Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are there. Waves crashing against a mildewed sea wall; a young couple cavorting in a dark, dilapidated alley; guitars and voices harmonizing over a syncopated drum rhythm; sunlight slanting across rotten peeling paintwork; a handsome youth in a guayabera shirt leaning against a Lada; the smell of diesel fumes and cheap after-shave; tourists with Hemingway beards; Che Guevara on a billboard, a banknote, a key-ring, a t-shirt…
No one could have invented Havana. It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and – despite 50 years of withering neglect – too damned beautiful. How it does it, is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the swashbuckling history, the survivalist spirit, or the indefatigable salsa energy that ricochets off walls and emanates most emphatically from the people. Don’t come here looking for answers. Just arrive with an open mind and prepare yourself for a long, slow seduction.
The character of the city
Havana’s location along a magnificent deep-sea bay with a sheltered harbor made the city a prime location for economic development from Spanish colonial times in the early 16th century. Cuba is endowed with a number of such harbors, but Havana’s on the north coast was prized above the others by the early Spanish colonizers. With land on both sides of the harbor, the port was easily defended. The early colonists erected a number of fortifications in the area that withstood most invaders. In colonial times Havana was the first landfall for Spanish fleets coming to the New World, and it became a staging area, first, for the conquest of the Americas by Spanish conquistadores and, later, for the economic and political domination of the hemisphere by Spain. The city early became a cosmopolitan center with sprawling fortifications, cobblestone plazas, and buildings with ornamental facades and ornate iron balconies. Today’s Havana mixes these structures with a variety of conventional modern buildings.
Havana’s rich cultural milieu included not only Spaniards from diverse regions of the Iberian Peninsula but other European peoples as well. The small native Indian population of Cuba was not a significant factor in the Havana area and, in any case, was largely decimated in its early contact with the Spanish. The colonial years brought a large influx of black slaves from Africa who, after the end of slavery in the late 19th century, began flocking to Havana. Today’s Havana is a mix of white Spanish stock, black ethnic groups, and significant mulatto strains.
Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
Old Havana, a UNESCO world heritage site, oozes the charm of days gone by. Elegant Neoclassical and Baroque buildings border cobbled squares and narrow streets, and many have been carefully restored to their former beauty. Highlights include the magnificent Catedral de San Cristobal a celebration of the Cuban Baroque style; the stout Castillo de la Real Fuerza, an impressive military fortress; and the popular public squares of Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Armas. The latter is home to the splendid Palacio de Los Capitanes, home to the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum) and a delightful leafy courtyard. After soaking up all the history of this captivating quarter, visitors should climb the 35-meter tower of the camera obscura for a breathtaking overview of these well-aged jewels. Finally, head to La Bodeguita del Medio, a former Hemingway hangout, to refuel on succulent seafood and ice-cold drinks.
Strolling along the Malecón (El Malecon) at sunset is a wonderful way to soak up the feel of this evocative city and see some sights along the way. Havana’s famous seafront boulevard runs about 7 kilometers from Habana Vieja (Old Havana) to the Vedado and Plaza area. Overlooking the boulevard is a colorful collection of well-preserved 20th-century buildings in a mix of architectural styles, from Art Deco to Neo Moorish. In the golden glow of the setting sun, they make a beautiful photo.
The Malecón is also a great place to meet the locals. Anglers come here to cast their lines, and families and young couples saunter along the seafront enjoying the fresh air and ocean breezes. Those seeking to rest their weary feet should stop by the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a World Heritage Site and a National Monument with a long list of glamorous former guests, including Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, and Marlon Brando.
Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro
Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro, also known as El Morro, stands proudly at the entrance of the Bay of Havana in the Parque Historico Militar. El Morro was built in the late 16th century and early 17th century to guard against the constant threat of pirate attacks. It was designed by an Italian engineer, Giovanni Battista Antonelli, and looks much the same as it did in the 17th century. One of the main changes to the fort is the lighthouse. It was rebuilt several times and then finally replaced in the middle of the 19th century with a new lighthouse constructed of solid stone. Today, its original lamp still shines, and the fort is open to visitors who can enjoy beautiful views over the ocean and the city of Havana from its upper reaches.
Paseo del Prado
Considered by many to be the most beautiful street in Havana, the tree-lined Paseo del Prado bordering Old Havana deserves a leisurely stroll. The terrazzo, marble benches, bronze lions, and iron lampposts impart the feel of a grand boulevard from a bygone era, and indeed the street was once home to some of Havana’s wealthiest families. Elegant old cinemas, mansions, and hotels from the 19th and 20th-century line the street, many of which have been carefully restored. Highlights include the Hotel Sevilla with its Moorish styling; the home of Dr. Carlos Finlay, the man who discovered that mosquitoes spread yellow fever; and Havana’s most famous wedding chapel, the Palacio de Los Matrimonios. The Paseo del Prado is a popular meeting place and a people-watching spot at any time of day.
Near the impressive Universidad de La Habana (University of Havana), the Museo Napoleonico in Havana displays the private collection of Julio Lobo, who was a collector of all things Napoleon. Lobo hired people to find and purchase Napoleonic mementos and memorabilia for his personal collection. When Lobo left Cuba in 1959, his collection was purchased by the Cuban government and is now housed in a beautiful building styled on a Florentine palace.
On display are personal items belonging to Napoleon, including one of his teeth and a lock of his hair. The Museo Napoleonico also contains Napoleon’s death mask, a library of related topics, weaponry, and two portraits of the famous French military leader by Andrea Appiani and Antoine Gros. In total, the collection contains more than 7,000 pieces. It is one of the finest collections of Napoleon artifacts outside of Europe.
Havana, like much of Cuba, enjoys a pleasant year-round climate that is tempered by the island’s position in the belt of the trade winds and by the warm offshore currents. Average temperatures range from 72 °F (22 °C) in January and February to 82 °F (28 °C) in August. The temperature seldom drops below 50 °F (10 °C). Rainfall is heaviest in October and lightest from February through April, averaging 46 inches (1,167 mm) annually. Hurricanes occasionally strike the island, but they ordinarily hit the south coast, and damage in Havana is normally less than elsewhere in the country.
Havana, by far the leading cultural center of the island, offers a wide variety of features that range from museums to ballet and from art and music festivals to exhibitions of technology. The restoration of Old Havana offered a number of new attractions, including a museum to house relics of the Castro revolution. The government placed special emphasis on cultural activities, many of which are free or involve only a minimal charge.
The Museum of the City of Havana, formerly the Palace of the Captains General in Old Havana, contains many pieces of old furniture, pottery, jewelry, and other examples of colonial workmanship, as well as models of what Havana looked like in earlier centuries. The museum also houses material relating to the era of U.S. occupation and influence in Cuba. Other important museums are the National Museum of Art in Central Havana and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Vedado. The city’s National Library houses Cuba’s largest collection. The widest-circulating daily newspapers are published in Havana, but all of these, including the main one, Granma, represent the Communist Party or government interests.
Many of the city’s finest restaurants are in Old Havana. The most popular is Bodeguita del Medio, once a hangout of Ernest Hemingway. La Floridita, also renowned for its Hemingway associations, claims to be the “birthplace of the daiquiri.” In the kitchens of Habanero families, rice, black beans, and bananas are common staples. Although numerous food products are available at special “dollars-only” markets and stores, Habaneros lacking supplemental income (such as tourist dollars or remittances from relatives living abroad) depend almost exclusively on the meager quotas of food apportioned by the government.
Havana was known in pre-Castro times as the queen city of the Caribbean because of its nightlife and popular culture. Much of that has disappeared, but there is still some nightlife, particularly at the fabled Tropicana nightclub. Its present-day dancers and singers are as gaudily and scantily attired as their predecessors were in pre-Castro times, and the stage settings are big and imaginative.
At Carnival time in July, Cubans express themselves vigorously in dance and song. In Havana, Carnival is now a virtual holiday, with floats and parades officially sanctioned. These floats compete in what has become an annual parade along the waterfront Malecón.
Many Cubans are avid sports fans who particularly favor baseball and football (soccer). Habaneros support a dozen or so baseball teams. The city has several large sports stadiums. Admission to sporting events is generally free, and impromptu games are played in neighborhoods throughout the city. Social clubs at the beaches provide facilities for water sports and include restaurants and dance halls.