Havana is a work of art; the city is a beautiful canvas but the masterpiece just isn’t finished yet. Havana has 500 years of history, so there are many buildings and forts built in the 16th century that have survived to this day. The story of Havana is that of a great city that has fallen apart, and the people who live here have managed to keep that spirit alive. Sadly, much of the architecture has been allowed to fall into disrepair over the last 60 years, but there is so much beauty to be found in this once vibrant city. Havana is a city that just needs a little facelift.
The city is located around a natural harbour and sits on a pristine coastline surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. It was founded by the Spanish in 1519 and was an important trading port connecting the Spanish Empire to the riches of the Americas. The city has had many moments where it was one of the most exciting places in the new world, and from colonial times to the 1930s, when it had an incredible nightlife drawing people from around the world.
Some day soon Havana will receive an influx of money, either from tourism or capitalism, and the city will quickly regain its title of one of the best tourist destinations in the world. Amongst the crumbling buildings is an incredible culture, and the residents of the city make this place one of the most vibrant places we’ve ever been to. We would continuously comment during our journey that the city photographs really well, as the small snapshots of the city are incredible.
Change is coming to Havana – and it has already begun in some places – but the city will retain its charm even after this renaissance arrives. You should visit now, before this happens, just so you can appreciate the city later, after it changes for again.
There are many great museums celebrating both the countries recent history (Viva la Revolucion!), as well as their Colonial History. Ernest Hemmingway lived in Havana for many years, so there are plenty of places that boast “Hemmingway used to drink (blank) here”, including several bars, and his old house which has been turned into a museum. While we didn’t get a chance to visit the Hemmingway House – we only had 2 days – we did stop off at two other museums, as well as a far out trip to the Fusterlandia, which has transformed a former fishing village neighbourhood into a art exhibit.
A good friend of ours is going to Cuba, so he inspired us to finally finish this post that has been stuck in drafts for too long. This one is for you Alex. There are so many incredible things to see – and drink – that make Havana one of our favourite cities in the world.
In 2017, we spent a long weekend in Havana and found ourselves running out of time before we ran out of things to do. We would love to go back soon to experience the city again. You will definitely fall in love with Havana. We definitely did.
8 Incredible things we did in Havana, Cuba
How do you even begin to answer the question “what is Fusterlandia?” This art project is the creation of Jose Fuster, who has transformed his small neighbourhood into an art exhibit in the most extraordinary way. It’s one of those places you just have to see with your own eyes to understand. It’s number one on our list of things to do for a reason.
Jose Rodriguez Fuster has revitalized his community by turning it into his own personal canvas, bringing colour to an otherwise ordinary neighbourhood. It is located west of Central Havana, in the neighbourhood of Jaimanitas, which is a former fishing village and now bears his name: Fusterlandia. His work has been compared to the Spanish artist of Guadi in Barcelona and his revolutionary style has earned him the praise of being the “Picasso of Cuba”.
Working with small colourful tiles, the artist has decorated several houses, fences and walls, transforming it into a fantastic art display. It first began in his own house and later spread to then yard; he eventually he began to ask neighbours if he could include them as well. There are over 80 houses that have been decorated in these incredible designs, with murals seemingly covering most of the neighbourhood. It is street art being taken to the next level, and it brought a lot of spotlight and tourists to this otherwise small residential area.
We weren’t really sure what to expect when traveling out this way. This amazing place is located a short drive west from Central Havana, and while it might seem a little bit out of the way, this was one of the best places we visited in the city. Either way, it was incredible and worth the trip.
Unfortunately the “museum”, which is located at his original house, was closing when we arrived, so we only had a few minutes to look around. We spent about an hour wandering around the neighbourhood, enjoying the the artwork which has spilled onto the streets. It is 100% worth the trip to visit.
We also used this as an excuse to take a more expensive taxi, and we traveled out this way in a bright red 1930s Chevrolet. There is a bus that goes here that will cost you about $1. We paid about $20 USD to get here, choosing to pay a bit more because we picked the best car to ride in.
2 Mojitos & Piná Coladas! El Flordita / La Abadia / Havana Club Distillery
Cuba knows how to make a really good Rum; combine this with fresh mint grown on the island, and its easy to see why the Mojito is the country’s staple drink. They’re cheap, refreshing and available everywhere. So make sure you include a few of these on your vacation to Havana.
We found several great bars that served up a variety of delicious drinks. We found Havana to be lacking in some areas (finding mid range restaurants was a struggle, and finding bottled water was rare in Havana Centro) but finding a place to get a cocktail is quite easy. With all the walking around you will be doing in Havana, you’re going to need a drink. We have our own three favourties, listed below.
Number one needs to be the Havana Club Distillery, located close to the ports near the old city. They have an incredible tasting room (with live music), and as you would expect, a great collection of Rum. You can take a tour of the facility or just visit the gift shop for a nice take away bottle, this is one great little distillery built into a very nicely renovated colonial building.
Ernest Hemmingway spent a lot of time in Havana, and he liked to drink; so there are several great bars that he used to frequent that now use this association with the writer as a chance to cash in. One of these bars is El Flordita, which serves a mean Pina Colada. The bar is absolutely packed full of people, with a full team of bartenders using several blenders at the same time. The day we visited there was a cruise ship in town, so maybe this isn’t always such a crazy place, but it added to the fun. Everyone has to yell to keep audible over the constant background sound of blenders going off.
The third bar on our list – and personal favourite in Havana – was La Abadia, located along the Malecon, which was built into an old church abby and still has pews for seats. This place had more of a local flavour and a beautiful view out towards the Caribbean while we sat on big long shared wooden tables. It was the closest bar to where we were staying and they had the cheapest Mojito we found in Havana, so extra bonus points for this one!
3 La Habana Vieja
Habana Vieja (Old Havana), is the oldest part of the city, with a history dating back to the colonial founding of the city. This is the most tourist friendly part of town, especially with its proximity to the cruise ship port.
Havana has 500 years of history wrapped up into the city, from the Colonial times to the revolution era in 1960s. The city was originally founded by the Spanish in 1519, built around the natural harbour and was used extensively as a major trading port between the Old and New worlds. It was rebuilt with fortifications after being destroyed in 1555 by a French Corsair, and many of these fortifications still stand today.
Old Havana is one of 15 municipalities of the city, and it contains many of the old fortifications and remains of the city walls. The city of Havana can be split into three distinct areas, the Old City, Vedado (the modern city) and the new suburban areas in the surrounding districts.
Havana Vieja is the most historic part of town, and major efforts have been undertaken to restore some of its former dignity. In the areas directly next to the cruise ship ports, the city is revitalized and looks like a fairy tale. It is a sign of good things to come for the rest of the city as more tourists begin to visit.
The entire Havana Vieja is a UNESCO world heritage site, and since the 1980s has undergone a lot of restoration and rehabilitation. This part of town is known for narrow streets, colonial buildings with overhanging balconies and beautiful town squares, such as Plaza Vieja, which was built in 1559. There are plenty of very well maintained buildings, and the forts in this area are worth checking out, its the perfect place to wander around for a few hours.
4 The Malecon
The border between Havana and the Caribbean is the Malecon, a long promenade and oceanside boulevard with a seawall protecting the city from the crashing waves. It is one of the most recognizable features in Havana, and a great spot to go for a walk.
It was constructed in 1901, and this grand avenue the borders the Caribbean and Havana Centro. The Malecon today stretches 7km along the Caribbean, connecting many different parts of the city and is still a part of the daily lives of the locals.
This was once a hip and happening place, and the growing middle class occupied much of this part of the city. Havana had a reputation in the 1930s as a vibrant nightlife destination, and Cuba once had the largest middle class in the Americas. This must have been the place to be. You can almost picture classic American cars driving up and down this stretch…
It is a perfect place to go for a walk either in the daytime, or at night, when the street comes alive with people. There are over 2 million people that live in Havana and many of these residents live their social lives outdoors. The Malecon is a great outdoor meeting place for locals – especially for those who don’t make a lot of money, it is a place to hang out and socialize – and you will see everything from fishermen casting lines out into the water to catch dinner, a young couple on their first date to musicians practicing together.
We were staying in the Centro district, which was only 4 blocks from the Malecon, so we spent many evenings here. This part of town is very centrally located and were able to walk to most places, including our favourite bar in Havana, La Abadia where we enjoyed several amazing Mojitos.
5 Cuban Art Factory / El Cocinero
This attraction is located in an old converted factory, not too far from central Havana. We had planned to stop here for dinner and check out a show at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) which is an artists collective located inside the renovated structure.
We actually visited here on the way back from Fusterlandia, as it is located in the same direction (west) outside of town. We planned to visit the restaurant, El Cocinero (the Chef) first and the Art Factory afterwards. Both of them are built into an repurposed cooking oil factory and has been fixed up into quite a trendy destination.
The rooftop of the factory was where the restaurant was located. We started with cocktails on rooftop patio, which overlooks the outdoor dining room floor below, and has the bar built into the smokestack which still stands above the structure.
When it came to eating in Havana, we had a good time with the more high end restaurants and found plenty of cheap local places to grab a snack, but not much in between. El Cocinero was one of the nicer places we visited, and it was definitely priced towards tourists and not the locals. The food was well prepared, delicious and the setting was spectacular. This is one of the top rated restaurants in the city for good reason.
Located underneath the restaurant is the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, one of the most unique art centers in the city. This was actually one of the places we had ranked high on our list of things to do during our trip, but unfortunately the Art Factory was closed the day we tried to go. They walk a fine line between what is art and what is controversial in Cuba, and, as we later learned, they have been shut down temporarily on a few occasions. We just picked the wrong weekend to visit.
The art collective hosts art shows and concerts, and transforms into a drinking destination at night. We obviously can’t vouch for this place, as we never got a chance to go inside but when we make it back to Cuba, this will once again be on the top of our list.
6 Museum of the Revolution
If you want to learn about the recent history of Cuba, a good place to start is the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution) located in Central Havana. It tells the modern history of Cuba, with focusing mostly on the 1895-1898 War of Independence from Spain and the 1950s leading towards the 1959 revolution.
This museum is housed in what was once the Presidental Palace, where Cuban presidents would host other foreign dignitaries. The building is quite extravagant, and had elements of it designed by Tiffany’s in NYC. It is located in Central Havana, next to the old town.
There are many pictures, artifacts, weapons, maps and documents that have been saved from the revolution, and it tells the post war story of Cuba after the uprising. Many of the displays and art pieces here are dedicated to Fidel Castro, who is seen as a liberator and saviour of the Cuban people, especially if everything in the museum is to be believed. Outside of the museum there are many vehicles and artillery, including the ship “Grandma”, which Che Geuvara, Fidel Castro and 80 other freedom fighters used when they first invaded Cuba from Mexico in 1956.
The building itself is worth visiting as a historical landmark; it was constructed in the 1920’s and served as the Presidential Palace until 1959 when Bautista was removed from power by the Cuban Revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro. You don’t have to agree with the story being told here to appreciate the struggle of the Cuban people to achieve such a victory.
7 El Capitolo / Havana Centro
El Capitolo is the most prominent buildings in Havana Centro, a giant marble structure which once housed the congress of Cuba. Today it is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the Science and Technology National Library
A city with over 500 years of history, as the settlement grew it needed some place to spread out towards, and this is where it went. Habana Centro (Central Havana) is one of the 15 municipalities that make up the city of Havana, and is located between Old Havana and the newer Vadado.
This is one of the smallest sections of the city, and has the highest population density. It is definitely a more local part of town, and you can really get a sense of what the city is about. This part of town is where many of the Casa Particulars are located, and we stayed here, close to the Malecon. This part of town has many of the finest architectural buildings; such as the Edificio Bacardi, Pina Colada destination El Flordita, the Museum of the Revolution (listed above) as well as El Capitolo.
Like much of Havana, there are many parts of this neighbourhood that are falling apart, with piles of ruble in places they shouldn’t be, pieces that were once attached to these magnificent buildings. This part of the city has yet to experience a renaissance, but with how beautiful and iconic this part of town is, it is easy to picture it restored with a bit of love.
This is the real Havana, where you can get a real taste of the living breathing city. There is much more local flavour here in Central Havana, and this part of the city has yet to see the investment in infrastructure, and many of the buildings here are falling apart.
El Capitolo is the most prominent building here, which was built in 1929, and was inspired by the Parthenon in Paris, where the Cuban Congress once met. It is not exactly modeled after the Capital Building in Washington, DC, it does have some differences, including the fact that it was built exactly 1 meter taller, wider and longer than its American counterpart.
Since 1959 has been home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the Science and Technology National Library. The building was designated a historic building in 2010 and has since begun ongoing construction for some much needed repairs.
8 Plaza de la Revolución
The Plaza de la Revolución (Plaza of the Revolution) is located close to Central Havana, but is considered its own municipality. This central square is the 31st largest in the world, and is where Fidel Castro would give public speeches twice a year. When the Pope visited in 1998 and 2015 held masses here during their visits to Cuba.
On the edge of the square is the towering Jose Marti monument, which stands at 109 meters tall and can be seen from many points of the city. Construction of this square began before the revolution, and when completed in 1959 was supposed to be called Plaza Civica (Civic Plaza) but it was later renamed “Plaza de la Revolución” (Revolution Square).
Many Cuban government offices surround the square including the Palace of the Revolution (where the president lives), the Cuban Government and Communist Party, and two buildings that house the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications. The latter two buildings are decorated in impressive steel artwork which commemorate two heroes of the revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos (who is often mis-identified as Fidel Castro).