Havana is a city that many from the USA dream about visiting. Cuba is close to the United States, but many Americans don't know much about the island nation. Travel restrictions to Cuba have opened up the past few years, and cruise lovers can circumnavigate the Caribbean's largest island on a ship, stopping in fascinating ports with historical and cultural significance like Havana and Santiago de Cuba. More importantly, cruise travelers have the opportunity to interact with locals and learn more about the country, while still enjoying all the amenities and benefits they have on a cruise.
Things to See
Cruise ships filled with non-US citizens have traveled to Cuba for several years, and US citizens can now travel to Cuba for "educational" purposes, but not specifically for "tourism".
Currently, two ships market to US cruisers. Celestyal Cruise travelers on the Celestyal Crystal can board in either Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica. They sail for seven days and disembark in the same place they boarded. I sailed with Celestyal on a Cuba Cruise in April 2016 and loved the experience. Fathom Cruises sails from Miami on seven-day cruises and stops over in three of the four ports visited by Celestyal. Fathom has two sea days, and Celestyal has one day at sea and one day at the beautiful beach of Maria La Gorda. Both cruises provide educational and cultural exchange opportunities for their guests.
More cruise lines are finalizing plans to also sail to Cuba, so expect changes in the next few months. I expect that all ships will offer similar itineraries and circumnavigate the island.
Havana is Cuba's capital and largest city, with over 2.1 million residents. It is the largest city in the Caribbean in both size and number of residents. In addition, Havana has over a million international visitors each year, and this number will grow now that it is easier for US citizens to travel there.
Havana is on Cuba's northern coast and was founded in 1519. Like Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad, Havana was one of the original seven cities founded by the Spanish in Cuba, and its location made it ideal for exploring and conquering the nearby North American continent.
Cruise ships dock right in the Havana's historic center, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The downtown area features wide avenues, green parks, colonial buildings, and (of course) classic cars that make old car aficionados mouths' water. The old town area features narrow pedestrian streets, large squares, and many more colonial buildings. The old town area is much better preserved (at least on the outside) than expected. Havana also has a scenic Malecon along the harbor that is perfect for strolling. History buffs will appreciate the ancient forts, churches, and even the remains of an old aqueduct. It's not surprising that in a city with a 500-year history, the architecture is diverse and includes a little of every style.
Since cruise ships overnight in Havana, guests can take in some of the bars or Latin cabaret shows like the one at the Tropicana Club.
Let's take a photo tour of some of the things cruise travelers can see while their ship is in Havana for two days. The sights in old town Havana are within an easy walking distance of the cruise ship pier. Visitors will need to take a bus tour, taxi, or one of the classic cars (with a driver) to see the Great Theater, El Capitolio, Revolution Plaza, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and the Tropicana Club.
The Great Theater of Havana (Gran Teatro de La Habana) opened in 1838 and is located on the Paseo del Prado, which divides the districts of Central Downtown Havana and Old Havana. This wide boulevard features old hotels, theaters, some lovely green parks.
The Great Theater is home to the Cuban National Ballet, and great performers like Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt have been featured on its main stage. U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his keynote address to the Cuban people from the Great Theater during his March 2016 visit.
National Capitol Building
The National Capitol Building (El Capitolio) was the seat of Cuba's government from when it was completed in the late 1920s until the revolution in 1959. Its designers were an American firm, and El Capitolio looks much like the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. It was the third-highest cupola in the world at the time of its construction.
When the Castro-led government abolished and disbanded the Cuban Congress, the building eventually ended up as the headquarters of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment. The 302 foot-high dome was the highest point in the city of Havana until 1958 when the 358-foot Jose Marti Memorial was completed.
Inside El Capitolio is the huge Statue of the Republic (La Estatua de la República). The statue was cast in bronze in Rome and assembled inside El Capitolio after its arrival in Cuba. It is covered with 22-carat gold leaf, weighs 49 tons, and is the world's third-largest statue undercover.
El Capitolio is across the street from the Great Theater of Havana and can be seen from the outdoor deck of a cruise ship as it sails into or away from Havana.
Jose Marti Memorial at Revolution Plaza
Every town in Cuba has a Revolution Plaza, and the one in Havana features this 358 foot, star-shaped tower dedicated to Jose Marti, the father of his beloved Cuba. The memorial also has a 59-foot statue of Martí surrounded by six columns, and gardens. The tower is Havana's highest point.
The Plaza's construction was begun during the time of President Batista and was originally called Civic Square. The Plaza and Marti memorial were completed after the 1959 revolution and renamed Revolution Plaza.
Havana's Revolution Plaza is huge and has been the site of many political speeches and rallies. Fidel Castro addressed more than a million Cubans several times from this large plaza. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis celebrated masses in the plaza.
Revolution Plaza is surrounded by government buildings. Two of facades of these buildings have giant steel faces of two of the Cuban Revolution's most important deceased heroes, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Steel Face of Che Guevara
Revolution Plaza in Havana is surrounded by government buildings. On the facade of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior is the huge steel face of Che Guevara, one of the Cuban Revolution's most important deceased heroes. The translation of the quotation next to Guevara is "Until the Everlasting Victory, Always."
Steel Face of Camilo Cienfuegos
The steel face of Camilo Cienfuegos is on the facade of the Cuban Ministry of Communications. Like Che Guevara in the previous photo, Cienfuegos is one of the most beloved of the deceased heroes of the Cuban Revolution. The translation of the quotation next to Cienfuegos is "You're doing fine, Fidel."
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which is located in Havana's malecon, opened in 1930, It was designed by an American firm, and is primarily in the art deco style. Almost every famous politician, movie star, or entertainer who has visited Havana has stayed in or visited this hotel.
The history of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and its connection to organized crime is fascinating. The hotel was the site of the infamous mobster summit, the "Havana Conference", which Francis Ford Coppola dramatized in the movie, "The Godfather Part II". Meyer Lansky persuaded President Batista to give him a piece of the hotel in 1955, and Lansky had a wing of the grand entrance hall refurbished to include a bar, restaurant, showroom, and casino. Lansky and his brother Jake operated the casino.
The Vista al Golfo Bar, which is on the next page, has photos of many of the famous people who have stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
Vista al Golfo Bar
The Vista al Golfo Bar and Hall of Fame in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana has photos of many of the famous politicians, actors, singers, and musicians who have stayed at the city's iconic hotel.
Even if you are not staying in the hotel, you can go to the bar and enjoy a drink.
The Tropicana Club in Havana is one of the city's most famous landmarks. This cabaret club has been operating since 1939 and is located on six tropical acres, with the entertainment out of doors in a spectacular setting. Like the casino at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, mobsters from the United States owned part of the Tropicana and raked in lots of money from its casino. The food, drink, and cabaret show covered the operating costs of the club. The casino was closed after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, but the show remains.
The Tropicana Club has been one of the Caribbean's (and North America's) most famous nightclubs since the 1950s. Like the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, almost every famous person who visited Havana came to the Tropicana Club. Nat King Cole, Xavier Cugat, Josephine Baker, and Carmen Miranda were among the entertainers who performed on the stage. However, the showgirls (known as Flesh Goddesses) were the biggest draw after World War II and still are today. Known for their voluptuousness and beauty, they and their feathered and sequined costumes became a model for similar shows in New York, Paris, and Las Vegas.
The cabaret show at the Tropicana Club is fun, lively, and entertaining. The productions are superb, and the costumes are amazing. It's worth the price of a ticket to see the chandelier headpieces worn by the showgirls in one number. With over 200 musicians, singers, and dancers, the show is non-stop fun. It's like a cruise ship show on super-steroids. A few people may think it's a little hokey, but the Tropicana is a fantastic look back at club entertainment of the 1950s.
The Tropicana is still a supper club, but most people seem to go just for drinks and the show. Almost everyone in the audience is non-Cuban, and most come in groups. Cuba cruise ships and land tours bring tours to the Tropicana, and at the end of the show, the master of ceremonies goes through the list of all the countries represented in the audience. As they call out the country names, many in the audience go up on the stage to dance with the entertainers. It ends up as a large, multi-national dance party.
Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis
The Saint Francis of Assisi basilica and monastery were built in Havana in the 16th century. Today the basilica is used as a concert hall and art museum.
The basilica is located on Plaza de San Francisco, one of the four main plazas in Old Town Havana. This Plaza is the one closest to the cruise ship terminal. After debarking the cruise ship, visitors just walk across the street into the plaza.
Palacio Del Marques De San Felipe Y Santiago de Bejucal
The Hotel Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal is located on the Plaza de San Francisco in Havana. This boutique hotel has a nice bar to grab a cold drink and take in the palatial surroundings.
The Zanja Real was the first aqueduct built by the Spanish in the New World. The aqueduct channeled water from the Alemendares River to local residents and ships docking in the harbor. It was built in 1566 and supplied the city with water before the Albear Aqueduct was constructed in 1835.
Cafe Taberna is located in a restored 18th-century building on Plaza Vieja, one of the four main squares of Old Havana. The cafe is dedicated to Benny More, one of the best Latin music singers, and is a good place to hear son music or just enjoy the atmosphere at the bar. Due to its good old town location, it's primarily a tourist bar, so don't expect to see a lot of locals.
Plaza Vieja is one of the four main squares of Old Town Havana. It has been lovingly restored on the outside and provides an interesting look at a colonial square. When first built in 1559, the square was called "Plaza Nueva" (New Square), and it's a little funny that the name was changed in 1814 to "Plaza Vieja" (Old Square). I guess like people, it's all a matter of age.
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas is the oldest of the four main squares in Old Town Havana. This square got its name from its role as the administrative center of Havana and where the military held its parades and drills. Buildings from four centuries surround the old plaza. In the center of the Plaza is Cespedes Park, the same name as a downtown park in Santiago de Cuba. It was named for Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the father of the war of independence from Spain.
One of the largest buildings on the square is the former U.S Embassy. Like most of the other Embassies, the U.S.relocated outside the old town area into more modern space. One of the most interesting features of the square is the street paved with wooden parquet. One of the governors who lived on the square complained that the carriages rolling on cobblestones kept him awake, so the street was paved with ironwood. Don't you wish we could get such great service from our public works departments?
El Floridita, Home of the Daiquiri
After walking around Old Town Havana, a "must-do" is a stop at El Floridita, the bar that invented the daiquiri in the early 1920s. Its second claim to fame is that the bar was once a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, and there's a statue of Hemingway in one corner, along with several photos of him at the bar.
The daiquiris are cold and not too overpriced, and the music is good. Great place to end the day in Havana.
Sailing into and away from Havana on a Cuba cruise is quite a treat. It provides great views of Old Town Havana, the city center, and the two forts that guard the entrance to the harbor.
Before the memorial tower to Jose Marti was constructed in Revolution Plaza, El Capitolio was the tallest structure in Havana. Those on a Cuba cruise ship get a great view of this U.S. Capitol look-a-like as they sail into or away from Havana.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana sits on a hilltop 200 feet above the sea on the eastern entrance to the harbor in Havana. Most locals call the fort "La Cabana", and it was completed in 1774. The structure is the third largest fortress complex in the Americas.
La Cabana was used by the Spanish and Cuban governments. Castro-led forces seized the fortress in January 1959, and Che Guevara used it as a headquarters and military prison for several months.
Castillo Del Morro
Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle) has the same name as Spanish forts in Santiago de Cuba and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish word "morro" means a large rock that is so visible from the sea that it can be used for navigation.
Morro Castle in Havana is older than La Cabana, dating back to 1589. It was built at the entrance of the Havana harbor to protect the city. A large chain was hung across the harbor from el Morro to the fort at La Punta.
Although Morro Castle was effective in fending off assaults from the sea, it was susceptible to attacks from land forces, and the British captured el Morro in 1762. When the British gave Havana and the fort back the next year (in exchange for Florida), the Spanish built La Cabana to protect its flank.
Today Morro Castle is a museum on the lighthouses of Cuba. Its cannons are rusted, but the walls still remain.
Passengers on cruise ships sailing into and out of the Havana harbor get great views of Morro Castle.