As the capital of Cuba, Havana is, naturally, Cuba’s cultural, political and economic hub. Add to that the fact that approximately 20 percent (2.1 million) of Cuba’s population is registered as residing in Havana and you come to understand why the city has a certain vibrancy about it. However, years of communist policy have resulted in Havana, today, not being as developed as one would come to expect from other capital cities of Latin American countries. Indeed, it is almost as if the city still lives in a bygone era of past glories with buildings architecturally in the design of old Spanish colonial houses and grand old cars from Detroit’s happier days rumbling down the main roads. This is not, however, the same as saying that Havana is a sleepy ghost-town, because, as you’ll no doubt find out, this is far from true – Havana is alive!
Havana has a vast array of activities to please all. The following are just some of the highlights:
· Botanical Gardens – time permitting, a walk around these gardens should be on your “must do” list;
· Capitol Nacional – the seat of Cuba’s Congress until Castro came to power in 1959. Today this famous building is the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology;
· Castillo de las Real Fuerza – the oldest colonial fortress in South America, and well worth a visit (if only to find out the fable behind La Giraldilla, a weathervane on the west tower which dates back to 1632!);
· Castillo San Salvador de la Punta – another of Havana’s fortifications (which, at one time, made Havana the most fortified city in South America); this fortress was built on the western-side of the harbor in the Sixteenth Century;
· Cementerio Cristobal Colon – rightfully lays claim to being the most famous cemetery in Latin America. The cemetery was built in 1876 and has close to a million tombstones setout amongst its splendor;
· Chinatown – located in Central Havana, Chinatown is one of the few places in Havana where you’re likely to be served a meal by a private entrepreneur (almost all of the other Havana restaurants are state-run);
· El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro – located at the entrance to Havana’s harbor, construction of this building took from 1589 – 1630. The lighthouse that you’ll find there was added to the building in 1845;
· Jose Marti Memorial – a museum in memory of the famous Cuban revolutionary poet and writer of the same name;
· Parque de 21 y K – Havana’s central-park and a traditional place for all of Havana’s young lovers to hangout;
· Parque Lenin – another of Havana’s parks, this time dedicated to the main man himself;
· Playas del Este – although it claims to be one of Havana’s popular beaches, located at Santa Maria, it’s actually a good 20-minute drive from Havana. However, you’re likely to run into some of Havana’s residents whilst there as this is a popular little getaway spot;
· Plaza de Armas – as the center of Cuban power for over 400 years, this plaza houses some of the most spectacular buildings in all of Havana – it also functions as another of Havana’s large parks. Today the Plaza houses the City Museum in what used to be the old US military governor’s residence: the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. The center of the plaza has a statute commemorating Cespedes – a Cuban patriotic hero. Nearby is the Calle Obispo, a favorite hangout of Hemmingway’s.
· Plaza de la Catedral – a spectacular city square that’s home to one of Havana’s more pleasant weekend open air markets.