Making a shortlist of Havana’s architectural gems is no easy task: The city recently celebrated its 500th birthday, and there are more than 900 sites of historical significance just in its old quarter (Habana Vieja, a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Whether you’re fascinated by Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Deco or Modernist styling, it’s all here – the eclectic aesthetic reflecting Spanish, French, American and other influences. Consider the following sites just a few starting points.
1. Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso
This neo-Baroque grand theatre serves up drama inside and out: The façade is famous for its extravagant detailing, including sculptures by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti, while the stages are the home turf of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. The building integrates what was once Teatro Tacón, an opera house opened in 1838; more recently, it has undergone a major renovation, re-opening in 2016 to reclaim its place as Havana’s pre-eminent spot for the performing arts.
2. El Capitolio
When it was constructed in the 1920s, the National Capitol Building symbolized monumental ambition, with a price tag to match: 17 million pesos. Likened to both the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the Panthéon in Paris, the palatial structure now ranks as one of the city’s most popular attractions. The nearly 300-foot-high dome is currently shining anew: Gold plating was added as part of the meticulous recent restoration for Havana’s 500th anniversary.
3. Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Havana’s most iconic hotel is also a national monument with a legendary list of past guests, ranging from mafia mobsters to celebrities (Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire) to politicians (one of the bars is named after Winston Churchill). Built in 1930, the 483-room Art Deco building is virtually impossible to miss, in part because of its sprawling size and towering Moorish turrets, and in part because of its perch atop a hill overlooking the Malécon seaside.
4. Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Within a few decades of its founding, Havana had become the largest port in the region, with its prime location making it an important stopover for ships heading to and from the New World. Protection from pirates was crucial, prompting the construction of Castillo de la Real Fuerza, started in 1558 and now the oldest surviving fortress in the Americas. Situated by Plaza de Armas, where the city was founded, today it houses the naval museum Museo de Navegación.
5. Catedral de La Habana (also known as Catedral de San Cristóbal)
Completed in 1777, this cathedral remains a star attraction in Habana Vieja, dominating one of the old quarter’s five main squares, Plaza de la Catedral. It’s noted for its extraordinary Cuban Baroque beauty, with architectural flourishes and two distinctly designed bell towers. For a time, it was also the resting place for Christopher Columbus, before his remains were taken to Spain.
6. Museo de la Revolución
This museum not only chronicles history, with a focus on the Cuban Revolution, but history was also made here. The building, opened in 1920, served as the Presidential Palace until 1959, and bullet holes remain in the walls from the pivotal attempted assassination of Fulgencio Batista in 1957. It was also here that Fidel Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister, in 1959. Beyond the military artifacts, the site’s architectural points of interest include Salón de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors), a nod to the Palace of Versailles.
To explore more of the historical city of Havana, Hola Sun Holidays recommends you book a combo package, with three nights in Havana and four nights in Varadero. Learn more at holasunholidays.ca.
As originally published by the Toronto Star