Havana guide

El Prado

Paseo de Marti (colloquially known as “El Prado”) is a kilometerlong tree-lined boulevard that slopes from the harbour mouth to the Central Park. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was Havana’s most notable thoroughfare with mansions of aristocratic families rising on either side. The paseo - daily carriage ride - along the boulevard was an important social ritual. Today it is used as an important and very pleasant public space. An art fare is usually held here on weekends. Many buildings of arquetectural and historic interest can be found along the Prado including the most stunning example of Moorish design - the Hotel Sevilla.

Parque Central

The Central Park is the social epicenter of Habana Vieja. The park is paved in pink slabs and presided over by the statue of Jose Marti. Baseball fanatics gather here at a place called the “hot corner” to discuss and argue about baseball. It is surrounded by hotels of historic importance.

Hotel Inglaterra

The Cafe Louvre (in front of the hotel) was a focal point for bohemian society and for rebellions against Spanish rule. A plaque outside the hotel entrance honours the “lads of the Louvre sidewalk” who died for Cuban independence. The hotel interior boasts elaborate wrought-ironwork, patterned tiles, and as a  ensuous life-size statue of a Spanish dancer - La Sevillana. On the roof top there is a bar with a great view, which usually has live music nightly.

Gran Teatro

The current neo-baroque facade drips with caryatids and has four towers, each tipped by a white marble angel reaching gracefully for heaven. It functions as a theatre for the national Ballet and Opera. Guided tour $2, 9am to 5pm.

Museo National de Bella Artes

The fine arts museum is in two separate buildings - one for the international section, and one for the national. Both open Tues-Sat 10am to 6pm, Sun 10am to 2pm. Entrance for either is $5, and both is $8. Guided tours $2. The international section is displayed on 5 floors and boasts Latin America’s richest collection of classical antiquities, including Roman, Greek, and Egyptian statutory and artworks. The displays are separated by nationality. The national section exhibits more than 1,200 works covering a complete spectrum of Cuban paintings, engravings, sketches and sculptures, laid out according to themes in 24 room.

El Capitolio

This statuesque building which dominates Havana’s skyline was built in the 1920’s as Cuba’s House of Government and was obsequiously designed after Washington’s own Congress building. Now it is the headquarters of the Academy of Sciences and the National Library. It features a massive bronze sculpture of Cuba’s voluptuous Indian maiden which is the worlds third tallest indoor statue after the gold Buddha in Japan, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.. Open daily 9am to 7pm daily, entrance $3, guided tours $1. Currently under restoration and closed to the public (December 2010).

Partagas Cigar Factory

Havana’s most famous tobacco factory is housed in a striking 4 story building with Spanish style facade and with a roofline of baroque curves topped by lions. Open Mon-Fri, and 1 Sat a month, 9 to 11am and noon to 3pm, guided tour $12.

Parque de la Fraternidad

This park was laid out in 1892 to commemorate the fourth centennial of Columbus’ discovery of America. The Friendship Tree was planted in its centre in 1928 to cement goodwill between the nations of the Americas. It is surrounded by busts of outstanding American leaders such as Simon Bolivar and Abraham Lincoln.

Museo de la Revolucion

Built in 1920 this building was used as the Presidential Palace. Following the Revolution, it was converted into Havana’s most important Museum. Rooms are divided chronologically, from the colonial period to the modern day. Don’t miss “Cretins’ Corner” which pokes fun at Batista, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. At the rear, in the former palace gardens, is the Granma that brought Castro, Guevara, and other revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. It is surrounded by vehicles used in the revolutionary war. There is also a turbine from the U-2 spy plane downed during the missile crisis in 1962.

El Floridita

This restaurant and bar was made famous by Ernest Hemmingway who frequented here to consume his beloved Daiquiries. The cocktail is served in dozens of varieties for $6. The novelist’s seat is preserved as a shrine (a chain prevents anyone from sitting on it).

Plaza de la Catedral

This exquisite cobbled square is Habana Vieja at its most quintessential. Its main feature is the stunning baroque San Cristobal Cathedral, open Mon to Sat 10:30am to 2pm, Sunday 9am to noon. However, more often than not it is closed except for Mass (Mon, Tue, Thurs, and Fri at 7:15am and 8:15pm, and Sun 8:30am).

Centro Wilfredo Lam

This art centre, on the corner of the plaza, displays works by the eponymous Cuban artist as well as artists from many developing nations (primarily Latin America), and studies and promotes contemporary art from around the world. It also features a large music store. Mon-Fri and alternative Sat 10am-5pm, $2.

La Bodeguita del Medio

Ernest Hemmingway’s favourite watering hole is half a block west of the Cathedral. There is a bar at the front with quite a good restaurant at the back. The house drink is the mojito. Adorning the walls is an impressive collection of photos of famous visitors.

Palacio de los Capitanes Generales

This palace located on the beautiful Plaza de Armas, was home to 65 successive governors of Cuba in the 19th century, the U.S. Governor during the U.S. occupation, and up until 1920, it was seat of the Cuban government. It now houses the City of Habana Museum, which displays the most exquisite furniture and furnishings in Cuba. 9am to 6pm daily, $3, guide $1.

Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

This is probably the most spectacularly decorated church in Cuba. Members of the most aristocratic families of the times were buried in the crypt - some bodies are open to view. This cathedral serves as a concert hall with classical music performances being hosted each Saturday at 6pm and Sunday at 11am

(except July and August). Outside the church, a life-size bronzed statue of an erstwhile and once-renowned tramp known as El Caballero de Paris graces the sidewalk in front of the cathedral entrance. Many Cubans believe that touching his beard will bring good luck.

Museo de Ron

The Rum museum occupies the former harbour front colonial mansion of the Count de la Mortera. It provides an introduction to the mystery and manufacture of Cuban rum. Mon to Fri 9am to 5pm, Sat 9am to 4pm, Sun 10am to 4pm, $7 including guide and drink.

Maqueta de la Habana Vieja

This 1:500 scale model of Habana Vieja measures 8 by 4 meters, with every building delineated and colour coded by use. 9am to 6pm, $1, guide $1.

Planetarium

One of only a few in the world, this impressive representation of the Cosmos is a Japanese investment. You have to phone on Mondays (between 9:30 and 4pm) to be able to book a visit during the week (Wed to Sun 10am to 4pm) 07-8649544/43. $10.

Casa de Obra Pia

One of the most important buildings in the region, the House of Charitable Works, combines two adjacent houses that were later combined. Its a splendid mansion built by Don Martin Calvo who devoted a portion of his wealth to sponsoring five orphan girls every year. Tue to Sat 9am to 12.30pm, $1.

Casa de Africa

Dedicated to a celebration of African culture this place is full of African artwork and artifacts, much of which was contributed by various African embassies in Havana.

Plaza Vieja

This old commercial square originally hosted a covered market. It is surrounded by mansions and apartment blocks from where, in colonial times, residents looked down on processions, executions, bullfights, and fiestas. On the northeast corner in the tallest building in the square is a building housing the Camara Oscura - an optical reflection camera that revolves through 360 degrees and projects a real-time picture of Havana at 30 times magnification onto a two meter-wide parabola in a darkened room. 9am to 5pm daily, $2.

Calle Obispo

This is Havana’s premier shopping street and links the Central Park to the Plaza de Armas. It is for pedestrians only and has several bars which play live music all day until around 11pm at night. The rose-pink Hotel Ambos Mundos preserves Ernest Hemmingway’s room where he stayed while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. The roof-top bar has great views of the bay and the old city and is a great place to stop and rest for a snack. The Hotel Florida has a bar with live music and is about the only bar in Old Havana that is open past 11pm, and where you can dance salsa in a club for less than $10.

Outside Habana Vieja

Barrio Chino

To the surprise of many there is a China Town in Havana. The first Chinese immigrants to Cuba arrived in 1847 as indentured labourers. Over the insuing decades as many as 150,000 Chinese may have arrived to work in the fields. They were contracted to labour for eight years for miserable wages insufficient to buy their return. Most stayed, and intermarried with blacks. Many settled in this part of town and were later joined by other Chinese fleeing persecution. Havana’s Barrio Chino then became the largest in Latin America. In the decades preceding the Revolution, the barrio evolved as a centre of opium dens, brothels, peep shows, and sex clubs. Today, Barrio Chino is a mere shadow of its former self, with about 400 native born Chinese and perhaps 2,000 descendants still resident in the area. The vast majority of Chinese left Cuba in the years following the Revolution. A lively market is held daily (except Wednesday) on pedestrian-only “Knife Alley”, lined with Chinese restaurants and aglow at night with Chinese lanterns.

Christopher Columbus Cementery

Described as “an exercise in pious excesses” this necropolis covers 56 hectares and contains more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, vaults, tombs, and galleries, as well as countless gravestones embellished with angels, griffins, cherubs, and other flamboyant ornamentation. It was originally only open to nobles who competed to build the most elaborate tombs, and was divided by social status. Today its a national monument and serves as a fascinating petrified version of society of the times and its diverse culture including Asturians, Galicians, Afro-Cuban religious devotees, Chinese, revolutionaries, and even some of their enemies. Daily 9am to 5pm, entrance $1, guided tours $5, cameras $5.

Plaza de la Revolution

Havana’s largest plaza is the scene of important public events and government ceremonies such as May Day (International Workers Day - which has been used by socialist nations as a celebration of their ideology), and is surrounded by important government office buildings, the National Library, the Nacional Theatre, and the impressive Jose Marti Monument and Museum.

Monumento y Museo Jose Marti

The massive monument on the south side of the square sits atop a 3m-tall base that is shaped as a five-pointed star. The 18m-tall marble statue of national hero Jose Marti, has him sitting in a contemplative pose, like Rondin’s The Thinker. Behind looms a 109m-tall marble edifice which houses the Jose Marti Museum. Its the highest point in Havana. The museum exhibits artifacts in Marti’s life, and videos of the wars of independence and the Revolution. An art gallery features portraits of Marti. An elevator can take you to the top of the tower for a 360 degree view over Havana for $2. Museum open daily 9am to  4:30pm, $3.

El Morro-La Cabaña Historical Military Park

Looming over Habana Vieja, on the north side of the harbor channel, is the rugged cliff face of the Cabaña, dominated by two great fortresses. Together the castles comprise the largest and most powerful defensive complex built by the Spanish in the Americas. To get there from Habana you need to go through the harbour tunnel (no pedestrians allowed). Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro (El Morro), is the handsome castle built into the rocky palisades of Punta Barlovento, crowning a rise that drops straight to the sea at the entrance to Havana’s narrow harbour channel. 8am to 8pm daily, $3, guide $1. Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (La Cabaña) is the massive fortress half a km east of the Morro, and enjoys a fantastic strategic position, as a cliff top balcony over the city and harbour. Its the largest fort in the Americas stretching 700 meters in length. The fortress contains various museums and restaurants. There is a cannon firing ceremony every night at the Cabaña starting at 8:30pm which announces the closing of the city gates, maintaining a tradition going back centuries. Open daily 10am to 10pm, entrance $6 ($8 after 6pm) guide $1.

Callejon de Hamel

This is an alley where local artist Salvador Gonzalez has adorned walls with evocative murals in blazing  olours inspired by Santeria. The alley features a Santeria shrine, eclectic art galleries, and fantastical totemic sculptures. On Sundays (12noon to 3pm) he hosts Afro-Cuban rumbas.

Vedado

La Rampa (Calle 23)

The main street of Vedado starts at the Malecón and climbs past the major airline offices, nightclubs, cinemas, travel agencies, TV studios, art deco apartment buildings, and high-rise office buildings.

Hotel Nacional

Cuba’s most spectacular hotel is perched atop a small cliff at the junction of La Rampa and the Malecón. Now a national monument, it was designed by the same architects who designed ‘The Breakers’ in Palm Beach, which it closely resembles. A display of photos in the lobby bar shows famous visitors from Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales, to Kate Moss. The outside courtyard is a great place for a mojito - albeit at a cost. Last taste was $4. The Buena Vista Social Club band plays in the music salon on some weekends.

Plaza de la Dignidad (“Tribuna Antimperialista”)

This was created at the height of the Elian Gonzalez fiasco in 1999. It is strategically placed in front of the ‘U.S. Special Interests Building’. A statue of Jose Marti stands at the plaza’s eastern end bearing in one arm a bronze likeness of young Elian while with the other he points an accusatory finger at the Interests Building. Right in front of the Interests Building is the “Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform) - called jokingly by locals the “protestadromo” - which is the focal point of mass organised protests against U.S foreign policy towards Cuba.

Coppelia

At the top of the hill along Calle 23, this park that takes up an entire block, is exclusively devoted to the consumption of ice-cream. It serves an estimated 30,000 customers a day. You will see the long lines of locals waiting to be served. There is a section priced in CUC if you want to skip the queue.

University of La Habana

Loosely modelled after New York’s Columbia University, this campus features a peaceful tree lined square surrounded by classical buildings. Visitors are allowed to stroll the grounds, although peeking into the classes requires advance permission, and you’ll need authorization to take photos. The campus is off-limits on weekends, and closed July-August. The university is entered via an immense, 50-meter-wide stone staircase at the top of which is a patinated bronze statue of the Alma Mater. The Julio Antonio Mella monument across the street contains the ashes of this founder of the University Student’s Federation, and later, of the Cuban Communist Party.

El Malecón

This seawall or embankment delineates a boulevard that winds sinuously and dramatically along the Atlantic shoreline. Along the shore are the worn remains of square baths hewn from the rocks below the seawall, originally with separate areas for men, women, and negros. The Malecón offers a microcosm of Havana life: the elderly walking their dogs; the shift-less selling cigars and sex to tourists; the young passing rum among friends; fishermen tending their lines; and always scores of couples courting and making-out. It was the setting for spontaneous riots in the early 1990’s, and is also a barometer of the political state of Havana. During times of tension, the police presence is abnormally strong and the Malecón becomes eerily empty. At other times, keep one hand on your purse! Every October 26, schoolchildren are bussed here to throw flowers over the seawall in memory of revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos, killed in a mysterious air crash on that day in 1959. The section at the end of La Rampa is a popular gay and transvestite hang-out in the evenings.

Banks and Change Houses

There are CADECA (change houses) in the Hotel Nacional, and at the front of the ‘Airlines Building’ (at the bottom of the main street ‘La Rampa)’. They do cash advances, cash and travellers cheques exchange, and open 9am-7pm daily. The CADECA’s around Coppelia Park can sell you ‘local’ Cuban Pesos (M.N). You can get cash out with a Visa card from various ATM’s located on Calle 23.

Shopping

The largest market is the Feria de Artesania which is now in a recently refurbished storage warehouse opposite the San Francisco de Paula Church, on Avenida del Puerto, at the South end of Old Havana. Open everyday (except national holidays or when authorities declare special holidays, such as an important political visit) from 10am to 6pm. Everything from crocheted bikinis to miniature bongo drums, and paintings. There is a smaller craft market on the right hand side as you walk down Calle 23.

Habana Vieja - especially along Obispo - contains dozens of galleries, many selling naive works by the artists themselves.

Cigars - the best source is the Casa del Habano in the Partagas factory (daily 10:30am-7pm). Other good stores are in the Hotel Parque Central (daily 9am-9pm), and in the Hotel Nacional.

Videos and Film Posters - The Centro Cultural Cinematografico (Calle 23 e/ 10 y 12) sells posters and videos of Cuban films. Its on the 4th floor of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).

Some Restaurants

Meson de la Flota - Serves good Spanish and criollo food, and Spanish wines at 2CUC per glass. It features free flamenco shows 1-3pm and 9pm daily ($4-$18, Mercaderes e/Amargura y Brasil - Old Havana)

Restaurante Hanoi - Good low budget option. Although it promotes its Vietnamese cuisine, the menu is mostly Cuban. Brasil y Bernaza - near the Capitolio, Old Havana.

Restaurante Medina - More highly priced offering criollo dishes but also Middle Eastern dishes such as couscous and lamb, kebabs, kibbe, and hummus. Just south of the Plaza de Armas on Oficios in Old Habana. Combination plates go for $10 to $18.

Restaurante La Imprenta - Converted from an old printing house, this restaurant offers good prices, great food. The chairs are in the shape of letters. Near Plaza Vieja, Old Havana. Mains $6-$25.

Jardin del Oriente - Open air restaurant with cheap offers and great food. Calle Amargura, Old Havana. Mains $4-$8

Dominica - Probably the best Italian restaurant in Havana. O’Reilly and Mercaderes, Old Havana. Dishes cost from $7 to $24.

Barrio Chino - Has dozens of Chinese restaurants that offer plenty of Cuban dishes as well. It represents some of the best value cuisine in Havana. Restaurant Tien-Tan is one of the best on the main pedestrian street - Calle Cuchillo.

Paladar Doña Blanquita - Prado #158, Centro Habana. Daily noon-midnight. Offers dining in the elegant sala or on a balcony over looking the Prado. Criollo mains are $5-$10.

La Guarida - Concordia #418 e/Gervasio y Escobar, Centro Habana tel: 07-862-4940. Noon-4pm, and 7pm-midnight, closed part of the year. One of Cuba’s best paladars in the beautiful setting of the Oscar-nominated 1995 movie, Fresa y Chocolate. Mains $13-$20. Reservations essential.

Huron Azul - Calle Humbolt between Calle O and Infanta. International and Cuban cuisine. Stylish interior with lots of art works displayed on the walls. Mains $9-$15.