Cuba is certainly a smoking hot destination right now! This is especially true for American travelers who are chomping at the bit to visit this fascinating and “forbidden” Caribbean island nation. I consider myself fortunate to have traveled to Cuba several years ago on a 2-week tour (which was licensed, thus legal!). I loved the country and hope to return someday soon.
Cuba itself is beautiful and colorful. But it’s the incredibly fun, friendly and vibrant Cuban people who will steal your heart! They are creative and spirited, despite their ongoing tough economic challenges. It’s hard to believe it’s been over 50 years (1961) since the U.S. imposed the Cuba trade embargo.
Like many, I’m thrilled to see that the strict travel restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba – outside of a growing number of “licensed” and often expensive tours – have started to ease a little over the past year or so. But it’s certainly a situation in flux – an ongoing geo-political football – so we all need to stay tuned!
In this Photo Essay post, I want to share some highlights of my six days spent in Havana. I’ve picked out around 40 of my favorite shots to give you a flavor of this captivating city – through its people, its colorful cars & buildings, and other key sights.
Travelers find Cuba to be a fascinating mix of 1st and 3rd world, side-by-side. Its vibrant capital city, Havana, is filled with old vintage cars and colorful architectural gems from the Colonial period and beyond, many of them crumbling! Of course, these are Havana’s classic icons as you’ve undoubtedly seen in countless photos.
I hope you enjoy this visual tour of Havana!
Havana is like stepping back in time. American cars from the 40’s and 50’s still ply the streets – some run down and many others shiny and beautiful.
I love the wild shades of colors in these old cars! Would you call these two lime and fuschia or something else? This is the central area (Centro Habana). Parque Central is just to the left and on the right is the historic 19th century Hotel Inglaterra (front right) and Gran Teatro de la Habana (farther down on the right), a magnificent building with two of its four corner towers visible, topped by a large statue. The Capitolio (not visible in this photo, but see below) is just beyond.
This is one of Havana’s famed yellow Coco taxis. These egg-shaped, 3-wheeled scooters hold 2 passengers and are a blast to ride. The view is of Havana’s also famed Malecon (waterfront), a large seawall and pedestrian sidewalk lined by a busy roadway. In the distance, you can see the beautiful Capitolio building, which resembles the U.S. capitol. It was home of the Cuban government until 1959.
Locals enjoying some typical end-of-the-day relaxation on the Malecon, along with beautiful waterfront views.
Our tour group stayed at the Hotel Nacional, Cuba’s most famous hotel which opened in 1930. The hotel has a great location, overlooking Havana’s picturesque Malecon. The hotel has hosted countless celebrities from around the world over the decades (including my non-famous parents who stayed there for one night in the early 1950s!). What a treat to be able to stay in this legendary slice of history!
View of the Hotel Nacional from its expansive lawn – a great place to hang out (guest or not!)
Hotel Nacional’s Salon de la Fama (Hall of Fame) showcases photographs of all the famous guests who have stayed here over the years, decade by decade. Spend some quality time in this room to see just how many names and faces you recognize! Then head next door (just the next room) to the Bar Vista Golfo to enjoy a traditional Cuban mojito. Ah, the Cuban life!
Many of Havana’s taxis (for the tourist trade, of course!) use beautifully restored vintage cars – in many different bright shades of color. Would you call this one tangerine?
A lovely couple we met on the street and photographed. They love to dance together! I ran into them three times while in Havana and they are as sweet as they look!
The streets of Havana are filled with colorful, local “models” (often with cigars) who happily pose for tourists for a tip – it’s the “modeling fee” (only fair!). This delightful man with a Che tshirt was the best of the best! I learned he has three jobs to make ends meet – this street posing, working as a waiter, and teaching salsa dancing. Cuban ingenuity!
A huge bronze wire sculpture of Che Guevara on a building near the Plaza de la Revolution. The words “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” means “Until Victory Always” – one of Che’s well-known sayings. Che Guevara is Cuba’s most beloved revolutionary, popular even today! He helped to liberate the country from the Cuban dictator Batista (by 1959).
The tallest building is the U.S. Interest Section office building, which was opened in 1977. This is where visas are processed for Cubans who want to visit and/or move to the US. To the left, you can see some tall flagpoles which are part of the “Anti-Imperialist Plaza” which faces this building.
The fascinating Museum of the Revolution is housed in this beautiful, former presidential palace. It was last occupied by the dictator Batista. It contains a full history of the Revolution, including the period leading up to and after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Definitely not to be missed!
Inside the Museum of the Revolution. This beautiful Salon de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors) was the reception hall of the former presidential palace. It is lined with huge mirrors, along with ornate chandeliers and ceiling frescoes.
I met this lovely woman working at the Museum’s gift shop, where she was selling the book “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The book was made into a 2004 movie which I loved! The movie dramatized the motorcycle road trip that Che Guevara (played by hunky Gael García Bernal!) went on in his youth (before his last semester of medical school) from Brazil to Peru. This trip showed Che his life’s calling.
Santo Angel restaurant with typical courtyard dining in a charming old colonial building on the Plaza Vieja in the heart of Old Havana.
Closeup of a beautiful fountain with its spouting lion in the Plaza de San Francisco.
I loved meeting and taking photos of this colorful and irresistible woman sitting in a Havana doorway, ready to pose for tourists.
Another adorable local Cuban “model” – complete with cat, huge cigar and flowered hat!
As I walked the Havana streets, I loved seeing all the classic and varied architectural styles of the buildings. These ornate wrought-iron balconies with their hanging laundry and residents hanging out are particularly picturesque – and so classic Havana!
More views of Havana’s city streets filled with old cars – some more beat up than others! Close up of the building on the right is seen below.
Despite lots of renovation currently underway in Havana, many old buildings remain in disrepair. Note the hanging laundry and political signage painted on the wall of this building. “En Cada Barrio – Revolucion” (means: in every neighborhood, revolution). Political sign painting is seen everywhere!
Maria del Carmen and her adorable 2-year-old granddaughter Eliany – heroines of my recent blog post: Stranded by a Havana Rainstorm & Rescued by Cuban Hospitality. For a sweet, fun story, check it out!
Local resident and proud owner of this turquoise blue vintage car.
An adorable girl enjoying ice cream at Coppelia’s, Havana’s famous ice cream establishment where locals line up for 1-2 hours to get inside to order at the counter of this vast ice cream parlour. We foreigners have a small, separate stand outside with higher prices but no wait! No surprise – I went to Coppelia’s twice, once to each place. Yum!
Cubans are highly creative – you find art and music everywhere! Joel, a guitarist, is one of the local street musicians in addition to his regular job. We are Facebook friends!
This talented quartet (and lovely people) named “Constelación” played at Hotel Nacional’s Las Barracas restaurant where I heard them twice. I happily bought their CD so I could take home their great Cuban musical sound with me!
I loved the allure of this scene of a woman smoking by a window. Perhaps, she was on a work break?
La Floridita bar restaurant is famous as the bar where Ernest Hemingway hung out and drank mojitos (a lot, I hear!) in addition to the daiquiris he helped invent. Hemingway spent 20 years living in Cuba, moving there in 1939.
Of course, our group made the mandatory tourist stop to have a drink at La Floridita bar. How could we resist taking photos of each other with Hemingway’s life-size bronze statue at the bar? Scott took it one step further – by trying to share his glass of wine with Ernest. Ernie prefers mojitos, I’m afraid!
I met this lovely young woman outside El Templete, where we chatted a while. She was thrilled to learn I was an American. She’s learning English (still basic) and is taking “PR” classes for being a tour guide. She proudly showed me her text book and that big, beautiful smile of hers!
Local men playing dominoes with great concentration.
Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas (Royal Tobacco Factory) is Cuba’s largest cigar factory. It was founded back in 1845. The original brick building (with a Neo-Classical façade) is a famous Havana landmark. Do not miss Partagas’ fascinating 45-minute tour, which shows the different steps in making their many famous brands of cigars – including Cohibas, Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta.
A Cuban cigar maker. We couldn’t take photos on the tour inside the Partagas Factory. But afterwards, we visited the adjoining Casa Del Habano where they sell the Partagas cigars. In the shop, this woman was making cigars and available for photos.
Callejón de Hamel is a two-block-long alley of funky street murals, brightly painted buildings and imaginative sculptures. As you can see, this photo was taken on a rainy day in Havana.
The formal entrance to Callejón de Hamel.
A brightly painted and decorated building on the Callejón de Hamel. Like you’ve seen before, the Cubans are very creative and artistic!
More Cuban street art – painted on a wall.
Typical Cuban meal. Photo of my dinner one night – seabass, fried plantains, veggies, and the Cuban staple of rice and beans (served at every meal!). The meat was usually a choice of chicken, pork or seafood and dessert was usually flan or ice cream. This was a few years ago – I have no doubt that the Cuban dining experience has been enhanced.
Note the TV screen (from my hotel room) with the “Developing Story” headline on CNN’s Situation Room. This was way back in June 2009. Interesting to fast forward to today. Yes, we have made some progress on the Cuban-American relationship front! Still a long ways to go…
Friendly waiters standing in the doorway of the Prado 309 building with two fancy cars parked in front. I think they are inviting us all to return to Havana! I’m game, are you?
COMMENTS: I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you been to Cuba? When was it and what did you think? If not, is Cuba on your travel list? What was your favorite(s) photo in the Havana PhotoEssay?