What to visit in Cuba?
When we travel to Habana, the cultural offer is wide and varied. Sometimes choosing is complex. However, the Cuban capital offers more special destinations every day, standing out from classic tourist attractions. Besides emblematic places in the city that the traveler cannot miss, people looking for an authentic experience when they decide to travel to Habana are taking over. Therefore, it would be interesting to list those spots that we consider worth a visit: for their special design, their gastronomic offers, their unique experiences, their panoramic views... They are spaces that stand out not only for the cultural activities they offer, but also as places to stay in Habana, places to enjoy live Cuban music, places to buy local crafts and design, places to taste typical Cuban food and so on.
1. Design stores. What to buy in Cuba?
Art in Cuba emerges in each corner of the island. We can find art galleries, museums, graphic and industrial design stores, spaces dedicated to local crafts and cinematics. In Old Habana, lie many of the most representative premises of the good work of Cuban design and, as part of the route through design in Habana, we prefer to move away from the San José Warehouses and bet on more peculiar stores such as Piscolabis. We speak of a store-bazaar where design items, decorative and utilitarian objects, clothing and accessories are exhibited and sold. In the same area, we find the design store Clandestina,la cual ha alcanzado un boom en la esfera del diseño textil cubano. El espacio cuenta con una zona expositiva donde mensualmente pueden encontrarse exposiciones de artistas locales, desde pintura, a escultura y fotografía. Asimismo, la Tienda Conga, Arte & Diseño, en la barriada de Miramar, se exhibe objetos de diseño cubano originales y exclusivos, que combinan altos valores estéticos, funcionales y culturales con una fabricación personalizada, de la mano de reconocidos diseñadores cubanos. Y si de diseño atrevido se trata, la galería La Marca es la ideal para los amantes del tatuaje. La Marca se ha convertido en una alternativa cultural para aquellos que no solo aman este quehacer y lo comprenden como una expresión artística; sino que aspira también a sumar todas aquellas manifestaciones que tienen que ver con el acondicionamiento personal de la imagen.
2. A route through the pictorial and graphic art of Cuba
Moreover, the Cuban graphic design finds its place in the René Portocarrero Serigraphy Workshop, a place devoted to promote contemporary Cuban screen printing in its various expressions. You can buy posters and visit its gallery, where masterpieces of several contemporary print artists are exhibited. We also highlight the Serigraph Workshop of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) where you can take an inside look to the screen printing technique that was used to design movie posters. A very complete sample of the revolutionary Cuban posters is exhibited in the ICAIC lobby. Meanwhile, a visit to Casa Estudio Pepe Menéndez is the perfect opportunity to chat with one of the most important Cuban poster artist, while you discover his work. Even in the Vedado neighborhood, Casa de las Américas is an excellent opportunity to appreciate the graphic works of several print artists in Latin America.
3. Museums and art galleries
A visit to the museums and art galleries of Havana completes the tour of the visual arts. The National Museum of Fine Arts stands out within the museum network with its important collection of Cuban art, Egyptian art and universal art. In addition, the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Music, the Museum of Ceramics and the Museum of Dance offer a range of possibilities for lovers of the history of artistic manifestations. Likewise, private galleries run exhibitions throughout the year, both by national and foreign artists. Among them, Factoría Habana, Villa Manuela, Servando Gallery, Galiano Gallery, Habana Gallery and Artis 718 stand out; although there are already many studios-turned-galleries of contemporary artists getting their place within the city's exhibition network. One of the most recent is Espacio Seis-Seis Estudio de Arte Contemporáneo : a studio of contemporary Cuban art in the heart of Old Habana, created within the framework of the XII Habana Biennial (2015) and reopened on July 1, 2016. Moreover, we highlight workshops of creators such as Carlos Garaicoa, Lidzie Alvisa, José Manuel Fors and Beatriz Salas Santacana.
4. Religion and folklore
Certainly, the Caribbean island is the result of a mixture of cultural traditions from Spain, Africa and the United States, among other influences. This is reflected in the religious substratum of Cuban society, where the Catholic religion, the Protestant, Palo Santo and Santeria live together. This has caused a very peculiar religious syncretism, which is revealed in the base of people beliefs and is shown through everyday religious practices. Being part of these experiences is an adventure, so we recommend a visit to the Hamel Alley, where a community cultural project has resulted in a kind of open-air gallery where we can immerse ourselves in Afro-Cuban culture. Also, a visit to the House of Africa and the Orishas Museum is a good opportunity to get in touch with the history, costumes and other accessories that characterize Afro-Cuban religions. However, to enjoy a much more impressive experience we recommend a visit to the house of babalawo Alfredo, where you can live directly the experience of a "holy touch" and take a close look to an altar dedicated to the Orishas.
5. Following the beat of music: from tradition to modernity
Music as an indispensable component of Afro-Cuban religions and Cuban culture in general, can not go missing in this cultural guide. When you think of Cuba, a fun culture of sociable and dancing people usually comes to mind. As dance is something that characterizes the Cuban, its flavor and its more traditional rhythms have transcended borders. In Habana you can meet traditional rhythms such as: rumba, salsa, mambo, son, chachachá, etc. by teachers and professional dancers. Those looking to dance salsa and enjoy the rhythm of the son will find it in La Taberna de Benny Moré, located next to the Old Square, This is one of the classic places to dance Son montuno. The place is specially dedicated to the famous Cuban musician Benny More and there are musical groups and dancers that liven up the atmosphere. In the evening, places such as the Casa de la Música de Galiano and Miramar offer musical shows with Cuban salsa orchestras. Another emblematic spot is the Habana Café Show Bar Restaurant of the Meliá Cohiba Hotel, recreated in an atmosphere of Habana in the 50's, where you can dance to the rhythm of the dance company called “Tiempos”. On the other hand, classical ballet lovers will find periodic plays in the Grand Theater of Habana, the Avellaneda and Covarrubias halls of the National Theater or the Mella y el Marti theater. In addition, every two years the International Ballet Festival of Habana «Alicia Alonso» is celebrated, being the most important event dedicated to ballet in Cuba.
6. Live music: Son cubano, latin jazz, rock
The musical atmosphere in Havana is very seductive, with options for the most diverse tastes. The city offers different options to enjoy an interesting cultural proposal. Vedado and Miramar host the majority of clubs, theaters and cultural centers. Enjoying live music is the best option, hence those who travel to Habana may, depending on their musical preferences, visit spaces such as Submarino Amarillo, recommended for rock lovers; Jazz Café and the Club de la Zorra y el Cuervo, for those who enjoy jazz with a latin twist; Delirio Habandero, for the romantics of Son and the bolero; and Fábrica de Arte Cubano, for those who like alternative music. Another interesting option is La Casa de la Bombilla Verde, a charming bar where you can breathe a bohemian atmosphere and where you can enjoy live Cuban trova. There, you will have the opportunity to have a refreshing Cuban cocktail.
7. Panoramic views
The truth is that Habana after dark has a lot to offer; In addition to the aforementioned musical offers, a walk along the Malecon with the sea breeze as a companion becomes a magical experience. There are corners of the city that allow you to appreciate it in all its splendor, thanks to the panoramic views they have to offer. These include the view from Tres Reyes del Morro Castle and La Cabaña, or a panoramic view of the port of Habana that can be spoted from Cristo de La Habana, which can be accessed after a ride on the boat in Casablanca. And inside the city, the view of its colonial roofs also holds a certain charm, especially from the terrace of the Ambos Mundos Hotel and the Hotel Inglaterra. From the restaurant La Torre, at the top of the FOCSA building, you can take snapshots of both a daytime and nighttime Habana that still retains many architectural details of its colonial and republican past.
8. An inside look at Habana with locals
To discover Habana from the inside, you need to get yourself guided by local people who show you those spots, events and ways that only a native of the island knows. Only this way a traveler can enter neighborhoods outside the classic tourist guides of Cuba, reflecting the actual life of a Cuban today. Therefore, we recommend you to be accompanied by a friend from Cubaunique who shows you the authentic city, not the one built for tourism. For example, you can visit the local markets of J and 25, 19 and B in the Vedado neighborhood - an exciting opportunity to live a current experience of a Cuban when shopping fruits and vegetables. Or you can also enter a traditional Cuban house where a grandmother will teach you to prepare traditional Cuban dishes that you can later taste. You will even be able to live the experience of riding on the Regla and / or Casablanca ferry, which crosses the bay of Habana and is used daily as a means of transportation by Cubans residing in these neighborhoods.
9. Field trips near Habana
In addition to discovering the most classic Habana, we recommend taking a field trip to nearby spots with a unique appeal which escape from traditional tourist destinations. Thus, you can live the experience of diving by a sunken ship on the beaches of Bacuranao and Boca Ciega, whose waters hosts the remains of the vessels “SS Olivette” and “City of Alexandria”. Those looking for an ecological tourism and the lovers of underwater photography, will find this as the ideal place to take the most intrepid snapshots of both the boat and the marine fauna and flora. Besides, without leaving Habana, we also find a unique place in the heart of the city. We are talking about the Habana Forest, an emblematic and popular spot of the capital that takes up seven kilometers along the banks of the Almendares River. It is an ideal place to relax and escape the overwhelming dynamic city, enjoy nature and take pictures of its landscapes and itsarchitectural ruins.
10. Where to eat in Habana
When we are going to travel to a new destination, we usually inform ourselves about the activities we can do there. However, we always try to treat ourselves with local dishes of the city we visit. Many travelers arrive on the island eager to discover traditional Cuban food, as well as their most recent reinterpretations carried out by professional chefs. We recommend some restaurants / paladares delighting to the eye and to the taste, such as: La Guarida - a location where the famous film Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed; the Riomar restaurant, which offers a beautiful view of the sea; El Cocinero, located in the highlands of Fábrica de Arte in Vedad, from where to watch a beautiful sunset; or the Paladar La Esperanza located in a mansion in Miramar featuring vintage decoration. In these restaurants, the local product is pampered with an overflowing creativity and traditional flavors are combined with the latest trends in international cuisine. As a common feature, diplomats, artists, international celebrities and numerous heads of state have eaten at their tables.
On the other hand, Cafés have become attractive within the Habana culinary circuit. Among them, we recommend Café Bianchini, located in the Callejón del Chorro (although to be reopen in a new location). It is in a small but cozy space where a pleasant design is combined with the offer of desserts, breakfasts and, of course, aromatic coffees. Similarly, the Jacqueline Fumero Café, located in the Plaza de la Loma del Ángel, offers its visitors exquisite snacks, together with an exhibition and sale of textile and goldsmith's design, by the designer Jacqueline Fumero. Already in the Vedado area we recommend Mamaine Café, where you can enjoy a bohemian atmosphere vegetarian friendly.
11. Where to stay in Habana
After a long day full of activities, nothing fancy more than resting in a comfortable accommodation, well located and with high standards of comfort, cleanliness and friendliness of its hosts. These requirements are met by Malecon 663, Havana Suite and Hotel La Reserva. The first one is located in an old house of the early twentieth century, refurbished into a boutique hotel with vintage design, and a panoramic view over the Malecón. Furthermore, Suite Havana, with a more minimalist design, is located in the heart of Old Habana and allows you to explore all the tourist spots of the city on foot. While Hotel La Reserva in the center of Vedado offers tranquility and comfort in an old restored palace, where art and design are the hallmarks.
12. Habana la nuit
Habana after dark is a universe of endless possibilities. A walk along the Malecón allows dialogue with local musicians who walk along the avenue playing live for friends and couples who are gathered there. On the 23rd avenue in Vedado, you can breathe the hectic atmosphere of a city that does not sleep at night. The bars on this street give the city an effervescent life, highlighting the Bar EFE, a restaurant-bar where music meets visual arts and gastronomy. In perfect communion with a rustic style with large and restored furniture, hanging fabrics, antique mirrors and rescued antiques. We also recommend the King Bar. It presents live music as its major asset, especially flamenco performed by the group of Reinier Mariño that lights up its nights. On the other hand, at the Esencia Bar, there are energizing night shows to dance and talk.
13. Vedado: 3 MANDATORY VISITS
Modern Havana is an area of the Capital fully developed in the mid-twentieth century, although it began to take shape much earlier. Its most eloquent exponents are the neighborhoods of El Vedado and Miramar. In the modern neighborhood of Vedado we recommend not to miss three essential spots such as the Rox Orfebrería store. ROX950 is the work of the Cuban goldsmith Rosana Vargas, devoted to the art of jewelry. So, you can discover more than ten collections of minimalist style. Dance lovers should not miss the visit to the academy Acosta Danza, founded in 2016 by Carlos Acosta, and blending in the international scene with an artistic line combining contemporary movements and classical ballet. And finally, the Cuban Art Factory will allow you to discover a great laboratory of multidisciplinary creation that showcases the best of contemporary art in Cuba, integrating disciplines such as music, theater, visual arts, etc.
14. MIRAMAR: 3 MANDATORY VISITS
Habana is a city stopped in time. Part of this vintage atmosphere circulates around the city daily, because, beyond its buildings, its American cars from the 50's of the past century are a living heritage of past styles and times. So we recommend a ride in a convertible car ("almendron") to know the neighborhood of Miramar along Fifth Avenue, where you will see the large mansions typical of the area. Another space full of tranquility in the city is the Marina Hemingway, a spectacular center of nautical activities, where regattas and fishing tournaments are organized. The one that stands out the most is the sport fishing of the Aguja. And to top it up, in the traditional Cuban music rythm, we recommend a visit to the Compay Segundo House Museum in Miramar. He was one of the stars of the Buena Vista Social Club and lived in that house, now turned into a museum for his last 6 years.
15. OLD HABANA: 3 MANDATORY VISITS
Cuba is known worldwide for its rum and cigars. But this fame is the result of years of experimentation and hard effort by professionals of both disciplines. Therefore, we recommend a visit to the Rum Museum in Old Habana, an ideal place to learn about the ellaboration process of this national drink, its history, distribution mechanisms and, of course, to enjoy its flavor. Another must is the Bacardí building, an art deco example, run by the company Bacardí S.A. There, you can learn about the history of this company and its majestic building, with its central tower, from where you can enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of Habana. And, as a climax, we suggest not to miss the unique “cannon shot” ceremony in Habana. A tradition that recalls the closure of the city in times of the Spanish colony, wich is hold every day from the fortress of La Cabaña.
Obviously, Havana retains that charm that attracts tourists from all over the world. It is a city that has a lot to offer from the field of culture, gastronomy, folklore, its architecture, its people and its warm atmosphere. These recommendations are intended to encourage those who have not yet decided to visit the island, and have it as a pending destination.
Julienne López Hernández
Degree in History of Art
Pictures by Juanma Cruz del Cueto1