What to do (free) in Havana
As you may suppose, this article is not meant to be a complete guide to what to do in Havana. Not much less. I just want to give you some ideas, four brushstrokes, a beginning … the rest I think it’s better to leave it to chance and improvisation. In Cuba it is good to be carried away to a certain point and allow you to be surprised, like this, without further ado.
Surely many of the things I’m going to say already sound to you and you have in mind to see them. But keep in mind that Havana is like an onion: when you remove a layer you discover that below there is another and below another, and then another, and another …. It is a city full of small secrets, corners, places and customs that surprise. The old imperial city, full of flavors of those times, is mixed with an intense patina of complex cultural currents. Spain, Africa, England, France, the United States, Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic … Everyone left their mark. And the Havana in particular and the Cuban in general, absorbed all those influences and made them their own in the melting pot of History. The result is something we could call “cubania”, a mixture of idiosyncrasy, mood, races, religions and cultures, a special and unique vital philosophy. And that cubanía you will find it by all corners. You will feel it with the sight, with the smell, with the taste, with the ear and even with the touch.
Let yourself go … and enjoy Havana!
This beautiful walk starts in the Plaza de la Fraternidad and ends in the vicinity of the Malecón. It was built in 1772 under the colonial government of the Marquis de la Torre, Captain General of the island, which at the time was one of the most flourishing Spanish colonies in America. Its first name was the one of Alameda of Extramuros or Isabel II, to be outside of the great walls that surrounded the city.
It is an ideal walk to walk, sit to watch people pass or enjoy a conversation with local people. On weekends, the Paseo houses art exhibitions and is filled with artists’ stalls trying to sell their oils, acrylics and watercolors. Some of them are really good.
The Paseo del Prado, whose name (I imagine) evoked the Spanish the other Paseo del Prado (Madrid), is one of the most emblematic and beautiful streets of the city.
Visit the Hotel Nacional
Entering the historic and magnificent hotel is free. It is the jewel of the Vedado neighborhood. It has gardens, terraces, cafeterias, rooms, hall and shops in which, without being a customer, access is allowed. It is a building, where you can witness its beautiful facilities, which have housed in the past to important personalities. However, inside the facilities you can buy a drink for a very low cost, and enjoy a relaxing sunset from your gardens. In these gardens was located the Battery of Santa Clara, a defensive bulwark that reinforced the defense of the entrance to the bay in Spanish time. Of this defensive system, at the moment two garden cannons are exhibited: the “Krupp” and the “Ordoñez”, being this last one (in his time) the largest canyon of the world.
When you visit, you should pay special attention to architecture and interior decoration. The hotel has an eclectic style, where Art Decó (with strong influences of Spanish Moorish architecture), Neoclassical and Neocolonial style are present. It also shows details of the Californian environment of centuries ago. All this has made the Hotel the most interesting and exceptional in the Caribbean region as a unique sample of so many architectural currents.
Walking around Old Havana
The old city, Old Havana, is the pure colonial city, which was completely surrounded and protected by a system of walls and defenses, which closed doors and kept the sleep of the Havanans until dawn. It was ordered the closing of doors by means of a cannon shot (ritual that still can be seen today although it has lost its original meaning and today it is only one more attraction for tourists). The old palaces of the aristocrats (today converted into hotels or museums), the cobblestone streets, their noises, smells, permanent crowd of people, artisan shops and street bustle mix and envelop their streets.
It is almost obligatory to cross the streets Obispo and Mercaderes, the most popular of the historical center.
Tour the Colonial Squares
All the guides say (and I agree): The easy and enjoyable way to get to know Old Havana is to walk on foot with the objective of visiting the four main squares that make it up. Going from one to the other forces you to walk the streets and as you walk through them, you gradually learn, admire, surprise and enjoy one of the most curious and fascinating cities in the world.
Designed in 1559, it is the most eclectic square in Havana. In it the Cuban baroque coexists with art nouveau. Ironically, the Plaza Vieja, in its origins, was called Plaza Nueva and was mainly used for military exercises. It then functioned as an outdoor market and shopping area. And now, dotted with restaurants, cafes, bars and breweries, it is colorful and cheerful. In it you can find some interesting places such as the Dark Chamber, an ingenious optical device with which to enjoy beautiful views of the city, or the Cueto Palace, the most finished example of art nouveau in Havana.
Arms Square (Plaza de Armas)
Built in 1519, shortly after the founding of the city, it is the oldest and one of the most beautiful in Havana. In colonial times, it was the administrative center of the country. Formerly called Plaza de la Iglesia (to house the Greater Parish, the first church of Havana). The name of Plaza de Armas arrived at the end of century XVI, when it began to be used for stops and military exercises.
From the early hours of the morning, the square hosts a small fair organized by booksellers of old (books of second hand) and collectors. You can find rare and curious books, junk, cameras useless, plates of bronze with images and objects of general interest …
From the architectural point of view, the square is spectacularly colonial. From the cultural point of view, it is a jewel: in it you will find the Palace of the Counts of Santovenia (late eighteenth century) present Hotel Santa Isabel, the Museum of the City (located in the Palace of the Captains General), the Museum Of the City (located in the Palace of the General Captains), the Palace of the Second Cape, the Castle of the Royal Force, the Museum and monument El Templete, the National Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Navigation, Car.
One of the most beautiful corners of Havana is the Plaza de San Francisco. Immediate to the Convent that bears the name of the same saint, the Plaza has enjoyed great popularity among the habaneros since the seventeenth century. Among the buildings of greater social interest currently stands the building that occupies the Market Hall. The Fountain of the Lions, brought from Italy and carved in white marble from Carrara. Also worthy of mention are the Convent and the Church of San Francisco de Asís, the Habana Radio station, the Sierra Maestra maritime terminal; The Palace of the Marquises of San Felipe and Santiago de Bejucal, the building of the Customs House of Havana, and the Gallery House of the Venezuelan painter Carmen Montilla.
Curiously, among so much good architecture, so much monument and so much history, what is more successful is a bronze statue, fixed at street level without pedestal, as if it were another pedestrian. I am referring to the statue of the arch-famous “knight of Paris”, along with whom everyone wants to take a photo.
Cathedral Square (Plaza de la Catedral)
Of the four colonial squares, this is the most spectacular and valuable (from the baroque point of view). All the buildings of the square have been preserved since intact since it was built (at the beginning of the eighteenth century). The unity of architectural style make the plaza itself a jewel of colonial baroque. Some of the most outstanding buildings, besides the Cathedral of San Cristóbal, are the Palace of the Marquises of Aguas Claras, the Palace of the Count of Lombillo, the Palace of the Marquis of Arcos, the Palace of the Counts of Casa Bayona The Museum of Colonial Art) and the Wifredo Lam Center (a small museum and gallery dedicated to Wifredo Lam, one of the most recognized modern Cuban artists).
In the Callejón del Chorro (which starts in the same square) is the Experimental Art Workshop of Gráfica, where Cuban artists make etchings, lithographs and serigraphs. His works often enjoy excellent quality, and are a good example of Cuban art.
With the towers of the cathedral illuminated every night, undoubtedly, Cathedral Square is a great place to enjoy it at night, when the tropical heat forwards. The restaurants have tables outside, where locals and tourists come together and relax having a drink and listening to music.
The most representative and special place of Cental Havana, from which one can appreciate one of the most beautiful sunsets of the Caribbean. I speak of a long avenue, 8 km long, with eight lanes of circulation and wide sidewalk by the sea. Curiously, to be so famous, it is extraordinarily bland (from the urbanistic point of view). But whether you like it or not, this is the least of it, because the Malecón is a meeting place, a meeting with strollers, lovers, travelers, tourists, strangers, prostitutes, policemen, painters, poets, fishermen, musicians and kids bathing recklessly Between the blocks of the malecon. All are here in the afternoon, making the promenade an essential meeting point.
Like Havana’s Chinatown or Obispo Street, Hamel’s Alley has its own personality and does not need anything or anyone to be. A site with very particular smells, flavors, colors and sounds. It is famous for its murals and sculptures popular and daring, of all colors, shapes and sizes. It is chaotically magical and is loaded with Yoruba santería shops and stalls. Africa breathes on all sides.
To visit it is better to go on Sundays, day of the week when it takes true form. On that day, the neighbors, dressed as ancient gods of the Yoruba pantheon, the Orishas, go out into the alley to greet the visitors and hear the tones of the drums. At that moment “the bear roars,” they say as the drums sound crazy and the Afro-Cubans dance.
Photographing with classic cars
Havana preserves one of the oldest automotive parks in the world, where you can find many classic cars from the 50’s. Most of them work because they have been cannibalized until nowadays parts and spare parts of other cars with worse luck. And therein lies the miracle: they continue to work. It is normal to meet you with a Pontiac with Chevrolet headlights, Seat steering wheel, Peugeot watches, Toyota engine, Mercedes gearbox …
Some, a tiny minority, have been properly restored or preserved in excellent condition. These few cars are dedicated to tourists and are real jewels on wheels. You can see them very easily in the streets near the capitol, where they are parked waiting for a tourist to hire them. Taking photos with them means that you will be asked for 1 CUC (for “copyright”, hahaha). The Paseo Martí, near the Central Park, is the best place to enjoy the contemplation of these cars of the 50’s.
Parque Almendares is one of the favorite places to take a photo in a tropical jungle setting, without leaving the city. It is located in Miramar, on the banks of the River Almendares, west of the city and comprises approximately seven kilometers, with a long and narrow stretch from the mouth to Puentes Grandes and a further widening that extends to Avenue Boyeros and 100th Street. The park Has four recreational complexes: El Parque Almendares, El Parque Forestal, Los Jardines de La Tropical, and Los Jardines de La Polar where there are varied cultural activities for the enjoyment of its visitors.
The pedestrian paths along the park’s length and the boat rides on the river allow to enjoy the beauty of the place, as well as appreciate heritage sites such as the remains of the El Ejido spur and the canals of the Aqueduct of Fernando VII.
The presence of the Mambi Car on Churruca Street is an invitation made by the Office of the Historian of the City for large and small, in this walk through colonial Havana. It is an authentic palace on wheels, with an elegant dining room, wooden windows with shutters and fans that cool the atmosphere with dry ice.
The excellent conditions of comfort and security of the Mambi Car, made it very appreciated by Cuban political figures, therefore, they traveled in him candidates and presidents of the nation in periods of electoral campaign; Among the best known, some old railroad workers mentioned José Miguel Gómez, Mario García Menocal, Alfredo Zayas and Fulgencio Batista.
And here I am. Not for lack of recommended sites, yes for oversized article. One more day!