Havana

Havana (La Habana) is the second largest city in the Caribbean and the center of all things Cuban. Despite its turbulent history, Havana suffered little damage in the country's wars and revolutions, and stands today much as it was built 100 years ago or more.

There's an air of faded glory about the city, as big '50s and '60s American automobiles still dominate the streets and paint and plaster peel off everywhere. The city is peppered with glorious Spanish colonial architecture, much of which is under restoration.

Havana has a swinging nightlife, with cinemas, historic theatres, cabarets, nightclubs and music venues that will exhaust even the most hardened campaigner. There’s less traffic and less commercialization than choke your average Latin American city. But from the rough brilliance of Old Havana to residential areas ranging from shabby to demanding demolition, the exuberant friendliness of Havana’s inhabitants is what shines through.

Population: 2.1 million
Elevation: 60m (200ft)
Country: Cuba
Time: Eastern Time (GMT minus 4 hours)
Telephone area code: 7

Orientation

Havana is built around a harbor in western Cuba, 170km southwest of Key West, Florida. Old (Colonial) Havana sits on the west side of the harbor, spilling west into the lively Vedado hotel and entertainment district. A tunnel links Old Havana to East Havana and its endless high-rise flats. The bulk of Havana’s working-class population lives in industrial areas to the south of the town, extending as far as the international airport 25km to the southwest.

When to Go

There isn’t a bad time to visit Havana. The hot, rainy season runs from May to October but winter (December to April) is the island’s peak tourist season, when planeloads of Canadians and Europeans arrive in pursuit of the southern sun. Cubans take their holidays in July and August, so this is when the local beaches are most crowded. Christmas, Easter and the period around 26 July, when Cubans celebrate the anniversary of the revolution, are also very busy. New Year’s Eve coincides with the anniversary of Castro’s troops marching into the city, so make hotel reservations early and plan to dance all night.

Events

The Havana Carnival in late February and early March features parades in front of the Capitolio or along the Malec?n on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.
The Havana International Jazz Festival happens every second year in February. Every other year, the International Guitar Festival gets strumming in May. The Festival of Caribbean Culture is celebrated in June or July, while the International Theater Festival is held in Havana every other September. October has the 10-day Havana Festival of Contemporary Music as well as the Havana Ballet Festival later in the month. The International Festival of New Latin American Film is held in Havana in December of each year.

Public Holidays
1 January - Liberation Day
1 May - Labor Day
25-27 July - Celebration of the National Rebellion
10 October - Day of Cuban Culture
25 December - Christmas Day has been observed as a public holiday since the Pope’s visit in 1997

History

Havana was established at its present harbor mouth location in 1519 after a couple of failed attempts on nearby swampy land squelched into insignificance. The town’s remoteness made it an unpopular choice for Cuba’s administrative centre, but it was a perfect gathering point for the annual treasure fleets bound for Spain from Mexico and Peru. Havana became the front door to the vast Spanish colonial empire and in 1607 the capital of Cuba was officially moved here.

When Spain became embroiled in the Seven Day War between Britain and France in 1762 Britain celebrated by seizing Havana, hanging onto it for 11 months and then exchanging it for Florida. The reclaimed Havana was then turned into the most strongly fortified city in the New World. It was also allowed to trade freely, developing and growing steadily through the 18th and 19th centuries. The city was physically untouched by the devastating wars of independence in the latter half of the 18th century making Havana easily the finest surviving Spanish complex in the Americas.

When alcohol was made illegal in the US by Prohibition, Havana (a short 90-mile jaunt from the now painfully dry Florida shore) blossomed sickly sweet into a haven for jet-set party people, Mafiosos on a mission and anyone in the mood for good rum, a fine cigar and some delicious salsa music. Luxury hotels like the Capri and Nacional sprang up against the tropical sunset, and Havana’s wide streets flowed with polished chrome-and-steel beauties from Detroit’s most expensive automotive lines.

The party was over on New Year’s Eve 1959, when rebels led by Fidel Castro marched into town and announced that prostitution, gambling and other services offered by those eager to earn a tourist dollar would be replaced by advanced medical technology, a literary and artistic renaissance, and some good, old-fashioned Soviet-style hard work. Racial segregation was outlawed, Havana’s upper classes headed for Miami, and the starry-eyed rebels gave the construction of a socialist utopia their best shot. Results were mixed at best, and the city remains in truly dire need of a new paint job.

Nearly 100 homes were destroyed in Old Havana when Hurricane Georges rolled through the country in September 1998. Luckily, few people suffered injuries and the city fared much better than the storm-battered eastern half of the island. Thanks to laws allowing more private businesses, farmer’s markets and other enterprises long banned by the socialist government, Havana is coming into her own as a world-class capital, with all the problems - prostitution, crime and drug-trafficking have made comebacks, despite the government’s best efforts at maintaining law and order - and passions thereof.

Nightclubs, fine dining and cultural monuments draw thousands of visitors each year. The international success of Cuban artists, writers and musicians, particularly those hailing from the Buena Vista Social Club, add an even more colorful patina to this increasingly cosmopolitan and unabashedly lovely city

Attractions

Old Havana

Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, kicking along a restoration process that had begun two decades earlier in the wake of the revolution. Many of Havana’s finest buildings have been converted into museums and there are enough churches, palaces, castles, revolutionary monuments and markets here to sate the most ravenous culture vulture. The renovations haven’t extended to residential areas, however. Nearly half the housing in the city is in bad repair - about 300 buildings collapse each year - and thousands of city residents have had to be evacuated.

Unmissable sights include the Plaza de la Catedral, one of the most beautiful squares in the city. On weekends the square fills with lively handicraft markets, torpid tourists and street-sweepers who turn their task into a ceremony. The unequal towers of the Catedral de San Christ?bal de La Habana dominate the square. Nearby is the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest extant colonial fortress in the Americas. The west tower is crowned by a bronze weathervane dating back to 1632. La Giraldilla (as the nimble-figured wind-spinner is known) is believed to be Do?a In?s de Bobadilla, waiting futilely for her husband, the explorer Hernando de Soto, who set off to Florida on a quest for the Fountain of Youth and was eaten by cannibals.

The Royal Palm-studded Plaza de Armas has been the seat of authority and power in Cuba for 400 years. There’s a large secondhand book market here on weekends. The imposing Palacio de los Capitanes Generales on the west side of the square is one of Cuba’s most majestic buildings. It has served as Spanish commander’s residence, US military governor’s residence, presidential palace, city hall and now as the City Museum. Calle Obispo runs off Plaza de Armas and was one of Hemingway’s hangouts; today it’s a pedestrian-only throughway filled with frivolous fashion stores and alfresco caf?s.

Hotels in Old Havana range from the grand to the grungy. Prado, the 19th-century meeting place of Havana society, is now a strip of lovingly restored hotels and scurf-infested apartments, laurels, marble benches and habaneros genially begging for soap. Private rooms of varying standards are available in the area - have a look before you commit yourself. As well as the state-run restaurants, there are a lot of paladares (private restaurants of 12 seats or less) in Old Havana.

Central Havana

Before the Revolution this neighborhood was the city’s red-light district, but today it is more a pale pastel - an area of badly rutted streets, near-feral dogs and clapped-out cars rusting away at the curbside. Most visitors tend to give the area a wide berth, preferring instead the jazzed-up comforts of Vedado or the iconic landmarks of Old Havana, but there’s plenty to see in the centre.

The monumental Capitolio Nacional dominates the area. Similar to the US Capitol Building in Washington DC, but richer in detail, it was the seat of the Cuban Congress until 1959 and now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology. One of Havana’s oldest cigar factories is along the west side of the Capitolio; some 400 workers handroll cigars here and it’s possible to take a tour. A stroll by the Malec?n, the seawall skirting Central Havana’s northern boundary, is pleasant. Havana’s Chinatown is in the area and open-air barbers and ad hoc markets all contribute to the lively atmosphere.

Vedado

At the turn of the century Havana’s American community established itself in Vedado along the Miami model of high-rolling sleaze. Mafia notables such as Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lanski made the area a popular destination for US tourists attracted to an adult playground featuring cheap sex, liquor and gambling.Vedado was America’s seedy sandbox until 1959 when Fidel Castro set up headquarters smack bang in the middle of the wheeling and dealing and things got considerably less colorful.

Today Vedado is an active, bustling residential area, with some worthwhile attractions. The Plaza de la Revoluci?n is a sprawling, eerily empty square used for mass demonstrations. President Castro and other leaders have addressed hundreds of thousands of assembled Cubans from the podium in front of the 142m-high Memorial Jos? Mart?. Coppelia, the hugely popular ice-cream parlor and setting for much of the film Strawberry and Chocolate, is further north, as are two sumptuous hotels: the old-world Nacional de Cuba Hotel and the splashy Riviera. Both hotels were the Mafia’s legacy to Cuban tourism, built with mob money because they included casinos

The Crist?bal de Col?n is Havana’s main cemetery. Okay, it’s not so lively but it has an outstanding collection of funerary architecture, and includes a portico, crowned by a white triptych, that is considered to be one of the finest in Latin America. There are about 800,000 residents keeping the worms happy, including independence leaders and revolutionary martyrs