by Margarita H. King
Havana, ooh na-na, always beautiful Havana! La Habana, as we nationals call it, is not only the capital of Cuba but also a very picturesque city with a confounding personality and energy. Its residents locally known as habaneros would proudly say the city is the very heart of the Caribbean island. Rightfully so habaneros and I, a Havana native myself, have a lot to be proud of! The city bears a rich colonial history that has been preserved for 500 years and displays a perfect duality of well restored magnificent buildings and crumbly ones that only enhance its character and uniqueness.
When planning a visit to Cuba, Havana is definitely a must. However, being one of the most visited destinations on the island, Cuba’s capital is more expensive too! So if you want to keep your budget low and still have a glimpse of some of the most popular places in town, take a pen and check out this list of 5 Havana spots that you must experience and cost really nothing.
1. Go for a walk around Old Havana
Put on your walking shoes and enjoy the quirks and vibes of Habana Vieja! According to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism, around 4.28 million visitors were received last year and for the vast majority of them Old Havana was a must. There is really more than one reason for such a trend. Besides bearing the national monument and UNESCO recognitions, the historic quarter of Old Havana is intrinsically a very special place. With its stunning architecture, cobbled streets, contagious music, friendly people; the old town comes alive on every corner showing hints of its brilliance and majesty. It has five lovely plazas, each of them with a particular character and atmosphere. Thus, don’t assume that by visiting one, you’ve already seen them all; each square is completely different and unique!
2. Enjoy the views from the Christ of Havana
The Christ of Havana is an imposing sculpture which rises on a hilltop in the town of Casa Blanca since 1958. It was commissioned by Marta Batista, Fulgencio Batista’s wife, and carved in Italy by local artist Gilma Madera, who brought it to Cuba in 67 Carrara marble pieces. The monumental figure is 23 meters high and it was sculpted with no eyes to give the impression of looking at everyone and everything. As a curious fact, the Christ image is a little more sensual than usual resulting from the artist's blend of facial and racial features to create a more complete image of the masculine beauty. Once there you won’t only get the opportunity to have a close-up view of the sculpture details, but you’ll also enjoy one of the most beautiful panoramas of the city!
3. Stroll along the Malecón
Built in the 1950's. Havana’s seafront stretches for around 7 kms from la Punta fortress in Old Havana to the mouth of Almendares River in the Vedado neighbourhood. This unparalleled place is a regular stage for friends meeting up, families hanging out, fishermen waiting for a catch, some singing, dancing and drinking. It is also the first spot a habanero goes as a teenager without parental supervision and it provides the perfect setting for a first date - both simple and magic. So do not forget to include this cool place in your bucket list. Jump on the longest sofa in Cuba, socialize and have fun!
4. Stop by the Revolution Square
Originally known as Civic Square, “Plaza de la Revolución” only won international recognition and its current name after 1959. It has been used for the most important mass rallies and social events in the country. It constitutes Cuba’s political and administrative center since the main government buildings are based there. This symbolic place has become a must stop for many visitors in Havana who desire to witness the very same location where Fidel Castro used to address the Cuban people or where Pope John Paul II held his mass in 1998. At first, it might look a little bit plain, however, do not be deceived - its simplicity is only on the surface. This significant landmark carries a long-standing history of fights and traditions. Great place for group photos!
5. Explore “El Callejón de Hamel”
Once I heard one of our tour leaders describing Hamel alley as a bit of Africa in Havana and this phrase stuck in my head because it certainly is! This iconic place is where the Afro-Cuban religion is given its ultimate expression through artworks, music and dance. Salvador Gonzales, a well-known local sculptor and muralist, is the mastermind behind most items you’ll see there. He has transformed this small backstreet into a massive public tattoo where vibrant colours and dissimilar materials combine to venerate the different deities within Santería religion.
There are various businesses where you can buy souvenirs and refreshments. Try El Negrón which is their specialty cocktail and if you have the time take a peek at the artist’s house and art gallery. Sundays are party days with rumba at noon. Yay! It can get really crowded and busy, though. Make sure to arrive early enough to find a good spot. Awesome music and dance, by the way. It’s really worth seeing!
We visit many of these places on our multi-night tours or day tours. Hope you enjoyed reading through these Havana treasures. Believe me, these suggestions are not only cash saving options, but they are absolutely must-see attractions that will provide you with the best insight one can have of La Habana and its people