Havana, Cuba: 20 Must-See Highlights - AmazingPlaces.com

Havana

Drown in the rich past of the Caribbean

Havana is the capital of Cuba. The historic center has a rich history. This is reflected in the mix of neoclassical and baroque monuments. The old buildings and ancient times give you the feeling that time has stood still.

The past is literally laid out in the streets, as the old town is full of monumental buildings. The roads are the scene of classic American cars and ugly Lada’s driving side by side. 

For a long time, Cuba was the largest producer of sugar, causing a lot of money to pass through Havana. Through the centuries, a lot of that money was used for the construction of houses, churches and other buildings and countless parks. 

Some streets, are still paved with cobblestones and there are people going by with horses and carriages. The atmosphere is always very relaxed. The combination of cultures and the rich history have given the city its name: the pearl of the Caribbean. 

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

The cathedral San Christóbal is dedicated to Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of Cuba in 1492. The cathedral, according to the stories, even had the remains of Columbus for a number of years, but when Cuba became independent they went to the Spanish Seville.

Remarkable are the unequal towers (in width) of this church. The church is made in Baroque style, but with some Cuban modifications. Something that the Swiss architect Francesco Borromini had come up with. The cathedral was built in 1748 by the Jesuits, but was not finished until 1777. The cathedral is seen as the highlight of La Habana Vieja, the old quarter.

El Malecón

The Malecón, as it is popularly called, of Havana is a more than 7 kilometer long boulevard along the coast. It runs from Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta in Habana Vieja to the Almendares River that separates Vedado from Miramar.

Construction of the boulevard began in 1901, under American rule. El Malecón was built in pieces, it was not finished until 1958. 

This is the place for many locals to stroll, especially in the afternoon or early evening. While couples in love like to watch the sunset here. Children often play football here. It is a nice spot to end the day.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón

The Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is the city's old cemetery. It dates from 1876. More than 800,000 people are buried on this spot, including countless famous Cubans. You'll see more than 500 have sculptures by famous Cuban sculptors.

The immense entrance gate has Greco-Roman influences. Incidentally, a famous legend is associated with the cemetery. One mother died in childbirth. She was buried in a coffin, while her baby was buried in a coffin next to it. But when the skeletons were later exhumed, the baby was on her chest. Since then it has been a pilgrimage site for Catholics.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza

Castillo de la Real Fuerza was initially built between 1558 and 1577. It is considered the oldest fortress in this part of the world. It was built at the time to protect the city from pirates, but surprisingly, the fortress was too far inland to stop the pirates. King Felipe II of Spain ordered its destruction as early as 1582. He immediately had a new fort built, designed by Bartolomé Sánchez.

This time the construction was successful, although slave blood adheres to it. The Spaniards used hundreds of slaves from Africa for construction, who lived under appalling conditions. After the threat of the pirates had disappeared, the building mainly served as a residence for Spanish governors and military commanders for the following centuries.

One of the features of the fortress is its watchtower, the Giraldilla. This copy of the Giralda in Seville was built in the 18th century. The fort is now home to the Artistic Ceramic Museum.

Castillo del Morro

The Castillo del Morro is part of Havana's old defences. The fort is located across the street from the Bahia de la Habana, the small bay in the heart of Havana. This imposing fortress is one of the landmark buildings along the coastline. Its construction started as early as 1589 and it was officially opened 40 years later.

The architect was the Italian Jean Bautista Antonelli, who was actually a military engineer. According to experts, he created one of the most important fortresses of the colonial era. In addition to being a fortress, it also served as a lighthouse for incoming ships. Today the castle is a national monument. The fort is part of the Parque Historico Morro y Cabana, just like La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (of La Cabaña)

The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña has a tumultuous past. This is the spot where the Cuban Revolution was led. This 18th-century fortress on Havana harbor was taken by Ché Guevarra and his rebels in 1959, after which he used it as a headquarters. But the fort's history goes back much further. King Carlos III of Spain ordered its construction in 1763.

La Cabaná was immediately the largest colonial fortress in the New World when it was completed in 1774. In addition to a military base, it was a prison during the reign of dictator Batista. The fort now resembles a small town with numerous restaurants and shops. And the fort, together with the Castillo del Morro, is now part of the Parque Historico Morro y Cabana.

A classic car in Cuba. ©Corno van den Berg

Museo de Arte Colonial

The Museo de Arte Colonial shows the colonial wealth that was common here in the 18th and 19th centuries. The museum is located in a famous house once owned by Don Luis Chacon, who was long the military governor of Cuba.

The building has been completely restored and the many rooms display all kinds of colonial artefacts, as well as furniture. It is also known for its richly decorated stained glass windows. The museum on the Plaza de la Catedral opened its doors in 1963.

Callejón de Hamel

The idea comes from the Cuban artist Salvador González Escalona. In 1990 he started a project to show African influences on Cuban culture. According to him, the slave history was an important factor on the island.

He decorated the many walls in this alley with numerous graffiti works that tell the story of the Africans. A lot of modern art is on display. The street is now world famous and always pleasantly busy.

El Cristo de La Habana

El Cristo de La Habana, the Christ of Havana, is a 18 meter high white marble statue that overlooks Havana. The statue resembles the world famous Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro. The large statue was designed by the well-known Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera.

She used marble from the famous Italian Carrara Valley, it weighs more than 320 tons. The statue was placed on the hill in 1958 at a height of 51 meters, so that it can be seen from afar. Christ keeps one hand on his heart, while he holds up the other. So that he can bless everyone in town.

El Capitolio Nacional

A couple in front of El Capitolio. ©Corno van den Berg

El Capitolio is recognisable from a distance. It is very similar to The Capitol, Washington's famous Renaissance-style government building. This was a conscious choice of the architects Raúl Otero and Eugenio Raynieri. Construction officially began on April 1, 1926, and the doors of the building opened on May 20, 1929.

It was the seat of the Cuban government until the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Today the building is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Special is the bronze (with gold) statue in the hall, the Estatua de la Republica. The statue is an idealised representation of Cuban nationalism, centred on the famous Cuban model Lily Valty.

Gran Teatro de La Habana

The Gran Teatro de La Habana is the city's official theater. It first opened in 1838 and is the home of the Cuban National Ballet. The building is one of the most beautiful in Havana. It was initially built in the Baroque style, by order of the megalomaniac Spanish governor Miguel Tacón. He wanted to build the largest theater in Latin America in Havana.

The immense project was funded with slave money. Anyone who imported slaves from Africa had to pay a high tax on imports. In 1914 the theater was demolished to give Havana a new style: neo-baroque. The Belgian architect Paul Belau was commissioned to design the new building. In addition to the exterior, the sculptures that adorn the theater are also worth a visit. These were created by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, who had moved to America.

Museo de la Revolución

The Museo de la Revolución is a striking palace in Havana. It was built between 1913 and 1920. It was designed by the Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and the Belgian architect Paul Belau, who also collaborated on the Gran Teatro de La Habana. famous interior design is by Louis Comfort Tiffany (often referred to as Tiffany's) from New York.

This American glass artist and designer is famous for his stained glass, which is also on display in this museum. The Salon de los Espejos, the hall of mirrors, is often praised and is very similar to the hall of the same name in the French palace of Versailles.

Museo Ernest Hemingway

The Museo Ernest Hemingway in Havana shows a part of his live of the world-famous American writer. He lived in Havana from 1940 to 1960, among other things, and worked in the city. A complicated life for the man who won the Pullitzer Prize in 1953 with The Old man and the Sea and a year later received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He spent his last years in Cuba. In which he had to deal with, among other things, severe depression.

On July 2, 1961, Hemingway shot himself in the head. The museum displays many of his belongings, including writing utensils, furniture and other attributes. In 2009, the museum released some 3,000 documents from the writer, which he left behind in his Cuban villa. Specialists have restored and digitised the countless manuscripts, letters and telegrams. So that they would be preserved.

Old Havana or La Habana Vieja

Old Havana is the heart of the city. And shows Havana's colonial past in optima forma. Restored houses stand next to half-decayed houses. American classic models drive on the streets, while cars are patched up here and there.

The official name of this district is La Habana Vieja and this part has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Here you can easily spend an afternoon wandering around and really experience the city.

Dance at the annual jazz festival

Havana has had a popular annual jazz festival since 1978. It is a famous festival with national and international stars. And definitely worth a visit. The dates may vary, sometimes it will be in February, sometimes in November. Check the web for the next edition.

Get inspired in bars; like Hemingway

La Bodeguita del Medio (‘the little bar in the centre’) and La Floridia are two world famous bars. This is where Hemingway was inspired to write famous works like The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream. 

He usually wrote while enjoying vast amounts of rum. Therefore, a mojito is mandatory here. If you are not a book writer, there is an alternative: you can write your name on the wall here, just like Hemingway did.

It gets often crowded with tourists, especially at the end of the day. Go upstairs and enjoy with the locals.

Have a cocktail at Hotel Nacional

This national monument is characterised by the various art-deco constructions. Moresque arches and handmade tiles from the 1930s will remind you of the Mafia who once lived here. If you love music and dancing, check out the Parisien Cabaret, a famous show at the hotel.

Enjoy the Caribbean carnival

Dancing, drinking and music, that is Caribbean carnival. Celebrated every year by the Cubans, to the fullest extent. El Malecón is the place to be, but you can go to many bars as well. The dates may vary, as this national festival is sometimes held in February, but it could also be July or August for that matter.

Check the internet for the next date and be aware that the hotels will soon be fully booked. So make reservations in time if you want to be there.

Teach yourself how to make rum at Museo de Ron

The Museo de Ron demonstrates how to make one of the most important beverages in the world. The various types of rum will be addressed and there will also be the opportunity to taste them. This is a must for rum-drinkers, but also for those who enjoy a mojito every now and then. Or more.

Strolling around Havana. ©Corno van den Berg

History of Cuba

Havana has a rugged history, with the Spaniards, the English and Americans having ruled here. And don’t forget the pirates. It is this city’s history that makes it so intriguing.

Kinderen spelen op straat. ©Corno van den Berg

The Cuban capital has a history of turmoil. It once was the most important port for the Spaniards in the New World. Pirates used to plunder and burn down the city. The English conquered it and traded it for Florida and in the previous century both the United States and the former USSR played dubious roles in Havana. And let’s not forget the influence the mafia has had here. It is no wonder that Ernest Hemingway drew so much inspiration for his books from this place.

Best time for Cuba

A visit is possible all year long. But there are differences for each season:

  • Summer is from May until October, remember that a rain shower is always possible then. And, this region is also often hit by tornados. 
  • The hurricane season is between June and November, with most tornados around October, according to statistics.
  • From December to April the city will be extremely busy.
  • The Cubans are on holiday themselves in July and August. They visit the city and the local beaches in this period.