(Update October 2018)
I know many people who just love Havana. The fun, the sun, the salsa, the malecon. Well, I’m not dancing salsa and I’m certainly not dancing salsa in Cuba where even a one-legged veteran sways way better than me. So I’m focussing on the city by day, and although there’s a lot to see, I didn’t find Havana very charming.
|Synonym for Havana – the inevitable malecon|
But charming or not – it’s one of world’s mystic dream destinations, so here comes a guide.
There is a well maintained historic center, it is on the Unesco World Heritage list – and therefore well maintained. Otherwise, Havana is nice if you like rotten. I normally do like rotten, but I dislike rotten with rotting food and dogs and their excrements. My highlight of rotten was when I – and many, many other people – was walking down a street and all of a sudden there was a deafening noise. No big deal, just a balcony (!) that fell down on the walkway. And since God likes Cubans and doesn’t want anybody to get in trouble, nobody got hurt.
|Rotten to the core – literally.|
Havana is a big city – Cuba’s capital and home to more than 2 million people. Although it is divided in fifteen boroughs, most travellers stick to three of them: The brushed up Habana Vieja – the historic center that, of course, is also on the list of world heritage sites.
|Everything you imagine is Cuban, Habana Vieja will give to you.|
Adjacent to it is the Centro – which is probably the most Cuban part. There is not much to see but crumbling buildings and lots of garbage.
|Well, as the sun sets golden over one of the endless streets stretching across Havana’s Centro, even this part of the city looks mystic.|
And then there is Vedado, a rather bourgeois, posh, a bit boring neighborhood with the biggest share of socialist architecture.
Actually, one of the architectural atrocities is the Edificio FOCSA, a 121 meters high skyscraper built in the mid-1950s. There are apartments and stores and two radio stations – but most of all, there is a restaurant and a bar all the way up. Since these are government-owned businesses, prices are pretty civil – the mojito with your million dollar view is 3,50 CUC.
|Drink with a view.|
Of course one can fill two to three days with either cheesy pseudo sultry Caribbean “cuba in the 50s”-activities like being chauffeured up and down the boulevards in one of the old American street cruisers. And if that alone isn’t tacky enough, they now have pink painted ones with hello kitty on it; I ‘kit’ you not!
|Is this what will come after the revolution? Well, hello kitty!|
Besides the fact that I’m not so fond of Kitty, I also find it a bit obscene to pay the equivalent of an average Cuban monthly income for one hour in this tacky vehicle.
What I like are the hop on-hop off buses you can board at the Parque Central. They cost 10 CUC for a day which is far more than you’d pay for a local bus, but they bring you conveniently to all the places of interest you want to go. But to avoid major disappointments, look at them as means of transportation since the explanations are….expendable.
There are three routes: Route number one is really only for those who are lame or extremely lazy since it cruises Habana Vieja – which everybody with two feet can easily explore walking.
Start at the Parque Central, take a look around, see the Capitolino and the legendary Hotel Inglaterra and then walk down the Paseo del Prado.
As you turn right at the Calle Trocadero, walk one block to get to Havana’s most important museums.
|There are so many really good paintings – that nobody gets to see since they are not
published in books and it is forbidden to take pictures. What a waste.
(Photo: Caseyjd, Selfportrait of Jorge Arche, straightened and trimmed, cropped to 5:7, CC BY-SA 4.0)
There is the really good museum Palacio de Bellas Artes, that hardly any traveller visits.
The entrance fee is 8 CUP for locals and 8 CUC for visitors and it gives you access to two buildings.
What’s annoying is that there is neither a good catalog of the vast permanent collection nor a selection of e. g. postcards or brochures; and you’re not allowed to take pictures.
Actually, in every hall, there is at least one guard who barks loudly “no pictures” as soon as you look at your phone to check the time. They bark it with a heavy Spanish accent and make you feel like a villainous contra.
I remembered these good people very often on my trip through Cuba: every time I had to wait for hours at an Etecsa office to buy an internet card and there was one single person sitting there moving very, very, very slowly, taking shorter or longer breaks for no apparent reason – or the time when I almost missed my intercity bus because the one and only lady supplying passengers with tickets had to have her lunch that very moment, and – well, there were many situations when I remembered that these offices were not understaffed because there is no labor force in Cuba but because the labor force is divided in a moronic way.
|Young pioneers – please promise me that you’ll never become bitter old bats barking in museums!|
I know that this was – and obviously still is – a problem in socialist countries, but I don’t understand why, since it has nothing to do with the system itself. Marx didn’t command that there ought to be many people uselessly barking at museums while important and frequented institutions such as the post office and the bus company should remain understaffed, did he!?
Anyway, back to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is really big and packed with the exquisite Cuban artists such as Jorge Arche, whose work would be considered “The New Objectivity”, Marcelo Pogolotti’s modernistic, Bauhaus-ish paintings glorifying the working class, pop-artist Raúl Martínez’ expressive, colorful canvasses, to point out only a few.
The Palacio can be visited from Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a. m. to 5 p. m. and Sundays from 10 a. m. to 2 p. m.
The same ticket grants access to the older building, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which is located next to the Parque Central. Its main focus is on international art – and the most picturesque part is the beautifully painted ceiling that slowly falls apart. Through the gaps you can actually see the sky and birds are nesting on the wall’s edges – it’s sort of a morbid beauty, thus certainly not on purpose.
Talking about museums – there is, of course, the Museo de la Revolución not to be missed. Guess what I’ve learned there: La revolución was a good thing and the boy band around Fidel good and brave people.
|The neoclassicist museum building used to be the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista.|
As a matter of fact, regarding what was going on during Batista, of course, it was right to change things, to grant people free healthcare, to give them access to profound education (although Cubans have much less access to information, to certain literature etc. they are impressively educated and well informed). It’s just that the information at the museum are not very balanced and the red flag is hitting you right in your face and the crude propaganda adds a caricature feel to it.
The museum can be visited every day from 9.30 a. m. to 4 p. m.
|Che, Ernesto and Camilo Cienfuegos – this sculpture makes them look like a boyband.|
Around the museum are more memorials like the Granma, a yacht that brought revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba; today, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party is named after this old lady.
If there were only one street to walk in Havana – it would be Calle O’Reilly that connects on about one mile the Prado with the very center of Habana Vieja, the Plaza de Armas with all the historic buildings around and the charming atmosphere, created mainly by the numerous booksellers around the park.
|Plaza de Armas – let’s get a bit philosophic: Books can be weapons, too….|
To learn more about Havanas past, there is a nice museum in the square’s vicinity – the Museo de la cuidad, focusing on Havana’s colonial past, showing furniture, personal items, and photos.
Walk down south along calle Obispo which runs between rows of really beautiful houses – well maintained since that’s the price of being on the UNESCO world heritage list. There are cafés and small shops and it’s cute and has very little to do with real Cuban life.
|Fuente de los leones in front of the Basilica at the Plaza de San Francisco,|
At the Plaza de San Francisco you might want to turn right into calle Amargura to either visit the Museo del Chocolate or sample Cuban chocolate products – including their very rich hot chocolate – at the Casa del Chocolate; or both.
If you turn left into Calle San Ignacio and follow the street all the way south, you’ll get to the Mercado Artesanal – a dorado for those who enjoy Caribbean handicraft and art in bright colors.
Just so you get to see another street with similar buildings, walk back up on calle Cuba and turn right at calle Muralla which takes you to one of the most important squares in Habana Vieja, the Plaza Vieja.
|Already in the early morning, there is a lot of artistic activity going on on Plaza Vieja…..|
|….while the Plaza de la Catedral is still pretty dreamy.|
To get from Plaza Vieja to the Plaza de la Catedral, walk six blocks up on calle Mercaderes.
By the way, to the left, on calle Empedrado is the legendary Bodeguita del Medio. To those who love these clichés: Be their guest – cheers.
|Yes, I keep writing smack about all these legendary places all the tourists run to – and look at me cheering in the camera at El Floridita Bar – the cheesiest of the cheesiest. But it was my last evening and I go all sentimental leaving.|
Of course, there are more plazas and rincones – which is corners – and shops and bars all over Habana Vieja and one can spend easily one to two days just walking and looking.
|Take a close look: Jose Martí is carrying a dove on his index finger; the dove is real….he is not.|
Like I said, the boroughs Habana Vieja and Centro are divided by the Parque Central and the adjacent Prado.
Before you go to the Centro district, walk down south into calle Cárdenas, leading from the Parque Central to the main train station (Estación Central de Ferrocarriles). Here, some true architectural treasures can be found: An astonishing variety of Art Nouveau houses that bring immediately Antoní Gaudí’s building to mind, so it’s not surprising that these gems also stem from a Catalan, namely Baltazar Ustrell.
Talking ’bout Catalans in Cuba: Due to economic misery in Spain, from the beginning of the 19th century on many Catalans came to emergent, wealthy Cuba as immigrant workers, hence the cultural connection. You’ll find a really good novel on this subject below in the “Rating”-section.
|Catalonian architecture in Havana.|
El Centro, located west of the Parque, is far less polished than Habana Vieja – actually, it’s not polished at all, it isn’t even cleaned. There are not so many sights and historic buildings – that’s probably exactly why.
For me, the most important sight was the Paladar La Guarida. After having seen the movie Fresa y Chocolate, I was like these people that come to Dubrovnik because of Game of Thrones: I had to see everything related to that film.
|Already the entrance is just amazing.|
So I actually made a reservation a couple of weeks ahead – on the internet – to get a seat and be allowed to fork over the equivalent of a Cuban teacher’s monthly income to have lunch. A nice lunch, but still.
|Dining on a film set: The probably most exclusive paladar “La Guarida”
If you also want to waste money like a thrilled teenager, here is there address:
Phone: + 53 – 7 – 8669047
They are open daily for lunch from noon to 4 p. m. and for dinner from 6 p. m. to 11.45 p. m.
Make sure to have a reservation.
Another funky place in Havana’s Centro is the Callejon de Hamel – actually already bordering the Vedado district. Many Cuban artists use the scarceness of material to their favor and create their work in an impressively ingenious way with what’s just available. When they decorated the Callejon, there must have been lots of bathtubs available, because they are used lavishly.
|Callejon de Hamel between El Centro and Vedado.|
From there, my movie-tour led me to the Heladería La Coppelia where the two main protagonists met – hence the movie’s title.
As a matter of fact, it’s rather the myth than the taste of the ice cream, but try for yourself:
Heladería La Coppelia
2111 Calle L
Phone: + 53 – 7 – 8326184
The ice cream parlor is open from Monday to Friday from 9 a. m. to 8 p. m. – seriously?! Who closes an ice cream parlor on weekends?! Cubans do.
To see more of the mostly more modern sights in the Vedado district, I recommend going on the hop on-hop off tour #2 which covers this area. Here, it makes actually sense since it’s pretty widespread and walking wouldn’t be an option because of the distances.
If you want to get away from Havana’s hustle and bustle and hang out on the beach a bit, you can take hop on-hop off tour #3 which is the beach route. The Playas del Este, the beaches east of Havana, are nice and clean and not overcrowded by foreigners. The bus from the Parque Central goes every 30 minutes. I got off at Tropicoco and had a great time.
|Playa del Este at Tropicoco…|
|…spontaneous live concert included – quite normal in Cuba.
This map should show you all the places worth visiting and mentioned in this post:
Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Cuba?
Then go to the main post and take your pick!