Historic Habana Vieja
Arguably one of the greatest achievements in Cuba in the last 50 years has been the piecing back together of Habana Vieja. This detailed, meticulous, lovingly curated restoration process has created one of the historical wonders of the Americas, a kind of Latin American Rome where the past can be peeled off in layers. Armed with a sharp eye and a lucid imagination, you can walk through Havana’s cobbled streets and evoke the ghosts of erstwhile sugar barons and sabre-rattling buccaneers.
It’s difficult to come to Havana and not be ensnared by the romance of the Malecón sea drive, 7km of shabby magnificence that stretches the breadth of the city from Habana Vieja to Miramar and acts as a substitute living room for tens of thousands of cavorting, canoodling, breeze-shooting habaneros. Traverse it during a storm when giant waves breach the wall, tackle it at sunset when local musicians come down to blast out their scales, or linger after dark with a bottle of Havana Club and an appetite for spontaneity.
If you’ve been in Havana for more than a day and still haven’t heard any live music, you’re clearly hanging around in the wrong bars. Welcome to one of the most musically diverse cities on the planet, where melodious guitars rule over cloying background tapes and singing is seen as just another form of verbal communication. The traditional genres of son and salsa are merely one groove on a larger record. Havana has been pushing the musical envelope for decades. From Benny Moré to X-Alfonso, the city bleeds syncopated rhythms.
For centuries, Havana was the key that unlocked the door to Spain’s American empire. Adamant that they would defend the city at all costs, the Iberian colonizers built a formidable ring of protective forts around Havana starting in the 1550s. Enduring the test of time, these military emplacements still stand. The two finest rise grandly above Havana’s harbor in the Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña, a Unesco World Heritage site that remembers its history in a nightly cañonzao (cannon-firing) ceremony.
It’s time to promote Havana into the echelon of the world’s great art cities. For evidence, proceed directly to the positively psychedelic neighborhood of Jaimanitas in Playa, where local artist José Fuster has conceived a community art project extraordinaire, covering several city blocks with a swirling mass of mosaics, painted tiles and fantasy-like images. The result, nicknamed Fusterlandia, is still only on the fringes of international art culture, but in terms of probing, experimental street art there are few precedents – anywhere.
Bohemian Bars & Cafes
Havana has yet to embrace bland brands. This is a city where you can still enjoy a coffee or mojito in unique, sometimes avant-garde surroundings, such as a makeshift art gallery or a room full of dusty antiques, sitting alongside talented musicians and with not a cell phone or a cardboard takeout cup in sight. Plaza del Cristo in Habana Vieja has emerged as the city’s modern-day ‘Latin Quarter,’ where Havana’s creative denizens come to imbibe, chat and plot the next ‘revolution.’
Cast an eye over Havana’s eclectic architecture and you’re halfway to understanding the city’s 500-year history. The product of an overlapping mix of African, Spanish, French and North American influences, Havana’s buildings broadcast myriad local styles, all of them recognizably Cuban. There’s the sturdy limestone baroque of Habana Vieja, the neoclassical porches of the Prado and Parque Central, the streamlined art deco of Vedado, and the elaborate decoration of Miramar’s wealthy diplomatic quarter. Absorb their idiosyncrasies on your own or join a comprehensive architectural tour.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Art has always flourished in Cuba through good times and bad, cleverly defying government censorship or subtly protesting about colonial (and postcolonial) oppression. Working largely under the radar since the 1950s, the nation’s art curators have quietly amassed a huge, genre-bending collection in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, a fantastic voyage from the baroque religious etchings of José Nicolás de la Escalera to the graphic pop art of Raúl Martínez. It’s quite a ride.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Welcome to the ‘new ‘ Cuba! And no, it’s not a casino, a golf course or an all-inclusive resort designed to appeal to foreign tourists. Rather, it’s an independent, cutting-edge art ‘factory’ where visitors can wander from room to room listening to innovative music, viewing fabulous paintings and sharing discourse with diverse people. The brainchild of Cuban musician X-Alfonso, Havana’s Fábrica de Arte Cubano has emerged as the country’s finest bona fide art collective, a bastion of creative ideas that’s loaded with inspiration and excitement. Every city should have one.
Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón
Havana’s huge, ornate cemetery isn’t just a resting place for the departed – it’s a veritable work of art, filled with pious statues, poetically inscribed tombstones, marble crucifixes and haunting crypts. Navigating this city within a city is like an eerie walk through the annals of Cuban history. Among the hundreds of thousands of people buried here is a who’s who of Cuban culture. Some souls lie nameless, others have been granted ostentatious mausoleums, and many have made their name in music, politics, art or literature.