Havana has so much more than old cars, listening to wizened musicians play live music and drinking rum.
Visitors who have frequented Havana’s Caribbean cousins, Old San Juan or Santo Domingo, or other coastal Latin American cities, including Veracruz, may sigh and think “Another fort?” Throughout the region, castle-like fortifications were constructed throughout the 16th century by the Spanish to protect their colonial holdings and to store treasure before moving it on to the next stop along the route back to the empire.
These details remain fairly static from one fort to another, but what should keep you moving from one to the next during your travels is the view: From the top of El Morro (as it’s known locally), you’re treated to an unobstructed view of the city and the bay. Though you’ll want to visit during the day for the best views, nighttime visits offer a special attraction: every night at 9 o’clock sharp, a cannon at El Morro is fired to signal the time. Though it can be heard throughout the city, visitors at the site will get to see the cannon ceremony in action.
If you’re looking for a fun, authentic experience that doesn’t cost a cent, then strolling along the Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall, is highly recommended. Running from Old Havana (Habana Vieja) about four miles to the tunnel that leads to Miramar (a formerly upscale seaside neighborhood), the Malecón is Havana’s people magnet. Here, locals fish, jump off rocks to go for a swim, gather to play music and sing, share a bottle of rum, romance one another and just hang out. It’s the perfect place to get a sense of how people enjoy their leisure time in Havana and offers a number of interesting sights along the walk.
It’s not a place where you should stop in to say “Hi” if you’re a U.S. citizen, but passing by the U.S. Interest Section (USINT) (America’s pseudo-embassy/consulate in Havana) offers some interesting photo opportunities. The Castro administration never fails to miss an opportunity to stick its thumb in the eye of the United States, and in 2006, erected a piece of installation art consisting of numerous black flags, each marked with a single white star, atop flag poles of varying heights right in front of the USINT. The flags were intended to obscure messages scrolling along the USINT’s electronic screen, which broadcasts its own brand of propaganda to passersby.
The stage outside the USINT is the centerpiece of the Anti-Imperialist Plaza, named for Cuban hero José Martí, where demonstrations and speeches are held to protest U.S. actions around the world. The popular band Audioslave also held its 2005 “Live in Cuba” concert here.
Cuba was the birthplace of Bacardi rum, and while its operations moved abroad after the 1959 Cuban Revolution—it’s currently headquartered in Bermuda—the Bacardi Building is a worthwhile stop, particularly for architecture aficionados. Constructed in 1930, it’s a spectacular example of the Art Deco style and remains in excellent condition.
Skip the guidebooks’ recommendations about bar hopping Hemingway’s favorite haunts—they’re overrated and overcrowded. Instead make your way to Havana’s outskirts for a guided tour of Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Havana home, which was restored and is maintained by the Cuban government.
Hemingway, who lived here for more than 20 years, wrote most of his classic works (such as The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls), in this house. Though the guided tour does not involve walking through the house, you’ll be able to peek in through various doors and windows, catching glimpses of Hemingway’s extensive book and record collections, as well as the menagerie of stuffed animals he bagged on safaris abroad. You’ll see the table where Hemingway liked to write—standing up—and the spot on the bathroom wall where he made meticulous, almost obsessive notations about his weight.
Cuba’s Capitolio may look strangely familiar to Americans—that’s because its design was based on the same one drawn up for the U.S. Capitol building. Consider having your picture snapped by one of the photographers at the building’s base—the majority of them use cameras from the early 1900s to render your image in a faintly eerie black and white.
Climb the steps and enter the main lobby, where you can peer up to the dome. And check out the rosette designs that will look familiar to Americans who have visited their own country’s Capitol building. If you’re in need of Internet service, there’s a library in the bottom of the building that offers service to the public.
Tobacco remains an important industry in Cuba, and several of its most famous factories—including Corona and Partagas—have outposts in Havana. Avoid buying cigars from hustlers on the street—not only do they tend to be the factory rejects, but these unauthorized vendors can get fined or arrested if caught. Instead, make the most of your visit to the Capitol area and stop by Partagas’s La Casa del Habano to get a glimpse of the history and current significance of tobacco in Cuba.
You can also buy authorized cigars here … though if you plan to bring them back to the United States, you’d best be crafty in your packing skills. Or, if you want to see cigar rolling in action, stop by the Real Fabrica de Tabacos La Corona, where you can tour the factory. Afterwards, take some time to enjoy a cigar in the bar area.
Not far from the Capitol, just beyond the hotels ringing Parque Central, is the Paseo del Prado, a small urban park with a lane for strolling to see and be seen. This is an especially fun place to visit on weekends, when astute visitors will notice locals holding signs that say “Se permuta”—they’re looking to trade their apartment for another one.
Local artists sell affordable photographs and paintings along this walk on the weekends as well. But even if your visit to Havana won’t have you here on a weekend, the Paseo del Prado remains an interesting walk, the main reason being that you’ll catch a glimpse of Arab influence (there’s an Arab social club along this strip) and the Palacio de los Matrimonios, a neo-Baroque building where couples tie the knot. Maybe you’ll even be lucky enough to catch a wedding!
This soaring monument, whose top can be seen from many points in the city, was begun in 1953 in homage to Cuban independence hero, José Martí. There’s a 59-foot marble statue of Martí, striking a pensive pose, at the base of the monument, but the interior of the monument is the real draw here. An elevator takes visitors to the tower’s crown level, which tops out at 358 feet. There’s probably not a better view anywhere else in the city.
On the lobby level, you can read more about Martí and his role in the Cuban independence movement, as well as view documents and other ephemera from his life. If the monument looks vaguely familiar, it’s because this is the site where many state speeches are given and where demonstrations are held.