural centers, one of the best one being the “Casa de las Americas”. “Plaza de la Revolución” (also known just as Plaza), and its gigantic monuments celebrating Cuban heroes is generally considered part of Vedado, even if administratively it is the municipality to which Vedado belongs,
Plaza de la Revolución
This immense square, is the symbol of the Cuban Revolution and is famous for hosting many important events. Fidel Castro was used to address the Cuban people on this square each 26th of July for “El Dia de la Rebeldia Nacional” (Day of national Rebellion), while the popes, John Paul II and Francis celebrated huge masses during their visits to Cuba. Construction began under Batista as “Plaza Civica” and was completed in 1959, then renamed “Plaza de la Revolución” after Castro took power. It is amongst the biggest city squares in the world.
In the center of the square the “Monumento a Jose Marti”. A 109 meters (358ft) high tower, while at the bottom sit in state an 18 meters (59ft) statue of the iconic national hero of the Cuban Independence. You can reach the top of the tower and appreciate one of the best view of the city, or learn more about Jose Marti, several objects, letters and writings explain the life and the fight of Jose Marti.
It is surrounded by many government buildings, the “Palacio de la Revolución” home of the Cuban government and communist party, the ministry of interior and communications fiercely sporting two gigantic metal portraits of heroes of the revolution: famous Che Guevara captioned with its non-less famous quote “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre” (Until the Victory, Always); Camilo Cienfuegos underlined by the quote “”Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel).
Don’t miss the immense cemetery “Necropolis de Colon” and its alluring atmosphere.
“Centro Habana” is not the most tourist friendly district of the capital city compared to “Habana Vieja” or “Vedado”. Before the revolution this XIXth century neighborhood was famous in San Rafael and its shopping streets and fancy department stores, most of them located around San Rafael and Avenida de Italia. Now many things seem broken, crumbling buildings, busy streets, piles of trash… This part of the city did not had the chance of being yet part of the big renovation plan initiated by the government. However, we can see some changes, on “El Malecón” for example were some building are given face-lifts. Despite this apparent decrepitude, “Centro Habana” is the liveliest place in the city, filled with the street symphony, the clamors of the vendors, taxi horns and “bicitaxi” loud stereos, or kids screaming on their way back from school. In “Centro Habana” you will also find the “Barrio Chino”, Havana’s Chinatown. Nothing to compare with huge American Chinatowns, most of the Asian community started to live in this neighborhood when immigrating to the island.
Miramar, and most generally the Western Suburbs, is the most modern district of Havana and is counterbalancing the others historical or dilapidated districts of the city. This is where the wealth is concentrated! Nice and luxurious area, it has its very own pace of life, soothed by the wide avenues and large trees, American like residence with huge gardens, international businesses, five-star hotels , Many embassies are located in Miramar, on the 5ta Avenida. While walking, skating or biking the avenue, don’t miss the monolithic Russian Embassy. Miramar is suggesting much more than quiet streets and beautiful houses. The aquarium worth the visit. You can observe the dolphins, feed them and even swim with them. At the extreme west of the district is a great beach at the ‘Club Havana’ and the ‘Marina Hemingway’, departure point of many boat trips and diving excursions. The neighborhood is a good catch for eating, restaurants with terraces along the sea which propose diverse and sophisticated menus. Visitors enjoy the entertainment and nightlife, especially the famous “Tropicana Cabaret”.
Cojímar, a small fishing village east of Havana. Built in the XVIIth century, you can appreciate the ‘cool’ path of life of the village and visit its fort, “El Torreon”. The place became worldly famous thanks to Ernest Hemingway. The author loved fishing off the cost of Cojimar and moored his boat, “Pilar” in its port. This village and its inhabitants, especially ‘Gregorio Fuentes’ were the inspiration for its novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953. Today, you can have a walk on the jetty, check for the memorial dedicated by the inhabitants of Cojimar to E. Hemingway, a round of columns with a bust of the author in its center, and pay a visit to “La Terraza”, the seaside bar Hemingway was enjoying food and drinks, where you will see hanging on the walls many pictures of him.
Bacuranao is situated in “Havana del Este” in the jurisdiction of Guanabacoa. Also known as “Playa de Bacuranao” and “Boca de Bacuranao”, located 12 kilometers East of Havana, it is part of the “Playas del Este”, a tremendous littoral of white sandy beaches bordered with coconut trees, about 15 kilometers long from “Playa de Bacuranao” to “Playa de Guanabo”, including “Tarará”, “El Mégano”, “Santa María del Mar” and “Boca Ciega”. It is an excellent alternative for those who want to spend a relaxing day by the beach without leaving the city. Guanabacoa is a small and quiet town located away from the buzz of the capital and offers a captivating religious history tanks to its numerous churches.
“Playas del Este” is a very popular place amongst locals. Easily reachable from the “Via Blanca”, the highway between Havana and Varadero, Havanese often go to “Playa de Bacuranao” to relax and sunbath on this wide stripe of sand or to enjoy the warmth of its clear waters. Close by are the villages of “Celimar” and “Alamar” where the “Rio Bacuranao” throws its waters into the sea.
See and Do
Havana preserved its historical and architectural treasures as testimonies of its tumultuous past. A trip in the streets of the city will lead you through five centuries of history from the colonial era and its magnificent architecture to the socialist revolution.
Most of the main monuments are located in Old Havana, heart of the newly founded city. The Spaniards built the first fortresses, the “Castillo del Moro” and the “Fortaleza de la Real Fuerza”, during the late XVIth century and beginning of the XVIIth century, to defend the port and the city from invasions and pirates’ attacks.
The most ancient church is the “Iglesia Parroquial del Espiritu Santo”, erected in 1638 by freed slaves. Many other religious buildings, churches, convents were built during the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. Many of these churches are built on squares which are named after the church and you will not want to miss the “Plaza San Francisco” and its baroque church, the “Iglesia San Francisco de Asis“, hosting the highest tower of the city.
The most remarkable of them is the “Catedral San Cristobal de la Havana”, logically built on the “Plaza de la Catedral” at the end of the XVIIIth century.
Numerous “plazas”, ornamented in their center by fountains and shaded by royal palm trees, rounded by marvelous palaces are scattered all around the city, and mostly in Old Havana. We can name the very central “Plaza de Armas” on which is built a jewel of baroque architecture, the “Palacio de los Capitenes Generales” former house of the governors of Cuba and now Havana’s town hall, the “Plaza de la Catedral” were you’ll of course find the cathedral but also palaces such as the “Palacio del Conde de Casa Bayona”, the “Palacio del Marques de Arcos” or the “Palacio del Marques de Aguas Claras”, and of course the “Plaza San Francisco” with its beautiful fountains decorated with statues of lions. In the city center is the very famous “Plaza de la Revolución” and its gigantic Che Guevara metal panel
You will enjoy to stroll down the animated streets of Old Havana or Central Havana, whether it is the pedestrian “Calle Obispo” with its shops and artwork vendors, the waterfront promenade of “El Malecón” Going then from Old Havana toward the center of the city, you will take the historical avenue of “El Prado” and its many lion statues, rest in the “Parque Central” to enjoy music and dances day and night, before sightseeing around, the governmental palace “El Capitolio” being close by.
It will be almost impossible to visit the whole city in just one day unless rushing yourself in local transports risking to not fully appreciate the spectacular beauty of the city, the best way will be to split into multiple itineraries, one of them having to be in the Old Havana, another one in Central Havana, to which you can add some others to visit other districts or to relax by the beach.
Catedral San Cristobal de la Habana
Officially named “Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Immaculada”, designed by Italian architect Francesco Borromini, Havana’s majestic cathedral is erected in the very center of Havana on the aptly named “Plaza de la Catedral”. Small for a cathedral, it is specific for its two unequal towers (one of which has two bells) and baroque façade. Its interior in classical and relatively austere, however decorated with a Carrare marble altar incrusted with gold silver and onyx, frescoes dating from the XVIIIth century and copies of originals paintings by Murillo and Rubens. Jesuits began the construction of the church in 1748 and last for thirty years, even after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Cuba. The building was finished in 1777 and the church became a cathedral. It is one of the oldest in the Americas.
The remains of Christopher Columbus were interred in this cathedral after being brought from Santo Domingo in 1795, this is why the cathedral was unofficially named “Catedral San Cristobal” The remains of Christopher Columbus were then moved to Seville cathedral in 1899. Pope John Paul the Second visited the cathedral in 1998.
You can climb one of the towers for CUC$1 or stay on the ground and buy souvenirs (tee-shirts, postcards, key-chains) of the pope’s visit in the shop next to the cathedral. A craft market in often held on the square where you can buy cheap jewelry and artwork.
Among other religious buildings, you can also visit:
Iglesia San Francisco de Paula. Built from 1730 till 1745, classical grey stone Cuban style architecture. It is now a concert hall and a modern art exhibition center.
Iglesia y Convento Nuestra Señora de Belen. Construction began in 1712, the building was finished in 1718. Currently in renovation process, this baroque building host social services, retirement house and a center for disabled children.
Iglesia y Convento Nuestra Señora de la Merced. Built from 1755 till 1855, it is famous for its gardens and its old convent and the frescoes of the church’s ceiling.
Iglesia y Convento San Francisco de Asis. Built in the late XVIIth century, renovated in a baroque style during the XVIIIth century, it is located in a very lively neighborhood. The basilica hosts the highest tower of La Havana, 141 meters high to enjoy a wonderful view of the city.
Plaza de la Catedral
“Plaza de la Catedral” is one of the five main squares of the Old City of La Havana. Surrounding this square, the « Catedral San Cristobal de La Havana », many ancient mansions (which were part of the renovation plan initiated by the government), the Museum of Colonial Art and also a lot of restaurants. Many Cubans come to this square in the evening when you will enjoy great music and dances.
Plaza de Armas
Bordered with royal palms, authentically colonial, it is Havana’s oldest square, built in the 1520s, just after the foundation of the city. It got its name during the XVIth century, when the governor decided to use it a square for military activities and parades.
Nowadays it is also known as Céspedes Park because in the center of the square, which is, stands a marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, one of the first Cuban claiming for independence. All around the square you will find a secondhand market of antique and classical books, the “Palacio de los Condes de Santovenia” (now a 5 star hotel Santa Isabel) and the “Capok Tree” under which was officiated in 1515 the first mass after the city’s foundation.
Stretching from “Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta” to the “Castillo de la Chorrera”, El Malecón is Havana’s famous ocean side boulevard. A Perfect place for all Havanese in seek of relaxing moments and pleasure. People come to meet, talk, eat, drink, and listen to music or simply to enjoy the suave atmosphere which enfolds the promenade at sunset. Eight kilometers long, it is also a busy six-lane highway where gleaming old fashioned American cars are going from Vedado to Miramar. All along this thoroughfare you will come across the different architectural styles of Havana. Facing the corrosive ocean, many of the buildings on the avenue show a dilapidated facades.
El Buzon de la Casa Obispo
N° 117–119 Obispo Street host the oldest house of La Havana, built 1648. On the front wall you will find a very original mailbox in the shape of a Greek mask.
La Rampa (Calle 23)
One of the most animated street of La Havana. Movie theaters, bars, clubs, Calle 23 is part of Havana’s evening fun and nightlife. It is located in Vedado, from El Malecón to the Colón cemetery.
This building is the symbol of the power of the Cuban government. Inaugurated in 1929, it was built on the model of the Capitol in Washington and was hosting the ‘Chambers of Representatives’ and the ‘Senate’. After the revolution, it became the offices of the ministry of science, technology and environment. Inside you will appreciate the magnificent staircase known as “la escalinata” the gigantic bronze statue of the Republic (17m high, it is the third biggest indoor statue in the world) and the luxurious gardens and their majestic royal palm trees.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Located on the “Plaza de Armas”, the “Castillo de la Real Fuerza” was built in 1577 to protect the city from pirates. It was the oldest stone fort in the Americas and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is now home to Cuba’s Maritime Museum which features exhibitions of Cuba’s maritime past, different models of ships, navigational instruments and other objects from the colonial era. On the ground floor stands a four meters model of the “Santisima Trinidad”, an XVIIIth century ship built at the Royal Shipyard of Havana and launched in 1769. Four decks, 140 cannons, it was the largest ship in the world in the XVIIIth and fought at the battle of Trafalgar. The original weathervane, known as “La Giraldilla”, symbol of the city is also shown in this museum while its replica is on the top of the tower.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana
After the British took the city in 1762, Carlos III king of Spain ordered the construction of this fortress to enhance city’s defenses. It was built between 1763 and 1774. This massive fort, also called “La Cabana”, the largest Spanish one in the Americas, was reputed impregnable so that it was never attacked. After having defended the city and the bay of Havana and hosted Che Guevara command center after the revolution, the fort is now open to visitors and offers a great variety of attractions. It hosts the “Museo de Fortificaciones y Armas” (Museum of Fortifications and Arms), the “Museo de Comandancia del Che” (Museum of Command of The Che) as well as bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and a cigar store in which you can see the world’s longest cigar.
During the colonial era, every evening at 9pm, Spaniards were firing a cannon to warn that the port and the gates in the city walls were closed. This ceremony called “cañonazo” is very popular and every day at 9pm actors dressed in XVIIIth century military outfits reenact this tradition.
Associated with the “La Cabana”, the “Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magos del Morro” overlooks the bay of Havana. Built between 1589 and 1630, this massive impregnable fortress was defending the bay and the harbor. Only the English took the fort in 1762, by digging a tunnel under the walls. Below the castle, defending the port from pirates, lay twelve cannons called “La Bateria de los Doce Apostoles” (The Battery of the Twelve Apostles). Each one of them is named after an apostle. Later, in 1845, the first lighthouse of Cuba was added to the building. Nowadays, “El Morro” hosts a maritime museum, a museum retracing the history of the fortress and a museum about piracy.
El Gran Teatro de la Havana
Inaugurated in 1838, while the first representation took place in 1837, this neo baroque building hosts the ‘Cuban National Ballet’ and the ‘Havana’s International Festival of Ballet’. Constituted of many different halls for theater, concerts or conferences, the main hall can host 1500 people. This theatre is decorated with many statues from Giuseppe Moretti.
Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. One of the most beautiful baroque monument of Cuba, it has been the home of the Spanish governor until Cuban Independence and then of the American Military governor. Cuban presidents also stayed in this Palace until 1917 when they moved to the “Capitolio”. It now hosts Havana’s town hall and the “Museo de la Ciudad de la Habana” (Museum of the City of Havana). Its patio is a wonderful garden seeded with vines and bougainvillea. In the center is erected a statue of C. Columbus.
Palacio Aldama. This palace was built in 1840 for Lord Domingo de Aldama y Arrechagae. The palace, despite being closed to visitors, is considered to be one of the most beautiful neo classical building in Cuba. It is located at the corner of the Avenida Bolivar and the Calle Amistad.
Palacio del Conde de Casa Bayona. Magnificent colonial mansion located in front of Havana’s cathedral, it was built in the beginning of the XVIIIth century for the governor Don Luis Chacon. It is now the Colonial Art Museum and truly worth the visit. Exhibiting furniture made out of precious wood, fine tableware, silverware, crystals, you will learn about the life of rich people during the colonial era.
Palacio del Marques de Arcos. Also located on Cathedral Square, it was built in 1741 for Don Diego Penalver, the king’s treasurer. The building is decorated with Doric columns and frescoes representing Cuban aristocrats. Nowadays, it is an art gallery showing ‘Cuban experimental art’.
Palacio Pedroso. This palace was built for and named after Havana’s mayor, in 1780. It is also known as the « Palacio de la Artesania » (Craft Palace). Mix of Cuban baroque and Moorish architectural style, it is one of the oldest building of Havana and is very well preserved. Today it hosts a souvenir shop where tourists like to buy cigars, rum…
Palacio del Marques de Aguas Claras. Situated on the Cathedral Square, the construction ended in 1775. Famous for its arches, its balcony with a splendid view on the square and its indoor fountain, it is now the restaurant ‘El Patio’.
Palacio del Conde de Jaruco. Built in 1737, all Havana’s high society was meeting under its arcades and in its patio. The mansion now hosts an art market.
Palacio Conde de Lombillo. Another mansion located close to the Cathedral Square. This three level colonial mansion, built during the first half of the XVIIIth century, is noticeable for its yellow color. Like many ancient mansions and palaces, it hosts art exhibitions under its arcades and in its patio.
Located in between “El Capitolio” and the “Museo de Bellas Artes”, you will pass by the “Parque Central” (Central park). Ideal place for a break, sit on a bench near the fountain or under the trees.
The Prado is the promenade going from the “Parque Central” toward the “Malecón”. Cubans enjoy strolling down this shaded pedestrian avenue. You will find there many shops and will learn a lot about everyday lifestyle in Havana by observing Cubans going around the many shops and arts of the avenue.
In the 1950’s this neighborhood of Havana was very representative of the Cuban High Society. Now a residential district where you can glimpse at many luxurious houses and mansions, it is also a very touristic neighborhood hosting a lot of hotels, “casas particulares”, and beaches. You will also find there a small business district, the “Centre de Negocios Miramar » and many embassies mostly located on the 5th avenue.
This copy of the art deco “Breakers Hotel” in Palm Beach, Florida, was built in 1930. Overlooking the “Malecón”, it offers fantastic view on the promenade and a remarkable architecture, especially its Moorish lobby. The Parisian Cabaret is also a popular attraction.
The “Hotel Nacional” became notorious In December 1946 for hosting the largest North American Mafia meeting amongst which were Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
The city of Havana has so many museums you cannot see all of them. You will have to pick out most important of them. To catch a glimpse, or discover and learn about of Cuba, its people, its lifestyle and its heritage, the best way is to opt for the ones that will let you immerse yourself into the richness and diversity of Cuban culture and History. The best and most interesting museums are located in Old Havana. They are exhibiting the best collections in some historical buildings with stunning architecture.
To get to know better about Havana’s past and History, the « Museo de la Ciudad de la Havana » is tracing everything that happened in the city and more generally in the country since the colonial era.
The “Museo de la Revolución » is a pure wonder offering to the visitors the opportunity to be part of the socialist revolution lead by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1956.
The « Museo Jose Marti » is dedicated to the hero of Cuban independence from Spain at the end of the XIXth century.
Art lovers, you will fulfill your happiness in the « Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes », a museum divided in two different parts, a first one dedicated to international art showing artifacts, antiquities and artwork from Rubens or Goya, while the second part is about Cuban art featuring some work from Wilfredo Lam or Raul Martinez.
The “Museo de Arte Colonial” covers four centuries of Cuban history and relates the life of the Spanish colons, and also the architectural and ornamental trends of that time.
History, art… And Culture. Probably the most fascinating about Cuba, and the museums of the city leave some space for you to discover its unique lifestyle and culture.
Cuban culture being gravitating around music, a must go is the « Museo Nacional de la Musica Cubana », where you will open up yourself to one of the most generous and influential music in the world, from its origins till present day.
Cuba is of course worldly famous for its handmade Premium Cigars. The most authentic ‘cigar factory / museum’ to visit will be the “Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas”. Here you will observe the whole process of cigar production. Aside with cigars, Cuba is also home of excellent rums. The “Museo del Ron Havana Club” opens for you the doors of its factory and museum for you to learn all the science behind the production of a top branded rum.
Havana would not be the same without its gleaming old American motors driving across the streets. Integral part of Havana’s folklore, the “Museo de los Autos” is explaining the origin and history of these vehicles on the island, displaying many renovated 1950’s and historical cars.
A lot of other museums worth a visit for their historical, cultural or artistic collections. We can name among these other museums the “Museo Guanabacoa” retracing the history of slavery, the “Museo Hemingway” located in the house of the author or the “Museo Farmacia Taquechel”, an authentic XIXth century pharmacy.
Museo de la Ciudad de la Habana
The “Museo de la Ciudad de la Habana” (Museum of the City of Havana) is located in the “Palacio de los Capitenes Generales”. With forty showrooms relating the colonial era it is the biggest collection of colonial art of Cuba offering to the visitors to discover the past of the islands through many different objects, the machete of general A. Maceo (aka “The Titan”, a hero of the war of 10 years when he fought for Cuban Independence), military uniforms, and rooms, such as the dining room and its 400 plates hung on the wall or the room of the King of Spain and its throne (even if the King never came to Cuba).
Museo de la Revolución
This museum is located in Old Havana, symbolically in the former presidential palace where F. Batista was residing. It depicts the Cuban History, from pre-Columbian culture to the present-day socialist regime, enhancing the way the country and the people of this island fought harsh battles for their sovereignty. Many interesting and evocating objects are shown to help you learn and understand Cuban famous History with a lot of propaganda. Blood-stained military uniforms dating back to the attack of “La Moncada”, maps explaining the military offensives of the guerilleros, the black coat Castro was wearing during his trial and picture showing him beardless… In front of the building is an SAU-100 tank used by Castro during the 1961 battle of the Bay of Pigs, the riddled truck that was used during the assault on the presidential palace in 1957 and also the remains of an American U2 spying plane downed over Cuba, or a piece of the ancient city wall. Be sure, before leaving the museum, to add a comic note to your visit at the “Rincon de les Cretinos” (idiots corner), where you can watch at caricatures of R. Reagan, G. Bush or F. Batista.
Behind the museum is the “Pavillón Granma” contains the masterpiece of the museum, the 18 meters long yacht Castro and eighty-one revolutionaries used to travel from Tuxpán, Mexico, to Cuba in December 1956.
Museo Jose Marti
José Julián Martí y Pérez became a Cuban national hero through his involvement in the Cuban Revolution. Journalist, poet, politician, he died in 1895 during the battle of “Dos Rios”. Its house is now a museum tracing its life and fights for the Cuban People.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana
Maybe the most beautiful museum of Havana, Sculptures, engravings, and more than 1200 paintings, some from Goya, Rubens, Velasquez… eulogize local art as well as international art. You can spend a full day to scroll down the 76000m², of the two sites of this museum.
The “Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Arte Universal)” (National Museum of Fine Art (Universal Art)) shows international art from 500 BC to the present day. From Greek pots dating from the 5th century BC 2000 years old Roman mosaics or Latin American antiquities, and a tremendous Spanish collection include a canvas by El Greco.
The “Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Arte Cubano)” (National Museum of Fine Art (Cuban Art)) exhibits Cuban art. Don’t miss Guillermo Collazo works (he is said to be the first recognized great Cuban artist). A great part is dedicated to modern art since the 1970’s, where you will admire the work of Cuban pop artist Raúl Martinez or Wilfredo Lam Picasso-like art.
Out of the two part of the museum, the most relevant to visit is the one displaying Cuban Art.
Museo Nacional de la Musica Cubana
The Museum is hosted in a building inspired by Italian renaissance architecture which was built in 1905. It was renovated in 1981 when the museum was inaugurated. This museum is dedicated to the history of music and music instruments from the XVIth till the XXth century, and aim to teach and spread Cuban music and Cuban cultural patrimony.
It exhibits a great collection of documents, books and instruments which always arouse the admiration of its visitors. Rare music sheets such as the originals music sheets of famous Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes, Gonzalo Roig or Amadeo Roldan, or traditional music instruments, especially incredible is the room containing the stringed instruments.
Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas
Built in 1845, it is the oldest tobacco factory in Havana and the most iconic one. The museum shows all the different stages of cigar production. Observe bunchers and rollers, and “readers” (which are carefully reading the news to the workers), surrounded by this pungent and intoxicating smell of tobacco. In this factory like in all the Cuban Premium Cigar factories, everything is artisanal, handmade. For the aficionados, stop by the shop at the end of the visit, where you can buy non counterfeit Partagas cigars.
Museo del Ron Havana Club
Located in the historical district of Old Havana, in a XVIIIth century colonial mansion, the “Museo del Ron Havana Club” (Havana Club Rum Museum) is best to discover the legendary Cuban rum. Fresh sugar cane, authentic sugar cane mill operated by a mule, distillery, cooperage workshop, aging cellars… All the mysteries of Cuban rum production will be uncovered. When the visit is finished, make sure you stop by the Havana Club Bar, where “cantineros” practice the art of Cuban cocktails such as Mojito or Daiquiri. If you prefer to go the local way, ask for a “Cata Vertical”, degustation consisting in tasting rums from the youngest to the oldest. You will there learn that “Havana Club 3 Anos” is the best for cocktails, and “Havana Club 5 Anos” is the best for degustation.
Museo de los Autos
Imported during the 1930’s, 1940’s and the 1950’s, before the 1961 American embargo on Cuba, thousands of old fashioned American cars are rolling down the streets of the islands. These engines from another time are repaired by genius and creative mechanics, and these colorful, powerful, comfortable outdated motors represent an integral part of Cuban folklore as taxis.
The museum, located in Old Havana is fully dedicated to these pieces of Cuban History and culture. Limos, roadsters, official cars of Che Guevara… outdated motors stand next to horse carriages, first tractors to trace back the whole history of transports of the island.
Museo Farmacia Taquechel
Taquechel Pharmacy Museum is located in Old Havana is the oldest pharmacy in Havana, showing apothecary’s jars, measuring pots, French porcelain bocals, a solar microscope, prescription books… reminiscent of the past and the traditional cures and homeopathic medications dating back to more than 100 years ago. It was turned into a museum in 1996, but still sells Cuban made natural remedies and other drugs.
Famous authors and traveler, Ernest Hemingway arrived in Cuba in 1932 to attend a fishing contest. He immediately fell in love with the island and seven years later, in 1939, bought a colonial house called “La Finca Vigia”, located East of Havana. He will live there for twenty-two year withs his wife Mary Welsh. There, Hemingway wrote two of his most famous novels: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea”. After his death, his wife will give the house to the Cuban government which turned it into a museum. The house is exactly as it was when the E. Hemingway was living in it, featuring hunting trophies and his typewriter.
Guanabacoa is Havana’s historical district where were living African slaves. The museum traces the history of this neighborhood and shows many documents related to “La Santeria”, a mysterious Afro-Cuban religion. From the singularity of its rituals, divination and dances, to its specific art and mythology.
Situated in the Tuscan palace known as “Villa Fiorentina”, the museum exhibits the biggest collection of objects related to Napoleon of the American continent, featuring paintings, porcelains, sculptures, coins…
Eating out in Havana is on the rise. Traditional Cuban food still dominates, but ‘paladars’ (small family-run private-owned restaurant) are becoming more catchy and innovative. The best state restaurants and highest quality ‘paladars’ are in Vedado and Miramar. They are still city’s finest dining. Cafés are offering the same concept a good alternative to traditional restaurants, serving meals as much as drinks and snacks.
All around the city are different kind of budget, mid-range and ‘hype’ restaurants: Budget venues are easy to find. You will recognize them by the planks listing items and prices hung out of a window or a storefront, serving an espresso for 1 CUP, sandwiches costs between 5 and 15 CUP, a pizza about 10 CUP. In small street booths, you can get ‘bocadito’ (small ham sandwiches) or a ‘cajita’ (small meal in a box) for less than 20 pesos (US$0.80). You can find full set menus (starter or salad, soup, main dish, dessert and a national beverage) for very cheap, around 6 to 10CUC. Almost all restaurants inside five-star hotels charge excessive amounts of money for mediocre food and service.
You can try:
‘Terminal de Omnibus’, by the Plaza de la Revolución (budget)
‘Coppelia Ice Cream Parlour’, a Cuban institution opposite the Habana Libre. (budget)
‘El Aljibe’, In Miramar. Try the house specialty, chicken in sour orange sauce along with a drink from its great wine cellar. (Mid-range)
‘La Casa’, Nuevo Vedado, is a large typical 1950’s house featuring a quiet and intimate garden and an uncommonly good service in Cuba. (mid-range)
‘Paladar La Tasquita’, Calle 27 de Noviembre, near San Lazaro. This paladar proposes typical ‘criolla’ and Cuban food as local families prepare it. Very traditional, you will be dining in the living room of a local family. (mid-range)
‘Paladar Vistamar’, Calle 1 in Miramar offers a great ambience and very fair prices. Excellent and qualitative sea-food and an assortment of beef dishes (rare for Cuba) and a great wine list. (mid-range)
‘Bavaria’, in Chinatown, is serving pizzas and spaghetti in a Chinese décor. (mid-range)
‘La Fontana Restaurant’, is one of the most famous grill restaurants in Cuba and offers a great variety of Cuban dishes. Its specials are octopus grilled over charcoal with pesto, or choose sea snail in garlic and aged rum. (top restaurant)
In Havana, a ‘bar’ is not just a place to sit at the counter and drink, but a clever mix of bar, café, snack and music venue. If you are up for a bar crawl, be ready for some real fun and entertainment.
It can involve some walking or the use of taxis as there is no specific bar area where all of them are located in a small perimeter. “Calle Obispo” and “Habana Vieja”, mostly “Plaza de la Catedral”, offer the best concentration of drinking, dancing and music places. In “Vedado”, you can check for bars and theater, or simply start from ‘Habana Libre Hotel’, from the ‘Riviera Hotel’. “La Rampa” is also a good catch for after midnight fun.
Havana’s nightlife is coming from all street corners all over the city and unusual and hidden places such as clubs in basements, dancing in courtyards, and rooftop music venues. There is no single nightlife area or district, and while every piece of entertainment being spread all around the city, it is better to plan your night out. Fliers are your best allies to find out who is playing, and where. You will find them at Infotur offices and in hotel lobbies.
However, while thinking of spending your night out you will find all around the city famous to enjoy fantastic moments of entertainment and fun in one of Havana’s historic bars, jazz cafes or trendy nightclubs.
You can find two different types of bar establishment in Havana.
‘Western-style bars’ proposing a wide selection drinks and cocktails of good quality at ‘western prices’. They are located in tourist districts such as Old Havana and Vedado. Mostly for expats and other tourists, don’t expect a local experience.
Second option is a ‘local neighborhood bar’. Quality drinks but limited choice, mainly locally produced rum by the bottle or local beer, rarely cocktails. Local bars accept CUPs and are cheaper, but bar keepers will often ask you for CUCs. These bars are the best way to meet Cubans and experience ‘the local way’ if you make the effort to speak Spanish. Compared to tourist places, these bars are pretty quiet and the only music around is played through a stereo system.
‘La Bodeguita del Medio’, is Havana’s most famed bar. Celebrated for its ‘Mojitos’ and for being a first choice hangout of Hemingway. Many other famous people visited the bar and all of them left an autograph on a walls, check the ones of Fidel Castro or Salvador Allende for example. Packed with tourists during the day, the place is much more agreeable in the evenings.
‘El Floridita’, Located on “Calle Obispo” is another of Hemingway’s favorite bar. The atmosphere did not change much and you will think you are back in a pre-revolution time. Test there the ‘El Floridita Special’, the Daiquiris, cocktail which was invented in this bar by bartender Constante Ribalaigua, or a variant of the famous cocktail created to honor Hemingway, the ‘Papa Hemingway Special’ (a grapefruit-flavored daiquiri).
‘La Factoria Plaza Vieja’, is a brewery located “Plaza Vieja”. Drink some refreshing homemade beer inside in the beer hall or outside siting on wooden benches where there is a grill.
If you are not much a bar person, the alternative is to hang out on “El Malecón” with a bottle of rum and mix up with the crowds
‘Tropicana nightclub’, is an institution in Havana since 1939 and its inauguration. Open air cabaret hasn’t changed much since its glorious days. You will be amazed by its wonderful Vegas-like shows of barely dressed women descending from palm trees to dance salsa.
‘Casa de la Musica de Centro Habana’, is the most popular nightclub and live music venues, and the best place to dance Salsa. Different ‘top bands’ from Bamboleo to Los Van Van and many others are playing most evenings. Check the program before as price varies depending on the band. There are two “Casas de la Musica”, one in “Centro Habana” with little space, a second one, said to be better in Miramar.
‘El Museo del Ron’, offers a very nice show “Buena Vista”.
‘La Zorra y el Cuervo’, located on « La Rampa », is a very famous jazz club. The entry is a red English phone-box which lead you in a basement below street level. The atmosphere is definitely different, it is mostly playing great live jazz music has hosted big names as Chucho Valdés and George Benson.
‘La Tropical’, is a concert hall with a holding capacity of several thousand people, and only propose live music. Event are advertised with many signs in the streets.
‘Hotel Nacional’, in its “Salon de la Historia” offers incredible cocktails and often hosts big events featuring famous stars. You can attend the concerts or simply sip your drinks watching at the pictures of the celebrities who have visited the hotel over the years.
‘Café Taberna’, one of the oldest drinking place in Havana was founded in 1772. More renowned for its cocktails and stunning bar than it is for its food. The music starts around 8pm.
‘Piano Bar Delirio Habanero’, is located in the “Teatro Nacional de Cuba”. In this lounge atmosphere, sit on the mellow red couches and take a look at the “Plaza de la Revolución” while listening young artists playing smooth jazz.
‘Jazz Café’, is in the evening a quiet jazz dinner club serving very good food, before, later in the night, playing much more swingy rhythm of jazz and salsa. It is uncommonly located in a shopping mall overlooking “El Malecón”.
‘El Hurón Azul’, is the rendezvous point of the artists, the social club of the “Union de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba” (Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba). The performances mostly take place in the garden, Afro-Cuban rumba, Cuban boleros and jazz.
‘Habana Café’, is a trendy club located in the Hotel Meliá Cohiba, proposing cabaret shows before turning into a ‘real club playing mainly international music.
Opposed to many capital cities in the world, Havana is not centered on a ‘shopping district’. Most of the products sold in shops will be Cuba nationals such as rum, cigars, coffee, art and craft. Even if new boutiques and malls are opening around the city, your best shot for shopping will remain “Habana Vieja” or “Calle Obispo”. Located in Desamparados, Havana’s open air handcraft market is as much popular for tourists as it is for locals. It will provide you with souvenirs such as art, woodwork, jewelry, shirts and anything that can feature the Che. Regarding stores in town, your best chance will be general retail stores, as small shops only offer empty shelves or a very limited choice.
Most of these shops are open from Monday to Saturday, from 9am to 6pm and very few of them are opened after 6pm or on Sunday
The city is very secure. Don’t be surprised by the number of police officers in Havana, they are mainly here to deter the touts (jineteros), so you don’t have to be afraid of being accosted in the daytime.
If hustlers (jinteros) offering to show you a place to eat or offering a tour of the city, walk away and continue walking away.
In local restaurants; there can be ‘tourist price menus’, so ask menu or prices before ordering anything.
If you’re male, expect to be accosted by prostitutes.
At night, avoid the dark streets of Centro Habana. This part of town is totally safe in the daytime, however it is best not go there at night. Stay on places where there are lights and more people, such as “El Malecón”,
Follow usual precautions regarding your wallet, passport, phone, camera…