25 Things You Should Know About Havana
A Pope, an American president, and a British rock group walk into an island nation’s capital … and with each visit, Cuba has opened up a bit to the rest of the world. Today, the rush to see time-capsuled life in Havana, or La Habana in Spanish, has shifted into overdrive. Even though President Barack Obama announced that individual travel is now legal, activities still must fall under the educational people-to-people requirements. But with direct flights from the United States increasing and a cruise from Miami starting in May, these 25 things about Cuba’s biggest metropolis are now truly just a mere 100 miles from Florida.
When Havana was founded around 1515, it was on the south coast of Cuba in a swampy area near where Batabanó is now. Just a few years later, the city moved to its current spot on the northern coast with a built-in bay, which is now the harbor.
2. The former Presidential Palace built between 1913 and 1920 and used through Fulgencio Batista’s presidency is now the Museum of the Revolution. Inside, there's a Room of Mirrors, resembling the one at France’s Palace of Versailles. The palace's interior was embellished to the nines, thanks to Tiffany & Co.
Inside a glass enclosure behind the museum is the Granma yacht, which Fidel Castro used to sail to Mexico in 1956 along with 81 other revolutionaries. It's said that the 59-foot-long boat had been locked up and guarded day and night to prevent anyone from using it to escape to Florida.
4. Every night at 9 p.m., the traditional cannon blast, or cañonazo, takes place at the fortress, La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The guards start marching about 20 minutes before and perform a ceremony leading up to the explosion. The daily ritual is as much an attraction for locals as it is tourists, with a crowd of about 1000 showing up for the big event every day.
5. One of the most popular sites in Old Town: The Catedral de San Cristóbal. Its baroque exterior and classical interior were designed by Italian Francesco Borromini and originally built by the Jesuits in the 18th century.
6. Opened in 1930, the eight-floor Hotel Nacional de Cuba was built by two American firms, McKim, Mead and White and Purdy and Henderson Co. Though mostly Art Deco in style, the five-star accommodation also has influences of old California, Hispano-Moorish, neoclassical, and neo-colonial styles.
The towering hotel is so proud of its guests that it has a Salon de la Historia, or History Hall, featuring photos of its most famous visitors organized by decade. Among those on display: Walt Disney, Mickey Mantle, Frank Sinatra, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mohammed Ali, Steven Spielberg, and Ban Ki-moon.
8. Fifty-two panels covering 3229 square feet make up the outdoor mural on Mercaderas Street by artist Andrés Carrillo. Carillo used only four colors for the mosaic, soaking natural rocks to achieve the 13 shades that make up images of 67 characters throughout Cuban history.
9. “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita,” reads a handwritten sign, seemingly autographed by Ernest Hemingway, which hangs at La Bodeguita Del Medio in Havana's Old Town. Tourists now flock to try both cocktails at Hemingway's favorite haunts. A bronze, life-size statue of the author sits perched at the corner seat of the bar at El Floridita, waiting for his daiquiri.
After indulging in Hemingway’s favorite drinks, follow his footsteps to where he slept, at the salmon-colored, 52-room Hotel Ambos Mundos. This was the writer’s first Cuban home, where he stayed for seven years during the 1930s. Room 511, where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, is now a museum.
11. Posed outside the San Francisco Church in Old Town is a bronze statue of José María López Lledín, an itinerant who wandered the streets of Havana in the 1950s. Thanks to his genteel manner, Lledín was nicknamed the Gentleman from Paris—even though he was actually from Spain. Touching his statue is said to bring luck. Some get more specific and say holding his index finger brings prosperity and rubbing his beard means you’ll return to Havana again someday.
12. Technicolor murals line every inch of Hamel Alley, or Callejon de Hamel, which captures the soul of Cuba’s Afro-Cuban culture. The narrow street is lined with cafes and shops selling Santeria art and if you’re lucky, you'll be able to catch live musicians and locals grooving to rumba.
Beyond a triple-arched entrance in the Vedado neighborhood is the 138-acre Colon Cemetery, or Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón, named after Christopher Columbus. When it was laid out between 1871 and 1886, the Roman military camp-like rectangular blocks were divided based on social status.
14. Across the way is the Chinese Cemetery, or Cementerio Chino, which started construction in 1892, during Cuba’s final years under Spanish rule, making it one of the oldest Chinese cemeteries in the Americas. Finished in 1933, the 96,875-square-foot site was inaugurated in 1947 and nationalized in 1967.
15. Hop in a vintage Buick or Chevy and cruise down the Malecón for a quintessential Cuban experience. The 5-mile oceanfront stretch of road mixes colorfully eclectic architecture on one side with the harsh crashing waves of the Florida Strait on the other.
16. In 1964, Fidel Castro banned The Beatles’ music in Cuba, but by 2000, he had changed his tune and was at the dedication of Havana’s John Lennon Park unveiling his statue. “I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality,” Castro told the crowd gathered. Nowadays, you can sit on the bench with Lennon, but his vision may be blurred. The statue's real glasses kept getting stolen by tourists, so a local retiree decided to put himself in charge of placing the wire-rimmed glasses on the bronze statue whenever tourists come by.
Cuba’s famous rum, Havana Club, has its own museum in Old Town inside an 18th century colonial townhouse. The tour takes you from the construction of the oak casks to the detailed distillation process, but the real highlight is the tasting room. Afterwards, head across the way to the Havana Club Bar where traditional Cuban music is played while you indulge in a mojito, daiquiri, or “cata vertical,” which is a sampling of all the rum, in age order.
18. Standing 39 floors, the Edificio Focsa is the tallest high rise in the capital—and at the time it was built in 1956, it was also the second-tallest building made of concrete in the world. The building, which contains 373 apartments, was constructed in a quick 28 months. Now the 33rd floor houses the La Torre restaurant with a bird’s eye view of the city.
19. Not your local drugstore: With its dark wood shelves and porcelain medicine jars, Old Town’s Johnson Drugstore looks more like something out of Harry Potter than the CVS down the street. The store was restored in 2013, but had its heydey in the 19th and early 20th centuries where it doubled as a gathering place to catch up on the town’s latest news.
20. Singer Gloria Estefan was born in the Cuban capital on September 1, 1957. Her dad was a bodyguard for President Fulgencio Batista and when Fidel Castro rose to power, she moved to the United States with her family.
21. Another famous Havana-born name? Andrés Arturo García Menéndez, better known as Andy Garcia. A couple of years after he was born in 1956, his family lost ownership of their land during the revolution and migrated to Miami. After focusing on basketball as a student, Garcia discovered acting and went on to star in classics like 1987’s The Untouchables, 1988’s Stand and Deliver, and 1990’s The Godfather: Part III.
22. Even though it’s called the Museo del Chocolate, this Old Town establishment is actually a cafe at which nearly everything on the menu contains some of the sweet stuff. It's ironically located on Calle Amargura, which translates to Bitterness Street.
Snapchatting on the go? No such thing… yet. The Internet is still limited in Cuba, or as some locals put it, their phones are stuck on “airplane mode.” While Google announced this month it is in the early stages of expanding access for the island, currently, Wi-Fi is only allowed in a set number of public squares in Havana by using a (relatively expensive) access card from the government’s ETECSA telecommunications company. So for now, only locals who can afford access huddle alongside tourists in the parks to connect—with youngsters scouring screens for YouTube sensations, students researching on their laptops, and families crowded around cells Facetiming relatives.
24. From bread to toiletries, Cubans line up for everything. But one of the guaranteed longest queues is for the state-run Coppelia ice cream shop. Fidel Castro himself was behind the mission—after tasting every flavor of the 28 containers of Howard Johnson’s ice cream shipped to him from Canada, he set up a factory with equipment from Sweden and Holland, and put his private secretary Cecilia Sanchez in charge of the parlor, which opened in 1966.
25. Imagine Picasso meeting Gaudi—and exploding all over a neighborhood. Welcome to Fusterlandia, a community project of artist José Rodriguez Fuster. As soon as you turn down the street in the Jaimanitas neighborhood, the color splashes begin, culminating in a multi-level artistic Willy Wonka world, which is the artist’s home studio. Fuster often mingles with visitors, and is always ready to take a selfie with passersby.
— Rachel Chang (@RachelChang) February 13, 2016