Cuba's capital city truly must have been one of the finest cities in the Americas in its day. Compared with many Caribbean ports of call, whose historic structures are limited to a handful of churches and musty museums, Havana and its nod to culture and history are breathtaking. It still boasts thousands of architectural treasures, dozens of top-notch museums, gracious avenues and promenades, wonderful music, friendly people, breathtaking vistas and more.
But Havana is in terrible decay. Some areas, particularly in Old Havana, have been restored, but there are numerous areas that are crumbling. These once-graceful buildings have taken a pounding from hurricanes, sea air and neglect for nearly 50 years, without the commitment or materials to preserve and maintain them. Many buildings are missing roofs; on some, you can see doorways leading to missing balconies, and on others, walls are crumbling. The most fascinating thing is seeing these dilapidated buildings in the evening. Once darkness descends, it becomes obvious that, despite the desperate state of these dwellings, people continue to live in them.
Only a handful of cruise lines visit Havana. The U.S.-based lines are all banned from doing so. German-owned Thomson Cruises, Norwegian-owned Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and U.K.-owned Noble Caledonia all make port stops in the city. Canada-owned Cuba Cruise, which started round-Cuba sailings in 2013, will stop weekly at Havana from December 2014 through March 2015.
The city is rich with rewards for visitors. The core of "Old Havana" or "La Habana Vieja" is a treasure trove of architectural gems. Across Havana Bay, the iconic 16th century Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle) guards the city and the harbor and provides panoramic views. The graceful and elegant avenues and mansions of "El Vedado" offer a glimpse of a wealthy past. Today, it's also the center of the modern government at the symbolic Plaza de la Revolucion.
Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was key in colonial times for its strategic location and rich agricultural base, which developed into the world's foremost sugar industry. (Today, it's almost extinct.) Havana itself was founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514, and, with its sheltered harbor, it prospered for centuries as a key center for trade.
Spain ruled Cuba for four centuries until the island gained its independence in 1899. In the 1900s, Cuba was mostly run by a series of leaders, who were greatly influenced by the United States. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow leader Fulgencio Batista, and a year later, Castro announced his allegiance to the Soviet Union and Communist principles. Thus, he alienated Cuba from the United States and, in the process, thousands of U.S. tourists that regularly visited the island.
The United States' embargo on Cuba, which began in the 1960s and has been modified several times, basically prohibits U.S. citizens and U.S. companies from conducting business with Cuban interests. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton modified the embargo to prohibit subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba, and he also authorized the sale of certain specific products to Cuba. More recently, President Barack Obama has somewhat eased travel restrictions to Cuba for those of Cuban descent.
The island remained politically aligned and economically dependent on the Soviet Union until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Following difficult economic times in the early 1990s (known as the "Periodo Especial"), Castro's regime began encouraging foreign investment, resulting in increased tourism -- predominantly from Canada and Europe. This marked the beginning of capitalism and renewed opportunity for the Cuban people. Cuba now attracts more than two million visitors each year.
In 2008, because of Castro's failing health, his brother Raul Castro was named president. Raul Castro has introduced changes to the island, such as allowing ownership of cellphones, buying and selling property and private enterprise, most notably in the form of paladars, or private restaurants.
There is much speculation that the United States will further ease travel restrictions to the island, but there is little indication this will happen in the near future. If cruise travel to Cuba is allowed on U.S.-owned lines, it will no doubt result in great interest from both the cruise lines and the traveling public. With its convenient location, just 90 miles from South Florida, Cuba is an ideal port of call for lines sailing Caribbean itineraries.
For now, those who do get to take a cruise that calls in Havana are better off leaving the beaches and sunbathing to other ports and spending their time visiting the many sites and museums that are easily accessible from the cruise port.
Since Terminal Sierra Maestra is so centrally located (opposite the old town), there's no reason to hang around the facility. There is a small souvenir shop on the first floor selling Cuban music CDs and postcards if you need to grab something before your ship leaves.
Havana's Plazas. Among those on the must-visit list is Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, which is chock-full of excitement, musicians, booksellers and arts and crafts vendors. Touts, beggars and more gather in this atmospheric and shady plaza, which is flanked by historic buildings and museums. Plaza Vieja, also in the old city, was laid out in 1559 and served as the main square of Havana until the 19th century. It now houses restored examples of architecture that span the centuries, as well as several cafes and bars that offer Cuban music -- including Cafe Taberna, a favorite spot of the renowned Cuban musician Benny More, known as "the barbarian of rhythm."
The Malecon. On stormy days, the seas crash over the walls of the wide breakwater that lines this four-mile, winding promenade. It attracts a hodge-podge of people: families, couples, fishermen, tourists, those out for a stroll and more. Architecturally, the wide boulevard is lined with numerous attractive and important buildings, many of which are now faded from the sun and sea air.
La Habana Vieja. In this old Havana neighborhood, you can visit Palacio del los Capitanes Generales, a classic example of the city's baroque architecture. Formerly the home of the Spanish colonial rulers, captain generals, and briefly the presidential palace, today it houses the Museo de la Ciudad and features a comprehensive history of Havana. (Plaza de Armas, calle Tacon e/ O'Reilly y Obispo; open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily).
Other neighborhood attractions include the Catedral de San Cristobal. Havana's Baroque main cathedral towers over the Plaza de la Catedral and its 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings. (Calle Emperador 156; open 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Sunday)
La Calle Obispo. This pedestrianized street, though crowded, narrow, bustling and very touristy, will give you the best sense of old Havana and its architectural styles. At one end is the classically colonial Plaza de Armas. At the other are buildings from the more modern Art Nouveau period. The restored buildings include hotels, shops, cafes and Farmacia Taquechel, a pharmacy that sells cosmetics and natural and homeopathic remedies. Its picturesque shelves are lined with an impressive collection of antique Italian and Majolica ceramic pharmaceutical jars. Also on Calle Obispo is the lively and restored Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is famous for its literary past. Ernest Hemingway began writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in room 511.
Hemingway, who made Cuba his home for a time, has created mystique around numerous island bars. At one end of La Calle Obispo is El Floridita (Avenida de Belgica esq. Obispo 557; open 11 a.m. to midnight), one of his legendary haunts; he developed quite the taste for daiquiris there, and there is an oft-photographed statue of the American author at one end of the bar. (El Floridita claims to have perfected the recipe and calls itself the "cradle of the daiquiri.")
Near the cathedral in Old Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily), another Hemingway haunt, is regarded as a temple to the mojito and is probably Havana's most famous restaurant. Its walls are covered with photographs, graffiti, drawings and people's signatures (you can add yours if you find space). It's usually crowded and touristy, but it's great fun and definitely worth a visit.
Central Havana. Visit Museo de la Revolucion, which is dedicated to the revolution and is housed in the former presidential palace. This neo-classical building was built in 1920 and was decorated by New York's Tiffany & Co. It served as the home for 25 presidents,-- so it's no accident that Castro chose it to house the museum of his revolution. Check out the Salon de Espejos (Hall of Mirrors), which was meant to resemble the room of the same name at the Palace of Versailles. (Calle Refugio 1, e Avenida de las Misones y Zulueta; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
The national fine arts museum, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is contained in two buildings. One is dedicated to Cuban art (colonial, academic and 20th-century art), and the other, two blocks away in the Palacio del Centro Austuriano, focuses on international art, especially European painting and sculpture, as well as ancient art. There is a 5 CUC charge for entry for visitors 14 and older. (San Rafael, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate and Calle Trocadero, e/ Zulueta y Monserrate; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
Take a stroll down Paseo del Prado, the quintessential Havana boulevard, with its gracious central promenade made of marble. Originally laid out in 1772, the street remains popular for locals, especially in the evening. Marble benches, wrought-iron street lamps and eight bronze lions line the avenue. Some of the buildings along the avenue have been restored and painted bright, pastel colors. Often, there are street musicians along the central walkway.
Parque Central, the heart of the city center, has a small statue at its center to the revolutionary martyr, Jose Marti. It is lined with palm trees and provides a welcome relief from the chaos all around. This area is lined with monumental 19th- and 20th-century buildings, including the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana's oldest hotel and a classic spot to have a drink on the terrace and watch the world go by.
The nearby Centro Gallego began life as a social club for Galicians (Spaniards from the far northwest portion of the country, many of whom, like the Irish, emigrated to foreign shores) and was built round the existing Gran Teatro de la Habana.
Diagonally opposite from one corner of the square is Cuba's Capitol building El Capitolio, which was inspired by the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. (and actually slightly larger). It was once the seat of the Cuban Congress, and in 2013 Raul Castro announced that it would return there (the building is still being restored). It currently houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology. (Paseo de Marti esq. a San Jose; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
Vedado is a prestigious neighborhood where wide boulevards, gardens and grand residences grace the tree-lined streets. Once home to single families, these dwellings now house several residents on different floors and offer a fascinating glimpse into how the elite of the city once lived.
Several of the mansions have been restored and are used as embassies and offices for foreign corporations. This is also the home to the University of Havana, the massive Necropolis de Colon (the city's most impressive cemetery) and several important museums, including the Museo Napoleonico. This museum boasts the largest collection of Napoleonic artifacts outside of France, gathered together by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo. (Calle San Miguel, esq. a Ronda; open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday)
Also in El Vedado, the vast expanse of the Plaza de la Revolucion has been the heart of the Cuban government and politics since 1959. Fidel Castro renamed the square, formerly known as the Plaza Civica, and it has been the site of many important events, ranging from Castro's famously long speeches to a mass given by Pope John Paul II in 1998. But it's perhaps most famous for a sculpture of the iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, with the words "Hasta la Victoria, Siempre" (until victory, always) on one side of the Ministry of the Interior building.
On the outskirts of Havana is Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway's farm. He purchased the home in 1940 and lived there, off and on, while in Cuba. The home was made into a museum in 1962 and remains, essentially, as Hemingway left it. It features his 9,000-book library, hunting trophies, photos, artwork and even his fishing boat, the Pilar. The Finca Vigia Foundation in the United States is working to preserve this historic home, and its efforts have led to rare U.S.-Cuban co-operation, including the digitalization of Hemingway's private documents. (Calle Vigia y Stheinhard, San Francisco de Paula; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday)
On Foot: One of the first things that tourists will notice is the lack of traffic; there are few cars on the road. Plus, there are several pedestrian zones: La Plaza Vieja, La Calle Obispo and La Plaza de Armas, among others. In addition, the four-mile seafront Malecon and the central marble promenade of Calle de Prado will entice and delight walkers.
Note that many of the streets in Havana are cobblestoned and/or lack conveniences for wheelchairs and scooters.
By Taxi: Official taxis are metered and widely available at a number of taxi stands throughout the city. Official taxi services feature newer vehicles with official taxi logos on the side, uniformed drivers and, usually, air-conditioning. An hourly price of about 10 to 15 CUC can be negotiated with drivers. In addition (and a lot more fun), you can hail one of the vintage cars, which in recent years have become official taxis. The rate is the same, and if you can put up with the split leather seats and heat, they are a much more interesting way to see the city.
Numerous unofficial taxis are not metered or insured. Be sure to negotiate a price in advance.
By CocoTaxi: These bright yellow, three-wheeled, open-air vehicles carry two passengers and the driver. They are a fun alternative for short trips, but they aren't metered, so be sure to establish a price in advance.
By Horse-Drawn Carriage: They offer sightseeing tours of La Habana Vieja. They can be a bit pricey, but they offer a memorable narrated tour of the old city.
Havana's beaches start just 11 miles from the city center -- but these are no nasty city beaches -- Las Playas del Este (the eastern beaches), about 20 minutes by car outside of Havana, are a series of exquisite white sand beaches fringed by aquamarine seas and small towns that stretch for nearly 30 miles.
Best for Relaxing: Locals flock to Playa Guanabo, which can be particularly crowded on weekends. This is the more authentic Cuban end of the strip, which has thus far escaped development.
Best for Active Types: The most popular beach for tourists is Playa Santa Maria del Mar, with its pine- and palm-lined beaches, hotels, restaurants and water sports.
Best for Kids: From Havana, Bacuranao is the first beach you arrive at and is a quiet family-friendly spot.
Best for Resort-Lovers: Varadero, Cuba's renowned beach resort, lies about two hours from the city and sits on a 12-mile-long peninsula jutting deep into the Straits of Florida. It boasts an airport which caters for direct flights, mostly catering to international package holidaymakers who never leave this stretch. It's about two hours from port, and it's best visited on an organized tour.
Until fairly recently, eating in Havana could be a bit of a challenge, because of the lack of quality and inconsistency of ingredients. Most restaurants were state run (and were generally pretty awful both in terms of food and service). The few privately run restaurants (known as paladars) were subject to a slew of red tape that made them almost as bad as the state-run ones.
All this changed in January 2011, when President Raul Castro's new privatization laws allowed paladars to seat up to 50 people (previously it was 12), and, more crucially, serve entrees beyond the traditional Cuban food of roast pork, black beans, rice and plantains.
Today, there are paladars popping up all over the city offering cuisine and service to match any restaurant in the Caribbean. The older ones are often quirky in terms of hours and service (they are often family run, with older members cooking and waiting tables). The post-2011 paladars are modern, hip and funky.
The most famous paladar in Havana, La Guarida, was featured in the popular Cuban film "Fresa y Chocolate," and much of its reputation rests on this. Half the fun is getting there: It must be reached via three flights up a poorly lit, steep staircase in a building that anywhere else in the world would have been condemned by now. Signature dishes include ahi with sugar cane glaze, mutton braised in papaya juice, seafood risotto and more. (Concordia 418 e/ Gervasio y Escobar; open noon to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight daily)
A few blocks from the cruise terminal, just off the Malecon, is El Templete, one of the oldest restaurants in the city. This eatery offers fine views over the bay. It's known for the freshest seafood and shellfish in the city and offers an impressive array of appetizers, as well as a wide variety of main dishes, but it's not cheap. (Avenida del Puerto, no. 12-14, esq. Narcisco Lopez; open noon to 10:30 p.m.)
But the best restaurant in Havana (according to users of TripAdvisor) is Dona Eutimia, a paladar that serves up reasonably priced, generously portioned traditional Cuban dishes, with great service (and very attractive staff) in a prime spot opposite the Cathedral. (Callejon del Chorro, Plaza de la Catedral)
If you fancy venturing further afield to the Vedado area, then you'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to places to eat. One of the standouts is Waoo, which offers fresh, simple food from just 2 CUCs, including empanadas as well as larger dishes. The venue is lovely: a wooden house with shuttered windows and a large L-shaped bar. It's located right in the heart of hip, happening Vedado. (Calle L, no. 414, cnr. Calle 25; open noon to midnight)
Popular bars in Old Havana, such as El Floridita, are generally overpriced offering fairly average food and mediocre service, with entrees that range from 35-45 CUC. The more moderately priced La Bodeguita del Medio also serves simple meals.
Cruise ships dock at Terminal Sierra Maestra.
Havana is a peaceful and safe city. That being said, take precautions against pickpockets and petty crimes: Do not wear lots of jewelry; avoid handling cash in plain view; keep valuables safe or, better yet, on the ship.
There are no beggars as such, but you might encounter hassles from so-called jiniteros, who are young men who will follow tourists and offer them anything from taxis to girls (depending on your inclination). The best advice is a firm no, and they will move away to hassle someone else.
In many plaza and tourist areas, men and women dress in local costumes and ask for change in exchange for having their photos taken. In addition, be careful of those trying to sell cigars and rum on the streets. Often, the products are fake or of an inferior quality.
In addition, because of restrictions on locals changing currency, be wary of those asking to exchange money. The currency they try to exchange with you may be counterfeit.
Prostitution is rampant in Havana and completely in your face, but it is illegal. And, be warned that the government is not tolerant of any drugs, so buying even a tiny bit of marijuana can lead to significant trouble with the law.
Two currencies circulate in Cuba.
The peso nacional, or peso Cubano (CUP), is used by locals and is virtually worthless to tourists (except for use in public phones, local buses and some cinemas).
The peso convertible (CUC) is currency used by tourists, and you can buy just about everything with it. It is pegged to the U.S. dollar, but note when you exchange it at the official exchange bureau, Cadeca, they will take a 10 percent commission. U.S. dollars are the only currency subject to the commission, and so you are better off bringing euros, British pounds or Canadian dollars.
Credit cards and traveler's checks issued by U.S. banks are not accepted in Cuba, and other credit cards incur transaction fees of between 7 and 11 percent. Some establishments will accept Canadian dollars or euros.
Money can be exchanged at official Casa de Cambio (CADECA) locations throughout the city and at the airport. Visit www.xe.com for current exchange rates.
Spanish is the official language, although many in the tourist industry speak some English.
The most popular souvenirs are rum and cigars, as well as arts and crafts. The most widely available rum is Havana Club, which comes in several varieties. It is recommended that cigars be purchased in reputable shops, as many street vendors try to sell knock-off, low-quality or fake cigars.
Wood carvings, papier mache, musical instruments, items made from shells, paintings and other arts and crafts are available at a number of street markets and shops.
It's a toss-up between three of Cuba's famous rum concoctions: the Cuba Libre, the daiquiri and the mojito.
The Cuba Libre is basically rum and cola and is rumored to have been created by U.S. Soldiers during the war of independence in 1898. Note that, although Coca-Cola products are not common in Cuba, there is a local "Kola" that is available both in regular and diet versions.
The eaiquiri is a frozen drink that's made with rum, lime, sugar and maraschino cherries. It was invented by miners in the Cuban port town of Daiquiri.
The Mojito combines rum with sugar, muddled lime and mint and is served over ice with sparkling water.
The most popular local beers are the relatively light Cristal and the stronger Bucanero.