You can probably imagine yourself in Havana right now.
Strutting along sun-drenched cobblestone streets as sultry salsa music plays. Yes, it’s going to be like that, but what is Havana know for other than these usual suspects? There are many layers to the Cuban capital, a place with a history that is rich and sometimes dark.
Havana’s tumultuous past has given us the Havana of the present, a brilliantly contradictory city that pulsates with life and is like no other place in earth. So when it comes to heavenly Havana, what should you know before you go?
A City on the Move
The land on which Havana sits (as was the case with much of Cuba) was home to a number of indigenous tribes (the Taíno), whose numbers were sadly decimated after the arrival of the Spanish. The original Havana was founded close to Playa Mayabeque in 1515. The original Havana was on the southern coast of the island, but when the safe, protected harbour of the current Havana was discovered, the settlement of Havana officially moved around 60kms to the north in 1519, to where another small settlement had already been built. When it comes to what Havana is known for, not many visitors are aware that the city began its life further to the south.
Beware of Pirates
Havana’s natural harbour offered a high level of protection, but this was not enough. The burgeoning trading port became an appealing target for pirates and later, for hostile foreign forces seeking to claim control of the city. Much of the city was burned to the ground in a pirate attack in 1555. These attacks led to the construction of Morro Castle, which was completed in 1589. The castle sits at the entrance to the harbour and actually featured a thick chain that lay under the water. The other end of this chain was at another fort (La Punta) on the other side of the harbour’s entrance. When an attack was imminent, these two fortresses could pull the chain tight, bringing it to the surface of the water to prevent entry to the harbour. Morro Castle is still standing and this iconic building is one of the things what Havana is known for.
The Growth of Industry
Havana became a destination in the new world in itself, but it was also an important stopping point. Many ships would stop here on their way back to Europe to take the spoils of the new world home. Ships that had explored the Caribbean, what is now the US and Latin America would stop in Havana to be stocked before their long journey across the Atlantic. This led to the fledgling city of Havana growing in wealth and importance, and also helped to develop the agricultural industry in the surrounding parts of Cuba, as a significant amount of food needed to be produced in order to restock the Spanish ships.
Of course Cuba spent centuries as a Spanish colony, only formally gaining independence in 1902. The Spanish left their mark on Cuba, leaving their language and some stunning architecture. This colonial style of building is certainly a key thought when considering what Havana is known for.
A City Grows
The best examples of this Spanish-influenced architecture can be seen in Havana’s Old Town. This used to be Havana in its entirety, and the old walls surrounding the city were only knocked down in 1863 to allow for expansion. It was much easier to protect a walled city, though pirate attacks had of course slowed down by the 1800s and the city’s defenses were better equipped to repel invaders. There was still a war of independence to come, however. But this knocking down of the walls was necessary to accommodate the booming growth of Havana which continued well into the 1900s.
Partying All Night – What Havana is Known for
Havana gained its reputation as a place for debauchery in the 1920s, under the presidency of Gerardo Machado. The tourism sector grew and grew, with hundreds of new hotels being built to accommodate rich visitors who flocked to Havana in order to partake in the carefree Cuban way of life. Sure, Havana’s reputation as place for self-indulgence somewhat tapered off after the revolution, but things really didn’t change that much except for the ritzier side of the tourism industry that depended on wealthy Americans. And now that the country is welcoming more visitors than ever before, a night on the town is certainly what Havana is known for… a night that lasts until the sun comes up.
You probably won’t spend the nights gambling in casinos while wearing a tuxedo since the casinos closed after the revolution and it’s too darn hot to wear a tuxedo. But the nightlife of Havana is still utterly unforgettable.
Things You Have to Experience
Even if you stayed for months, you would still feel like you don’t have enough time to enjoy what Havana is known for. But there are some things you simply have to experience for yourself.
- Spend some time exploring Havana’s Old Town, previously contained within the city walls. Don’t be afraid to wander away from the main streets. The city is perfectly safe (with a low crime rate). Away from the main boulevards, the area is less touristy and feels more authentic.
- Take the time to explore Vedado, also located within central Havana. This hip district is noticeably different to the Old Town and is yet can feel like the real heart of Havana. On a warm night you will see groups of young people sitting on the street while enjoying a cold beer. You might be tempted to join them.
- On the outskirts of Havana is the Playas del Este. This beach is perfect for cooling off on a warm day (get there early to avoid the crowds). It’s easy to reach from central Havana.