Photograph by Alvaro Leiva, Alamy
Now that Washington has eased travel restrictions to Cuba, many Americans are eager to see what they've been missing for the last 50 years. And while some things haven't changed since the revolution in 1959—you've heard about all those vintage cars on the road—chances are you'll pay considerably more for a daiquiri than Ernest Hemingway did in his day. Still, travelers don't have to look hard to enjoy the simple, and often free, pleasures of the island.
With its baroque facade flanked by asymmetrical bell towers, La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana, or the Havana Cathedral, was famously described by 20th-century Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier as "music set in stone." The Jesuits hired Italian architect Francesco Borromini to design the church, which was finished in 1787, making it one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. Look closely for marine fossils embedded in the walls, which were partially constructed with coral.
The cathedral anchors Old Havana, defined by the original city walls. With a covetous eye on its natural harbor, the Spanish founded Havana in 1519 and had built it into a fortified shipbuilding center by the 17th century. The old center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 for its largely intact layout of plazas, narrow streets, and traditional architecture. Explore the baroque and neoclassical buildings around the five plazas (Armas, Vieja, San Francisco, Cristo, and Catedral), including private houses with wrought ironwork, balconies, and central courtyards—some of which have seen better days—and the stately Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (circa 1770) at the end of royal palm-lined Armas, home to the Spanish governors until 1898. Note that the floor in front of the building is "paved" in wood, laid on the orders of one of its former residents to dampen the clatter of horse traffic so as to not disturb his naps.
Today, the palace houses the Museo de la Ciudad, which features 40 exhibition halls full of everything from 19th-century horse carriages to photos of Spanish-American War battles. It's not free, but the $3 entrance fee is a small price to pay for a crash course in Cuban history.
While you're in Plaza de Armas, check out the restored 16th-century Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest fortress in the Americas. Its west tower is crowned by a bronze weather vane in the shape of a woman holding a palm tree in one hand and a staff in the other. "La Giraldilla" is said to be Doña Inés de Bobadilla, who looked out from the tower daily for the arrival of the galleon of her conquistador husband, Hernando de Soto (alas, he never returned, having died in what is now Louisiana or Arkansas), and has become the symbol of the city.
A ten-minute walk south, the lively Plaza Vieja is a microcosm of Cuban architecture, where colorful baroque buildings are broken up by Catalan-inspired art nouveau architecture, such as the Cueto Palace, considered the best example of art nouveau in the city.
Modeled on the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, the art deco Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Vedado has become a Havana icon. The grand dame was built in 1930 on the site of the Santa Clara Battery (look for two 19th-century guns on display in the garden) and was popular with American celebrities, including Ava Gardner and Johnny Weissmuller, before the revolution. The hotel became notorious for its turn as host to a summit of mobsters—ostensibly gathered for a Frank Sinatra concert—run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in December 1946. The meeting was later dramatized by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II. The public is welcome to roam the Moorish-inspired lobby and grounds fronting the Malecón.
A near replica of its 18th-century self, Calle Mercaderes, or Merchants Street, has been impeccably restored and pedestrianized. Amid the cool shops and cafés are a number of free museums. Casa de Asia is one. Housed on the second floor of a colonial townhouse, the small museum celebrates Cuba's connection to Asian culture. Thanks to trade ties, decorative arts from East Asia were all the rage with well-heeled 19th-century families, several of whose descendants donated their collections to the museum. One of the prized possessions is a bronze of the Hindu god Shiva, cast using the ancient lost-wax process. Look for it in the Fidel Castro Collection, showcasing works gifted to the former president.
Other free museums on Mercaderes include the Museo del Tabaco, featuring all things tobacco, such as the tools used to process it, as well as ashtrays and pipes; the Museo Casa de Simón Bolívar, a paean to the liberator of Latin America housed in a neoclassical palace (see his bronze statue in a park across the street); Museo Casa Oswaldo Guayasamín, housed in the former studio of the Ecuadorian artist who painted Fidel Castro; and the Museo Armería 9 de Abril, which displays historic weapons and commemorates a failed operation to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista on April 9, 1958, less than a year before the revolution succeeded.
See fragments of restored frescoes from the Palace of the Counts of San Esteban de Cañongo and the Casa de Don Mariano Carbó at the Museo de Pintura Mural, housed in what is considered the oldest house in Havana.
Falling under the category of almost free, Museo Napoleónico, spanning four floors of a Florentine Renaissance-inspired mansion in the Vedado district, will delight history buffs (admission $3). Accumulated by sugar baron Julio Lobo and politician Orestes Ferrera, this collection of 7,000 objects related to Napoleon Bonaparte, including a bronze death mask made of the emperor by his personal physician, is one of the most extensive in the world. Don't miss the view of the city from the terrace on the fourth floor.
Kids under 14 get in free to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, while adults pay $8, a bargain considering this vast collection. The museum encompasses two buildings, one of which focuses on Cuban art—from Armando Menocal to Wifredo Lam—and the other on international art spanning a period from 500 B.C. to modern times and featuring ancient Greek ceramics and a canvas by El Greco.
At $1 to $3 a ticket, baseball games at the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano, home to the Industriales, are practically free, especially compared to major league games in the U.S. Don't miss the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame under the grandstand, with murals depicting Fidel Castro at bat and the history of the sport in the country. The regular season generally runs from November to April, with playoffs May to July.
In the 1990s, folk artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona used scrapped objects, like bathtubs and dolls, and whatever paint he could get his hands on to create a muralscape in central Havana's Callejón de Hamel, transforming the former slum into a vibrant Afro-Cuban neighborhood. Join locals here on Sundays at noon to groove to live rumba music.
Food and Drink
The free Museo Casa del Chocolate is billed as a museum dedicated to the history of cocoa and its production, but the real draw is the rich drinking chocolate ($1), served cold or hot.
Attention rum connoisseurs: Get up to speed on what you've been missing all these years at the Museo de Ron, where a free tasting is included with the price of admission ($7). A series of exhibits demonstrates how rum is distilled, from the sugar mill to the white oak barrels used for aging. Head next door to Bar Dos Hermanos for further research if need be.
Join the Cuban families who flock to Playas del Este—the Eastern Beaches—in July and August. The chain of white-sand beaches starts about eight miles from the city at Tarará and stretches several miles to Guanabo.
A visit to Havana isn't complete without a stroll along the oceanfront promenade known as the Malecón, which runs from Old Havana west to the Almendares River in Vedado. What began as a seawall built by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War to protect the city from the turbulent Atlantic has become a gathering place known as the Great Sofa to Habaneros from all walks of life. Take in the eclectic mash-up of neoclassical and art nouveau architecture fronting the esplanade and kids doing cannonballs in the ocean. Summer evenings are especially festive, with locals sipping rum and watching the sunset.
Photo op alert: Dotted with busts of Latin and North American leaders, including U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Parque de la Fraternidad in central Havana is meant to commemorate American brotherhood, but it's become known more as "Jurassic Park" for its scene-stealing fleet of vintage American cars used as so-called colectivos, or shared taxis.
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