Havana: To Do & See
When you enter Havana for the first time, especially from under the harbor tunnel, you will be awestruck by the harbor, the seawall and the Malecon with its massive, colorful crumbling buildings. Watching dozens of classic American cars go by will add to the time warp. The massive old stone forts guarding the entrance to the city are like something from a history book.
This mixture of periods from history will keep you off balance but it is also the essence of Havana. Later you will add to this tropical mixture, Cuban food, rum, cigars, dance, energetic people and jineteros. You will be intoxicated whether you partake of the rum or not.
So, a few of the not-to-miss Havana attractions:
The Malecon is Havana's living room. It is a strip of boulevard and seawall where hundreds gather each night to enjoy the sea breeze, meet friends, snuggle with a loved one, listen to music. Tourists and jineteros alike gather here too. This is like a stage, a center of social life. The backdrop is a long stretch of awesome, crumbling old buildings. This stretch of Havana history has been fighting the salt air and neglect for a century or more. It is the iconic emblem of Havana.
Havana's Colonial Fortresses
On display from the Malecon are the original huge stone forts from the colonial period. Even if you know nothing about Havana history, you know it was important and must have been rich to be guarded so dramatically.
Havana was a major shipping point between the new and old worlds. It was a very busy port and an attractive target for pirates and other countries wanting to wrest control from Spain. Havana had been attacked multiple times. To protect it from invaders, a series of forts were constructed and even a massive wall was built to around it. The forts are still here, some of the oldest stone forts in this hemisphere. Even today they look intimidating; they must have looked very formidable to frail wooden sailing craft of centuries ago.
Old Havana must be one of your first stops. Centuries of old buildings of all styles, multiple colonial squares to wander through, museums, statues of Cuba's heroes and unbelievable history. See page on Old Havana here.
El Gran Teatro de La Habana
It is hard to select the most distinguished building in a city with thousands of old structures, but Havana's Grand Theatre has to be near the top.
It just doesn't seem possible that there would be a huge opera house in the Caribbean, but the one here is actually one of the world's largest opera houses. If the size alone isn't impressive, the sculptural baroque exterior of Havana's Grand Theatre is mind blowing. Any piece of this building could be a sculpture on its own. El Gran Teatro faces Parque Central. It was built in 1915 and was restored in 2015. It hosts the Cuban National Ballet as well as showcasing celebrities from around the world.
Plaza de Revolucion
If you don't think the revolution lives on, then visit this plaza. Fidel has had a million people gathered here for some of his tireless speeches he gives to his people. The plain gray government buildings surrounding the square (previously Plaza Civica, pre-Revolution) were adorned with the iconic images of Che Guevara, and Camilio Cienfuegos, two famous revolutionaries.
Che's image is on the Ministerio de Interior, along with his saying "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until victory always). Cienfuegos images is above his saying of "Vas Bien Fidel", (You are doing well Fidel). You will find these sayings everywhere in Cuba; on poster, signs along the road; on buildings. The Revolution is alive.
The star of the plaza though is the 100+ meter tall gray tower dedicated to Cuban hero, Jose Marti. A Jose Marti museum is here, as well as a 15 ft tall statue.
Buena Vista Social Club
The Adios Tour of the Buena Vista Social Club has been playing in Havana for the last two years. This amazing high energy Cuban music is known around the world; or known to everyone but me evidently. I had not heard of them. In 1996 a British music producer fell in love with some old Cuban music from the 1930's to 1950's. He went to Cuba and put together a group of Cuban musicians from around the country and brought them to the US. They wound up doing a world tour; they played at Carnegie Hall, won Grammy's, and made a movie.
Well, a few of these old guys are still around (in their 80's) and have been playing with a large group of much younger musicians. They play at dinner clubs, so you get food, drinks, music all together. The crowd went wild when the old guys played. It's sad that I did not know who these people were until I started telling friends about it. They all knew of the Buena Vista Social Club.
What added to the atmosphere was arriving with a group of friends in a convertible 1959 Plymouth after an evening ride down the Malecon. You feel like you are in 1950's Havana even before the music starts. The drinks help too of cours. Make sure to include music and a nighttime Malecon ride in your itinerary
If you read old Cuba travel books they all tell how horrible, bland and simple Cuban restaurant food is. This was obviously true when restaurants were all state run; got their food from state-run stores and the state employees didn't care. It is different now. The food was fantastic every place I ate. Even simple Cuban sandwiches were good. The pork (a Cuban staple) and seafood especially were delicious. So, be adventurous, try out the big restaurants (like El Tocororo) but also try the simple little family-run paladars throughout Cuba.
The Colon Cemetery in the Vedado neighborhood was started in 1876 and is still in use today. Broad avenues of marble statues, mausoleums, family crypts. Havana history is on display here. 800,000 graves here; from the rich or famous to those who died of epidemics. Amelia Goyri, known as “La Milagrosa” died of childbirth is buried here with her son. Her "miracle" caused a shrine to be built to her.
Havana is full of art: from its political slogans on signs and walls, to art galleries, to whole neighborhoods devoted to art.
Fusterlandia is one of the neighborhood art projects gone berserk. Started by Havana artist José Fuster 20 years ago, it is now an amazing, twisting, free-flowing mosaic neighborhood.