Of course, the city’s not only dilapidated. It airs a romantic flair. The people are friendly and simple – your robe is from A or B? Nobody cares – they don’t know it anyway. And if they would, they would still not be interested. An oculist earns roughly 50 CUC per month and a TuKola is 1 CUC. They just have different problems.
Havana’s authentic. Despite the tourist areas. They would love to renovate everything and destroy the charm. But they don’t even have enough money for bad changes.
Preservation of the city
The city tries to preserve the sights at least. Most of the money comes from licenses for restaurants and tourist shops, some of it from foreign donations. For some areas it might be too late already.
The city was founded in 1519 at the Havana Bay as part of the Spanish colonial empire. In 1982 it became part of UNESCO world heritage. Furthermore, Havana is Hemingway’s city. The writer lived here for over 20 years and wrote many of his masterpieces in the city.
The city is large, but easy to discover by bus and taxi. You should go sightseeing systematically and discover the different quarters on their own. The main sights are in Habana Vieja, Vedado and Centro Habana. Three whole days are the least to discover Havana, four days would be better!
The seafront. You can relax, watch the locals, the fishermen and the sea. And inhale the exhaust fumes of the vintage cars. Enjoy! It stretches for 7 km from Habana Vieja in the east to Vedado in the west.
We didn’t visit the Castillo de los Tres Reyes de Morro. But it might be worth a visit.
La Habana Vieja
Where to begin? Most sights are to find in the old town. We tried to visit it in a structured way.
Calle Obispo: A beautifully refurbished alley with shops and bars, restaurants, etc. Looking right and left you see huge differences.
In the western part of the street there’s La Floridita, Hemingway’s favourite bar. He got wasted here regularly. Today he wouldn’t like it. It’s expensive and full of tourists from America and Canada.
Plaza del Armas is on the eastern end of Calle Obispo. The weapon’s square is famous for its books today. It’s the oldest square in the Old Town and you find the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the generals’ residence from the 18th century. Looks beautiful from the outside.
Somehow we found Plaza de la Catedral. The name says it, here’s the cathedral. Its really long name: La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Immaculada de la Habana (I think I mentioned it before: Some Spanish skills are useful in Cuba). With or without the revolution – they are still deeply religious.
Left of the church is La Bodeguita del Medio. Another place where Hemingway got drunk to find creativity. It’s better to drink here than in the Floridita. Prices are reasonable and it’s more original. But also crowded.
Hemingway was supposed to say (every guidebook will tell you that – although nobody knows personally): “Mi Mojito en La Bodeguita, mi Daiquiri en la Floridita!” – A genius alcoholic!
Whatelse should you do? El Museo del Ron Havana Club. Only to access with a guided tour. Normally we don’t like those tours, but we did it, and: our guide was great! She was motivated and didn’t tell too much!
In the end you are allowed to taste one of the older rums and of course, you can buy everything you dream of. Of course we did it!!! Available for all budgets!
You see the former President’s palace used to be a palace. It was first used in 1920. The ball room imitates that in Versailles. The last one to live here and have fantastic parties was Batista. Today it’s the Revolutionary Museum.
Plaza Vieja is one of the beautiful squares in Habana Vieja. Once upon a time, people were celebrating fiestas or processions here, but also executions. The gentry and the rich were watching from their balconies.
Near Plaza Vieja you`ll find a heaven on earth: The Museo del Chocolate. The best place to go when it’s rainy outside. We didn’t want to stay here for so long, but the weather forced us to. At least, it could have been worse for us!
There is a never ending list of Plazas in Havana. Next: Plaza de San Francisco. Here you can see the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asís built in the 16th century – also very pretty!
Centro is mainly a residential area. Sometimes you can’t be sure, if the sights belong to Centro or to the Old Town, because borders are not clear.
Paseo del Prado stretches from Malecón to Parque Central. The streets left and right of it are very busy.
Near Parque Central you find Capitolio and Gran Teatre. The Capitolio looks like the one in Washington, D.C., but it was built after Paris’ Pantheon. It’s the former parliament and is open for public today and a congress centre. Very picturesque!
Interesting but disappointing at the same time: Barrio Chino. It was interesting because we didn’t know there is a Chinatown in Cuba. And it disappointed us because it was one of the least authentic quarters in Havana. Everything was made for tourists!
Once, the largest Chinese community in Latin America lived here. From 1847 they arrived from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan to replace the African slaves. You should definitely eat in one of the many restaurants. It was delicious!
Vedado’s great years were between 1920 and 1950. It was and is the economic and financial centre of Havana. Passing the skyscrapers you find beautiful villas and gardens. Many embassies and the spectacular university (ours wasn’t that beautiful) are also in this part of the city.
Everything looks American. Who wants to discover how Cuba looked before the revolution, should come here.
The quarter’s main sight is Plaza de la Revolución. It’s the largest square in Cuba (72,000 m2) and actually not very beautiful.
It appears mighty due to its monuments and the sheer size and is one of the most famous places in Cuba. Furthermore it’s the country’s political centre.
The 142m high Memorial José Martí is in the middle of the square. The poet’s statue in front of the memorial is 17m high and the country’s largest.
On the opposite there’s the Cuban interior ministry with a huge Che Guevara Head and the slogan “Hasta la Victoria siempre”. Next to it is the Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba, the party headquarters.
On the wall Camilo Cienfuegos praises Castro’s politics “Vas bíen, Fidel!”. It’s just too much pathos on one place – so we had to go in the building next to it to have a Mojito.
In Cienfuegos, we thought that was the most beautiful graveyard in the world. But then we discovered Cementerio Cristóbal Colón. It’s one of the largest in the world, built in 1870. 800,000 graves and mausoleums are here on an area of 56 hectares.
It’s like a city inside the city. Rich gentry families all wanted to have the most beautiful graves.
Many people in the world don’t live as luxurious as the dead do here. But three out of four were poor and have their graves in the outer parts.
Some of the celebrities buried here are Máximo Gómez, Fernando Ortiz or Ibrahim Ferrer. The Revolution’s fighters are in a separate Hall of Honors
On our bus ride (the cheapest way to discover Havana), we saw the mighty Hotel Nacíonal de Cuba.
And could make fun of the Hiltons’ expropriation. The then and now ugly building is a symbol for American capitalism and their presence in Cuba. Today it’s called Hotel Habana Libre.
The word Libre is used inflationary in Cuba. We think, everyone interprets it differently.
We also passed Coppelia Ice Cream Parlour, known from the movie ‘Fresa y Chocolate’. The queue is endless and there are only three different types of ice cream. It’s not worth it.