Havana Travel Guide

Overview

Havana is one of the world's most beguiling cities, renowned for its gracious people and vibrant music and dance, yet seemingly caught in a 1950s time-warp. Old Havana, or Habana Vieja, is an amalgam of historic structures, cobbled plazas, castles, cathedrals and classical mansions that date back centuries from the height of Spanish influence. In fact, Havana's core is unrivaled in the Americas for its legacy of historic buildings, although many are in various states of dereliction; others have been renovated and serve as museums, hotels and restaurants.

Beyond the old city core in Havana, the mid-20th-century enclave of Vedado teems with hotels and nightclubs. Plaza de la Revolucion hosts Cuba's government buildings. Farther afield, visitors to Havana will find the Museo Hemingway and the glorious beaches of Playas del Este.

Although Havana's physical attractions are reason enough to visit, travelers often visit to experience the unique, almost surreal, amalgam of socialism and sensuality unique to Cuba. Five decades of communism have not been kind to the city of Havana, and controversy continues still.

Geography

Havana is located on the northwest coast of Cuba, just 90 mi/145 km south of Key West, Florida. Most tourist attractions are in Old Havana (Habana Vieja), the colonial city laid out during the 16th and 17th centuries in a grid on the west bank of Bahia de la Habana. Old Havana extends west from the bay to the Prado, a broad, tree-lined esplanade beyond which lies the 19th-century residential area of Centro Habana, inland of the seafront boulevard called the Malecon.

Farther west is Vedado, a former middle-class zone that still functions as the center of business and nightlife. Fading hotels from the 1950s still stand there, rising over grandiose art-nouveau mansions and art-deco apartment complexes. The neoclassical university is there, as is the Cementerio Colon, full of flamboyant mausoleums. Vedado's tree-lined boulevards extend beyond the Rio Almanderes to Miramar—a 20th-century grid of once-noble mansions and modernist homes, many now occupied by foreign embassies. Ritzy modern hotels also occupy the space, alongside the Miramar Trade Center. Miramar extends into the upscale residential areas of Cubanacan and Siboney, locations of the city's convention center and biogenetic engineering industries, respectively, plus the hidden-away homes of Cuba's government elite.

Sprawling and tumbledown working-class regions extend for miles/kilometers south of the city. To the east lie the historic areas of Regla and Guanabacoa, both centers of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion. Beyond lies Alamar, a region of post-revolutionary high-rise apartments separating the city from the pleasant beach area of Playas del Este.

History

Founded in 1519 by Spanish conquistadores on the shores of a flask-shaped bay, San Cristobal de la Habana was ideally situated for growth. Spain's Treasure Fleet of the Americas assembled there for the twice-annual journey to Spain, and the city grew wealthy from shipbuilding and provisioning. Vast profits from sugar production and the slave trade added to the economy. Great castles were built to protect Havana from pirates and foreign invaders.

Nonetheless, the English seized Havana in 1762, opening the city to international trade, although they held it for only one year. Havana remained Spain's "Pearl of the Antilles" until 1898, when the U.S. intervened in the Cuban wars of independence by declaring war on Spain and thus gained possession of the island under the Treaty of Paris. Cuban nationalist Jose Marti led the independence cause and is today considered Cuba's national hero.

In 1902, the U.S. granted Cuba independence—but it also wrote Cuba's constitution and controlled a string of presidents in ensuing decades. Havana witnessed phenomenal growth as U.S. investment poured in, and Havana became a playground for U.S. tourists. Corrupt government, the presence of U.S. mobsters, and epidemic poverty fostered revolutionary movements that culminated on New Year's Eve 1958, when Gen. Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba and Fidel Castro seized power.

After Castro gained control, the city experienced an economic decline. In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy enacted a trade embargo that is still in place. By 1967, the Cuban government had seized or closed all private businesses. Despite massive amounts of aid from what was then the Soviet Union, Havana's infrastructure began to crumble, and Eastern Bloc vehicles replaced U.S. autos. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, residents were forced to endure severe food shortages and electricity blackouts. Most citizens bought and sold on the black market to survive, and many still do.

The city's architectural legacy spanning early Spanish Colonial to 1950s modernism has been preserved thanks to a remarkable restoration project that has given much of Old Havana a facelift. Historic sites, plazas and hotels have been restored and a world-class convention center built. However, parts of Havana beyond the central districts remain largely dilapidated, with crumbling infrastructure and pot-holed streets.

In 2014 President Barack Obama re-opened diplomatic ties with Cuba, while also loosening restrictions on travel to the country. In April 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing a number of Obama-era reforms. The U.S, embassy was closed after an alleged attack of unspecified airborne substance. However, direct commercial flights and cruises from the U.S. to Havana will continue to operate. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, these changes will have on local tourism.

Sightseeing

Visitors should concentrate their time in Old Havana. Its narrow, congested, delightfully intriguing cobbled streets are best explored on foot. Begin your tour in Plaza de Armas, where the main sites include the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the Palacio de los Capitanes-Generales. Walk south along Calle Oficios to Plaza San Francisco and follow Calle Muralla west to Plaza Vieja, lined with restored colonial buildings. Continue north along Calle Mercaderes, making a stop at the Maqueta de la Habana (a scale model of the old city). At Empedrado, turn left into Plaza de la Catedral, which is dominated by the antique cathedral.

After sipping a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, just off the plaza, retrace your steps to Calle Obispo. Following this bustling thoroughfare west, you arrive at Parque Central. At the end of Obispo is El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway formerly enjoyed his daiquiris. Don't miss the Capitolio and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes before strolling north along the Prado. Turn east at Calle Refugio for the Museo de la Revolucion. After learning about the Cuban Revolution, continue east along Calle Cuarteles and turn right at Calle Tacon, which leads past the Seminario San Pablo y San Ambrosio and returns you to Plaza de Armas.

A stroll along the length of the Malecon by day or night also will give you a taste for the range of Cuban life. You'll want to tour Vedado, including the Plaza de la Revolucion and Cementerio Colon. To explore farther afield, you'll need a car. To the southeast of the city lies San Francisco de Paula, where Ernest Hemingway's former home—Finca la Vigia—is preserved as a museum. A visit to the Parque Historico-Militar Morro-Cabana is also a must. The best time is early evening; you can then dine in or near the restored castle before witnessing the canonazo—the firing of a cannon, performed every evening at 9 pm by soldiers in period uniform.

Note that opening times in Cuba are generally unreliable and subject to frequent and unannounced changes.

Nightlife

While Havana's nocturnal heyday may be consigned to the past, a number of worthy nightspots have appeared, as entrepreneurs are opening private bars and nightclubs in response to Raul Castro's reforms. There is something for everyone, whether your interests bend to movies and rumbas or jazz and cabarets. Many venues are expensive, and thus virtually off-limits to most Cubans, although this is changing as more and more Cubans have at least a modest income of hard currency. Many places are relatively quiet midweek but packed on weekends. Many nightclubs charge a consumo minimo (minimum consumption) fee, often in addition to entry.

If folkloric music and earthy Afro-Cuban rumbas are your thing, concentrate your time in Habana Vieja. As in prerevolutionary days, Vedado is edgier, contemporary and more local. Many of the best clubs and cabarets are associated with the upscale hotels, where foreigners usually far outnumber Havanans.

Every district has a Casa de la Trova, where traditional music is performed. Havana even has hip-hop and reggae venues. Las Vegas-style cabarets, referred to as cabarets espectaculos, are extremely popular.

Cubans aren't shy, and men and women alike are unusually bold in their invitations to dance.

Dining

Numerous paladares (private restaurants) of note have opened in recent years, adding spice to what was for many years a lackluster epicurean scene. There is plenty to choose from, with something of international standard for every taste.

Be sure to sample Cuba's typical criollo cuisine—roast chicken or pork served with rice, black beans, yams and fried plantains. Private restaurants are by far the best places to try local fare, such as corvina al ajillo (sea bass with garlic); a few offer creative dishes that could rival fine-dining restaurants beyond Cuba.

Many state-run restaurants have few items on the menu actually available. Be prepared for barely palatable food, and sometimes service to match. And green vegetables are virtually unknown.

Cuba's state-run restaurants are often vastly overpriced. Check your bill and count your change carefully, as scams are frequent. Dining hours are typically 11 am-midnight (several restaurants stay open 24 hours). Few, however, are open for breakfast: You will need to rely on hotel breakfasts.

Note: Few restaurants outside of major hotels accept credit cards, and U.S.-based credit cards are not accepted anywhere.

Expect to pay within the following guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than CUC10; $$ = CUC11-CUC15; $$$ = CUC16-CUC25; and $$$$ = more than CUC25

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