La Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
Plaza de Armas
The old city is the area with the greatest concentration of sites of interest and where most work is being done to restore buildings to their former glory. New museums, art galleries, hotels, restaurants and shops are opening all the time in renovated mansions or merchants' houses. Several days can be spent strolling around the narrow streets or along the waterfront, stopping in bars and open air cafés to take in the atmosphere, although the nightlife is better in Vedado. Don't forget to look up to the balconies; Habaneros live life in the open-air and balcony life is as full and intricate as street life.
This is Havana's oldest square and it has been restored to very much what it once was. The statue in the centre is of the 'Father of the Nation', the revolutionary 19th-century landowner, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. In the northeast corner of the square is the church of
, a small neoclassical building finished in 1828 (renovated 1997). A column in front of it marks the spot where the first Mass was said in 1519 under a ceiba tree and, under its branches, the supposed bones of Columbus reposed in state before being taken to the cathedral. A sapling of the same tree, blown down by a hurricane in 1753, was planted on the same spot. This tree was cut down in 1828, the present tree planted, and the Doric temple opened. Habaneros celebrate here, every 16 November, the anniversary of the first Mass and the first town council of San Cristóbal de la Habana, the city's official name. It is also the starting point for all guided tours of La Habana Vieja. Inside El Templete there are paintings by the Frenchman, Juan Bautiste Vermay, a pupil of the Master David and the first director of the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes, founded in 1818. His main artistic work was the creation of the paintings in El Templete. These represent the first Mass celebrated on that spot, the first
(local council) and the consecration of the small temple.
On the north side of the Plaza is the
Palacio del Segundo Cabo
the former private residence of the Captains General, now housing the
Instituto Cubano del Libro
and three bookshops. Its patio is worth a look. On the east side is the small luxury hotel, the
, and on the south side the modern
Museo Nacional de Historia Natural
, email@example.com, where you will find lots of stuffed animals, information on Cuban bats, butterflies and endemic species.
La Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana
On the west side of Plaza de Armas is the former
Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
, built in 1780, a charming example of colonial architecture. The Spanish Governors and the Presidents lived here until 1917, when it became the City Hall. It is now the
Museo de la Ciudad
, firstname.lastname@example.org, the Historical Museum of the city of Havana. The museum houses a large collection of 19th-century furnishings that illustrate the wealth of the Spanish colonial community, including 'his and her' large marble, shell-shaped baths. There are portraits of patriots, flags, military memorabilia and a grandly laid-out dining room. The building was the site of the signing of the 1899 treaty between Spain and the USA. The nation's first flag is here, together with a beautiful sword encrusted with diamonds belonging to Máximo Gómez. There is a curious portrait of Calixto García featuring his unusual wound: he was shot through the neck and the bullet emerged through his forehead. Also on display is the original slave freedom charter signed by Céspedes. The courtyard contains Royal palms, the Cuban national tree. Outside is a statue of Ferdinand VII of Spain, with a singularly uncomplimentary plaque. No Spanish king or queen ever came to Cuba in colonial times. In front of the museum is a collection of church bells. The former
on the north side of the Plaza is another colonial building, with a large patio. North of the plaza, the
Castillo de la Real Fuerza
is Cuba's oldest building and the second oldest fort in the New World. It was first built in 1558 after the city had been sacked by buccaneers and was rebuilt in 1582. It is a low, long building with a picturesque tower from which there is a grand view. Just off Plaza de Armas, the
Museo de la Orfebrería (Casa de la Plata)
has a silverware collection of fine pieces, jewellery and old frescoes on the upper floor.
Heading northwest from Plaza de Armas, along Calle Oficios, brings you to one of Havana's most iconic and beautiful monuments, the Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana. Construction of a church on this site was begun by Jesuit missionaries at the beginning of the 18th century. After the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, the church was converted into a cathedral. On either side of the Spanish colonial baroque façade are bell towers, the left one (west) being half as wide as the right (east), which has a grand view. The church is officially dedicated to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, but is better known as the church of Havana's patron saint, San Cristóbal de la Habana or the Columbus cathedral. The bones of Christopher Columbus were sent to this cathedral when Santo Domingo was ceded by Spain to France in 1795; they now lie in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). There is much speculation over whether they were indeed the bones of Columbus. They could have been those of his brother or son, but the Dominican Republic is convinced of their authenticity.Plaza de la Catedral and around
In the former Palacio de los Condes de Casa Bayona is the
Museo de Arte Colonial
The work of Cuba's most famous painter can be seen at the
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam
The changing exhibition programmes feature mostly Cuban artists but also world masters. Lam directed most of his work to a non-Latin American audience. The building was renovated in 2009 and is a fine exhibition centre.
Displays on colonial archaeology uncovered during excavation works in La Habana Vieja and the bay can be seen at the
Museo de Arqueología
Exhibits feature Cuban and Peruvian aboriginal artefacts. The house was built in the 17th century but redesigned in 1725 by Juana Carvajal, a freed slave who inherited the building from her owner, Lorenza Carvajal. It was further expanded by the Calvo de la Puerta family, who acquired it in 1748. It was restored in 1988 and converted into a museum. Just outside the museum on the corner of Tacón and Oficios, there is an archaeological excavation dug in 2006 on show, with photos of the artefacts discovered there. Part of the Muralla del Mar, a wall constructed in 1733, it includes the discovery of a site named El Boquete, Boquete de Pimientas from the 17th century, or Boquete de la Pescadería, a fish market built here in 1835.
Castillo de la Punta and around
Alejo Carpentier is revered throughout Latin America as the founder of Magical Realism. The
Fundación Alejo Carpentier
, was the setting for his novel
El Siglo de las Luces
. The foundation runs literary courses and there is a small museum of the writer's letters and books.
Built at the end of the 16th century at the northernmost part of the old city to protect the entrance to the harbour, the
. There are three permanent exhibition rooms covering the history of the castle, naval design and construction and marine archaeology. On the seafront plaza in front of La Punta are metal floor plans of the local fortresses with numbers and a key showing what everything is. Opposite the fortress, across the Malecón, is the
Castillo del la Punta
monument to Máximo Gómez
, the independence leader.
Policía Nacional Revolucionario Comandancia General
is in another fortress in the block bounded by Cuba, Chacón, Cuarteles and San Ignacio. It is not open to the public but if you want to visit you can go to the offices of the
. There are two other old forts in Havana:
Centro Provincial de Selección PNR
, finished in 1763, on a hill overlooking the southwest end of the harbour; and
, on a hill at the far end of Avenida Independencia (Avenida Rancho Boyeros), built 1774-1794, now the city jail. The finest view in Havana is from this hill.
A small and beautiful old mansion houses the
Museo Nacional de la Música
with an interesting collection of African drums and other instruments from all around the world, showing development of Cuban
and other musical styles between the 16th and 21st centuries. However, it has been closed for some time and no one knows when it will reopen.
Museo de la Revolución
Church of El Santo Angel Custodio
, was built by the Jesuits in 1689 on the slight elevation of
hill, with the tower added in 1704. The original church was largely destroyed by a hurricane in 1846, but in 1852 it became the parish church and in 1853 José Martí was baptized here. It was rebuilt and enlarged in its present neo-Gothic style in 1868-1870. It has white, laced Gothic towers and 10 tiny chapels, no more than kneeling places, the best of which is behind the high altar. There is some interesting stained glass depicting
. During the Christmas period some impressive figures around a manger are placed at the entrance. Other famous people baptized here include Amelia Goire (La Milagrosa), Alicia Alonso and Julián del Casal, while it is also the setting for the last chapter of the novel
This huge, ornate building, topped by a dome, was once the Presidential Palace, but now contains the Museo de la Revolución. The history of Cuban political development is charted, from the slave uprisings to joint space missions with the ex-Soviet Union. The liveliest section displays the final battles against Batista's troops, with excellent photographs and some bizarre personal mementoes. The yacht
, from which Fidel Castro disembarked with his companions in 1956 to launch the Revolution, has been installed in the park facing the south entrance, surrounded by planes, tanks and other vehicles involved, as well as a Soviet-built tank used against the Bay of Pigs invasion and a fragment from a US spy plane shot down in the 1970s. Allow several hours to see it all.
Museo Nacional Palacio de Bellas Artes
A very pleasant park with a monument to
in the centre. The north side of the Parque is entirely occupied by the
NH Parque Central
, while the
is in the northeast corner. On its west side are the
, the historic
, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2000) and the
Gran Teatro de la Habana
, a beautiful building with tours of the inside. The theatre is a neo-baroque monument dating from 1838. It is used by the National Opera and National Ballet and also houses the Teatro García Lorca. Sarah Bernhardt once performed there when the Teatro García Lorca was called the Teatro Tacón. José Martí wrote of her performance, “Sarah is flexible, delicate, svelte. When she is not shaken by the demon of tragedy, her body is full of grace and abandon, when the demon takes her over, she is full of power and nobility... Where does she come from? From poverty! Where is she going? To glory!”
On the east side of Parque Central, restoration of the
site of the Museum and National Palace of Fine Arts, was completed after a five-year closure and extensive refurbishment estimated at CUC$14.5 million. Fidel Castro inaugurated this fantastic museum in 2001. The art collection (Arte Universal) is valued at more than CUC$500 million and consists of 47,628 works of art, from an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to contemporary Cuban paintings. The impressively extended museum has two separate buildings. The exhibits are divided between the original museum in Trocadero, the 1954 Fine Arts Palace, housing the Cuban art collection (Arte Cubano) from colonial times to the 1990s including a section on the post-Revolution Art Schools, and the former Centro Asturiano, two blocks away on the east side of Parque Central on Zulueta, housing European and ancient art.
Cuban paintings in the modern building include the 20th-century painter Victor Manuel's
, considered an important symbol of the Cuban vanguard. There are masterpieces of José Nicolás de la Escalera and Victor Patricio Landaluze from the colonial period and representations of modern-era Cuban paintings from Wifredo Lam and René Portocarrero. Exhibited works of more recent Cuban artists include those of Roberto Fabelo and Zaida del Río and some artists who have left the country. Start on the third floor with the colonial art and work your way down to the present day. This is a truly spectacular museum and well worth a look even if you are not keen on modern art. On the ground floor there are also temporary exhibitions, a small shop and toilets.
The older building designed by the Spanish architect Manuel del Busto in the early 20th century has been fabulously renovated with huge marble staircases giving access to five floors. The large collection of European paintings, from the 16th century to the present, contains works by Gainsborough, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Tintoretto, Degas et al. One painting by Canaletto, in the Italian room on the fifth floor, is in fact only half a painting; the other half of the 18th-century painting
Chelsea from the Thames
is owned by the National Trust in Britain and hangs in Blickling Hall, Norfolk. It is believed to have been commissioned in 1746-1748 by the Chelsea Hospital, which is featured in the Cuban half, but the artist was unable to sell it and cut it in two just before he died in 1768. The left half was sold to the 11th Marquis of Lothian, whose family owned Blickling Hall, where it has stayed ever since. The right half was bought and sold several times until it ended up with a Cuban collector, Oscar Cinetas, who donated it to the museum before the Revolution. A full-size photograph of the Blickling section of the panorama is now on display next to the Cuban section and a complete digital image of the two pieces has been shown at Blickling Hall. The museum also has Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan sculpture and artefacts, many very impressive. The unharmed Greek amphora from the fifth century BC is considered remarkable.
The museum has also included paintings from private collections left behind by rich Cuban families (including the Bacardí and Gómez Mena families) and members of the former dictator Fulgencio Batista's government who fled Cuba soon after the 1959 Revolution. The origin of these works, including Spanish artists Sorolla and Zurbarán, has been included in the catalogues. It had been rumoured that some of these collections had been sold by the Cuban government during the economic crisis of the Special Period. Additionally, there are rooms dedicated to Latin American art and 18th- and 19th-century paintings from the United States.
Between the two galleries on Avenida de las Misiones entre Empedrado y San Juan Dios, is the wonderful art deco former Bacardí building, topped by its signature bat. A great view of it can also be appreciated from the roof terrace of the Hotel Plaza.Capitolio
Partagás cigar factory
The Capitolio was built in the style of the US Capitol in Washington DC in 1929-1932 by the dictator Machado in an attempt to impress his US paymasters with
his loyalty. The white dome over a rotunda is 62 m high and inside there is a 17-m statue of Jupiter, representing the state. This is the tallest interior statue in Latin America and the third largest in the world. At the centre of the floor of the entrance hall is set a 24-carat diamond, which pinpoints zero for all distance measurements in Cuba. The interior has large halls and stately staircases, all most sumptuously decorated. It was initially used as the seat of parliament with the Senate and the House of Representatives meeting there, but they were dissolved after the Revolution. Now it houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology. Outside the Capitolio there are lots of old American cars waiting to offer taxi rides, as well as conventional taxis,
Parque Fraternidad and around
The tour is very interesting but pricey. You are taken through the factory and shown the whole production process from storage and sorting of leaves, to packaging and labelling. Four different brand names are made here:
Partagás, Cubana, Ramón Allones
. These and other famous cigars can be bought at their shop here as can rum. Cigars are also made at many tourist locations.
The park was originally called Parque de Colón, but was renamed to mark the VI Panamerican Conference in 1892. It has been landscaped to show off the Capitolio, north of it, to the best effect. At its centre is a ceiba tree growing in soil provided by each of the American republics. Also in the park is a famous statue of the Amerindian woman who first welcomed the Spaniards: La Noble Habana, sculpted in 1837. From the southwest corner the handsome Avenida Allende runs due west to the high hill, on which stands
El Príncipe Castle
(now the city jail). The
Quinta de los Molinos
, on this avenue, at the foot of the hill, once housed the School of Agronomy of Havana University. The main house now contains the
Máximo Gómez Museum
(Dominican-born fighter for Cuban Independence). Also here is the headquarters of the association of young writers and artists (Asociación Hermanos Saiz). The gardens are a lovely place to stroll.
Calle Obispo and Calle Obrapía
Heading south along Egido, opposite the central railway station, the
Museo Casa Natal de José Martí
, nataljmarti@ cultural.ohch.cu, is the birthplace of the country's great hero , with his full life story documented with photos, mementoes, furniture and papers. A tiny house which has been devoted to his memory since a plaque was first put on the wall in 1899, a museum since 1925 and restored in 1952-1953.
From the Parque Central you can walk back to the Plaza de Armas along Calle Obispo, now closed to traffic and one of the streets of La Habana Vieja which has seen most restoration, with many shops lovingly restored to their former splendour. There is a small handicrafts market on Obispo entre Aguacate y Compostela, where they sell leather goods, clothes, ceramics and jewellery. Avoid buying coral, which is protected internationally. Sundays are particularly busy. Calle Obrapía, which runs parallel, has some magnificent colonial buildings and many of them are now museums and galleries.
, email@example.com, is a coin museum which exhibits and sells coins, medals and documentation. The extensive collection of more than 1000 pieces, including rare notes and valuable cold coins, dates from the colonial period up to the Revolution.
, displays all manner of herbs, remedies and concoctions stored in porcelain jars, glazed and gilded with herbal motifs and meticulously arranged on floor to ceiling polished mahogany shelves. The original 1896 building was the workplace of Francisco Taquechel Mirabal.
Rigoberto Mena is one of Cuba's most respected contemporary artists and his studio,
Estudio Galería Rigoberto
, houses a fantastic collection of abstract art. His style is deceptively simple, a meticulous composition of brilliant colours radiating from dark backgrounds.
The vintage car museum,
Depósito de Automóviles
, firstname.lastname@example.org, lovingly presents vehicles from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are a great many museum pieces including pre-Revolution US models, which are still on the road especially outside Havana, in among the Ladas, VWs and Nissans.
Casa de los Arabes
, arabes@ cultural.ohch.cu, is a lovely building built in Mudéjar style with vines trained over the courtyard for shade. The collection includes the only mosque in Havana, jewels, Saharan robes, gold- and silver-painted weapons and rugs. Bar and restaurant,
Casa de la Obra-Pía
, email@example.com, no entry fee but donations welcome, photos free
, is a furniture museum, with examples from the 18th and 19th centuries, housed in a yellow building. It was built in 1665, then remodelled in 1793 by the Marqués de Cárdenas de Monte Hermoso, whose shield is over the door. The portico was made in Cádiz in 1793, but finished off in Havana. The building was restored in 1983.
Casa de Africa
, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a small gallery of carved wooden artefacts and handmade costumes. Sculpture, furniture, paintings and ceramics from sub-Saharan Africa, including gifts given to Fidel by visiting African Presidents. There is also an exhibit of elements of African-Cuban religions.
Casa de México
La Casa de Benemérito de las Américas Benito Juárez
, is more of a cultural centre than a museum, housed in a pink building draped with the Mexican flag. Exhibits include pre-Columbian artefacts and popular arts and crafts including ceramics from Jalisco.
Works donated to Cuba by the late Ecuadorean artist Oswaldo Guayasamín are displayed at the
Casa de Guayasamín
Exhibits are, generally, paintings, sculpture and silkscreens, but there are occasionally other exhibitions. Guayasamín painted a famous portrait of Fidel Castro.
On 9 April 1958 a group of revolutionaries of the Movimiento 26 de Julio attacked the business of Compañía Armera de Cuba. They were unsuccessful and four members of the group were killed. After the Revolution, the site was declared a National Monument in their honour and on 9 April 1971 a museum, the
Museo Armería 9 de Abril
, email@example.com, was opened. At the front the original business is recreated, with some contemporary pieces, hunting and fishing accessories, including the collection of arms that Castro donated in the 1990s. At the back there is an exhibition on the events that took place there in 1958.
Plaza San Francisco and around
Casa de Simón Bolívar
, firstname.lastname@example.org, contains exhibits about the life of the South American liberator and some Venezuelan art.
Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís
, email@example.com, built in 1608 and reconstructed in 1730, is a massive, sombre edifice suggesting defence, rather than worship. The three-storey bell tower was both a landmark for returning voyagers and a look out for pirates and has stunning views of the city and port. The
Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís
is now a concert hall and the convent is a museum containing religious pieces. Restoration work continues. Most of the treasures were removed by the government and some are in museums. The sculpture outside the church is of the eccentric
El Caballero de París
(French Wanderer). The legendary Galician vagrant with a deluded sense of grandeur was notorious throughout the city and affectionately embraced by Habaneros. He died in 1985 in Havana's psychiatric hospital. The sculpture was the work of José Villa who was also responsible for the John Lennon monument in Vedado. Behind San Francisco is the
Jardín de Madre Teresa de Calcuta (Mother Teresa's Garden), and at the end of the garden is the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Corinthian white marble building on Calle Oficios, south of the post office was once the legislative building where the House of Representatives met before the Capitolio was built. The newly restored Cuban Stock Exchange building,
, Oficios and Plaza San Francisco de Asís, is worth a look, as is the new cruise ship terminal opposite.
The British Embassy financed the construction of the
, in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales. It is dominated by a concrete tube covered in ceramics in the shape of liquorice all-sorts which don't reach to the top, symbolizing a life cut short. There is also a sculpture of the sun, representing the happiness in her life, but one triangle is missing, her heart. Around the base of the pole are rings for sadness.
Nelson Domínguez, one of Cuba's most respected and prolific of Cuba's contemporary artists, has his own studio/gallery at the
Galería Los Oficios
Working in various mediums, he is primarily influenced by the natural environment and draws heavily on indigenous and spiritual symbolism. There are several other artists' galleries on Obispo, Oficios and Obrapía, such as
, housed in an early 18th-century building. It was originally used as a shop below and dwelling above, then briefly as the Consulate of Paraguay at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was ruined by fire in the 1980s. The
Galería de Arte Carmen Montilla Tinoco
Oficina del Historiador
, with the help of the Venezuelan artist, restored it and opened it as an art gallery in her name in 1994. Nearby is the
Museo de la Cerámica Cubana
, firstname.lastname@example.org, displaying Cuban ceramic art dating from the 1940s onwards, some of which is for sale.
Museo del Ron
The great explorer and botanist Federico Enrique Alejandro von Humboldt, 1769-1857, lived at Oficios 254 esquina Muralla, at the beginning of 1801 when he completed his calculations of the meridian of the city. His home is now the
Humboldt travelled extensively in Central and South America, paving the way for Darwin, who called him the greatest naturalist of his time. His scientific works were not confined merely to plants. His name has been given to the cold current that flows northwards off the coast of Chile and Peru, which he discovered and measured. He also made important contributions to world meteorology, to the study of vulcanism and the earth's crust and the connection between climate and flora. In the process he discovered that mountain sickness is caused by a lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The last years of his life were spent writing
, an account of his scientific findings, which was soon translated into many languages. Nearby, is the
Casa de la Poesía
La Plaza Vieja and around
Fundación Destilería Havana Club
has a museum offering displays of the production of rum from the sugar cane plantation to the processing and bottling, with machinery dating from the early 20th century. The museum is well laid out but too dark and atmospheric to read the notices. There is a wonderful model railway which runs round a model sugar mill and distillery, designed and made by prize-winning Lázaro Eduardo García Driggs in 1993-1994 and restored in 1999-2000. At the end of the tour you get a tasting of a six-year old
rum in a bar that is a mock up of the once-famous
. There is also a restaurant (excellent shrimp kebab) and bar , a shop and an art gallery where present-day Cuban artists exhibit their work.
An 18th-century plaza, restored as part of a joint project by UNESCO and
, a state company responsible for the restoration and revival of La Habana Vieja. Many of the buildings around the plaza boast elegant balconies overlooking the large square with a fountain in the middle. The former house of the Spanish Captain General, Conde de Ricla , who retook Havana from the English and restored power to Spain in 1763, can be seen on the corner of San Ignacio and Muralla. Known as
, www.galeriascubanas.com. odern art exhibitions are held upstairs in the beautiful blue and white building. Note the friezes up the staircase and along the walls. There is a great view of the plaza from the balcony and trailing plants in the courtyard enhance the atmosphere. There is a museum of playing cards,
Museo de Naipes 'Marqués de Prado Ameno'
On the west side of the Plaza is the hugely popular microbrewery,
, which is a great place for a midday breather or a sundowner during or after your walk round the city. Also on the west side is the
Cervecería La Muralla
Centro de las Artes Visuales
which has a variety of art exhibitions. There are two galleries, Siglo XXI and Escuela de Plata. On the north side of the square, on Teniente Rey, is a posh and expensive restaurant,
, which has tables outside and is a pleasant place for an evening cocktail.
In the northeast corner, Mercaderes y Teniente Rey, is the
. After the English took Havana in 1762, the first coffee houses were established, and this one, the first, was called
Café de Taberna
because its owner was Juan Bautista de Taberna. It remained in operation until the 1940s and was known as a place where merchant traders congregated. It was reopened in 1999 as a restaurant with the theme of the musician, Benny Moré. Unfortunately the food is nothing special, rather greasy, and the service poor. On the top floor of the Gómez Vila building is the
where lenses and mirrors provide you with a panoramic view of the city. Donated by Cádiz, this camera obscura is the first in the Americas and one of the few in the world: two in England, two in Spain and one in Portugal. In one of the converted mansions on the east side, the
Fototeca de Cuba
showcases international photography exhibitions. The old post office, also on the east side, dates from 1909.
Convento de Santa Clara
Carlos J Finlay was an eminent Cuban doctor who discovered that the mosquito was the vector of yellow fever in the late 19th century and helped to eradicate the disease in Cuba. The
Museo Histórico de las Ciencias Carlos J Finlay
housed in a strikingly ornate building, contains displays about science in Cuba, the history of the Royal Academy of Sciences (Academia Real de Ciencias) and exhibits on the role of the medical profession during the wars of independence.
The convent of Santa Clara was founded in 1644 by nuns from Cartagena in Colombia. It was in use as a convent until 1919, when the nuns sold the building. In a shady business deal it was later acquired by the government and, after radical alterations, it became offices for the Ministry of Public Works until the decision was made to restore the building to its former glory. Work began in 1982, with the creation of the
Centro Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museología
and is still continuing. The convent occupies four small blocks in La Habana Vieja, bounded by Calles Habana, Sol, Cuba and Luz, and originally there were three cloisters and an orchard.