In the 1950s before the Communist revolution, Havana was one of the vacation hot-spots of the Caribbean, and since Cuba reopened to tourism in the 1990s, it has become a popular destination once again. Albeit with many fewer U.S. citizens, due to an almost total ban on travel maintained by the U.S. federal government. However, there will be lots of tourists at any time of year, so expect huge crowds and long lines in places.
Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Most tourist will be using the CUC for all purchases, hotels, taxis and activities. The CUC was created to replace all the US$ that was used in the tourist industry until the late 1990s.
Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the continent becoming a stopping point for the treasure laden Spanish Galleons on the crossing between the New World and the Old World. King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592. The Spaniards began building fortifications, and in 1553 they transferred the governor's residence to Havana from Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, thus making Havana the de facto capital. The importance of harbour fortifications was early recognized as English, French, and Dutch sea marauders attacked the city in the 16th century. The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana's harbor in 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War.
Video of Havana Cuba 2012 © Joe Mendonca
Museum of the Revolution and the Capitol Building.
Visit the Partagas cigar factory just behind the Capitol Building.
Havana Club Rum Factory. Go on a guided tour of Havana Club, one of Cuba's most famous rums. Most of the exhibits are subtitled in English and are fairly self-explanatory.
Walk along the Prado street in the evening. The Prado hums with street life, cafes and charm.
Walk along El Malecón. A favorite stroll for tourists and locals, a walk along the Malecon runs along the main streets of Havana and provides stunning views of the Bay.
Enjoy the glory of La Habana Vieja (The Old Town), some of it faded and crumbling - but there are many beautifully restored buildings as a result of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Plaza de la Revolución. Huge square dominated by a statue and monument of Jose Marti and the iconic image of Che Guevara adorning the Ministry of the Interior. Arrive either early or late, as it is often swamped by tourists and gets very hot during the day.
John Lennon Park in Vedado. Features the only statue of a western musician in Havana.
Hotel Habana Libre in Vedado. The hotel housed Castro's soldiers for several days after they took Havana. It has an excellent selection of photos in the lobby along with one of the only 24 hour fast food restaurants in the city.
Enjoy extraordinary 360-degree views of the city using the large Camara Oscura in the old town.
The Catedral de San Cristobal in old Havana. Said to be the only example of a baroque construction that possesses asymmetrical features, one of the towers is wider than the other.
Plaza de Armas. Spacious and elegant, the square is surrounded by baroque constructions that give it a authentic colonial milieu. It was laid out during the 1600s, replacing an old plaza which acted as the center of religious, administrative and military activity. Until the mid-18th century, it was used for military exercises and parades. After its remodeling between the years 1771-1838, it became a favored meeting spot for the city's wealthy. Today it is also known as Céspedes Park, in honor of the country?s Founding Father, whose monument stands at its center. This square is one of the most outstanding in the city, enlivened by vendors of antiques and classical books on Latin American and world literature.
Walk along the Malecón, the sea wall that runs along the Havana coastline. On weekends this is where the locals come to party, so bring a bottle and join in.
Go to the eastern beaches (Playas del Este) ? There's a bus leaving from Hotel Inglaterra every 30 minutes and takes about 30 minutes.
Fortaleza San Carlos de la Caba?a, a fortress located on the east side of the Havana bay, La Cabaña is the most impressive fortress from colonial times, particularly its walls constructed at the end of the 18th century.
El Capitolio Nacional, built in 1929 as the Senate and House of Representatives, this colossal building is recognizable by its dome which dominates the city's skyline. Inside stands the third largest indoor statue in the world, La Estatua de la República. Nowadays, the Cuban Academy of Sciences headquarters and the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (the National Museum of Natural History) has its venue within the building and contains the largest natural history collection in the country.
Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro is a picturesque fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay; Morro Castle was built because of the threat to the harbor from pirates.
Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, a small fortress built in the 16th century, at the western entry point to the Havana harbour, it played a crucial role in the defence of Havana during the initial centuries of colonisation. It houses some twenty old guns and military antiques.
Cristo de La Habana, Havana's 20-meter (66?ft) marble statue of Christ (1958) blesses the city from the east hillside of the bay.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba, an Art Deco National Hotel.
El Malecón Habanero, the avenue that runs beside the seawall along the north shore of Havana, from Habana Vieja to the Almendares River, it forms the northern boundary of Old Havana, Centro Habana and Vedado.
Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, a cemetery and open air museum, it is one of the most famous cemeteries in Latin America, known for its beauty and magnificence. The cemetery was built in 1876 and has nearly one million tombs.
Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded Havana on August 25, 1515 or 1514, on the southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó. Havana was originally a trading port, and suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs. Such attacks convinced the Spanish Crown to fund the construction of the first fortresses in the main cities.
Ships from all over the New World carried products first to Havana, in order to be taken by the fleet to Spain. The thousands of ships gathered in the city's bay also fueled Havana's agriculture and manufacture, since they had to be supplied with food, water, and other products needed to traverse the ocean.
On December 20, 1592, King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City. By the middle of the 18th century Havana had more than seventy thousand inhabitants, and was the third-largest city in the Americas, ranking behind Lima and Mexico City but ahead of Boston and New York.
The city was captured by the British during the Seven Years' War. The episode began on June 6, 1762, when at dawn, a British fleet, comprising more than 50 ships and a combined force of over 11,000 men of the Royal Navy and Army, sailed into Cuban waters and made an amphibious landing east of Havana. The British immediately opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies, causing a rapid transformation of Cuban society. Less than a year after Havana was seized, the Peace of Paris was signed ending the Seven Years' War. The treaty gave Britain Florida in exchange for the city of Havana on the recommendation of the French, who advised that declining the offer could result in Spain losing Mexico and much of the South American mainland to the British.
After regaining the city, the Spanish transformed Havana into the most heavily fortified city in the Americas. Construction began on what was to become the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, the biggest Spanish fortification in the New World. On January 15, 1796, the remains of Christopher Columbus were transported to the island from Santo Domingo. They rested here until 1898, when they were transferred to Seville's Cathedral, after Spain's loss of Cuba.
As trade between Caribbean and North American states increased in the early 19th century, Havana became a flourishing and fashionable city. Havana's theaters featured the most distinguished actors of the age, and prosperity amongst the burgeoning middle-class led to expensive new classical mansions being erected. During this period Havana became known as the Paris of the Antilles.
Republican period and Post-revolution
The 20th century began with Havana, and therefore Cuba, under occupation by the United States. During the Republican Period, from 1902 to 1959, the city saw a new era of development. Cuba recovered from the devastation of war to become a well-off country, with the third largest middle class in the hemisphere, and Havana, the Capital of the country, became known as the “Paris of the Caribbean”. Apartment buildings to accommodate the new middle class, as well as mansions for the Cuban tycoons, were built at a fast pace. Numerous luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were constructed during the 1930s to serve Havana's burgeoning tourist industry. In the thirties, organized crime characters were not unaware of Havana's nightclub and casino life, and they made their inroads in the city. At the time, Havana became an exotic capital of appeal and numerous activities ranging from marinas, grand prix car racing, musical shows and parks.
Havana achieved the title of being the Latin American city with the biggest middle class population per-capita, simultaneously accompanied by gambling and corruption where gangsters and stars were known to mix socially. During this era, Havana was generally producing more revenue than Las Vegas, Nevada. In 1958, about 300,000 American tourists visited the city.
After the revolution of 1959, the new regime promised to improve social services, public housing, and official buildings; nevertheless, shortages that affected Cuba after Castro's abrupt expropriation of all private property and industry under a strong communist model backed by the Soviet Union followed by the U.S. embargo, hit Havana especially hard. By 1966-68, the Cuban government had nationalized all privately owned business entities in Cuba.
There was a severe economic downturn after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With it, subsidies ended, losing billions of dollars which the Soviet Union gave the Cuban government, with many believing Havana's soviet-backed regime would soon vanish, however, Havana's communist regime prevailed during the 1990s.
After many years of prohibition, the communist government increasingly turned to tourism for new financial revenue, and has allowed foreign investors to build new hotels and develop hospitality industry. In Old Havana, effort has also gone into rebuilding for tourist purposes, and a number of streets and squares have been rehabilitated. But Old Havana is a large city, and the restoration efforts concentrate in all but less than 10% of its area.
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