Cuba Travel Guide
Havana’s 500th Anniversary in 2019

In November 2019, Havana will celebrate a rare milestone that few cities in the Western Hemisphere have reached: the Cuban capital will celebrate its 500th anniversary. Over its tumultuous half millennia, Indians, Spaniards and other Europeans, Chinese and Americans have all contributed to Havana’s colorful character. These groups have imprinted their ideas, traditions and passions onto the city, all of which are apparent as you walk the streets and piece Havana together like you would an intricate jigsaw puzzle. 

Old Havana

To celebrate Havana’s 500th anniversary, the Cuban government has planned to launch a grand and invigorating birthday celebration. City historian Eusebio Leal Spengler has dedicated more than 30 years of his life restoring colonial squares and buildings in Old Havana. He has helped piece Havana together building by building, connecting city’s past to the present. 

Beyond Old Havana, the government is helping give the city a much-needed facelift. Local streets and highways are being updated, the water infrastructure has received dire attention and popular attractions such as the Castillo del Morro lighthouse (at left) are being rehabilitated to better serve visitors from around the world. In the years leading up to the anniversary, nearly 600 historic buildings have been restored throughout the city. The provincial government is focusing on expanding green spaces and improving the parks found in the city’s urban and suburban areas. 

El Capitolio

Renovations to Cuba’s National Capital Building — El Capitolio — are complete after eight years. The Neo-classical icon is modeled after the U.S. Capital building, a constant reminder of the complicated relationship endured by both countries. The Statue of the Republic sits in the apse of El Capitolio and is the third-largest indoor statue in the world. The statue immortalizes Athena — the Greek goddess of wisdom, warfare and the arts — as a Cuban woman welcoming all who step foot in the capital. Daily visits are led by expert staff and provide a perfect backdrop for discussions concerning Cuba’s relationship in the international community and the nurturing cultural compatibility between Cuba and the United States.

 

Gran Teatro

While Havana’s intrinsic musical nature will be sure to leave your toes tapping, spectacular displays are planned throughout the year. The Cuban Institute of Music is preparing a series of concerts on the second, third and fourth Saturdays of each month to showcase local talent and musical styles. The Neo-baroque Gran Teatro (at left) — one of Havana’s architectural marvels — is home to Cuba’s world-renowned National Ballet under the guidance of Alicia Alonso, as well as the home of the Cuban National Opera. The Gran Teatro’s 1,500-person theater opens each weekend for the National Ballet and the National Opera but also for plays, concerts and contemporary performances. 

 

Local Impact

Preparations for Havana’s 500th anniversary are one step towards a new Cuba. Free enterprise is slowly returning and private companies are experiencing solid growth. Restaurants and cafes show the unique creativity of the individuals who are renovating run down old buildings and instilling a spontaneous sense of excitement in their place.

More important than the upgrades to attract more visitors from around the world is the impact the projects are having for every-day citizens. The National and City governments are working with citizens to instill better waste management and practices to improve city cleanliness. Thousands of buildings including pharmacies, family clinics, restaurants, bakeries and bodegas have been renovated and hundreds of educational centers have been improved for the next generation. A multi-faceted approach is being taken to help improve the day-to-day life of those who call Havana home. 

As Cuba approaches Havana’s 500th anniversary, it is amazing how much is changing, how much is being preserved and restored, and how much isn’t changing at all. 

“Havana is a fascinating city, starting to emerge from a time warp and bursting with new-found energy. The Cubans have unquenchable spirit, and are filled with joy. The experience will exceed your wildest expectations.”

— Freddie from Carmel, Indiana —

Top Attractions in Havana

Since its founding in 1519 by the Spanish, Cuba’s cosmopolitan capital has developed its own personality that is best personified by artistic influences and brightly colored classic cars. Havana’s colonial plazas, Neo-classical architecture and complicated history leave a new surprise around every corner. 

Plaza Vieja

Brimming with 17th-century colonial architecture, Old Havana — La Habana Vieja — was founded in 1519 and contains the original city center. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in the Bay of Havana for Spanish galleons crossing between Spain and the New World and prospered as one of the main shipbuilding centers. Centered around the 16th-century Plaza Vieja, Neoclassical and Baroque architecture have undergone extensive restorations in preparation for Havana’s 500th anniversary. 

The Malecón

The Malecón is a favorite for locals and visitors alike. This famous seaside promenade is lined with parks and monuments dedicated to Cuban history, with the Paseo del Prado built by the American government to celebrate the completion of the first 500 meters (1640 feet). The Paseo del Prado is a favorite spot for local musicians and performers. You can get a glimpse of local life along the Malecón as fisherman cast their lines and local business spring up amidst new economic reforms and an increasingly free market.

El Capitolio

Modeled after the U.S. Capital Building, Cuba’s National Capital Building was constructed from 1926-1929 and was the seat of the Cuban government until the Cuban Revolution in 1959. At the time of its construction, the top of the Capitolio was the third-highest dome in the world. Once you climb the 55 steps and enter the grand Neo-classical structure, you will be greeted by the Statue of the Republic — the third largest indoor statue in the world. 

Colon Cemetery

Named for Christopher Columbus, the Colon Cemetery was founded to replace the Espada Cemetery in 1876. This Catholic cemetery is the final resting place of some of Latin America’s greatest thinkers and contains more than 500 major mausoleums. Organized by social rank, the tombs and mausoleums within Colon Cemetery became increasingly ornate as families sought to display their wealth and power. 

 

Plaza de la Revolución

One of the largest plazas in the world, the Plaza de la Revolución served as a gathering place for numerous revolutionary rallies, with Fidel Castro giving speeches to millions. The 11-acre plaza is situated to the south of the 357-foot Jose Marti Memorial, which predates the revolution, and is surrounded by several important buildings including the National Library, National Theater and several government buildings. Perhaps the most famous of these buildings is the Ministry of the Interior, with its wire mural of Che Guevara. 

Finca la Vigía

In 1940, Ernest Hemingway purchased Finca la Vigía — meaning “lookout farm” — eight miles outside Havana’s old town in the working-class suburb of San Francisco de Paula. From this modest house, Hemingway would fish from his boat, Pilar, and came to enjoy the best of island life. It was during these years that he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “A Movable Feast,” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Following Hemmingway’s death in 1961, the house fell under control of the Cuban government. After years of neglect, the government restored the house and opened it up to visitors in 2008 as a museum.  

 

Adventures in Cuba

Road Scholar offers opportunities to travel legally to Cuba under the new OFAC Regulations published June 5, 2019. Following the General License category “Support of the Cuban People,” Road Scholar programs include activities intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Each day's program promotes independence for the Cuban people and results in meaningful interactions with the Cuban people.

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