The exotic capital of Cuba and largest city in the Caribbean is a must-see for any visitor. For centuries, it has served as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. And in 1982, Old Havana, the city’s historic centre, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The city’s first building, overlooking the entrance to a protected bay, dates back to 1519. Originally christened La Villa de San Cristóbal de la Habana, the city became a depository for treasures that Spanish fleets brought to the New World. It also became the centre of trade and commerce between the old and new worlds. Havana’s strategic geographic position was a major factor in its rapid growth, and in the decision to build a sea wall in the 17th century. The wall was completed more than 100 years later.
Today, Havana is the heart of the nation’s busy political, scientific and cultural life. Museums, theatres and concert halls, art galleries and cultural institutions are popular venues, while some—such as the National Ballet of Cuba, House of the Américas, Foundation of New Latin American Film and National Folkloric Dance Group—have won international acclaim. Both day and night, Havana continues to thrill visitors anew.
||Places to visit
Every November 16, Habaneros flock to this small 1828 neoclassical building to celebrate the anniversary of the first mass and the first town council of San Cristobal de la Habana.
Major events are held in this square, where the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1577) exhibits the most important pottery art collection in the island. The building’s tower is crowned by La Giraldilla, an artistic wind vane that has become a symbol of the city. Also in the square are the Captain-General’s Palace (Museum of the City) and El Segundo Cabo.
Surrounded by opulent mansions, this ancient square comprises the recently restored Plaza Vieja (Old Square) and Francis of Assisi square. On the former stands the San Juan de Jaruco mansion; on the latter are the church and convent of the same name. One of the convent’s cloisters houses the Museum of Sacred Art.
Morro-Cabaña historic military park
Two ruins mark this important historical fortress: El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (The Castle of the Three Kings of El Morro), built in 1630, and the fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, erected in 1774. Both house military museums, and cannons are still shot daily to announce 9 p.m.
Across from this park are the famous Prado Promenade, the Great Theatre of Havana and the Capitol building. This houses the Statue of the Republic, which has planted at its feet a diamond to mark kilometre zero of the Carretera Central (Central Road).
The famous 12-kilometre oceanside road, Malecon, links Old Havana to the busy neighborhood of Vedado, whose central area, La Rampa, allows easy access to other places of interest. These include the University of Havana, Revolution Square and the José Martí Monument (highest lookout in the city, 138 metres above sea level) and the Colon Cemetery, one of the world’s largest necropolises.
Miramar and beyond
To the west, Fifth Avenue leads into the residential area of Miramar and Havana’s central business area, which contains an impressive model of the city. Past the Convention Centre, Pabexto, where various fairs take place during the year and beyond the exclusive Club Habana is Marina Hemingway. Here, visitors can go snorkeling, sailing and deep-sea fishing, or take seafari tours to the coral reef.
About six kilometres east of the city is the colourful fishing village of Cojímar, where Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway kept his boat, the Pilar, and found material for many of his stories.
Playa del Este
Outside Havana’s east coast, more than 15 kilometres of fine beach stretch between Bacuranao and Guanabo, where weekend and vacation spots include Santa María del Mar.
Nearly three million people live in Havana, which has the country’s most important airport and is the seat of the central government. It is also noted for its fascinating history, night life and architecture.
Havana is marked by world-class universities, hotels, theatres, museums, restaurants, night clubs, cultural and recreational centres, parks, squares, science institutes and sports facilities. Not to be missed are historical sites such as Morro Castle, the Malecon, Cathedral Square, Central Park, the Capitol building, La Rampa, the white-domed Coppelia ice cream parlor, Revolution Square, the Tropicana Nightclub, Guanabacoa, Miramar, El Vedado and San Antonio de los Baños. Hemingway’s favourite hangouts are still there, too—La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant, the Floridita restaurant, Ambos Mundos hotel and Cojimar fishing village. Just outside Havana are excellent beaches, among them Santa Marìa del Mar.
Tour the main streets, monuments and forts of colonial Havana, then drive through modern Havana’s residential section and along the Malecon, with stops at the main points of interest, such as the University of Havana and Revolution Square. (3 hours)
Visit museums that specialize in the arts, sciences and history. These include: the Arms Museum, Literacy Museum, Jose Marti Birthplace, Museum of the City of Havana, Museum of Colonial Art, Museum of Decorative Arts, Museum of Natural Sciences, Museum of the People’s Struggle, Museum of the Revolution, Napoleonic Museum, National Museum of Fine Arts, Numismatic Museum, Postal Museum. (2 hours)
Stop on your tour of this park to stroll through the Amphitheatre, Aquarium, Rodeo, Art Gallery and similar attractions. (3 hours)
Admire the skill with which the experts hand-roll the world-famous Havana cigars. (1½ hours)
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE CENTRE
Major national and international meetings are held in this modern conference centre, which includes an exhibit hall, cafeterias, bars, boutiques and the excellent Bucan Restaurant. (2½ hours)
Havana’s National Aquarium displays specimens of Cuban marine life. (2 hours)
Included in this tour are stops at the Havana Libre Hotel Shopping Complex, La Flora and the Arts and Crafts Centre for fine crafts, clothing, souvenirs, cigars and rum, and at La Maison for exclusive designer clothing. (3 hours)
PALACE OF ART AND ANTIQUES
Sèvres porcelain, paintings, antique lamps and furnishings are among the items on display in this mansion in residential Miramar, a few minutes from the centre of Havana. (2 hours)
LA MAISON FASHION SHOW
The charming garden of a colonial mansion is the setting for an evening fashion show with music and entertainment, bar service and shopping at La Maison boutique. (3 hours, Mondays and Wednesdays)
A visit to any of Havana’s churches can also include attending mass at: Havana Cathedral; Jesus de Miramar Church; La Merced; San Antonio de Padua; San Juan de Letran; or Santa Rita. (2 hours)
LATIN AMERICAN STADIUM
Join Cuban fans to watch a baseball game and cheer on your favorite team. (3 hours)
Enjoy a rhythmic Saturday afternoon with the Cuban National Folklore Group in the leafy patio outside the dance studio. The event includes a brief introduction to the Rumba, interpretations by professional dancers and musicians and a chance to join them in a rumba or two. (2 ½ hours)
EXPERIMENTAL GRAPHICS WORKSHOP (TEG)
Watch the artists at work in Cathedral Square, the heart of colonial Havana. Lithographs, engravings, woodcuttings, posters and other art can be purchased here. (4 hours)
Humorous drawings, cartoons and caricatures by local and foreign artists, including a graphic history of Cuba in humorous style, are featured at this museum in San Antonio de los Baños, 37 kilometres from the capital. Lunch is included. (4 hours)
Opera, ballet, symphonies, musical comedies, folklore and modern dance groups and plays by Cuban and foreign dramatists – both classic and modern works – are among the possibilities for evening entertainment in one of the capital’s seven major theatres. (3 hours)
This world-famous nightclub offers an extravagant show of colour and catchy rhythm provided by Cuban orchestras in its outdoor ballroom – a paradise under the stars. Two drinks per person are included. (4 hours)
Enjoy the show, dancing and two cocktails at the Capri, Caribe, Copa or Parisien cabarets – all in the heart of modern Havana. (4 hours)
Make your reservation for a cocktail and a delicious meal (national and international cuisine) at the Bodeguita del Medio, Restaurant 1830, Floridita, Polinesio or Torre restaurants. (3 hours)
SANTA MARIA BEACH
Your day at the loveliest East Havana beach includes lunch at the Marazul Hotel and a drive through the Alamar district. (8 hours)
SEAFARI TO EAST HAVANA BEACHES
Go fishing and picnic aboard ship off the coast of the resort area just outside Havana. (8 hours)
A traditional Cuban farm feast is laid on at the Palmar Farm, with music, dancing, games and plenty to eat and drink. You can go horseback riding, watch a cock fight, milk a cow, sip a glass of fresh sugarcane juice, watch someone climb a Royal palm, then savour a succulent criollo (creole) meal. (6 hours on Wednesdays)
At beautiful Jibacoa Beach, 45 kilometres from Havana, you can enjoy all kinds of water sports, horseback riding and bicycling. A seafood lunch, accompanied by musical entertainment, can be part of your day. (6 hours on Fridays)
Savour a midnight cruise to the keys. Includes dinner, a show and dancing on Cayo Libertad. (5 hours)
Observe a moving presentation of the religious rites of African slaves brought to Cuba during the Spanish colonial period. Accompanied by drums, rhythmic music and a delicious rum drink. (4 hours)
Visit the rural community of Jibacoa, then continue on to the beach for a swim and other water sports. Lunch is served in the camping area near the ocean. (8 hours)
Your day at this famous resort on the Hicacos Peninsula, in Matanzas province, includes facilities for changing clothes to help you enjoy your time on the beach. Lunch is served at one of the many restaurants in the area. (9 hours)
SOROA, CUBA’S RAINBOW
Nestled in the Sierra de los Organos mountains to the west of Havana, this woody spot has a delightful waterfall, a splendid lookout, an enormous swimming pool and one of the finest orchid gardens in the world. Lunch is included. (8 hours)
Located in Pinar del Rio province, at the western tip of Cuba, Vinales Valley is known for its picturesque hillocks that jut up sharply from the valley floor. The trip takes you to the Archaeological Mural painted on the side of one hillock to the Indian Cave with its underground river and to an attractive restaurant for lunch. (10 hours)
This picturesque resort in southern Matanzas province has cabanas built on stilts along the banks of Treasure Lake. A boat ride across the lake takes you to a reconstructed Taino Indian village, with life-size sculptures depicting how these primitive people lived. The trip also includes a visit to the alligator farm. Lunch is included. (10 hours)
A short plane ride takes you to this key in the Canarreos archipelago, south of Cuba, with its 20 kilometres of virgin beaches and lush tropical vegetation. The trip includes a welcome cocktail, a boat trip to Sirena Beach, with a seafood lunch aboard and various water sports to entertain you until departure at 5:00 p.m.