What do you get when you blend colonial architecture, dilapidated urban high-rises, colorfully restored 1950’s automobiles, renowned rum and tobacco, unabashed national pride, a passion for the arts, raucous nightlife and communist politics together in the most populous city in the Caribbean? For travelers, one of the most unique cultural experiences the world has to offer. Havana may be a little more grit and a little less romance than your typical Carnival Cruise-goer would prefer, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doubts the authenticity of its spirit. From the daily rituals (fishing, swimming, amourous strolls) taking place along the Malecón to the quasi-hipster influences creeping ever-more-noticeably into neighborhoods like Vedado, this is the entire range of Cuban culture put on full display, complete with all the museums, markets, and Afro-Caribbean beats you could ask for. So what do you say we leave the preconceptions behind and take a quick look at what Havana’s got rigged up under the hood?
For starters, the inescapable must-see on the culture list is La Habana Vieja; and not without good reason. Equal parts crumbling and beautifully restored colonial buildings (once again, thank you UNESCO), Old Havana is a treasure trove of Spanish architecture and Cuban history. The list of noteworthy monuments and galleries here is daunting, ranging from the D.C.-esque capital building and magnificent Gran Teatro to the west, past the Fine Arts and Revolution Museums to the north, all the way to the great Cathedral and Plaza de Armas protectively butted up against the imposing walls of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. From here, it’s just a short walk northwest along the Canal de Entrada to the Malecón, where you can people watch for hours to the unmistakable sound of the gulf waves breaking relentlessly against the outer walls of the Cuban capital. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, right?
However, if you’d like a true taste of 21st century Havana, you’ll eventually have to step past the comforting, familiar borders of Paseo del Prado and go exploring. Take in the picturesque but long neglected streets of Centro Habana as you work your way towards Vedado, where hip restaurants and galleries lend an air of Western cosmopolitanism to a city not long ago considered anything but. Stroll amid both poverty and surrealist artwork as you admire the Gaudi-inspired neighborhood known as Fusterlandia just south of Playa Jaimanitas. Follow the sounds of live timba rhythms into an unassuming bodega and put your dance skills to the ultimate test until the early hours of the morning. Because as much as Habaneros appreciate their historic past, you’ll find that many here are much more interested in their vivacious, artistic present. And with tourism numbers on the rise and an easing of tensions with the U.S. bringing with it the promise of economic prosperity, why shouldn’t they be?