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Havana, Cuba

About Havana

Long isolated from visitors, Cuba’s culture is among the most unspoiled in the world, and Havana is at its authentic center. In the mid-20th century, Havana was home to luxury resorts and casinos that attracted the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Today, the city is a fascinating blend of old-world architecture and 1950s Chevrolets and Fords that celebrates its rich music, arts and architecture.

Havana (La Habana in Spanish) was founded by Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in the 16th century. Its location along a deep bay with a sheltered harbor made the city an ideal location for economic development during Spanish colonial times. With land on both sides, the port was easily defended. It was the first stop for Spanish fleets arriving to the New World, and quickly became a gateway to further American conquests.

Sugar was one of Havana’s first major exports, and is still a major contributor to the country’s economy. Other notable goods include rum, textiles and world-famous Cuban cigars.

Havana Lifestyle and Culture

Cuban jazz spills into the streets of Havana day or night, and local artists display their work on the city’s murals and in inviting galleries. The city’s Casco Viejo, or Old Town, is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its more than 3,000 buildings of neoclassical, baroque and colonial styles line narrow lanes and surround graceful squares, from the Plaza de Armas to the Plaza de la Cathedral and down the historic Avenida de los Presidentes. Cobblestone streets lead to colonnaded arcades, arched windows and doorways and graceful wrought-iron balconies, a rich canvas that conjures centuries past. In all, Havana is home to one of the greatest collections of Spanish colonial architecture in the Western Hemisphere.

Contemporary Havana is divided into three parts: Old Havana with its cobblestone plazas, tree-lined Vedado with its nightlife and commercial activity, and the newer suburban districts where the city’s more affluent residents live.

Havana is the cultural soul of Cuba, offering museums, ballet, art and music. The city’s International Ballet Festival, celebrating dance companies from around the globe, and the Havana International Jazz Festival, filling large theaters and intimate clubs with sounds from the world’s best Latin Jazz musicians, are two of the city’s biggest annual events.

Havana Sights and Landmarks

Any exploration of this bustling port city begins along the Malecón waterfront, the vibrant promenade where habaneros gather to soak in the sun and catch up on the latest neighborhood news.

For a walk through Cuban history, explore elaborate graves, marble statues and reverent chapels in Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, one of the largest cemeteries in the Americas. The historic fortress of Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, named for the biblical three kings, was built in the late 16th century. It has long kept watch over the waters from its prominent perch on Havana Bay. Panoramic views of the ocean and city can be seen from its location in the Parque Historico Militar (the Military History Park). Nearby, the imposing Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana was the largest Spanish fort at the time it was built in the 1770s. It was later used as Che Guevara’s headquarters and today houses a museum dedicated to him, the Museo de Comandancia del Che, and other museums.

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is Havana’s national museum of fine art, spanning two large buildings a few blocks from each other. The European collection can be found in the Palacio del Centro Asturiano (Palace of the Asturian Center); Cuban art is housed in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). El Capitolio Nacional, the grandiose government building constructed after World War II, bears a striking resemblance to the US Capitol; its huge dome is visible from most of the city. For a rare example of asymmetrical baroque architecture, look no further than the Catedral de San Cristóbal in Plaza de la Catedral: One of its towers is wider than the other.

Havana Entertainment and Activities

For a tour of one of Havana’s famed cigar factories, try Fábrica Corona or Fábrica de Tabaco H. Upmann. (Note that factory names change frequently and tickets must be purchased from a state tour agency in advance.) These are also the best places to buy cigars, ensuring you’re getting an authentic product. For another quintessential Cuban experience, take in a baseball game at the 55,000 seat Estadio Latinoamericano, Cuba’s largest stadium, and cheer on the beloved Havana Industriales.

Perfectly suited to an elegant evening out, the neo-baroque Gran Teatro de la Habana is home to the acclaimed National Ballet and the Cuban National Opera. A different kind of performance that is also typically Cuban, cabaret shows at the world-famous Tropicana Club hark back to the city’s 1950s heyday with Las Vegas-style dancers, bright lights and a thumping salsa beat.

To enjoy the tropical side of Havana, head just outside the city center to where the Playas del Este (Eastern Beaches) promise palm-fringed sands for miles. Santa Maria del Mar, or St. Mary of the Sea, is perhaps the best stretch, catering to visitors with its many restaurants and other amenities.

Havana Restaurants and Shopping

Restaurants can be split into two categories in Havana: government-run eateries and paladares, privately-owned restaurants that are often set in residents’ homes. Most traditional meals feature rice and beans (either cooked apart as arroz con frijoles or together as congri).

El Concinero in Vedado is the place on everyone’s list. Enter the former brick factory and ascend three flights of stairs to emerge on the open terrace, where you can enjoy tapas and cocktails al fresco. Decamerón is a cozy paladar serving Cuban food with a gourmet twist alongside international specialties. Try their shredded beef in Creole sauce with crunchy sweet potatoes. For fine dining, visit the hidden Café Laurent on the top floor of an apartment block. It’s so unassuming it even lacks a sign. Sit on 1950s furnishings while indulging in seafood risotto and a glass of wine.

Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes de Deposito San José, in an old warehouse district of the city, is the city’s open air handicraft market and an excellent place to shop for jewelry, paintings, leather and woodwork. Palacio de la Artesanía is a former colonial palace turned shopping mall. Pick up cigars, clothing, crafts and more.