On first impressions, Havana can seem like a confusing jigsaw puzzle, but work out how to put the pieces together and a beautiful picture emerges.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Havana.
Havana's main cemetery (a national monument), one of the largest in the Americas, is renowned for its striking religious iconography and elaborate marble statues. Far from being eerie, a walk through these 57 hallowed hectares can be an educational and emotional stroll through the annals of Cuban history. A map (CUC$1) showing the graves of assorted artists, sportspeople, politicians, writers, scientists and revolutionaries is for sale at the entrance. Enter via the splendid Byzantine-Romanesque gateway, the Puerta de la Paz; the tomb of independence leader General Máximo Gómez (1905) is on the right (look for the bronze face in a circular medallion). Further along past the first circle, and also on the right, are the firefighters monument (1890) and the neo-Romanesque Capilla Central (1886), in the center of the cemetery. Just northeast of the chapel is the graveyard's most celebrated (and visited) tomb, that of Señora Amelia Goyri, better known as La Milagrosa (the Miraculous One), who died while giving birth on May 3, 1901. The marble figure of a woman with a large cross and a baby in her arms is easy to find due to the many flowers piled on the tomb and the local devotees in attendance. For many years after her death her heartbroken husband visited the grave several times a day. He always knocked with one of four iron rings on the burial vault and walked away backwards so that he could see her for as long as possible. When the bodies were exhumed some years later, Amelia's body was uncorrupted (a sign of sanctity in the Catholic faith), and the baby, who had been buried at its mother's feet, was allegedly found in her arms. As a result, La Milagrosa became the focus of a huge spiritual cult in Cuba, and thousands of people come here annually with gifts, in the hope of fulfilling dreams or solving problems. In keeping with tradition, pilgrims knock with the iron ring on the vault and walk away backwards when they leave. As important as La Milagrosa among the Santería community, the 'tomb of Hermano José' marks the grave of a woman called Leocadia Pérez Herrero, a black Havana medium known for her great acts of charity among the poor in the early 20th century. Leocadia said that she consulted with a Santería priest called Hermano José who encouraged and guided her in her generous acts. As a spiritual and superstitious person, she always kept a painting of Hermano José's image in her house, and when she died in 1962 the canvas was buried alongside her. Today followers of Santería venerate Hermano José and regularly come to Leocadia's grave to ask for charitable favors. In keeping with Santería tradition, they often leave flowers, glasses of rum, half-smoked cigars or sacrificed chickens on the grave. Also worth looking out for are the graves of novelist Alejo Carpentier (1904–80), scientist Carlos Finlay (1833–1915), the Martyrs of Granma and the Veterans of the Independence Wars.
Habana Vieja's most uniform square is a museum to Cuban baroque, with all the surrounding buildings, including the city's beguiling asymmetrical cathedral, dating from the 1700s. Despite this homogeneity, it is actually the newest of the four squares in the Old Town, with its present layout dating from the 18th century. On the square's eastern side, the Casa del Lombillo was built in 1741 and once served as a post office (a stone-mask ornamental mailbox built into the wall is still in use). Since 2000 it has functioned as an office for the City Historian. On the western side is the majestic Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras, completed in 1760 and widely lauded for the beauty of its shady Andalusian patio. Today it houses the Restaurante Paris. The south side is taken up by the resplendent Palacio de los Condes de Casa Bayona, built in 1720, which today hosts the Museo de Arte Colonial.
This wave-lashed fort with its emblematic lighthouse was erected between 1589 and 1630 to protect the entrance to Havana harbor from pirates and foreign invaders (French corsair Jacques de Sores had sacked the city in 1555). Perched high on a rocky bluff above the Atlantic, the fort has an irregular polygonal shape, 3m-thick walls and a deep protective moat, and is a classic example of Renaissance military architecture. For more than a century the fort withstood numerous attacks by French, Dutch and English privateers, but in 1762, after a 44-day siege, a 14,000-strong British force captured El Morro by attacking from the landward side. The Castillo's famous lighthouse was added in 1844. Aside from fantastic views over the sea and the city, El Morro hosts several exhibits, including a riveting account of the fort's siege and eventual surrender to the British that uses words (in English and Spanish) and paintings.
Laid out in 1559, Plaza Vieja is Havana's most architecturally eclectic square, where Cuban baroque nestles seamlessly next to Gaudí-inspired art nouveau. Originally called Plaza Nueva (New Square), it was initially used for military exercises and later served as an open-air marketplace. During the regime of Fulgencio Batista an ugly underground parking lot was constructed here, but this monstrosity was demolished in 1996 to make way for a massive renovation project. Sprinkled liberally with bars, restaurants and cafes, Plaza Vieja today has its own microbrewery, the Angela Landa primary school, a beautiful fenced fountain and, on its western side, some of Havana's finest vitrales (stained-glass windows). A number of cool bars and cafes give it a sociable buzz in the evenings.
This unmissable military park, included in the Habana Vieja Unesco World Heritage site, is arguably the most formidable defensive complex in Spain's erstwhile colonial empire. It's comprised of two strapping forts: El Morro (Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro), with its emblematic lighthouse, and La Cabaña (Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña), a sprawling mini-city of a military bastion famed for its sunset-over-the-Malecón views and legendary cañonazo ceremony.
Cobbled, car-free Calle Mercaderes (Merchant's Street) has been extensively restored by the Office of the City Historian and is an almost complete replica of itself at its splendid 18th-century high-water mark. Interspersed with the museums, shops and restaurants are some working social projects, such as a maternity home and a paper-making cooperative. Most of the myriad museums are free, including the Casa de Asia, with paintings and sculpture from China and Japan; the Armería 9 de Abril, an old gun shop (now museum) stormed by revolutionaries on the said date in 1958; and the Museo de Bomberos, which has antediluvian fire equipment dedicated to 19 Havana firefighters who lost their lives in an 1890 railway blaze. Just off Mercaderes down Obrapía, it's worth slinking into the gratis Casa de África, which houses sacred objects relating to Santería and the secret Abakuá fraternity collected by ethnographer Fernando Ortíz. The corner of Mercaderes and Obrapía has an international flavor, with a bronze statue of Latin America liberator Simón Bolívar; across the street you'll find the Museo de Simón Bolívar, dedicated to Bolívar's life. The Casa de México Benito Juárez exhibits Mexican folk art and plenty of books but not a lot on Juárez (Mexico's first indigenous president) himself. Just east is the Casa Oswaldo Guayasamín, now a museum but once the studio of the great Ecuadorian artist who painted Fidel Castro in numerous poses. Mercaderes is also characterized by its restored shops, including a perfume store and a spice shop. Wander at will.
As important as it is diminutive, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla, which sits close to the dock in Regla, has a long and colorful history. Inside on the main altar you'll find La Santísima Virgen de Regla. The Virgin, represented by a black Madonna, is venerated in the Catholic faith and associated in the Santería religion with Yemayá, the orisha of the ocean and the patron of sailors (and always represented in blue). Legend claims that this image was carved by St Augustine 'The African' in the 5th century, and that in 453 a disciple brought the statue to Spain to safeguard it from barbarians. The small vessel in which the image was traveling survived a storm in the Strait of Gibraltar, so the figure was recognized as the patron of sailors. In more recent times, rafters attempting to reach the US have evoked the protection of the Black Virgin. To shelter a copy of the image, a hut was first built on this site in 1687 by a pilgrim named Manuel Antonio. This structure was destroyed in a 1692 hurricane. A few years later a Spaniard named Juan de Conyedo built a stronger chapel, and in 1714 Nuestra Señora de Regla was proclaimed patron of the Bahía de la Habana. In 1957 the image was crowned by the Cuban Cardinal in Havana cathedral. Every year on September 7 thousands of pilgrims descend on Regla to celebrate the saint's day, and the image is taken out for a procession through the streets. The current church dates from the early 19th century and is always busy with devotees from both religions stooping in silent prayer before the images of the saints that fill the alcoves. In Havana there is probably no better (public) place to see the layering and transference between Catholic beliefs and African traditions.
This 18th-century colossus was built between 1763 and 1774 on a long, exposed ridge on the east side of Havana harbor to fill a weakness in the city's defenses. In 1762 the British had taken Havana by gaining control of this strategically important ridge, and it was from here that they shelled the city mercilessly into submission. In order to prevent a repeat performance, Spanish king Carlos III ordered the construction of a massive fort that would repel future invaders. Measuring 700m from end to end and covering a whopping 10 hectares, it is the largest Spanish colonial fortress in the Americas. The impregnability of the fort meant that no invader ever stormed it, though during the 19th century Cuban patriots faced firing squads here. Dictators Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista used the fortress as a military prison, and immediately after the revolution Che Guevara set up his headquarters inside the ramparts to preside over another catalog of grisly executions (this time of Batista's officers). These days the fort has been restored for visitors, and you can spend at least half a day checking out its wealth of attractions. As well as bars, restaurants, souvenir stalls and a cigar shop (containing the world's longest cigar), La Cabaña hosts the Museo de Fortificaciones y Armas and the engrossing Museo de Comandancia del Che. The nightly 9pm cañonazo ceremony is a popular evening excursion in which actors dressed in full 18th-century military regalia reenact the firing of a cannon over the harbor. You can visit the ceremony independently or as part of an excursion.
Described by novelist Alejo Carpentier as 'music set in stone,' Havana's incredible cathedral, dominated by two unequal towers and framed by a theatrical baroque facade, was designed by Italian architect Francesco Borromini. Construction of the church was begun by Jesuits in 1748 and work continued despite their expulsion in 1767. When the building was finished in 1787, the diocese of Havana was created and the church became a cathedral – it's one of the oldest in the Americas. The remains of Christopher Columbus were brought here from Santo Domingo in 1795 and interred until 1898, when they were moved to Seville Cathedral in Spain. A curiosity of the cathedral is its interior, which is neoclassical rather than baroque and relatively austere. Frescoes above the altar date from the late 1700s, but the paintings that adorn the side walls are copies of originals by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Peter Paul Rubens. You can climb the smaller of the towers for CUC$1.