Havana is probably the oldest city founded by the Europeans in the New World, established and settled in 1515 by the Spanish. It became the capital of Cuba in 1552. Because of its strategic location as a transport of gold and silver for Spain, it was frequently attacked and looted by pirates, buccaneers, and corsairs. Fortresses and walls had to be built to protect the city from naval attacks.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Havana was known as the “Paris of the Antilles” for its renowned theaters and beautiful architecture and monuments. The city flourished during this period as the focal point of the Spanish colonial trading system. With prosperity striking the wealthy elite as well as the poor, this era witnessed the construction of many baroque structures that remain standing to this day.
Cuban movement for independence surfaced in the latter 19th century culminating in a war in 1895. When the U.S.S. Maine was mysteriously sunk in Havana’s ports, the U.S. entered the war and helped the Cubans obtain nominal independence from Spain. But the 20th century ushered in a new American influence that saw the city turn into an exotic, hedonistic gambling destination overrun by corruption and organized crime. The city became a favorite hangout for celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and the likes.
Following the Castro-led revolution and the subsequent U.S. trade embargo, the city suffered deterioration and economic downturn. From the 1990s to the present, tourism from Canadians and Europeans have helped revive Havana and much of the new money brought in have been used to restore the city’s buildings, facilities, and infrastructure.
Havana boasts an embarrassment of architectural, cultural, and natural attractions. Its entire city is lined with grand architecture – of monuments, palaces, cathedrals, and fortresses – that are not too far from the lively tropical sands of its paradise beaches nor from the modern comforts of its vibrant restaurants, ballets, theaters, and rumba-filled cabarets and nightclubs. Havana even has a refined side to it, the source of world-recognized ballet, opera, theater, and musical productions.
Havana itself is a magnificent display of old architecture, especially in Old Havana, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Old Havana was the original city of Havana situated on the natural harbor of the Bay of Havana. The old city was used by the Spanish to set sail for Spain and also as a shipbuilding center. The old city is characterized by narrow streets and some 3,000 buildings in the baroque and neoclassical style. Old Havana is also home to many fortresses and fortifications built by the Spanish to protect the city from pirates and naval attacks. In the 16th century, the Spanish built the fortresses of Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle or Real Force), San Salvador de la Punta Fortress, the Castillo del Morro and the impressive San Carlos de la Cabaña fortress, which together enclosed the old city around a 4-mile wall.
Outside of Old Havana, you’ll also find several colonial building and monuments of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish Convento de Santa Clara of the 18th century and the churches of Havana Cathedral, Plaza de la Catedral, Condes de Casa-Bayona, Marqueses de Arcos, and the Marquesas de Aguas Claras are some examples of fine baroque buildings. And the Paseo de Prado and the El Capitolio are great art nouveau examples.
There are a few museums in Havana that are a must. One of them is the National Museum of Fine Arts, which exhibits Cuban art collections from colonial times to present. This museum features a large collection of 17th to 19th century landscape and religious art as well as art incorporating the Costumbrismo narrative scenes of Cuban life. The more contemporary displays feature hyperrealist art marked by strong symbolic imagery.
The National Museum of Decorative Arts is another must-visit. This museum is located in a neoclassical mansion that is very extravagantly constructed. The museum exhibits more than 33,000 works of French art, dating back to the reigns of Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Napoleon III as well as 16th to 20th century porcelains, crystals, ivory carvings, metal works, oriental lacquered objects, tapestries and carpets, gold and silver china, and antique furniture. Much of the treasures from this museum were left behind by a French countess who fled the country during the Cuban revolution. Before leaving, she walled in countless treasures of art and items in her basement, which were later discovered by the government.
Havana’s beaches are another attractive aspect of the city. Its beaches have a vibrant atmosphere to them. The best beaches in Havana are in Playas del Este, about 30 minutes away from Havana on the way to Varadero. These beaches are always lively and packed with sunbathers, swimmers, surfers, and scuba divers. The Tarará beach and the Playa Guanabo out east are also great beaches. Most of the beaches in Havana are great diving spots because of the coral reefs, marine life, and the sunken colonial ships that are found underneath the city’s waters.
The nightlife in Havana is notorious for being a debauched haven of excesses, at least when it was frequented by the celebrities in the 1950s. Today, the cabarets, nightclubs, and discos have toned down a bit but still remain a thrilling experience. The Tropicana cabaret, for one, is world-renowned for its breathtaking choreographed shows involving rumba-dancing queens. There are also loads of discos, jazz bars, salsa dance clubs, and café style clubs showing music, comedy, and dance performances. And, of course, Havana is famous for its rums, mixed cocktails, and mojitos which are enjoyed best while smoking a savory cigar.
Havana is well-known for its quality ballet performances, which are shown at the Great Theater of Havana across from Central Park. Each year, this theater hosts the International Ballet Festival of Havana, participated by over 50 countries each year from all over Europe, North America, South America, Asia, and Africa. The building itself is ornate with stone and marble statues, balconies, and auditoriums that can seat 1,500 people. Opera performances are also shown at this baroque venue.
For plays, concerts, and theater productions, the places to go are the National Theater of Cuba and the Karl Marx Theater. And the symphonies, orchestras, and recitals, many of them of great international prestige, are performed at the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.