Everyone says: go before it’s too late! I did, and I came home hoping it would change sooner than later. Luckily, it did, because I went to Havana before Castro died, and Obama opened the door! But it will take a long time to change so many years of isolation. And the changes might remove some of the things we as tourists are travelling to Cuba for – but too bad for us.
Okay, so I might seem a little harsh, but travelling through Cuba for 3 weeks really made me sad to see the political hopelessness and the minimum of living conditions many of the people were in.
You’ve probably seen the nostalgic images of vintage cars, pastel colonial buildings and happy Cubans drinking rum. This is of course the postcard image. Just around the corner you’ll find houses threatening to fall down on pedestrians, residents trying to earn a living by renting their home to tourists all set in the pastel-coloured colonial frame.
But Cuba’s tumultuous past and unsure future doesn’t make it less interesting to a cultural traveller. The city is relaxed, beautiful and filled with history!
WHAT TO SEE IN HAVANA
The extremely beautiful capital Havana is well worth a visit. Many of the buildings in the old town are only standing thanks to UNESCO funding. The entire center is a World Heritage Site. But I guess as tourist start pouring in, so will the restoration. At least that’s one good thing about tourism.
TOP HISTORICAL SIGHTS
Everywhere you turn in Havana, you find traces of the colonial past and the earlier European rulers. Cuba was originally inhabited by the Caribbean Taíno people. But they all died in the 15th century after the Europeans arrived. Probably by diseases like smallpox brought from the continent. King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592, but the city was founded in 1519. The city and Cuba became the most important gateway to the new world and the conquest of countries like Mexico. (If you want a conquistador as a guide to Mexico, read here)
The Spaniards made sure to leave a cultural mark, and there’s plenty to see for a cultural traveller and make sure you do, since the rest of Cuba is pretty limited, when it comes to historical monuments.
Castillo de la real Fuerza
When the Spanish arrived in Havana in the 16th century, they turned it into the most fortified city in the Americas. Havana began as a trading port, and hence suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs. So the first stone fort in the Americas was built. But alas, it was too far inside the bay to do any good.
The small figure on top of the tower – The Giraldilla – is the symbol of Havana and has a love story behind it.
Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
Dear Peacock. Thank you for standing right there!
This palace is the former official residence of the govenors (Capitanes Generales) of Havana. Pretty nice! Today it houses the Museum of the City of Havana and is very interesting with uniforms and works spaces. The statue in the lovely courtyard is Christopher Columbus.
Not the most exciting Cathedral, but the remains of Christopher Columbus was kept here for a 100 years. It’s baroque, then turned into neo-classical and sits at a lovely little square. So swing by.
After a few hundred years, the British attacked the fortresses and after 2 months siege of Havana – took the city. For some reason, they didn’t like it, and exchanged Havana for Florida! After 1.5 year!
After this trade opened up and Havana became a wealthy trading spot and new luxurious buildings and theaters emerged. In 19th century Havana was know as the Paris of the Antilles. (I find it so unnecessary, when they called something “the Paris of” or “Venice of”, but maybe it was a way to make it more familiar and less daunting to tourists before the internet.)
One of the luxury buildings built for pleasure was the theatre Teatro Tacón from 1838, that hosted super stars like Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt. The newer Gran Teatro de La Habana from 1915 is located at the same place.
If you want to see a ballet by the Ballet Nacional, find tickets here.
The building began in 1929. El Capitolio was the seat of government in Cuba until after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Its design is compared to that of the United States Capitol especially because of the dome, but it’s not a replica of it. It’s 1 meter, higher, wider and longer – hmm – almost seems like it’s intended…
The year, we went they started restoring, so it’s probably much more well maintained now.
Very surprising to me, is the vast number of descendants from Chinese immigrants in Havana. The Chinese came around 1850 to work in sugar fields and Havana’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest in Latin America.
HAVANA OF TODAY
It wasn’t until after the Spanish- American war, that Cuba gained independence in 1902 giving it an economical boost, but also corruption. The Cuban revolution 1953-59 overthrew the dictator Batista, and Cuba became a socialist state.
One place everyone goes – tourists and locals alike – is the boardwalk along the water called the Malecón. It was build by the Americans – when they ruled Cuba- to protect the city from the sea. As you can see the weather was still quite hurricane like, so it wasn’t that much of a pleasure. But I imagine it’s nice on a hot evening.
In the background, you can see Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro – a 16th century fortress symbolizing the naval past of Havana.
Museo de la Revolución
This iconic building in the skyline became the Presidential Palace in 1920, but Museo de la Revolucion is now inside. It’s not only about the Revolution, but there are plenty of it still. For instance, you’ll find Che Guevara’s pipe.
No, this this is not just any old granma. It’s the Granma!
You can see the actual yacht Granma on which the revolution came sailing in on in 1956. It has it’s own memorial. The boat is inside a huge glass case with constant patrolling. There was much ceremonial surrounding the boat, and you can see my son in the background overwhelmed by the seriousness.
National Museum of Fine Arts
Roman mosaics and El Greco?
Maybe not the biggest collection, but still worth a look. Even though you might visit Cuba for the old charm, it’s also home to a lot of modern art and artists as you can see in Austrian Center..
EVERYDAY LIFE IN HAVANA
In the early 19th century many new and expensive mansion were build for the growing middle-class. I was surprised at how much the buildings were crumbling – sometimes only ruins remained. For someone who’s only visiting, it looks kind of picturesque. But surely not, when living there.
But the Cubans themselves seems to have gotten used to it. “What can you do about anyway” – was the feeling, when we talked to people. This was before Castro died, but after his brother had taken over, but it still meant political power hadn’t really changed leader or course for 50 years.
Daily life for the people in Havana is waiting for the bus in front of large revolutionary graffiti, waiting in line for ice cream or peso pizza or for kids playing soccer in street after school. Notice the school uniforms:
I am so impressed when people just work with what they’ve got.
The Caribbean has always symbolized a relaxing vibe. And Havana definitely has that. And always make time for playing when travelling with children… Head for the many small, but luscious green parks and you’ll also find a lot of playing grounds.
By the way the bust in the small park is of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen…
When the sun goes down, my 4-year old son and I get out the playing cards for a small game, while my husband and I order some margaritas and watch the people passing by.
This was my absolute favourite thing to do in Havana.
HOW & WHEN TO VISIT HAVANA
November is the shoulder season, since it’s at the end of hurricane season, but the weather can still have a lot of wind and clouds during our stay as some of the pictures show. For instance our later Caribbean island adventure turned into a confinement hoping the roof wouldn’t fly off.
I went in 2009 with my then 4 year old son and husband. We almost didn’t meet any other tourists – except for a few backpackers and some older men looking for younger women. We took a 3 week backpacking trip through the middle and Western part of Cuba starting and finishing in Havana.
Where to stay
In Havana and many other places we stayed at Casas particulares; a private home. This was for 2 reasons: the first being that it was cheap and at that time only a few expensive state run hotels was the other option. Secondly, we wanted to get a little closer to the Cuban everyday.
The image below shows a typical housing building in Havana – not exactly what they show in the commercials. But you gotta love their green balconies…
We stayed with a family in an apartment like this. We lived in their main bedroom, while they stayed in the attic. This was quite normal as we saw along our trip, and they need a state permit to be a tenant. Luckily my husband speaks Spanish, so this was a great way to get to know the country, it’s people and the culture better.
The night before flying home to Denmark, we stayed at a state own hotel instead and has this view…
But I preferred the homestays. The friendliness of the people we stayed with and the insisting on carrying on – even if all you have is ducttape to fix the car.
Another Cuban city? Don’t miss the forgotten splendour of colonial Cienfuegos!
Has Havana changed since 2009? Let me know.