A strong smell of cigar is floating in the air. Latino rhythms are being played at every street corner. Old cars from the 50s can be seen everywhere. You are sipping the best mojito of your life. All your senses are awakening: you have just arrived in La Habana.
Traveling to La Habana is like stepping back in time to 1950s America, with the touch of Spanish conquistadors. You will love wandering its streets lined up with colonial buildings, exploring, getting lost, exploring again. You will never get tired of contemplating these beautiful cars from another era and you will feel like a little kid in a toy store, even if you are not usually very interested in cars. You will fall in love with the people who will share their “joie de vivre” and treat you like family. Why haven’t you booked your ticket yet again?
We had the chance to spend one week in Cuba, which is actually relatively short to explore all the wonders this country has to offer. As I am not a “beach person”, I skipped Varadero, its crystalline water and its white sands. But if you love lying in the sun in paradise beaches, Varadero should definitely be on your itinerary. Instead, I chose to discover three amazing colonial cities, all listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites: La Habana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
During our stay in La Habana, we mostly walked. We did not really know what to expect about this city and it was a beautiful surprise. La Habana is a unique blend of many different architecture styles. Imagine colorful colonial buildings in a European style with a touch of the Caribbeans in the air and old US cars from the fifties everywhere.
Here is the best of what we saw of La Habana Vieja.
La Plaza de la Catedral
A nice place to start would be the Plaza de la Catedral, located in the center of Old Habana. La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de la Habana (such a long name, right?) is one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Cuba.
This beautiful building mainly made up of coral from the nearby Gulf of Mexico was built by the Jesuit order from 1748 to 1777 and was dedicated to Saint Christopher (San Cristóbal). It is said that the remains of Christopher Columbus once resided within the cathedral.
We really enjoyed the little square in front of the church.
Plaza de Armas
As we were randomly walking around La Habana’s little lanes, we discovered another lovely square: Plaza de armas. There was a book fair the day we visited and the old books and the beautiful street lamps somewhat reminded me of Paris.
Built in 1519, this plaza was then the administrative center of the city. It is one of the most ancient and pleasant plaza of La Habana.
We then took an animated pedestrian street called Obispo. I particularly enjoyed this street lined up with restaurants and boutiques. We went all the way to the end of this street, until we reached the Parque Central and the beautiful museo de bellas artes.
Paseo de Marti
We also particularly enjoyed Paseo de Marti which reminded of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. This beautiful boulevard, designed in 1772 by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier is lined up with trees and with marble benches. We walked up and down this boulevard to admire its amazing buildings such as hotels, cinemas, theaters, and mansions imitating styles from Madrid, Paris and Vienna. It was one of the places I most liked.
We then discovered an amazing place right in from of the capitole where you jump into a car from the fifties and go for a ride!
Gran Teatro de la Habana
On the other side of Paseo de Marti, we found this splendid theater: el Gran Teatro de la Habana.
We continued on Paseo de Marti and admired this colorful colonial buildings.
Parque de la Fraternidad
When we reached the Parque de la Fraternidad, we were impressed by this beautiful ceiba tree.
Very close to the Parque de la Fraternidad, we discovered the entrance to the barrio chino.
Iglesia del Cristo
We then discovered a small square with a beautiful church: Iglesia del Cristo. We enjoyed walking around and exploring the little side streets.
The beautiful Plaza vieja was another great surprise with its colorful buildings. I particularly liked their original windows.
We then had a nice and cheap lunch on a little inner court where musicians were playing latino music while we enjoyed our “ropa vieja”.
Convento de San Francisco de Asis
The Convento de San Francisco de Asis was another great surprise.
Going to the fort
From the convento, you reached the ferry terminal which took us to the other side of the bay. You can’t cross on foot but, contrary to what all taxi drivers will tell you, driving is not the only way to cross. If you take the ferry, it will cost you close to nothing. We walked around the other side of the bay and visited the beautiful fort.
A few tips if you are going to Cuba
- Where to stay?
We arrived in la Habana and our mistake was having booked a hotel room in advance, instead of staying in a “casa particular”. If we could go back, we would probably rent a room in a casa privada upon arriving. One night in a casa is usually about 25 euros. When we stayed in a casa privada in Trinidad, the family of the house enjoyed chatting with us, asking questions about our countries, telling us more about their way of life.
- What to eat?
If you add 8 euros, the lady of the house will prepare the best meal that you could find in town. We found out that eating in a restaurant was usually expensive and not necessarily good. What’s more, we more or less always ate the same thing: rice with black beans (called “Moros y Cristianos”), a salad, some meat or fish and some fruit. People do not have much, but they will share everything they have with you. I can however recommend a good dish that I did try in a restaurant: “la ropa vieja” (beef in a tasty sauce).
- Next stop: Trinidad. Click here to read this article.