Every year, about three million northerners visit Cuba to sample its main attractions: endless beaches and rum cocktails. But if you spend your entire Cuban vacation on the beach, you’re missing the country’s real treasure: its capital city, Havana.
Most of the Varadero resorts offer day trips to the city, but it’s worth a lot more than a quick look-see and a walking tour. In many ways, it’s a living time capsule, with a fascinating history: once an important hub in Spain’s New World empire, it later became a playground for rich Americans, and then the capital of a communist state after the revolution in the 1950s.
That last transformation had a dramatic effect, pretty much preserving the city as it was in the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower and JFK. The old Spanish colonial buildings are still there, some beautifully restored while others stand neglected. The bars where Ernest Hemingway once drank are pretty much as he left them – though they’re now crowded with tourists. And the streets are filled with vintage cars that would have looked right at home in American Graffiti.
It’s a city like no other, with a flavour all its own. But there’s change afoot: since the recent easing of restrictions, a lot of American tourists have discovered Havana. If you want to see it the way it is, the time to go is now. There are enough things to see in Havana to fill two or three days, at least.
Here’s a look at the essential things to see in Havana when you visit:
The city’s tourist centre is Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. And the name is no exaggeration: there are plazas dating from the 1500s, lined with churches, forts, old mansions and museums. Highlights include the Plaza de Catedral, with its historic cathedral, and the fortified Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Check out the Camera Obscura, just off the lovely Plaza Vieja, for panoramic views of the city using a special camera.
But even if you’re not into sightseeing, you could spend a couple of days just wandering the streets of Old Havana, taking photos and browsing through the unique shops; there’s a new tourist market by the harbour, created in anticipation of the American influx. The open-air book market in the Plaza de Armas is a great place for people-watching, and so are the patio restaurants nearby on O’Reilly and Obispo Streets.
Havana’s boardwalk is not the prettiest I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, so it’s worth a stroll. If nothing else, you get a good view of the long stretch of sea coast the city commands: the malecon runs eight kilometres, from Old Havana to the Vedado district. And it’s another good place for people watching: lovers stroll, fishermen drop in their lines, and tourists whizz by on vintage car tours. You get a look at some of Havana’s newer architecture — and if you’ve spent your vacation at the beach and the buffet, you probably need a good walk.
If you’re a history buff, the streets of Old Havana are a feast. But across the harbour are two more attractions: the fort of El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (The Castle of the Three Kings of El Morro), built in 1630, and the later fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, erected in 1774. You can tour both, visit their military museums, and check out their canons, which they still fire at 9 every evening.
This Spanish-style park on the Prado, the city’s grandest thoroughfare, is the centrepiece of Old Havana. Across the street are some of the city’s great hotels, like the Inglaterra and the Parque Central, and two of its cultural institutions, the Great Theatre of Havana (seen by night, below) and the Capitol building.
The Parque Central is a good place to beat the heat and relax under its shady trees. But it’s also a great place to see some of Cuba’s vintage cars, sitting ready to take tourists on novelty tours of the city. How about a ride in a pink 1950s Cadillac, or even a 1940s roadster? Failing that, it’s fun to visit the corner of the park where middle-aged men gather for passionate debates about one of Cuba’s most emotional issues: baseball.
Havana is a hot spot for music, mostly the distinctive Cuban jazz, with its mixture of guitar, piano, drums and the high-pitched, three-note tres. The bars of O’Reilly and Obispo streets become performance venues after dark, just the place for a fun night of music and Cuba libres. This is the best way to hear Cuban music, not at the overpriced tourist shows the hotels tout.
However, there are musical events in other parts of town, even though they’re not well advertised. In fact, there is an annual jazz festival in December. This website has a helpful calendar of musical events.
The Hemingway trail
Ernest Hemingway spent 30 years living in and around Havana – in fact, he’s almost a patron saint in these parts. His old haunts have become historic sites which you can follow around Old Havana. To me, this is one of the best things to see in Havana. First, visit the Ambos Mundos Hotel, on Obispo, where he lived from 1932 to 1939: his fifth-floor room is now a museum, kept much as he left it, with one of his typewriters on the table (below).
Next, wander over to the Bodeguita del Medio on Empedrado Street, where he reputedly drank his mojitos (hint: go in the little side door and check out the rooms inside, filled with photos of celebrities who’ve visited). Then, hit El Floridita, another of his favourite watering holes, with his signature on the sign outside. Have a daiquiri, if you can get a seat among all the tourists. If you’re keen, you can take the short drive to see Finca Vigia, the house where he lived after leaving the Ambos Mundos.
There’s a more modern side to Havana as well, and it’s worth having a look. The centre of today’s Cuba is Revolution Square, a giant plaza that’s a must-see in Havana. This is the seat of the Cuban government, which meets here in the Palace of the Revolution. It’s where Fidel Castro once gave speeches to audiences numbering more than a million. And it’s used for other grand occasions: Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis both gave masses here.
There are several government ministry buildings in the square, as well as the inevitable heroic monuments. Those include the 109-metre tower dedicated to Jose Marti, a leading figure in the fight for independence — take an elevator to the top for a great view of the city. Almost as famous are the two giant portraits of revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, which front two ministry buildings.
The rum museum
Rum is the national drink of Cuba. And unsurprisingly, there’s a museum dedicated to it in Old Havana, down by the harbour. The museum is in an 18th-century, UNESCO-listed building, and it’s a regular stop for tour groups. But you can wander in on your own, to see the building and the rum-making demonstrations, models and artifacts. And of course, you don’t want to miss the free rum tasting at the end. Prices are reasonable if you want to take a bottle or two home with you, too. There are even bartending lessons: learn to make a mojito and impress your friends.
Off the beaten track
You could easily spend several days taking in the sights I’ve listed here – with a few stops for mojitos along the way. But there are also a few other attractions to see in Havana, which are worth a taxi ride from the old city. Here are three:
In northwest Havana, artist Jose Fuster has turned a whole neighbourhood into an art installation using tiles. Amazingly, obliging neighbours let him turn their houses, fences, street furniture — anything you can name – into wonky works of mosaic art. The result is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The Fabrica de Arte Cubano
Located near Fusterland, at the end of the malecon, this is another unique experience, a combination of an art gallery, performance venue, cocktail lounge and restaurant. You can have a bite, then wander through the art exhibits sipping a drink and mingling with the (fairly young) crowd. It’s open in the evenings, so drop by after Fusterland, if you feel like an adventure.
The Playas del Este
Finally, if you still want to hit the beach and get out of the city, there’s the Playas del Este. This five-kilometre-long chain of white sand beaches is only 40 minutes from Havana by bus or taxi – an easy day trip. It’s a favourite getaway for Cubans and tourists alike. It’s a good spot for snorkelling and diving, or you can just relax and have a beer and some lobster on the shore. There are hotels, too, if you want to make it an overnight.
Those are the top things to see in Havana. But to me, the best thing is just experiencing the city itself, with its vibrant, sometimes chaotic atmosphere. The narrow streets with their bicycle taxis and food carts, the ancient buildings, the cafeterias with their long formica counters, the music spilling out of doorways … it’s a city full of life. And a city full of contradictions, with the past and the present in an endless tug-of-war.
Havana is an experience, and if you don’t see it now, you may never see it as it is. When the door is truly opened for American tourists, the city will inevitably change. You might get better wi-fi, but when the first Starbucks opens, the old Havana may be gone forever.
Is Havana safe?
Havana may look a bit run-down, but serious crime against tourists is rare: this is still a controlled society. However, you may experience come-ons from people trying to sell things on the black market, particularly cigars – I’d take a pass, unless you’re good at spotting fake Monte Cristos. The other classic scam is people asking you to buy formula for their babies, which may or may not exist. I’ve had 60-year-old women try it out on me.
As for transport, taxis are plentiful and not expensive. About $6 or $7 should take you across town — negotiate with the driver. And take a good look at the car before you get in, unless you fancy riding in a bombed-out, 20-year-old Lada. Maybe that pink Cadillac isn’t such a bad idea after all …