Cuba travelers are especially looking forward to visiting Havana. But also other places on the island attract with their beautifully restored old towns, magnificent colonial buildings and a lot of Caribbean joie de vivre.
Cuba’s capital Havana – five centuries of history
Colorful American road cruisers, Hemingway bars and a lot of decadent charm – this is how quite a few Europeans imagine Cuba’s capital. Whoever is on site will not be disappointed. The almost 500-year-old metropolis scores on the one hand with great photo motifs, and on the other hand it offers anyone who has a little time a look behind the scenes or at the facades of the old buildings.
The aging „Pearl of the Caribbean“ has now had a facelift in many places that suits it well. In the old town of Habana Vieja, a World Heritage Site, half-decayed buildings have been transformed back into baroque and neo-classical gems, such as the former governor’s palace „Palacio de los Capitanes Generales“ from the late 18th century. The huge harbour fortress „La Cabaña“ („Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña“), which was built in 1763-74, as well as the „Castillo de la Real Fuerza“, with approximately 450 years the oldest still existing military building in Havana.
The arcades and buildings from the 18th century were also lovingly restored in the square „Plaza Vieja“; in the busiest street of Habana Vieja, the „Calle Obispo“, the colonial buildings shine in new splendour. Thanks to the modern lighting, residents and visitors can stroll here around the clock. You can also stroll along the Prado (Paseo de Martí), Havana’s most famous avenue, or rest on the marble benches and watch the artists painting.
Shortly before sunset, the most beautiful spot is the Malecón, the almost seven kilometres long promenade of the capital, lined with buildings from different eras. Couples stroll along the lively boulevard in love, musicians play their latest pieces, fishermen wait for the big fish and tourists try to catch the most beautiful photo motives. In the evening we go to the world famous revue of the „Tropicana“, to „La Bodeguita del Medio“ (where Hemingway already drank his Mojito) or to the elegant „El Floridita“ – supposedly the cradle of the „Daiquiri“.
Whoever leaves the tourist miles and wanders through the „third and fourth row“, experiences a completely different Havana. Here, the facades crumble to the point of collapse (best not to walk below the supported balconies…), here live the poorer Habaneros, who are not paid in convertible pesos – as usual in tourism – and who have no relatives in Miami or Madrid. This growing gap between the new, glamorous Havana and the decay of other parts of the city or the growing impoverishment of the population is depressing, but is also part of the image of the two million metropolis. These contradictions ultimately reflect the problems that the whole country is struggling with.
Trinidad – a picture perfect city
When visiting Trinidad, one feels like in a huge open-air museum. With its colourful colonial architecture, embedded in the green mountain landscape of the Sierra de Escambray, this World Heritage Site is one of the absolute highlights of every Cuban trip.
Here the clocks tick differently than in busy Havana. One reason for this is that Trinidad, with around 36,000 inhabitants, is much smaller than the capital and there are hardly any shops, restaurants or hotels. For hours, one can roam through the narrow cobblestone alleyways of the almost 500 years old sugar aristocratic city. Looking through elaborately crafted wrought-iron grilles into the interior of the houses, one often finds antique furniture and works of art from the colonial period.
The sugar, the „white gold“, made Trinidad a prosperous city at the end of the 18th century. This wealth manifested itself above all in the magnificent buildings that the sugar barons and other wealthy citizens had built during this period. One banker even wanted to cover his floors with gold coins, but the Spanish crown forbade this: the king had no interest in having his portrait trampled on.
The „Golden Age“ came to an end when many plantations were devastated during the two wars of independence. The situation was aggravated by the introduction of the steam engine and the abolition of slavery, competition from beet sugar from Europe and the lack of infrastructure: Trinidad had no connection to the road and rail network until the middle of the 20th century, so it was cut off from the new sugar centres of Matanzas and Cienfuegos.
Only about 60 years ago, the infrastructure was expanded and Trinidad was opened up for tourism. Especially worth seeing are for example the centrally located square „Plaza Mayor“ with many museums in former noble palaces as well as the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima, which was built in 1892 in place of another destroyed church from 1620. In this church there are eleven altars made of precious woods. But the biggest attraction is the 300 year old statue „El Cristo de Veracruz“, which was already on the way from Spain to Mexico, but stayed in Trinidad because of a storm that prevented the ship from leaving.
Santiago de Cuba – hilly port city with Caribbean feeling
The lively Santiago de Cuba is almost more exciting than Havana. The provincial capital on the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, situated on a Caribbean natural harbor, cannot match the size of the capital with its 500,000 inhabitants. But the ethnic diversity and eventful history is unparalleled in Cuba.
Only eight years after its foundation in 1523, Santiago became the capital of Cuba and the main base of the Spanish navy in the Caribbean. The town quickly developed into an important trading centre and meeting point for the silver fleet. The first slave ships from West Africa docked here, which had a lasting influence on Santiago in terms of dance and music. Until the end of the 17th century, the city was exposed to pirate attacks, but after the construction of the fortress „El Morro“, the bandits gnawed at its defensive walls. Even the English could only conquer Santiago for a short time, then they were forced to flee.
At the end of the 18th century many French landowners fled from Haiti to Santiago after a victorious slave revolt. They brought more slaves into the country, but also technical knowledge and their culture. The French stimulated the cultivation of coffee and sugar cane and influenced the Cuban bourgeoisie with their liberal ideas. No wonder that Santiago de Cuba later became the center of the independence movement. The economy flourished and slave ships from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands began to arrive.
Well-known Santiagueros helped Cuba to victory in the wars of independence against the Spaniards. In 1898 not the Cuban but the US-American flag was hoisted. But the inhabitants‘ will to resist was unbroken and it was no coincidence that the revolution here began in 1953 with the (unsuccessful) storming of the Moncada barracks by Castro’s rebels. After their victory, Fidel Castro delivered his victory speech on 2 January 1959 from the balcony of the Santiago Town Hall.
You should take plenty of time to visit the beautiful old town with its art, culture and gastronomy. Thus, one not only has the opportunity to admire the gorgeous colonial buildings but also to absorb the flair of this lively city. Most of the sightseeings are located between the most central plaza of the city, the Parque Céspedes, the Plaza de Marte and Plaza Dolores. Especially worth seeing – by day and by night – are the restored colonial houses at Parque Céspedes: for example the „Casa de Diego Velázquez“, Cuba’s oldest building, built in 1519. The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción with its magnificent rococo ceiling and beautiful altar is considered to be the landmark of Santiago.
Cienfuegos – Pearl of the South
Only a little less than an hour’s drive from Trinidad, the „cleanest city in Cuba“ on the bay of Jagua surprises with pretty colonial buildings and a little less tourism than its famous neighbour. In 2005, the old town, which boasts many sights, was declared a World Heritage Site.
On the way to the town one has the impression of having landed in a pure industrial settlement which does not have much to offer. But this is deceptive. Cienfuegos, which owes its name to Governor José Cienfuegos, is a lively, elegant city (around 160,000 inhabitants) whose mix of neoclassical architecture, Art Nouveau and Art Deco delights tourists. It was founded at the beginning of the 19th century by French settlers and has retained its French charm to this day. Driven by the longing for their homeland, the French even had a triumphal arch built at Parque José Martí – incidentally, the only one in Cuba. The street cafés also exude French ambience.
At the end of the 19th century, there were over 100 sugar mills in Cienfuegos; on the sugar plantations, as in other parts of Cuba, African slaves toil. Evidence of the wealth of the sugar barons can still be seen today in the magnificent buildings of Cienfuegos, which were not even affected by the wars of independence. Especially beautiful in the evening are the lively promenades Prado, the longest avenue in Cuba and the Malecón.
Gibara – the white city in a big sleep
This jewel of colonial architecture, 33 kilometres from Holguín, is rarely included in the itinerary of bus tourists. However, a visit to this pretty little town, founded in 1817, is definitely worthwhile.
The beautiful location on a picturesque bay, surrounded by the Maniabón hills, makes the city quite attractive. In addition, there are the beautiful neoclassical buildings from the 19th century, which belonged to the rich sugar barons. Gibara, often called „Villa Blanca“ (white city) because of its many white house facades, became an important commercial port and economic centre in the region in the first decades after its creation.
However, when the wars of independence affected the village and the infrastructure did not develop further, the decline began. It was not until the 1950s that a road to Gibara was finally built, so that not all goods and passengers had to be transported by rail or train alone. But the long isolation had also ensured that the town was not as overcrowded as other small colonial towns.
On no visit one should miss the central park „Calixto García“ with its colonial flair and the more than 150 years old church „Iglesia de San Fulgencio“ as also the ruins of the old Spanish bastion „El Cuartelón“ with a great view to Gibara. There are also three interesting museums to visit: the Museum of Colonial Art – Museo de Arte Colonial – in the magnificent former palace of a rich merchant, the Museum of Natural History – Museo de Historia Natural – with exhibitions on Cuban wildlife and the Historical Museum of Gibara – Museo Municipal – which brings the history of the city from the pre-colonial period back to life.
Camagüey – art and culture off the beaten track
Founded in 1514, Camagüey does not need to hide from its historical, photogenic competition: Although the third biggest city of Cuba is not located at the sea, but in the centre of the interior of the island amidst sugar cane plantations and cattle pastures. Its exotic-sounding name has been in use since 1923; it comes from a Kaziken chief.
The historic centre is the second best preserved in the country (after Havana) and is a World Heritage Site. In terms of church density, the Catholic Camagüey even takes first place. The city is also famous for its large clay jugs („tinajones“), in which the inhabitants used to collect rainwater due to a permanent lack of water; today, however, they are mainly used for decoration.
The best way to get to know the old town of Camagüey is by bicycle rickshaw. The rickshaw stops at all prominent points where you can also get off the bike. Thus, one sees – protected from the sun under the rickshaw roof – many sightseeings in a short time. For example the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria with its renovated neoclassical front or the more than 200 years old cobblestone paved Plaza San Juan de Dios with a baroque church, a former hospital in moorish style, restaurants and cafés as also the beautiful Teatro Prinicipal with marble stairs and colourful glass windows, in which in the evenings, a very famous ballet is performed.
Funny are the wall paintings of the artist Ileana Sánchez in Calle Jaime, which show Afro-Cubans in different everyday situations. In the art house – almost an art museum – „Casa de Arte Ileana Sánchez y Joel Jover“ you can find interesting souvenirs and paintings – as well as in other small galleries and exhibitions in the city. In Camagüey also the famous mulatto poet Nicolás Guillén (1902 – 1989) was born. In his works he tells of the hard life of the Afro-Cuban population. In the „Casa Natal Nicolás Guillén“ – today a cultural centre – personal objects, documents and photos of the Cuban national poet are exhibited.
Baracoa – where time has stopped
Only a few tourists stray into this remote colonial town at the eastern end of Cuba, which until the revolution was only accessible by sea. The journey on a pass road through the fascinating tropical mountain world with coffee, cocoa, coconut and banana cultivation takes a little longer, but is very varied. The effort is worth it in any case! For some, Baracoa is even one of the most interesting places in Cuba. Because situated in the middle of tropical vegetation, with the highest humidity in Cuba and temperatures of almost 40 degrees, Baracoa has a bit more of a Caribbean feeling than other cities.
This oldest European-colonial settlement on the island was founded by the Spaniards in 1511, although indigenous peoples had been living on this land some 2,000 years earlier. The small town (about 40,000 inhabitants) has a pretty colonial city centre with single-storey colonnaded houses, classicist buildings and plenty of French ambience: Large French landowners also settled here after their flight from Haiti at the end of the 18th century. With their technical know-how they made agriculture work and influenced cultural development.
Baracoa stretches about three kilometres along the Bahía de Miel. The Plaza Martí and the two streets Calle Maceo and Calle Martí are the main places of interest, restaurants, shops and guest houses. Delicious ice cream and chocolate are available at the „Casa de Chocolate“. The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Asunción, completely restored in the 19th century, has a great treasure: a wooden cross of Columbus, which he supposedly left in Baracoa in 1492.
In front of the cathedral there is the bust of the chief Hatuey who fought against the Spanish and was burned in 1512 because he did not want to convert to the Christian faith. In the city museum (Museo Municipal) in the fortress Matachin, those who are interested can learn more details about the eventful history, look at objects of the indigenous population and admire a collection of polymita cichlids that only live in Cuba.
Bayamo – Cradle of nationalism
Also in Bayamo, at the foot of the Sierra Maestra, tourism is limited. Unjustly so, because the city, founded in 1513 – and thus the second oldest – plays a major role in Cuba’s history. Also its beautifully restored colonial buildings of the former sugar barons, for example at the Parque Céspedes or at the Plaza del Himno, are worth seeing. And a clean pedestrian zone designed by artists invites to stroll.
Although Bayamo today is rather slow, the city has had some turbulent times. First the Indians rebelled here, then the African slaves against the Spanish, later the Bayamese pursued a bishop kidnapper, whom they promptly made a head shorter after arrest. In Bayamo the inhabitants also defended themselves against a Spanish governor who wanted to ban smuggling. And to crown it all, in 1819 the „Father of the Fatherland“, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, was born in the city, whose birthplace can still be visited today.
In 1868, Céspedes freed his slaves and called on the Cubans to fight against the Spanish, thus triggering the first war of independence. For a short time, Céspedes was then president of a Cuban republic that was formed underground. During these turbulent days, „La Bayamesa“, the Cuban national anthem by Pedro Figueredo, was also played for the first time. When his son fell into Spanish captivity, Céspedes decided to end the fighting and exchange his boy. He spoke the legendary words: „All Cubans are my sons“, whereupon the young man was killed. But the Bayamese also showed themselves to be militant in the 20th century: from 1956 onwards, many of them organized the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra together with Fidel Castro and his men.
Today, things are more peaceful in the city of approximately 220.000 inhabitants, but sightseeings as the Plaza de la Revolución with monuments of Céspedes and Figueredo, on which every year on October 20th the origin is celebrated, still remind on the militant time.
Santa Clara – City of the heroic guerrillas
Although this city has not quite as much to offer architecturally, it plays an important role in Cuban history. One man is always in the center of attention: Comandante Ernesto „Che“ Guevara, friend and ally of Fidel Castro and still adored by many Cubans. Born in Argentina, he played a major role in the victory of the 1957/58 revolution: under his command, the rebels defeated the far stronger army of Batista and took Santa Clara on 29 December 1958. This cleared the way to Havana. Three days later General Batista fled Cuba to the Dominican Republic and the revolution was victorious.
Various monuments commemorate the great battle, for example the „Monumento al Tren Blindado“ (monument to the armored train) by the Cuban sculptor José Delarra. This train had left Havana on December 23d, 1958 with 373 soldiers on board and plenty of provisions, weapons and ammunition, heading east to bring about a turn in the fight against the guerrillas. Instead, Che and his men derailed the train. After the rebels had ignited Molotov cocktails and the heat in the wagons became unbearable, the Batista soldiers capitulated. Today, four restored original wagons stand as museum pieces next to the tracks. The bulldozer with which Che had destroyed the tracks can also be visited.
The „Museo y Monumento Memorial Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara“ (Museum in memory of the Comandante) at the spacious Plaza de la Revolución houses among other things the mausoleum of Che. In the centre of the complex is a six-metre high bronze statue of the guerrillero, showing him in uniform with a plastered arm that he had broken in battle.
If you still have time, you should stroll through Santa Clara’s well-preserved city centre and take a look, for example, at the beautiful theatre „Teatro La Caridad“, built in 1885 at Parque Vidal. The ceiling painting of Camilo Salaya is specially impressive. One of the oldest churches of the city is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Carmen that was built in the middle of the 18th century.
Sancti Spíritus – the misunderstood beauty
The capital of the province of Sancti Spíritus does not have it easy. Although it too scores with its colonial flair, a beautiful historic city centre and cobblestone streets, the much smaller Trinidad, which is only 70 kilometres away, is outstripping it. Tourists can discover a lot in Sancti Spíritus, which is one of the seven oldest cities in Cuba. During the colonial period many inhabitants had become rich through sugar cane and tobacco cultivation as well as cattle breeding, which is manifested among other things in the beautiful colourful colonial buildings.
The Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espíritu Santo from the 16th century, initially built of wood, is one of the oldest Cuban churches. At the end of the 17th century it was rebuilt of stone after plundering by pirates and subsequent fire: Its Mudejar-style ceiling alone (with elements of Islamic architecture) is worth a visit in this church.
But there is even more to see: In the more than 130 years old restored theatre „Teatro Prinicipal“ you can experience the famous choir „Coro de Claro“ with a little luck. The painful history of the slaves is told by the museum „Museo de la Esclavitud“; the colonial museum „Museo de Arte Colonial“ with a nice inner courtyard exhibits exhibits from the colonial times. Those who walk a little further will get to a five-arched bridge. The approximately 200-year-old „Puente Yayabo“ is the only stone arch bridge in Cuba and the landmark of the quiet but interesting city.