You might have a few ideas about Havana, exuberant capital city of the indomitable Republic of Cuba, one of the Caribbean’s most inimitable and distinctive gems. This bolshie, if somewhat anachronistic little island is world renowned for its Joie de vivre and its Viva La Revolución, for its vibrant music scene and its colourful cuisine, for fat cigars and classic cars, baseball and the Buena Vista Social Club. All true, all worthy of note, but let me stop you there and ask – have you ever considered the architecture?
Most would concede that much of Cuba’s unique charm – and ironically a major boon to the island’s creaky economy via the thousands of visitors it attracts each year – lies its apparent time-warp status as a result of the half-century old US trade embargo. However, it’s normally the 1950s Cadillacs and rustic, rusting Pontiacs that have drop-jawed tourists flocking to the island with their battery of cameras blinking wildly. Less well known perhaps, although no less impressive and unique, is the island’s wondrous array of architecture, reading like a time traveller’s textbook to the built environment.
There is a rich heritage here that has been literally set in stone across more than five centuries. Old Havana, a UNESCO world heritage site, is indeed almost a guidebook of not only architectural styles, with one of the most diverse concentrations on the planet, but also of the island’s abounding history and the hands that laid these bricks in place across the aeons.
From museums to palaces, fortresses to public squares, there is a visual feast for the visitor with an eye for the intriguing. Founded by Spanish colonial adventurers as a waypoint for treasure-heavy galleons, the port of Havana expanded to become the most intensively fortified city in the Americas, with fortifications such as La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana for example, providing a great place to visit.
Skip through narrow, winding streets to Plaza de Armas, Havana’s oldest square and a popular site on any itinerary, marking as it does the site of the city’s foundation. Perhaps have a look at El Templete, Havana’s oldest surviving neoclassical nugget. In the18th century the sugar and coffee industries caused a huge explosion in construction, meaning the style of the times, an elegant, French-inspired neoclassicism, blossomed across the face of the city. It remains particularly evident in the graceful buildings of the Vedado district. Also worth a peep are the previously palatial pads of the Marquis de Arcos or Count de Casa-Bayona, whose former abode is now an art museum facing the cathedral, itself a fine building, exhibiting the Cuban baroque style.
From the deco glamour of The Edificio Bacardi to the High Modernist Edificio Focsa there are fantastic, more up-to-date touches that punctuate the eclectic jumble of older styles.
Also worth a mention is Morro Castle, constructed to defend the harbour from marauding pirates, Museo de la Revolución, gleefully occupying what was previously the Presidental Palace and the beautifully sombre Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, one of the finest and best-known cemetaries in the whole of Latin America.
Havana is the place where16th century castles mingle with modernist high-rises and neoclassical charm, where colonial and baroque muddle and mix with a surfeit of styles – from Moorish to Spanish, Greek to Italian, Roman to deco. Havana is where the discerning visitor with a casual interest in old buildings, or simply the curious explorer desiring an aesthetically rich backdrop for their adventures, can spend a truly fascinating time wending among the eclectic edifices. The miscellaneous medley of architecture Havana has on offer is sure to add some fascinating detail and depth to your Cuban escapade, be sure not to miss it!