Cuba has a timelessness that comes through despite its timeworn barrios, cobble streets and tattered balconies. Colourful, sensual, rugged and resilient, the culture is centered around the simple things that bring people true happiness. Incredible? Yet, it’s true. Taking a long look at Cuba’s capital city, Havana, you realise that the western world has a few things to learn about… life.
What to know: Havana city facts
Havana is a port city, and a heavenly hub of history, architecture and monuments; it is a vibrant city full of contradictions, full of sights and sounds, diverse in culture, and brimming with genuine people that reverberate with the joy of life. The 2 million locals are joined by another 1 million tourists every year taking advantage of the subtropical climate, and who are time and time again absolutely enthralled by the city’s magic. Last year, Havana made the cut for the New 7 wonders cities, and understandably so. The city dates back to the 16th century and is essentially three in one: Old Havana, Vedado and the newer more affluent, suburban, residential districts, splitting the city into 15 municipalities with further subdivisions.
What to see: Landmarks & Monuments
Havana has numerous landmarks and interesting monuments you’re welcome to discover yourself while strolling down its restored streets. Old Havana exudes a striking mixture between old baroque influences with neo classical structures, arcade facades, hanging balconies and squares. The neighbouring Vedado is a central business and commercial area.
– Plaza Vieja in Old Havana embodies all the aforementioned, plus a beautiful fountain, stunning vitrales, and a strangely controversial bronze statue, making it simply unmissable.
– Between Old Havana and Vedado’s Centro Habana district, is the impressive El Capitolio, which used to be a government building until 1959 but now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences. In close proximity, you’ll also come across the grandiose Gran Teatro opera house.
– On the subject of imposing monuments, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba also makes our list; built in 1930s, it is still in operation today, however it used to be the most luxurious and glamorous hotel in the country. It offers wonderful panoramic views of the harbour from its elevated position on the Taganan hill of Vedado.
– Ernest Hemingway found his personal paradise in San Francisco de Paula ward of the San Miguel del Padron district. Finca Vigia is a house museum with most items being displayed exactly as Hemingway left them.
What to experience: Culture & Entertainment
Leaving the magnificent yet inanimate structures to one side, it is the cultural aspect of Havana where visitors really discover the passion, the warmth and the uncompromising spirit of Cubans. Art, dance and music are at the daily forefront of Cubans’ lives, giving them meaning and purpose, being the key to a good evening, and acting as social adhesive and psychological support system. From professionals to commoners, people have absolutely no qualms about taking it outside and performing from their heart and soul. The barrio streets are the true stage of Cuban performers.
Art – The Gaudi and Picasso inspired visual artist Jose Fuster has created an artistic playground of Art Nouveau & Naïve art sculptures and decorations in the life-size studio, residence and community project called Fusterlandia. The-Merger, is a contemporary collective Art Studio with very intriguing surreal metal creations while you can get a taste of handcrafted wares at the artisans exhibit of San Jose Arts and Crafts market, located on the Avenida del Puerto corner of Calle Cuba. But since it all happens in the barrios, visit the art extravaganza street of Callejon de Hamel and be amazed just how easy Cuban merriment is accomplished, by combining a few guitars and dance moves.
Dance – Dancing occurs naturally for Cubans who cannot resist swaying their latin hips at the sound of music. One of the most authentic experiences is to visit the Callejon de Hamel area, at noon on Sundays, as an Afro-Cuban rumba street party begins, accompanied by drums and chants. If it’s a more formal show you’re after, then unique Cuban fusion dance performances that mix traditional and modern techniques can be experienced by watching the Habana Compas Dance, a mesmerising student group of dancers, performers and musicians, as well as the Danza Contemporanea De Cuba, presenting a blend of modern American theatre, Afro-Caribbean dance moves and classical European ballet techniques.
Music – Salsa, Rumba, Afro-Cuban jazz are the most common sounds reverberating through Havana’s streets. Cubans are a musical people and it should not come as a surprise realising that mostly everyone can play the guitar or percussions. Check out the number one cabaret that promises an authentic and ostentatious show at the club Tropicana, but also for a more local experience check out the Casa de la Musica, going to the earlier shows to avoid singles hour!
Upcoming events – All Jazzed up: The Havana International Jazz festival kicks off at the end of November, while the at the beginning of December you can catch the film Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. Make sure you make your inquiries about the validity of these, as Cubans tend to go with the flow!
Havana and beyond
Havana is a destination in itself, but a visit to Cuba is not complete without sailing around to unravel its coastal wonders, to discover new ports, and hidden coves with crystal clear waters. If you can’t get enough of Cuba, you’ll get to see the best of Havana plus other locations of interest by discovering all the sights and sounds of Cuba on a boutique cruise, with Variety Cruises.