Havana is probably the most enthralling city in the Caribbean, a combination of magnificence and crumbling decay. If you try to visualise the city in your minds’ eye, you will probably conjure up beautiful colonial buildings, perhaps the epic waterfront Malecon drive, or even one of its iconic old American cars. All those things are there, much in evidence, but Havana has so much more than that. Of course, you should spend time wandering the beautiful cobbled streets, marvelling at the architecture which has (and continues to be) beautifully restored and preserved, come across beautiful squares and visit the cathedral, the Capitolio building, the Museum of the Revolution. But if you want to get under the skin of Havana, venture further afield to the city’s other districts or go and see some places that other visitors miss out on.
For art lovers, you need to visit Havana’s art factory (accurately known as Fabrica de Arte Cubano) which is an incredible place buzzing with energy. Housed in a former olive oil factory, this is a true centre for arts – with theatre, dance, visual arts and music. There are places to eat and drink there too so can spend an entire evening if you want to get a full sense of the place. There is always something happening here and you can easily while away a few hours without realising it.
Another fascinating place to visit is the unique open-air Rafael Trejo boxing gym. You don’t have to be a boxing fan, but Cubans love their boxing – second only to baseball – it’s part of their heritage and history, and from this tumble-down, decaying building. Cuba has produced some of the worlds’ best amateur boxers, and when you step inside it’s hard not to be impressed – there is a lack of almost all modern training equipment and yet the people who go there, whether young or old, are all driven by their love of the tradition of boxing in Cuba.
Or how about a Napoleon Museum? OK, so there isn’t an apparently obvious connection between Cuba and Napoleon but, in fact, this museum houses one of the best Napoleonic collections in the world – thanks to a couple of obsessive collectors from the early 20th century. These two bought from auctions throughout the world and, after the Revolution, when their collections were amassed into one and taken into government hands, it became one enormous and very valuable collection. Because not many tourists visit, you can go there and have the place virtually to yourself!
Tucked away behind Cathedral Square is another beautiful place called Taller Experimental de Grafica de la Habana, a printmakers studio which was established here in 1962 to continue the traditions of printing, lithography and etching and it carries on today. You can go in (it’s free to enter) and watch the artists at work using traditional methods which are absolutely fascinating. There is also a little gallery where you can buy some of the works relatively cheaply.
And there are other neighbourhoods too in Havana which needs to be seen. For a start, there is Vedado (which is also where the art factory is based). An area consisting of wide, tree-lined, boulevards with some stunning Art Deco buildings, this neighbourhood was developed as a cooler, quieter, haven for wealthier Habaneros to escape from the hustle and bustle of the old town. It is still a residential area for Cubans and these days has some of the best restaurants in the city and some of the best nightlife too. If you like live music, then Vedado should be on your “must see” list.
Miramar often seems to some people too far away from the old town, but it’s only a short taxi ride away but, when you get there, you could be in an entirely different city! Originally, the houses here were all created to house Havana’s super-rich and each of the imposing, and enormous, villas are different in style – some based on Italian palazzos, others on French chateaux. These buildings now mostly house embassies, consulates or government offices but it’s a beautiful area and, like Vedado, has some fabulous restaurants and bars, some of which look out over the sea, giving a welcoming cool breeze and stunning views.
But, what makes Havana so unique is its people. As things begin, slowly, to change in Cuba, it’s the individuals who are driving these changes, and this is particularly the case in Havana. There is an electricity in the air, a buzz that things are beginning to alter away from the austerity of previous decades. More and more of the younger generation of Cubans who had fled the island when they saw there was no chance of using their entrepreneurial skills are now beginning to return. And with them, they bring ideas, concepts and dreams of ways to make changes. These people are grasping new opportunities with both hands. As tentative steps (and don’t be fooled, this is still early days) towards private enterprise begin to take hold, these younger Cubans are the ones will make those changes.
Havana can be noisy, chaotic and, occasionally, incredibly frustrating but it is also one of the most exciting places you could visit. Cubans are very resourceful, they have had to be over the past few decades, and this resourcefulness is now showing itself as small businesses start up, as Habaneros, young and old, begin to welcome change. There is much to do, and still, an awfully long way to go to Cuba until it can be considered to have the same standards as other nations. But one of the most often given reasons for travelling there is that people say they want to see Havana before it changes, thinking it will become, again, almost a satellite US state, a party place for wealthy Americans. I’m not so sure that will ever happen again. Cubans are fiercely patriotic and proud of their country and their heritage and have a strong sense of their cultural identity. So, my advice is to visit now, while it’s changing. See for yourself this beautiful city and meet its wonderful people as they move forward. Visit and be part of that and, in years to come, know that you were there during this incredible period in history.