Guest post by Raidel Blanco Correa, written in Spanish and translated by Vikram.
During the short period of time when Cuban-American relations began to thaw, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to Cuba to learn about the culture and to support the Cuban people. Although recent regulations may once again tighten the restrictions, there will still be opportunities to visit under People-to-People exchanges. And in our opinion the people of Cuba are a shining light of hope to humanity. So don’t let anything stop you. Once you hear what our Cuban friend Raidel or Ray has to say, Cuba definitely will be on your bucket list. If you haven’t read our post on “All you need to know before you visit Cuba”, click here.
Our Cuban friend and guide, Raidel Blanco Correa, is honored to share his opinion on the ‘must see attractions’ in Havana. Consider this your insider’s guide to Havana. This guide will prepare you to experience the magic of Havana and discover seven of its treasures.
Havana, the capital of the Republic of Cuba, is majestic and lush filled with over five centuries of life. With enough history to fill an encyclopedia, Havana’s history has permeated the walls of its buildings and the old cobblestone lined streets. Land of brave men and women, this city is today one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Havana’s streets have been walked by famous people such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Meyer Lansky themselves. Havana’s streets are steeped in brilliant colors and poignant scents allowing one to marvel at buildings of incomparable historical and architectural value while taking in the revolutionary spirit of its inhabitants, whom have inspired travelers to make Cuba a mandatory stop on their visit to the Caribbean.
There are countless things that could be done during a visit to Havana, with its constant movement and vibrant energy, but in my opinion as a local, these are 7 things you cannot forget to do when you visit Havana.
A walk along the seawall El Malecon
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Spanning an eight kilometer stretch along the northern coastline of the city, El Malecon remains a representative symbol of the Cuban capital. Its construction began in the distant year of 1901, during the first US military intervention in Cuba, and it culminated in 1952 with the completion of the last section that ends at the mouth of the Almendares River. Built in order to protect the city from the sea during inclement weather, this architectural gem has become the most famous meeting place in the Cuban capital. University students, lovers, travelling musicians, and tourists are some of the faces that can be found strolling down El Malecon. Sculptures of great Cuban freedom fighters, the prolific National Hotel, and even the newly established Embassy of the United States in Cuba line the boardwalk. The walk is attractive enough to while away a few hours taking in the fresh smell of the moist ocean air and enjoy people watching.
A Visit to Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolucion)
Construction of this monument began in 1953, the centenary of the birth of Jose Marti, by Presidential order of dictator Fulgencio Batista in order to increase his popularity after the Coup. Plaza of the Revolution was initially named as Plaza de La Republica, but after the triumphant Cuban Revolution it became to top venue for holding events and demonstrations linked to the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro. With its 72 thousand square meters it is one of the largest public squares in the world and has a sculpture of majestic dimensions, the highest of the monuments to Jose Marti in Cuba. The colossal monument is covered in gray marble brought from the Cuban island Isla de la Juventud, which literally means the Isle of Youth in English. At the top of the tower, there is a viewpoint considered the highest point of the capital, 129 meters above sea level, towering over even the Capitol’s dome. Don’t’ miss the panoramic view of the city which is undoubtedly magnificent from here. The majestic capitol is surrounded by historical buildings, the National theater of Cuba, and wide spanning avenues. The declaration of the socialist revolution of Cuba on April 16, 1961 was the most transcendental event held in the Plaza and precluded the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Ride a Classic car
Havana is famous for joy rides in old classic American cars, called almendrones by the Cubans. These gems began arriving in the first half of last century during the American occupation of Cuba. Gradually the streets of Havana were filled with these beauties. Despite being over 50 years, Havana is known worldwide for its well preserved Buicks, Plymouths, Fords, and Chevrolets which were some of the famous brands that had taken off in the Cuban market. Many of them survive to this day thanks to the ingenuity of the Cubans, whom despite the difficulties of embargo have managed to keep these beautifully maintained. Today the city seems frozen in time as you watch these cars fill the streets with the charm of the 1950s. Do not miss the opportunity to drive through the streets in one of these magnificent cars, which is your opportunity to feel like a celebrity and take one of these time machines back to a golden era. Why not?
Walk down Obispo
One of the most famous and lively streets of Old Havana, Obispo Street, connects the architectural heart to the historic center of the city. The street was christened with the name ‘Obispo’ (Spanish for bishop) because the building on the corner of Calle Obispo and Calle Oficios, was the residence of the city’s bishop.
If you walk down Obispo towards the port, you will find the famous restaurant and bar, El Floridita. El Floridita is world famous for being known as Ernest Hemingway’s hangout while he resided in Havana. It is said he helped improve the current recipe of the Cuban cocktail, the Daiquiri which is a mixture of white rum, lemon, sugar, ice and a few drops of maraschino. Continuing your stroll, you will find countless restaurants, bars, cafes, craft markets, and souvenir shops. Another famous sight is Hotel Ambos Mundos, which has been recently restored and its claim to fame is that it served as Ernest Hemingway’s residence for long periods between 1932 and 1939, where he always stayed in Room 511. His room is now a museum and is said to be where he began to write his famous novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.
At the end of your walking tour you would have reached Plaza de Armas, the baroque heart of the city. The square was built in the early seventeenth century to replace the Old Town Square and served as the religious, administrative, and military center of the city. In the mid-eighteenth century it began to be used for demonstrations and military exercises, from which it earned its title: Plaza de Armas. By the year 1838, the upper class chose to ride horse carriages here with beautiful views. Thanks to the careful restoration by the Office of Civic History, Obispo Street still captures the elegance, liveliness, and color characteristic of the Colonial period.
Sample some Cuban Rum
The history of Rum in Cuba dates from the early sixteenth century when a first impure distillation was obtained from sugar cane. The arrival of Spaniard Facundo Bacardi to Cuba marked the introduction of a new distillation technique and there you have it, Cuban Rum was born. It quickly gained an international reputation. Rum is part of daily life in Cuba: an essential at company parties, the main ingredient in many Cuban cocktails, and very often also an offering to the gods in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria. Molasses obtained from sugar cane is essential to the development of Cuban rum after the fermentation process and distillation. There are a number of trustworthy brands such as Havana Cuba and Santiago de Cuba. It should be noted that as a rule of thumb, the older the rum, the darker the color and of course, the higher the price. The rums are recommended to be imbibed at room temperature, unless part of a cocktail then they are shaken on ice. My recommendation would be to try Santiago de Cuba Anejo 11 years aged. Try this and you will feel what being Cuban is like!
Watch the Sunset at El Morro
Construction of El Morro began in the first half of the sixteenth century. The Castle of the 3 Kings is among one of the 3 most important symbols of the city. Its construction was ordered due to the constant attacks by corsairs (pirate ships) and pirates who called at the village of San Cristobal de La Habana and was built on an elevation at the entrance of the bay to thereby serve as an impregnable bulwark to defend the city in case of an attack. It was not completed until well into the seventeenth century, however after the taking of Havana by the English, it had to be re-built in 1763. This fortress served as the main defense of the bay and the Port of Havana until the late eighteenth century when, a new adjacent fortress was built: San Carlos de la Cabana. The original lighthouse tower was 10 meters high and was later replaced by a new 30 meter tower in 1845. Its unique geographical location makes it a perfect place to watch an unforgettable sunset. The breathtaking view will leave you dazzled as you can admire the magnificent architectural contrasts of the city in the backdrop.
Visit the Capitol Building
The National Capitol Building is one of the representative symbols of the city of Havana. Construction began in 1928 by the order of the President of the Republic, General Gerardo Machado as a part of the Public Works Department aim of creating a magnificent impression of the Capitol as well as to commemorate holding the sixth Pan-American, conference in 1928. The Capitol was officially inaugurated on May 20, 1929, the day of the second inauguration of Machado. It became the official and permanent seat of the legislature: The House of Representatives and the Senate.
The most outstanding architectural elements are the façade and the neo-classical columns. In addition the dome is 32 m in diameter and reaches 91.7 m high, making it the fifth highest building in the world at the time of its opening. It has a number of impressive works of art under its roof.
After the triumph of the Cuban revolution in January 1959, Congress was dissolved and the Capitol became the headquarters of the Ministry of Science and Technology. It has been open to the Public for short periods of time. However finally in November 2016 it became the official seat of the Cuban Parliament, the purpose for which it was initially created.
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