Americans are just starting to travel to Cuba again. With far more to see than classic cars and beautiful beaches, Cuba has a rich cultural legacy that can begin to be discovered in its museums. There are more than 40 museums inside Havana alone including museums dedicated to art, revolution, chocolate, and cigars. From Havana to Santiago de Cuba, this list will help prepare you to discover Cuba's rich history and artistic legacy.
If you only choose one museum to visit in Cuba, this is the one to see as it has a truly singular collection that cannot be viewed in books or photographs. Completed in 1953, it absorbed the collection from the former National Museum but now focuses on fine art spanning two centuries of Cuban history.
Half of the museum called the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Arte Cubano) is dedicated solely to Cuban art. While art from communist countries often concentrates on the image of workers and icons of national pride, here you can see the story of the Cuban people and their struggles through the work of artists. Work ranging from abstract art to Pop Art shows the astonishing accomplishments of artists who are virtually unknown in the United States.
The other half of the museum is dedicated to arte universal. Only since 2001 have visitors been able to see this wide-ranging collection exhibited on three separate floors of the Palacio de los Asturianos. There are Roman mosaics, Greek vases and a tremendous collection of Spanish Baroque painters including Zurburĭán, Murillo, de Ribera, and Velázquez.
This is a rare air-conditioned building in Havana so visitors often flock here for a respite from the oppressive heat. Photography isn't permitted which is the most frequent complaint about the museum. Guards are on alert and will warn visitors to put away their cell phones. It's highly recommended to hire a guide as so much of the collection will be mostly unfamiliar to all but experts on Cuban art.
Calle Trocadero e/ Zulueta y Monserrate, Havana, Cuba
Open 9am-5pm Tue-Sat, 10am-2pm Sun
Museo de la Revolución
The most famous and frequently visited museum in Cuba is probably the Museo de la Revolución. Housed inside the former Presidential Palace built between 1913 and 1920, it was decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio in a grand style. The Salón de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors) was designed to look like the Palace of Versailles. The opulent style created an ideal stage for Castro's story of the revolution. There's even a bust of José Martí that has bullet holes made during an assassination attempt on President Fulgencio Batista by a student revolutionary.
The exhibitions descend chronologically from the top floor with documents and images that tell the story of the build-up to the revolution. The majority of the collection are black and white photographs of young Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Some exhibitions are in both English and Spanish. While the collection is heavy on propaganda, the palace itself is worth a close look. Visitors will discover other spots where bullet holes made by revolutionaries still scar the walls.
Outside the museum are tanks, planes, rockets and getaway cars that were all used by the revolutionaries. Most noted among visitors is the yacht that has been set behind glass and heavily guarded so that it can not be stolen and used to sail away.
Refugio No 1 Havana
Open daily, 9:30am-4pm
Admission is CUC$8, guided tours CUC$2
Finca Vigia or Hemingway's House, San Francisco de Paula
It seems Ernest Hemingway lived in many of the world's most beautiful places, but he also did some of his best work in Cuba. Finca Vigia which means "lookout house" was his home in Cuba. In this modest house in a working class neighborhood Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls part of The Old Man and the Sea and sections of A Movable Feast. The house was taken over by the Cuban government when Hemingway died in 1961.
The house can only be viewed from the outside, though the windows are large and the house filled with light and visitors report that it's an entirely worthwhile experience. Finca Vigia and the Hemingway Museum are located in the town of San Francisco de Paula. Follow Carretera Central from Havana for 9 miles. Take a cab from Old Havana and ask the driver to wait for you. Admission is $5 CUC though sometimes foreign visitors are asked to pay more.
Open 10 am to 4 pm, Monday thru Saturday, 9 am to 1 pm, Sunday. Closed on rainy days.
Built in 1905 as a private home, it was converted into the National Music Museum in 1981.
Its collection explores the history of Cuban folk music and displays instruments from the 16th-20th centuries. They have music scores, old books and a room where visitors can listen to recordings and play instruments. This museum is recommended for families.
Calle Capdevila No. 1 e/ Aguiar y Habana. La Habana Vieja. Ciudad de La Habana.
Open Monday – Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 09:00- 12:00
Diego Velazquez Museum
Cuba's oldest house dates to the colonial period of the early 16th century when this was the residence of Diego Velázquez, the first governor. Amazingly it survived until it was restored in the 1960s and was then officially turned into a museum in 1970. It has been placed on many watchlists for endangered historic sites.
The architectural style is reminiscent of the Islamic inspired art found in Andalusia, a region of Southern Spain. The rooms display furniture and decor from the 16th-19th centuries and there is an additional 19th-century neoclassical house just next door. Initially, it was used as a trading house and gold foundry while Velázquez lived upstairs.
Santo Tomas No. 612 e/ Aguilera y Heredia, Santiago de Cuba
Open daily, 9am-5pm.
The gorgeous floor-to-ceiling mahogany shelves were restored in 1996 when this late 19th-century pharmacy was reopened as a museum. The collection holds French porcelain apothecary jars that were excavated from around Havana. Pharmacies and apothecaries were wildly popular in 19th and early 20th century Cuba when people would visit them to buy medicinal products but also to talk politics at the counters.
This unusual museum is a glimpse into the cultural past of the city as well as a place to see the beautiful and unusual label and bottle design.
Obispo #155, e/ Mercaderes y San Ignacio, Habana Vieja
Old Havana Perfume Museum
Part shop, part laboratory and part museum, the so-called Old Havana Perfume Museum is a testament to how much Cubans love perfume even if it is hard to afford. Housed in a neoclassical 18th-century mansion that originally served as a perfumery and a drugstore, visitors can view a collection of bottles and other artifacts all related to perfume. While there is a bottle of Chanel No. 5, most perfumes are made in Cuba and most predate 1960. The official state and perfume maker called Suchel Fragrencia has its entire collection in the museum.
Visitors can also have a signature perfume mixed from 12 different scents which all come from the colonial period including jasmine, lilac, sandalwood, and lavender as well as chocolate and tobacco.
Mercaderes #156, esq. a Obrapía, Habana Vieja
Open daily, 9:30am-6pm
While the museum is not dedicated specifically to rum, no visit to Cuba is complete without some homage to the legacy of rum. One of oldest museums in Cuba is the mansion of Emilio Bacardí y Moreau. After making his fortune, traveled around the world and later established a museum in Santiago de Cuba that is now stuffed with treasures he picked up along the way.
Eclectic might be the best way to describe the collection. On the first floor is the Archaeology Room with art from Mezoamericana, two Peruvian mummies, and one Egyptian mummy. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the collection at New York's Hispanic Society of America, a rich man's trove of fascinating objects.
The History Room has a panorama painting of Santiago de Cuba and objects that belonged to famous Cubans in history. Finally, the art room has Cuban and European paintings, sculptures and tapestries.
Esquina Aguilera y Pio Rosado s/n, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba
Open 1-5pm Mon, 9am-5pm Tue-Fri, 9am-1pm Sat