The whole of the Cuban capital is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with good reason. The architecture in the city is as varied as it is impressive: with influences from the Spanish, French, Americans, and even the Russians, the architecture represents the people: a mixed melting pot.
Vedado is to the west of the city centre, and it’s a residential area. Come here to see crumbling palaces which were one plantation owners’ family estates, or head into the centre of town to check out the Colonial-era buildings, Plaza Vieja is all colourful stained glass windows and brightly painted facades. Of course, given Cuba’s communist heritage, there are also more than a few USSR-style Brutalist buildings, which are impressive and beautiful in a different way.
Colonial Era Architecture
In 1492, Columbus landed in Cuba, and over the next few centuries, it became a major trading post between the Old World and the New. Consequently, a huge variety of people from Africa, Europe, and all over the globe passed through Cuba, all leaving their lasting mark on its buildings as much as its culture. When you use the adjective “colonial” to describe Cuban architecture, it doesn’t just mean Spanish styles. In fact, Moorish, Greek, French, and even Roman styles are used in La Havana’s eclectic architectural mix, and the city’s Cathedral is a great example of the Cuban Baroque.
The Spanish Influence
Waves of successive Spanish immigrants have meant that many buildings in Havana closely resemble those in Cadiz, Grenada, Seville, and other Moorish Spanish cities. Thanks to the wealth flowing into Cuba in the second half of the nineteenth century, wealthy Habaneros were able to employ the best architects to create the neo-classical city of their dreams.
Art Deco Style
Along with Buenos Aires, the Cuban capital was the most important (and rich) Latin American country by the turn of the twentieth century. This richness is reflected in the art deco architecture style of the time, the best examples of which include the railway terminal and the Universidad de la Habana, while the Capitolo building is a replica of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., built exactly to a 1/2 scale. Finally, the Edificio Bacardi – sharing a name with the famous Cuban brothers who make the eponymous rum – is one of the city’s grandest art deco-era buildings, and not one to be missed. Thanks to high levels of immigration to the United States, Miami and Los Angeles both share a lot of this distinctively Cuban aesthetic.
In the later part of the 20th century, many apartment buildings like those often seen in the old Eastern Bloc were built in Habana del Este. With the fall of the USSR, local Cuban architects took over, and the apartment buildings they created are considered a real success story.
When you’ve finished admiring the amazing architecture all around you, using your gap year to get cultured is surprisingly easy- and ridiculously so in Cuba. The capital’s renowned Teatro Nacional hosts not just plays, but spectacular dance shows (with the latter probably being a better option if you’re still polishing your Spanish). For a very reasonable sum, you can watch world-class performances live on stage. Cuba hosts an annual ballet festival, too—and don’t forget that the city lives and breathes both salsa and jazz.