This time last year, I was preparing to travel to Havana for the first time. I was excited and a little apprehensive about the trip because even though I’d read all the travel guides and seen the photos, there was still this aura of mystique surrounding travel to Cuba that I couldn’t decode.
Havana turned out to be vastly fascinating and insightful; different from any place I’d been before. I fell in love, intrigued by the bold and colourful way the city and its people exist. In the short few days, I learned of the captivating culture and history of Cuba, from the revolution to Santaria; I was riveted by the scenery, the grand architecture, the colourful crumbling buildings and the antique cars that warp you back to another time.
I put together a little guide (with lots of photos, sorry!) on how to discover bits of Havana in slow exploration. This guide would be especially useful to first-time visitors.
1. Wander Through Centro Havana
One of the highpoints of my trip was walking through the bustling streets of Centro Habana. Crowded, energetic and real, this densely populated area offers a brief glimpse of life in Cuba’s capital city.
Every turn tells an amazingly scenic story. You could spend hours getting lost in the human moments, of a father and son duo fixing an old car, the crowded markets, the line up at the butcher’s, lunchtime at the local canteen, kids running around and the non-stop noise…
I was fortunate to go on a photo walk with a local photographer, an experience I would highly recommend.
2. Callejon de Hamel
Just around the corner in the Centro Havana neighbourhood of Cayo Hueso, is an alleyway crammed with murals, mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and art made with bathtubs, old pipes and fittings.
This is the brainchild of artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona. Celebrating Afro-Cuban culture, Callejon de Hamel is an exposition of vibrantly colourful street art, modern art, Afro-Cuban religion and music. Around mid-day on Sundays, crowds and musicians gather for a session of drumming, singing, dancing and rumba.
3. Hotel Nacional de Cuba (for drinks and the grounds)
After a day of traipsing through Havana, get yourself to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba for a little R&R. The imposing hotel is steeped in history and cultural significance, like most places in Havana, there’s something nostalgic and magical about it.
It boasts an impressive lobby and beautifully manicured gardens. There’s even a gallery of notable past guests. We went there for mojitos and to explore the beautiful grounds with views of the Malecon in the background.
La Bodeguita del Medio may be the birthplace of the mojito, but the drinks here are nothing to sneeze at.
4. Tour Cuban Missile Crisis Bunker
There’s a bunker on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. A network of narrow underground tunnels built in the sixties during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the US was in the brink of war with Russia.
Today, the tunnels are open for tours; we took a guided tour through the dark narrow tunnels underneath the hotel’s luscious gardens and learned about the crisis from the Cuban perspective. There’s also an exhibition on the site detailing that period in history.
5. The Malecon at Sunset
Everything I want to say about the Maelcon at sunset has probably been already said. I don’t speak Spanish but I’m willing to bet that there has been quite a few songs sung in its praise.
Stretching 8 kilometres along the coast, the Malecon (Seawall) offers sweeping views of the ocean, a buzzing street streaming with classic cars, and the unique architecture of colourful crumbling buildings.
It’s romantic with old world charm; walk along the seawall at dusk for stunning views of the sun setting into the Caribbean Sea. This a wonderful place to hang, people watch, chat with locals and watch those classic cars zip by.
6. La Cabana / Morro Castle
Our third day in Havana had us crossing the bay for a quick guided tour of El Morro and its surrounding areas. Built on a cliff overlooking the bay, the old Spanish castle and fortress has incredible views of the city skyline and ocean.
There are a few exhibits, a museum dedicated to Che Guevara, but my favourite was just wandering the impressive sprawling fortress. The views at sunset are unbelievable!
7. Christ of Havana
A few clicks from La Cabana is the grandiose El Cristo de La Habana. Measuring over 60 feet high, the Christ-like statue looks over the city from a hilltop with a raised hand as if offering a blessing for the city. This area is uncrowded with a serene vibe; it’s yet another perfect spot to watch the sunset and catch breathtaking views from the city.
8. Fabrica de Arte
From what I gathered, F.A.C is the place to be if you’re young and hip in Havana.
Fabrica de Arte is space in an old warehouse converted into a massive multi-level art club consisting of galleries, performance spaces, social spaces, bars and nightclub. Open Thursday nights through the weekends, there are galleries and varied exhibits in different rooms, live performance art and bands.
It’s fun place to wander around, utterly unique and entertaining. It costs just 2CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso) to get in, but you have to get there early in order to avoid the line ups at the door.
9. Colon Cemetery
Named for Christopher Columbus, Havana’s 56-hectare historic Colon Cemetery is an impressive ornate cemetery with elaborate mausoleums, monuments, sculptures and chapels in wide-ranging styles.
We made two short stops here on our way to other places, so I, unfortunately, did not get the chance to explore this cemetery to the extent that I would have liked.
The little of what I saw looked like a small, baroque and beautiful city.
10. Havana Forest
I deliberated leaving Havana’s Forest (Bosque de la Habana) off the list, but ultimately, I loved this beautiful enchanted forest and it rightfully deserves a spot on this list. This forest, along with the Parque Almendares is a popular recreation destination for locals.
A large forested area on the banks of the Almendares River, the park lies in the middle of the city. It’s lush, beautiful and picturesque with giant trees, including huge centuries-old banyan and jaguey trees, and massive plants with oversize leaves creating dynamic draping and canopied vegetation.
Practitioners of the Santeria would often leave sacrifice and offering at the base of the trees, you might encounter (and smell) carcasses of small animals.
There’s so much to do in Havana; you could visit Old Havana, discover Hemingway’s haunts, take a tour of the city in the vintage car, visit a cigar factory or take a day trip to Vinales or Cojímar or the beaches in east. With an abundance of salsa music, dance and friendly people, Havana has a rich nightlife with some iconic bars worth checking out.
On the plane back home, I sat next to a woman who reminded me that Havana might not be for everyone, but when it manages to wedge itself into your heart, it sucks you in and and never let you go. You’ll forever find reasons to go back.
A few other honorable mentions;
Cuba Libro – Unique coffeehouse and English-language bookstore in Vedado
Hotel Parque Central – rooftop bar and pool with incredible views
Mercado de Artesania – a huge indoor artisan market; it’s clearly a tourist trap but so much fun
Nationa Museum of Fine Arts
Museum of the Revolution