Over View

On first impressions, Havana can seem like a confusing jigsaw puzzle, but work out how to put the pieces together and a beautiful picture emerges.

No one could have invented Havana. It’s too audacious, too contradictory and – despite 60 years of withering neglect – too damned beautiful. How it does it is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the long history of piracy, colonialism and mobster rule. Perhaps it’s the survivalist spirit of a populace scarred by two independence wars, a revolution and a US trade embargo. Or possibly it’s something to do with the indefatigable salsa energy that ricochets off walls and emanates most emphatically from the people. Don’t come here with a list of questions; just bring an open mind and prepare for a long, slow seduction.

It may not be like the scene in Paris or New York quite yet, but Havana’s art culture is one of the city’s biggest surprises. The creativity is nothing new: Cuban artists have been quietly challenging cultural elites since the age of José Nicolás de la Escalera and his depictions of enslaved black people. Today the work of Escalera and others is splendidly displayed in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, while newer, racier crews congregate for electrifying ‘happenings’ at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano or take to the streets with their rollers and brushes in Habana Vieja.
Despite recent economic difficulties, there’s rarely been a better time to visit Havana. Private businesses (from trancey cafes to indie T-shirt makers) have sparked a creative renaissance, while big-name brands from that well-known ‘frenemy’ in the north have yet to dilute the cultural magic. As a result, the city bursts with experimentation: here a boutique hotel where bar stools are fashioned out of bicycles, there a community project where the barbershop is also a museum. Maybe it’s something they put in the mojitos, but the ability of habaneros to endure and persevere is one of their most inspiring traits.

In Havana, history is piled up like hoarded treasure in a dusty attic – except these days, thanks to proactive City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler, the colonial thoroughfares look a little less dusty. Leal Spengler has been nailing Havana’s exhausted infrastructure back together piece by piece for more than 30 years. The results are startling. Walk the streets of Habana Vieja today and you’ll quickly feel a genuine connection with the past in imposing coastal fortifications and intimate, traffic-free plazas stuffed with museums. Equally engrossing are the scattered leftovers from Cuba’s more recent marriages with the USA and the USSR.


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