Visit historic Old Havana and experience its vintage Cuban charm

The historic and timeless district of Cuba

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Paseo de Martí, Havana, Cuba

GPS: 23.141480472339, -82.347544989578

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Visit old Havana, and you’ll see the historic neighbourhood of Havana, capital of Cuba. You’ll also find the history of this part of the city will equip you to experience its vintage Cuban charm and understand the roots of its lively culture when you explore one of the oldest vintage cars, art galleries with their art deco, and even a national monument. You’re looking at a former Spanish colony that was originally inhabited by different Caribbean tribes (Siboney, Guanahatabey and Taíno). The city of Havana was founded in 1519 on the north-west coast of Cuba following a new Spanish expedition led by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, first governor of the archipelago. Thirty years later, it supplanted Santiago de Cuba to the rank of capital of the archipelago. Due to its privileged geographical location, the harbour and emblematic city was attacked, looted and burned in 1555 by the French pirate Jacques de Sores in search of gold and treasure in possession of the conquistadors.

Recovered with the intention to restore and then fortified by the Spanish monarchy, Old Havana with its vintage Cuban charm and now one of Cuba’s most beautiful tourist spots remained under the frequent threat of pirates prowling in the region of the Gulf of Mexico and had to counteract the desire of the French or the English to expand. Despite this, it became the Caribbean colonial centre, an important shipbuilding site in the region and the stopover point for many slaves displaced from the Old to the New World. It was also enriched by the trade in goods (sugar cane, tobacco, coffee…) and acted as a hub for gold in the triangular trade between Europe, the Americas and Africa. From the 16th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, you’ll find the city was marked by a long Spanish domination until the Spanish-American War of 1898. This armed conflict rocked the island under American influence after the Cuban War of Independence. The colorful district of Old Havana, with undeniable charm, still retains to this day an incredible number of architectural jewels from several periods in the history of Havana and Cuba. The stone fortification system protecting the old city and the entrance of the bay of the Cuban capital with its beach and salt water is considered to be one of the most complex defensive networks in the Americas which adds the vintage Cuban charm of this spectacular fort.

Articulated around a la Habana plaza of five large paved squares, the labyrinth of narrow streets around the city district of Old Havana Cuba leads to numerous stately old buildings and is a district where you’ll find one of Havana’s mix of architectural styles (fortresses, palaces, museums, mansion houses, coloured houses in every residential area even the cheapest or most luxurious, historic buildings, old residences, or even a hotel or a shop …) benefiting from a vast restoration program funded by Unesco since 1982. The majority of its historic monuments, along with the iconic Havana old cars, add to old Havana’s vintage Cuban charm. They are erected in a mixture of Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, and form the most remarkable urban complex in the Caribbean. As soon as night falls, this rich cultural heritage gives way to a rich and particularly lively nightlife. You will have the choice between a romantic open-air stroll along along the Malecón, the tasting of an authentic mojito or daiquiri (cocktails originating from the archipelago) in a restaurant with sweeping and picturesque views of the city to admire, the experimentation of a habano (Cuban cigar produced in the country), the discovery of a trendy Havana nightclub where you’ll get to experience the hottest Havana nightlife Cuba or the live music, concert or performer of talented local groups when you visit one of the most beautiful the attractions or undoubtedly find various of them as a visitor which is one of the best things of a tour to explore old Havana.

 

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  • The elegant mix of architectural styles (baroque, moorish, art-deco and neoclassical) of the old colonial buildings decorated with arcades, balconies, inner courtyards or wrought-iron gates; the bay and port overlooking the Gulf of Mexico; the emblematic district of Centro Habana; an old town where time seems to have stood still since the 1960
  • The historical places of Old Havana : Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza San Francisco de Asis, Plaza Vieja and Parque Central
  • The castles, fortresses and palaces : Castillo de la Real Fuerza, El Morro, Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, La Cabaña, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (former seat of the governors hosting the Museum of the City of Havana), Palacio del Segundo Cabo…
  • The many museums of interest: the Museum of the Revolution, the Museo de Arte Colonial, the Museo Nacionald de Historia Natural de Cuba, the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Centre, the Museum of Archaeology, the Galleria Continua, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, the Napoleon Museum, the Museo Del Automovil, the Casa de Africa, the Museo del Ron, the Maqueta de La Habana, the Casa Alejandro Von Humboldt…
  • The sites and monuments : El Templete Church (place commemorating the site of the first mass in 1519), Havana Cathedral (superb 18th century Baroque building known as Catedral de San Cristobal), El Capitolio (headquarters of the Academy of Sciences), Gran Teatro de La Habana (neobaroque opera theatre completely renovated in 2013 and home of the Cuban National Ballet), Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio (remodelled in neo-Gothic style), Convento de Santa Clara (inaugurated in the mid 17th century), Edificio Bacardí (the first Art Deco style building in the Cuban city), Casa de la Poesía, the architecture of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba…
  • The lively nightlife in the many bars and cafés of Old Havana (located in Paseo del Prado, Calle Obispo, Calle Obrapía…); the legendary restaurants and cocktail bars of El Floridita, Bodeguita del Medio and Bar Dos Hermanos (once frequented by a certain Ernest Hemingway); the cultural centres (Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Art Continua havana, old cinemas, schools and music concerts…)
  • The walks along the Malecón (8 kilometres path along the seafront and laid out at the beginning of the 20th century); the beaches of Havana (playas Boca Ciega and del Salado in the west; playas del Este, Santa Maria del Mar, Guanabo and Bacuranao in the east); the discovery of other districts of Havana (Vedado, Miramar, Siboney…)
  • The cigar factories (Partagás, La Corona…); the collection of old American cars from the 1950s (almendrones); the island’s musical and multicultural heritage; the small Cuban restaurants offering home-made cuisine (paladares); the ingenuity of the population to overcome everyday difficulties
  • The Festival del Habano (Cigar Festival in February), the Havana Biennial Art Exhibition (May or June), the Havana Carnival (10 days of festivities in August), the International Ballet Festival of Havana (October), the Havana Film Festival (December) and the unmissable Havana International Jazz Festival (or Jazz Plaza La Habana) in December
  • It is likely that the origin of the name Havana comes from the Indian chief Habaguanex who ruled these place until the arrival of Christopher Columbus from America. When he landed on the Cuban archipelago in 1492 in search of gold for the Spanish crown, the Genoese navigator thought he had reached the Asian continent via China. Columbus described this distant land as the “most beautiful island in the world”.
  • Nicknamed the exterminating angel by the Cubans, the pirate Jacques de Sores was supported by King Henry II of France to weaken Spanish positions in the Caribbean Sea in the mid-16th century. A year before the destruction of Havana, he had already sacked the city of Santiago de Cuba in the company of the pirate François Le Clerc, known as the “wooden leg”. This event was so traumatic for the Spaniards that they resolved to move the island’s capital to Havana without imagining that they would be attacked again by the same Huguenot sailor the following year.
  • It was on 8 January 1959 that the Cuban revolution overthrew the regime of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. The rebel forces, embodied by the figures of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, were called los barbudos (“the bearded”) because they almost never shaved their beards. Many places and walls of the city are still decorated with revolutionary messages, portraits and slogans. Initially correct, the new diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States quickly deteriorated after Fidel Castro confiscated land, assets, companies and real estate and nationalised them without financial compensation. From 1962, an economic, commercial and financial embargo was put in place by the Americans to bring down the new revolutionary regime. They even tried to overthrow the government by organising the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961. This failed despite the support of the CIA in charge of this clandestine operation. In response, the Cuban archipelago drew closer to the Soviet Union (USSR), which was already engaged in the Cold War with the United States. These high tensions reached their peak in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the risk of a third world war including the use of nuclear weapons. The embargo on Cuba is still in force today, although it has been relaxed in recent years. It has lasted for almost 60 years (the longest in modern history).
  • The Bacardí building was built in 1930 to house the headquarters of the local rum-producing company. At 28 metres high, it was the highest building in the archipelago. Its architecture contains highly refined decorative elements (in marble and granite) that are representative of Catalan modernism. At the top of the building is a bronze sculpture of a bat, which appears on the logo of the rum brand.
  • Shortly after the revolutionary Fidel Castro came to power, the Bacardí company was nationalised in 1960, along with the banks and other foreign firms in Cuba. The Spanish owners were forced to abandon all their heritage and take refuge in Florida. They tried everything to bring down the Cuban communist government with the help of the Americans but failed in their various attempts. Another brand of rum was nationalised at the same time as Bacardí, but its reputation was much lower at the time. This was Havana Club, owned by the Arechabala family who had founded the company in 1878. They also had to go into exile in Spain before migrating to the USA. For a long time, Havana Club rum which was produced by the Cuban state-owned company Corporación Cuba Ron, was overshadowed by the giant Bacardí, which had managed to relocate its production to Puerto Rico. The balance of power shifted when an agreement was signed in 1993 between Havana Club and the French group Pernod Ricard (one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of wines and spirits) to exploit the brand. Havana Club rum became a leader in the Caribbean market and saw its embargo in the United States lifted in 2016. Pushed into a commercial and legal war by Bacardí’s owners who are contesting the expropriation and right to use the brand, this Cuban company produces its rum in its rival’s former distillery in Santiago de Cuba according to the same original recipe.
  • Havana is the largest city in the Antilles (it has more than 2 million inhabitants). In the mid-18th century, Havana was the third most populated city in the Americas, after Lima (Peru) and Mexico City (Mexico). At the end of 2019 it celebrated its 500th anniversary (its founding name is San Cristóbal de La Habana in tribute to Christopher Columbus).
  • Cuban cigars (known locally as “El Habano”) have a protected designation of origin. It must be rolled in Cuba from tobacco that is planted, harvested and processed in the country. The tobacco plants for Cuban cigars are all grown in La Vuelta Abajo, an area located in the western part of the island.
  • Plan 2 to 3 days to explore the historic district of Old Havana (possible on foot, by horse-drawn carriage or by renting a Coco-taxi which is a 3-wheeled scooter). You can start your itinerary at the oldest place in the city (Plaza de Armas) to survey the old town from square to square.
  • Do not hesitate to blend in with the local crowds and wander around the popular areas of Havana. Just beware of jineteros, ill-intentioned people offering their services on the street.
  • Alongside the colonial palaces, cultural museums and emblematic fortresses of Havana, do not miss the Havana Cathedral (Catedral de San Cristobal). Considered one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas (1748), it contains a magnificent altar composed of marble altar inlaid with gold, silver and onyx. Its two bell towers have the particularity of being made of coral blocks.
  • At attractive rates it is possible to stay in lovely Cuban guest houses (casas particulares). This option will allow you to discover the real daily life of Cubans who have a great sense of hospitality.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s former residence (Finca la Vigía) is located about ten kilometres from Havana. This 19th century colonial house has been preserved in its original state and transformed into a museum in homage to the American novelist who lived there and wrote some of his literary successes between 1939 and 1960.

Where to eat

  • Cafe Arcangel
    (high standard coffee)
  • Habana 61
    (close to the Malecón)
  • Paladar Decameron
    (refined local cuisine)

Where to go

  • Club Salseando Chevere
    (Cuban dance school)
  • Camera Obscura
    (surprising view of the city)
  • Taller experimental de Grafica
    (artist's workshop)

Where to stay

  • Casa Hilda y Alejandro
    (central and family)
  • Casa Colonial Yadilis y Joel
    (warm and comfortable)
  • Casa Malecon Habana
    (great sea view)

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