Cuba’s capital city truly must have been one of the finest cities in the Americas in its day. Compared with many other Caribbean cities, whose historic structures are limited to a handful of churches and musty museums, Havana and its nod to culture and history are breathtaking. It still boasts thousands of architectural treasures, dozens of top-notch museums, gracious avenues and promenades, wonderful music, friendly people, gorgeous vistas and more.
But Havana is in terrible decay. Some areas, particularly in Old Havana, have been restored, but there are numerous areas that are crumbling. These once-graceful buildings have taken a pounding from hurricanes, sea air and neglect for nearly 50 years, without the commitment or materials to preserve and maintain them. Many buildings are missing roofs; on some, you can see doorways leading to missing balconies. The most fascinating thing is seeing these dilapidated buildings in the evening. Once darkness descends, it becomes obvious that, despite the desperate state of these dwellings, people continue to live in them.
The city is rich with rewards for visitors. The core of “Old Havana” or La Habana Vieja is a treasure trove of architectural gems. Across Havana Bay, the iconic 16th-century Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle) guards the city and the harbor and provides panoramic views. The elegant avenues and mansions of El Vedado offer a glimpse of a wealthy past. Today, it’s also the center of the modern government at the symbolic Plaza de la Revolucion.
Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was key in colonial times for its strategic location and rich agricultural base, which developed into the world’s foremost sugar industry. (Today, it’s almost extinct.) Havana itself was founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514, and, with its sheltered harbor, prospered for centuries as a key center for trade.
Spain ruled Cuba for four centuries until the island gained its independence in 1898. In the 1900s, Cuba was mostly run by a series of leaders who were greatly influenced by the United States. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow leader Fulgencio Batista, and a year later, Castro announced his allegiance to the Soviet Union and Communist principles. Thus, he alienated Cuba from the United States and, in the process, thousands of U.S. tourists that regularly visited the island.
The United States’ embargo on Cuba, which began in the 1960s and has been modified several times, basically prohibits U.S. citizens and U.S. companies from conducting business with Cuban interests. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton modified the embargo to prohibit subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba, and he also authorized the sale of certain specific products to Cuba. More recently, President Barack Obama announced his intentions to renew relations between the two countries, making it much easier for Americans to visit Cuba. (For more info, see Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)
The island remained politically aligned and economically dependent on the Soviet Union until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Following difficult economic times in the early 1990s (known as the Periodo Especial), Castro’s regime began encouraging foreign investment, resulting in increased tourism — predominantly from Canada and Europe. This marked the beginning of capitalism and renewed opportunity for the Cuban people. Cuba now attracts more than two million visitors each year.
In 2008, because of Castro’s failing health, his brother Raul Castro was named president. Raul Castro has introduced changes to the island, such as allowing ownership of cell phones, buying and selling property and private enterprise, most notably in the form of paladares, or private restaurants.
Havana’s Plazas: Among those on the must-visit list is Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, which is chock-full of excitement, musicians, booksellers, and arts and crafts vendors. Touts, beggars and more gather in this atmospheric and shady plaza, which is flanked by historic buildings and museums. Plaza Vieja, also in the old city, was laid out in 1559 and served as the main square of Havana until the 19th century. It now houses restored examples of architecture that span the centuries, as well as several cafes and bars that offer Cuban music — including Cafe Taberna, a favorite spot of the renowned Cuban musician Benny More, known as “the barbarian of rhythm.”
The Malecon: On stormy days, the seas crash over the walls of the wide breakwater that lines this four-mile, winding promenade. It attracts a hodgepodge of people: families, couples, fishermen, tourists and those out for a stroll. Architecturally, the boulevard is lined with numerous attractive and important buildings, many of which are now faded from the sun and sea air.
La Habana Vieja: In Old Havana you can visit Palacio del los Capitanes Generales, a classic example of the city’s Baroque architecture. Formerly the home of the Spanish colonial rulers and briefly the presidential palace, today it houses the Museo de la Ciudad and features a comprehensive history of Havana. Other neighborhood attractions include the Catedral de San Cristobal. Havana’s Baroque main cathedral towers over the Plaza de la Catedral and its 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings.
La Calle Obispo: This pedestrianized street, though crowded, narrow, bustling and very touristy, will give you the best sense of Old Havana and its architectural styles. At one end is the classically colonial Plaza de Armas. At the other are buildings from the more modern Art Nouveau period. The restored buildings include hotels, shops, cafes and Farmacia Taquechel, a pharmacy that sells cosmetics and natural and homeopathic remedies. Its picturesque shelves are lined with an impressive collection of antique Italian and Majolica ceramic pharmaceutical jars. Also on Calle Obispo is the lively and restored Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is famous for its literary past. Ernest Hemingway began writing “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in room 511.
Hemingway, who made Cuba his home for a time, has created mystique around numerous island bars. At one end of La Calle Obispo is El Floridita, one of his legendary haunts; he developed quite the taste for daiquiris there, and there is an oft-photographed statue of the American author at one end of the bar. (El Floridita claims to have perfected the recipe and calls itself the “cradle of the daiquiri.”)
Near the cathedral in Old Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio, another Hemingway haunt, is regarded as a temple to the mojito and is probably Havana’s most famous restaurant. Its walls are covered with photographs, graffiti, drawings and people’s signatures (you can add yours if you find space). It’s usually crowded and touristy, but it’s great fun and definitely worth a visit.
Museo de la Revolucion: Dedicated to the revolution and housed in the former presidential palace, this neoclassical building was built in 1920 and decorated by New York’s Tiffany & Co. It served as the home for 25 presidents, so it’s no accident that Castro chose it to house the museum of his revolution. Check out the Salon de Espejos (Hall of Mirrors), which was meant to resemble the room of the same name at the Palace of Versailles.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: The national fine arts museum is contained in two buildings. One is dedicated to Cuban art (colonial, academic and 20th-century art), and the other, two blocks away in the Palacio del Centro Austuriano, focuses on international art, especially European painting and sculpture, as well as ancient art.
Paseo del Prado: Take a stroll down this quintessential Havana boulevard, with its gracious central promenade made of marble. Originally laid out in 1772, the street remains popular for locals, especially in the evening. Marble benches, wrought-iron street lamps and eight bronze lions line the avenue. Some of the buildings along the avenue have been restored and painted bright, pastel colors. There are often street musicians along the central walkway.
Parque Central: The heart of the city center has a small statue to the revolutionary martyr, Jose Marti. It is lined with palm trees and provides a welcome relief from the chaos all around. This area is lined with monumental 19th- and 20th-century buildings, including the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana’s oldest hotel and a classic spot to have a drink on the terrace and watch the world go by.
El Capitolio: Cuba’s Capitol building was inspired by the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. (and is actually slightly larger). It was once the seat of the Cuban Congress, and in 2013 Raul Castro announced that it would return there (the building is still being restored).
Vedado: In this prestigious neighborhood, wide boulevards, gardens and grand residences grace the tree-lined streets. Once home to single families, these dwellings now house several residents on different floors and offer a fascinating glimpse into how the elite of the city once lived. Several of the mansions have been restored and are used as embassies and offices for foreign corporations. This is also the home to the University of Havana, the massive Necropolis de Colon (the city’s most impressive cemetery) and several important museums, including the Museo Napoleonico. This museum boasts the largest collection of Napoleonic artifacts outside of France, gathered by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo.
Also in El Vedado, the vast expanse of the Plaza de la Revolucion has been the heart of the Cuban government and politics since 1959. Fidel Castro renamed the square, formerly known as the Plaza Civica, and it has been the site of many important events, ranging from Castro’s famously long speeches to a mass given by Pope John Paul II in 1998. But it’s perhaps most famous for a sculpture of the iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, with the words Hasta la Victoria, Siempre (until victory, always) on one side of the Ministry of the Interior building.
Finca Vigia: On the outskirts of Havana is Ernest Hemingway’s farm, which he purchased in 1940 and lived in off and on while in Cuba. The home was made into a museum in 1962 and remains essentially as Hemingway left it. It features his 9,000-book library, hunting trophies, photos, artwork and even his fishing boat, the Pilar. The Finca Vigia Foundation in the United States is working to preserve this historic home, and its efforts have led to rare U.S.-Cuban cooperation, including the digitalization of Hemingway’s private documents.
Until fairly recently, eating in Havana could be a bit of a challenge because of the lack of quality and the inconsistency of ingredients. Most restaurants were state run (and were generally pretty awful both in terms of food and service). The few privately run restaurants (known as paladares) were subject to a slew of red tape that made them almost as bad as the state-run ones.
All this changed in January 2011, when President Raul Castro’s new privatization laws allowed paladares to seat up to 50 people (previously it was 12), and, more crucially, serve entrees beyond the traditional Cuban food of roast pork, black beans, rice and plantains.
Today, there are paladares popping up all over the city, offering cuisine and service to match any restaurant in the Caribbean. The older ones may be quirky in terms of hours and service (they are often family run, with older members cooking and waiting tables). The post-2011 paladares are modern, hip and funky.
The most famous paladar in Havana, La Guarida, was featured in the popular Cuban film “Fresa y Chocolate,” and much of its reputation rests on this. Half the fun is getting there: It must be reached via three flights up a poorly lit, steep staircase in a building that anywhere else in the world would have been condemned by now. Signature dishes include ahi with sugar cane glaze, mutton braised in papaya juice and seafood risotto.
A few blocks from the cruise terminal, just off the Malecon, is El Templete, one of the oldest restaurants in the city. This eatery offers fine views over the bay. It’s known for the freshest seafood and shellfish in the city and offers an impressive array of appetizers, as well as a wide variety of main dishes, but it’s not cheap.
A less expensive favorite is Dona Eutimia, a paladar that serves up reasonably priced, generously portioned traditional Cuban dishes, with great service in a prime spot opposite the Cathedral.
If you fancy venturing further afield to the Vedado area, then you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to places to eat. One of the standouts is Waoo, which offers fresh, simple food, including empanadas as well as larger dishes. The venue is lovely: a wooden house with shuttered windows and a large L-shaped bar. It’s located right in the heart of hip, happening Vedado.
Also in Vedado, within easy walking distance of the Melia Cohiba Hotel, is Atelier. From the outside it just looks like a house with a pretty garden, making it a bit tricky to find, and as you go upstairs to the dining room you’ll be led to a table where the silverware may or may not match — but all of that is part of the place’s charm. The menus are written by hand and offer delicious options such as vieja ropa and shrimp with cream sauce.
Cafe Laurent offers dining on a balcony overlooking the city from the fifth floor of an apartment building. It’s within walking distance of the Hotel Nacional.
The decor at Elite is a bit more modern than you may find at other paladares, and the food is on the fancier end of the scale for Cuba, including veal medallion with potatoes and tarragon foam as well as lobster with fettuccine.
Popular bars in Old Havana, such as El Floridita, are generally overpriced, offering average food and mediocre service. The more moderately priced La Bodeguita del Medio also serves simple meals.
Shopping in Havana
Before embarking on a shopping spree in Havana, Americans should familiarize themselves with which goods they’re allowed to bring home with them. You may now bring back previously forbidden products such as cigars and rum in limited quantities. There’s no limit on “informational materials” such as books, musical CDs and artwork.
Havana does not have a particularly extensive shopping scene. You’ll likely find your way to state-run stores like ARTex and Fondo de Bienes Culturales, which run multiple shops offering music, art, crafts, T-shirts and souvenirs. The best place to buy souvenirs such as paintings, hats, woodwork and more is Almacenes San Jose, a vast warehouse filled with local artists and vendors.
We recommend purchasing cigars at reputable shops such as Casa del Tabaco or Casa del Habano; though you can buy them for less on the street, the quality will be lower.
Expect to haggle a little in street markets, but not in shops, where prices are generally fixed.
–written by Rose Abello; updated by Adam Coulter