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I spent the majority of my time in Cuba in Havana, specifically in Havana Vieja, the oldest part of the city. With beautiful buildings, quaint squares, historic bars, and classic cars, Havana Vieja is home to many of the images people think of when they think of Havana.
In no particular order, here were my 10 favorite things in Havana Vieja, Cuba.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts)
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana is comprised of two buildings, one featuring Cuban artists, and one covering universal art. I’ll focus on the Cuban building, as that’s the one I visited.
Despite being a fairly small nation, Cuba has a rich artistic history. Given Cuba’s isolation (at least from the United States), it’s great to see a showcase of all of this art. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana has Cuban art from the colonial period to the modern day. There were paintings, maps, and even displays of cigar label drawings.
My favorite painting was Antonia Eiriz’s La Muerte En Pelota (Deaty By Baseball), which you can see here. Another interesting exhibit by Tomas Sanchez commented on how humans are destroying the environment by garbage.
Visit Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts to get a perspective of the country’s artistic spirit, and stay a while for the air conditioning
Museum of the Revolution
A visit to Havana’s Museum of the Revolution comes with the caveat that history is almost always told by the winners. With that in mind, you’re going to see exactly what the Cuban government wants you to see. That said, as an American, it’s interesting to read about this period in the history of the region from the perspective of Cuba. As you explore the exhibits, you realize that perhaps Cuba is not the purely evil country that some people in the United States may make it out to be. History is much more complicated than that, and just because Fulgencio Batista was supported by the United States didn’t mean he was good for the people of Cuba.
The Museum of the Revolution explores the background of the revolution, from the dictatorship of Batista, the revolution itself, as well as Cuba’s advancement to the modern day. The museum features artifacts from modern Cuban history, including the Granma, which transported Cuban revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara from Mexico.
Yes, there’s propaganda. But there’s always propaganda on every side. Go in with an open mind, a grain of salt, and learn about an important era from the Cuban perspective.
I’ll leave you with this mural of Batista & recent American presidents, “El Rincón de los cretinos” or “Corner of Cretins”.
Cubans like drinking. Rum is of course a major export of the country, featuring in most of the Cuba’s most famous drinks such as mojitos and daiquiris.
There are also glimpses of a beer scene in Havana as well, which I wrote about here. Visit some bars in Havana Vieja (I suggest starting with this list of bars Ernest Hemingway used to frequent) and let your worries slip away. You’re traveling. Enjoy it.
Havana Club Rum Museum
Havana Club is Cuba’s most famous rum distillery, and they have a museum located right near the harbor in Havana.
Here you can learn about the rum-making process, then try some of the delicious rum.
Once you’ve visited, you’ll want to go back to the bars mentioned above.
The Forts of Havana Vieja
Havana is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, with a rich & complicated history. The colonial period was bloody & resulted in the construction of several large forts on both sides of Havana Harbor. Havana Vieja & its system of fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the Havana Vieja side, the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta guards the western side of the entrance to the harbor.
Further south, the star-shaped Castillo de la Real Fuerza is one of the oldest forts in the New World.
Video game fans may recognize some of Havana’s forts from the game Assassin’s Creed IV.
The Eastern Side of Havana Harbor
I’m cheating a bit, as this isn’t quite part of Havana Vieja, but historically the other side of the harbor is intertwined with the western part of the city. Havana’s eastern side also has several fortifications to go with the ones previously mentioned above.
Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro sits on the eastern edge of Havana’s harbor, dominating the entrance when viewed from Havana Vieja.
Unfortunately the tunnel under the harbor is not accessible to pedestrians, but the area can be quickly accessed by taxi. Exploring the various buildings & traversing the many walls of the castle will take some time. Get yourself a pineapple soda from the kiosk, and stay cool & hydrated.
Further south, Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña is the largest fort in the New World. It’s dominating, and it must not have been fun for military guards to stand out in the blazing sun in full uniform. Given the vantage point, you can see just why the fort was constructed here.
After checking out the two forts, you can walk south to Casablanca and take the ferry back to Havana Vieja. The ferry will drop you off right across from the Havana Club Rum Museum.
Cuban food has a mixed reputation. The difficulty of getting many ingredients and limitations on private restaurants made Havana a culinary wasteland for a long time, but this is changing. Cubans can now open restaurants, and both traditional and modern Cuban dishes are being made with great quality.
Go here to see a few of my favorite restaurants in Havana Vieja.
Bacardi was based in Cuba before moving away following the aforementioned Cuban revolution. Before their move, they were a huge company with an art deco headquarters that towered over Havana Vieja. It was once the largest building in the city.
The lobby of the Bacardi Building still looks great, with art deco marble, lighting, and other decor that takes you right back to the 1930s when it was built.
Pay 1 CUC to the security guard and you can then head up to the top of the building. Once you step off the elevator, you’ll quickly see that the building has not been well-maintained over the years.
The view from the top of the Bacardi Building is fantastic, as you get a 360 degree view of Havana Vieja. Just don’t venture too close to the crumbling edge. This was one place where my fear of heights came in handy, as I had no desire to be anywhere near it.
Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José
One thing you’ll notice about Havana is that, at least as of now, you won’t find tourist shops everywhere. This is great for those of you who are sick of seeing the same mass-produced, plastic, touristy garbage all over the world. But you’ll still want to take something home for yourself or for family & friends. The Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José is a huge indoor arts marketplace that sits along the Havana harbor at the south end of Havana Vieja.
It’s like a flea market in some regards, but it’s the best option in the city for souvenirs. The items inside are of varying quality, but you’ll find paintings, t-shirts, figurines, jewelery, wood, leather, and other locally-made items.
The trade embargo between the United States and Cuba has led to many items being difficult to find in Cuba. As a result, the Cuban people have been forced to maintain what they already had, when most of the rest of the world would throw them away and move on. This is quickly evident as soon as you step on the streets of Havana.
While there are some lousy Soviet-era cars driving around Havana, there are also many classic cars that have been cruising the streets since the 1950s and even earlier.
Parts have been replaced in creative ways to keep the cars running, and the exteriors are in varying conditions. The best cars are used to drive tourists around Havana, including down the famed Malecón. You can book one to take you on a tour from Parque Central, or you can also have an even more authentic Cuban experience by hailing a colectivo, a shared taxi with locals.
Even if you don’t ride in one, Cuba’s old cars make for great photos.
Havana Vieja is a rich cultural center with plenty to see & do. It’s also a fairly small area, so it’s easy to explore on foot. Have any other recommendations? Leave them in the comments below!
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