Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar was many things, but indecisive generally wasn’t one of them. Born into obscurity, he would go on to become one of the most prominent of the conquistadors, brutally subduing the native population of Cuba with a tiny force of just 300 men, launching his own breakaway effort to conquer Mexico and dying the richest ‘Spaniard in the Americas’: no mean feat. He undoubtedly knew his own mind. That is apart from when it came to town planning, seemingly. For having founded Havana in 1515, he twice decided to change its location, eventually settling on its current position in 1519. It was because of this momentary indecision that Havana will celebrate its 500th anniversary next year and not four years ago.
Havana likes visitors, and this year the city will be especially hospitable. But that alone is not why you should visit the city this year. Havana’s birthday comes at a critical time in the city’s history when it stands on the cusp between the old world and the new. Cuba is opening up. Gone are the Castros with their repressive brand of authoritarian statism that stifled the once prosperous economy, drove much of the most talented populace into exile and aroused the ire of the USA. Instead free market reforms are gradually underway, urged on by a largely willing populace, and relations with the USA are starting to be repaired. The consequences of this will undoubtedly be to change the city’s character. Havana’s charm has long lain in the fact that it’s communist history has now turned into a giant time capsule. Charming (albeit crumbling) Spanish colonial architecture lines the streets, maintained out of necessity by a populace who could not afford to replace it. Jazz bands play in cigar filled bars that have changed little in almost a century. Classic 1950s Chevrolets cruise the streets, lovingly repaired by generations of Cubans barred from importing foreign cars. All together the city has a charm to it few others can match: a place where American Mafiosi and 1930s film stars seem to lurk around every corner. This charm has undoubtedly come at great cost to the average Cuban, however, and it must be not viewed through too rose tinted a pair of glasses. They, after all, are the ones who have to live in the crumbling houses, they are are the ones denied many of the consumer goods that greatly improve our lives, and they are the ones being subjected to the oppression that makes this unique city possible.
It is no wonder then, that many Cubans will take the opportunities provided by economic liberalisation. The Chevrolets and Dodges are being replaced with Fords and Infinitis, sold off to the Floridan used car salesmen who eye them eagerly from across the Florida Straits. Modern blocks of flats will become increasingly prominent. iPhones will start to appear in more and more hands. Increasingly Cubans will choose to poison themselves not with cigars, but burgers. The Havana of 2019 that looks so affectingly like the Havana of 1935 will look much less like the Havana of 2030. This is largely progress to be welcomed. But it hardly suits the discerning tourist to whom originality and authenticity are everything. Nor does it suit the student budget, for busloads of American tourists (who are already on their way), will undoubtedly increase the prices. So as Havana celebrates 500 years of success and failure, gain and loss and looks forward to another century and all that it will bring, take this opportunity to visit a truly unique city, before it changes forever.
What to see:
The highlight of any visit to Havana is the city’s old centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a treasure trove of many wonderful buildings. Dating back in places to 1558 (when the city was burnt by the French), Old Havana is an eclectic mix of architectural styles and time periods, mixing charming Spanish and French colonial styles with grandiose neoclassical edifices. Perhaps the city’s most prominent building is El Capitolio, modelled on the Panthéon in Paris and bearing a striking resemblance to the Capitol building in Washington (which it is a metre larger than in all dimensions), the Capitolio is one of the world’s most striking parliament buildings, capturing the island’s long-standing sense of ambition. Also prominent in the city’s civic architecture is the Baroque Cathedral; built in the eighteenth century and formerly the home of Christopher Columbus’ remains, it is one of the most picturesque Cathedrals in the Americas. As a legacy of the city’s place in the cutthroat world of the European colonies, Havana has not one, but three old forts, the most scenic of which is the Castillo del Morro, which guards the entrance to Havana Bay, a strategically vital harbour on the galleon routes from South America to Spain. Away from the Old City, the Plaza De La Revolucion is well worth a visit, with its stark brutalist architecture, 109 metre tall memorial tower and steel likenesses of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos providing an Orwellian counterpoint to the architecture of the old city, and serving as a powerful reminder of how the country’s destiny was transformed by the 1959 revolution. Finally, you should take a look at the Hotel Nacional, a huge art-deco leviathan that has hosted countless celebrities and was once closely linked to the American mob.
What to do:
Havana has several interesting museums which you should make time to visit. Best of all is the National Museum of Fine Arts, which houses a fascinating collection of works by Cuban artists, an artistic community that one quickly realises has been extraordinarily prolific over a wide range of schools. Historians should flock to both the Museum of the Revolution and perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, the Museo Napoleonico, which houses one of the finest collections about Napoleon anywhere in the world. Aside from museums, no trip to Havana is complete without a combination of cigars and cars. The first are well provided for by a tour of the Partagas Cigar Factory, and the second by Havana Vintage Car Tours, a company that allows you to tour Havana from the splendour of some of the best examples of 1950s vintage cars anywhere to be found. For those seeking to forget about their troubles, Havana should have you covered. The best mojitos are to be found in El Chanchullero, although literary enthusiasts might want to head to La Bodeguita del Medio, where Ernest Hemingway once smashed records for daily mojito consumption. Bars have unfortunately become more self-aware in recent years, and consequently many have become unauthentic and overpriced: La Zorra y el Cuervo and El Gato Tuerto still serve up some of the best jazz in the city, however, whilst El Turquino offers great view over the city.
What to eat:
Food is Cuba’s weakest point, with the effect of years of central planning and embargos being one of the weakest national cuisines in the world (and this is coming from an Englishman). That is not to say that interesting meals are not possible to come by, whilst food also tends to be cheap. Try and avoid the state run restaurants and head instead for some of the privately run outfits that have started to crop up around the city. Perhaps the most interesting restaurant is La Guarida, located up several flights of stairs in a communal block of flats, and whilst the location may seem unpromising, once inside the atmosphere is exceptional and the food some of the best in the city. Mas Havana also comes recommended as a place to find authentic Cuban food at moderate prices, with the splendidly located Sentidos also charging reasonable prices to serve up some of the best seafood in the city. For those on the move, Havana is full of street food: try Tamales, steamed cornmeal flavoured with red pepper sauce.
How to get there:
Direct flights to Havana are available on numerous carriers from both the major London airports, with flights lasting around 10 hours. Return tickets can be found for around £500 if you are lucky, although cheaper options may be possible if you are prepared to fly to other locations in Cuba. Once you are in Havana the best way to get around, if not by foot, is to take one of the cheap and plentiful taxis.
Where to stay:
Havana now has Airbnb, and you will be impressed by how far your money gets you even if you choose to stay near the old centre (as ideally you should), especially if you plan ahead. If you want to stay in a hotel on a budget, the Sarita Rooms are both well located and very good value, whilst El Candil provides the greatest comfort for price in the city. For those seeking maximum luxury, the Paseo 206 Boutique Hotel is probably the best in the city, with spacious, aesthetic rooms and excellent service.