Color. Smog. Music. Rum. Life. Poverty. Vintage. Flowers. Decay. Community. Family. Scarcity. Package these up into one impressionist painting and you will have a glimpse of Havana Cuba.
I have good news and I have bad news. I really enjoyed Havana and fell in love with the color, the ocean, and the pace of life that is both vibrant and slow. Now the bad news… it took, three to four days to grow on me…but unless in town for something else, you really only need two days in Havana to see the sights. You see the problem…
Despite never being on a cruise (since I was a toddler anyway), I am not a cruise person. I can confidently say this, not because of an experience on a cruise but because of my experiences in cruise cities. Every good experience I’ve ever had in towns like Skagway, Alaska; Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Venice, Italy were all after (or before) the cruise passengers descended like locusts. I say this because Havana was no different.
Old Havana is by far the most popular destination in the city. Make sure to walk through all four squares of Old Havana – Plaza de la Catedral; Plaza Vieja; Plaza de San Francisco; and Plaza de Armas. They are easy to find in a beautiful East to West line along the water. I recommend you go at least twice – once during the hustle and bustle of the day, but also once in the morning (around 7) to watch the city wake up as the locals get ready for the day.
While in Old Havana, check out the large flea market for souvenirs, especially art work. You can find it along Ave Del Perto on the Eastern side of the old city in an old warehouse. You can also find art and local handicrafts at the Art fair on Saturday along Paeso de Marti if you head west towards the Malecon (sea wall) from Parque Central.
Marrow Castle and Cristo de La Habana are directly across the Bahia de La Habana from the old city. While close, it is not really walkable and you will want to take a cab. Both have amazing views of the city. You can also come at night, for the nightly cannon ceremony which is a reenactment when the gates to the old city used to be closed to protect against pirates. If you don’t make it over there, you can still hear the boom every night at 9 pm from both Old Town and Central Havana.
Cuba is famous for its Cigars, Rum and Chocolate. You can get tours of any (or all) of these industries while in Havana. You can see students learning how to roll cigars, learn about the history of rum, or visit Museo Del Chocola.
Outside the old city, two options include Hemingway’s house (5 CUC) and Fuster’s House. Hemingway’s house is newly renovated, and while you can’t go in, it is an open floor plan where you can peer into doors and windows to see the preserved house. Visit the tower to see his typewriter and look into the bathroom window where you can see his annotations of his weight. Fuster’s House, aka, Fusterlandia is a transformed neighborhood by artist Jose Fuster. The entire neighborhood is now converted into a mosaic wonderland – walls, floors, ceilings, statues – as far as the eye can see.
I recommend you spend a little bit of time in Centro Havana. It adjoins Old Havana, just south of the Capitol and Parque Central. Here you will find significantly less tourists and a working class neighborhood.
I also highly recommend you get up early and take a walk at around 7 AM to see Cuban life without the cruise ships and night life. Cubans are up and out early. You will see kids going to school and having breakfast at the corner diner with their fathers. You will see old men fishing at the Malecon. You will see shop keepers sweeping the sidewalks. And you will find hundreds of people, of all ages sitting in the parks getting free WiFi. I even saw Nuns huddled in a small group with their phones.
Museo de la Revolution (8 CUC, open 0930-430) takes you through the battles of the revolution in excruciating detail. Ironically, the museum is the former palace of Batista, who ruled Cuba before the Revolution. Displays are in a mix of Spanish and English, and while the detail was a little much for me, it is always fascinating to get the other half of the story.
In contrast, Museo Nacional CDR (2 CUC) was horrible and I could not get through it fast enough. However, because it is multi-storied and I was assigned my own “guide” to push the elevator buttons and turn on the lights in each room, I felt obligated to at least walk through the entire building.
If you are an art lover, or love a museum gift shop, stop by Bellas Artes to see Cuban art.
You’ll want to take a taxi to Plaza de la Revolución. It is a quick stop and there is a not a lot to do but you can see the iconic memorials of Jose Marti (National hero in war of Independence with Spain), Che Gueva and Camilo Cienfuegos (both heroes of the revolution). Che’s memorial has a quotation, “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always).
Havana is filled with parks and revisionist history. Both Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon (not Lenin) have been declared revolutionaries and have monuments dedicated to them in city parks. Lincoln, because he freed the slaves and tried to make America a more egalitarian society, has a statue in Revolutionary Park (not to be confused with Revolutionary Square), just east of the Capitol. John Lennon and the Beatles were banned in the 60s but rebranded in the 80s as a revolutionary after protesting the Vietnam War. Lennon’s statue is a bit further out of the way, and not worth the trip unless you are already there or a huge fan. But if you go, look for the guard in charge of his glasses. She’ll put them back on John for your pictures. You can also visit the French café, Union Francesa de Cuba, across the street if you have a hankering for non-Cuban food.
Take the time to visit Hotel Nacional. While I wouldn’t stay here because it is too far from the rest of the city (30-40 minute walk), it is definitely worth a stop for 1-2 hours. The hotel is gorgeous, with a wonderful garden and views of the sea. You can also see the old Santa Clara Battery cannons and a bunker from the Cuban Missile Crisis. And, although I have not been able to verify on line, I was told the hotel was the location of an international Mob convention in the 1950’s where Frank Sinatra performed.
Stay tuned for part II about more on where to eat, drink and stay…