Havana is as exciting as it is alluringly mystifying – or so I’ve read, what with its interesting American Mafia past, Fidel Castro’s rebel-led Cuban Revolution, its close ties to the former USSR and its many, puzzling contradictions -it all makes for a rather multi-faceted, multi-layered experience. In many ways, Cuba’s capital city remains forever trapped in time, in others, some contemporary touches have added a certain quirk that’s unique to this country.
These more modern additions are some of the more interesting to see, along with some older places that despite their age stand out due to their rather unconventional nature or unique quirkiness, in some ways amusing, in others inspiring.
Here is my list of quirky places of Havana I wouldn’t want to miss:
A mega-sized art project that started out with the mural decorations of a Cuban artist’ home and spilt out into the entire neighbourhood, this is one colourful place in Havana that is remarkably surprising. It will remind you somewhat of Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona (if you’ve been there) but with a very distinctive Cuban flavour.
Created by Jose Fuster in his hometown of Jaimanitas (an otherwise quiet and unassuming town on the outskirts of Havana, about a 40-minutes’ drive from the city centre) coming here is like stepping into another world, a child-like one in some aspects given Fuster’s signature take on the Naïve style.
But even more interesting are the depictions of Cuban traditions, important historical events, idiosyncratic values, religion and cultural icons; taking over entire houses, fences and sometimes, as is the case with Fuster’s own house, (the central “piece de resistance”) it’s interiors.
Fusterlandia is one amazing town-cum-cultural project, see some great photos here, that has turned locals into artists in their right as they follow in Fuster’s footsteps. It all makes for a wondrous sight you’ll never erase from your memory.
One of the most beautiful cemeteries you will ever lay eyes upon, Havana’s “Cementerio Colon” is widely considered the most visually stunning and historically rich in all of Latin America, only second perhaps to Buenos Aires’ “La Recoleta”, but you get to be the judge – I know I certainly would love to!
Beyond the grand mausoleums that once belonged to the country’s wealthiest families, important public figures and independence heroes, there are quirky tombs (including one that’s a pilgrimage site due to its believed miraculous powers) with eye-catching designs and a huge diversity of themes, styles and sculptures.
There’s a domino-shaped tomb (honouring the person that died of a heart attack after being unable to win the match with his last double-three piece), one in which a dog statue lays at the feet of her deceased owner, “The Tomb of Fidelity,” and one in the shape of a pyramid guarding the remains of a local architect obsessed with Egypt.
There are many grander and more ornate tombs paying tribute to captivating love stories, including the impressive Art Deco crypt where Cuba’s first ever divorced woman was laid to rest, with this grand final home having cost a fortune to her loving second husband, who was later interred beside her.
Casa de la Amistad
The former grand home of one of Cuba’s most scandalously famous couples, (the tomb of one of whom I just mentioned earlier) the pink-hued mansion in Vedado nowadays known as “Casa de la Amistad” (Friendship House) stands both as a museum highlighting the exquisite Art Deco style that predominates throughout its interiors and the original owners’ barrier-breaking love for each other.
Built by Juan Pedro Baro in 1926 as the abode that he would share with his wife Catalina Lasa, this grandiose mansion is remarkable for its sequence of grand halls and rooms, each with a unique personality, reflecting the couple’s tastes and full of unique twists. Theirs was a union that shocked the nation, not least of all because she was previously married to a prominent member of Cuban aristocracy and had to seek a marriage annulment from the Pope, which was granted, thus becoming the first divorced woman in Cuba.
The house is a dream for art lovers, full of whimsical twists, pops of colour, beautiful personal objects, the finest mosaics and coloured marble floors, as well as dainty period furniture. Everything is enveloped in a special aura, and many say the ghost of Catalina roams the halls. Whether you feel its presence or not, there’s a restaurant and bar onsite to drink it all in. Frequent music events and concerts are also held in the house’s gardens.
Callejon de Hamel
One of the city’s most photogenic places for artsy souls, the vibrant, colourful street art of this alley makes it an entrancing place to discover, especially if you turn up on a Sunday afternoon when this small community comes alive to the sound of live Afro-Cuban beats performed by a local band, with both professional and casual impromptu dancers adding to the overall merriment and entertainment.
If you want not just to see but feel Cuba’s deep African roots this is one of the most flamboyant places to experience it in a multi-sensory way.
On one hand, you have the quirky art that takes over the entire alleyway, full of unusually decorated objects like painted bathtubs embedded on walls with amusing quotes, murals that take over not just walls but entire buildings going up several floors, old metal objects turned into funky-looking art pieces, greenery hanging from handmade pots using recycled fan panels and a myriad of eye-catching elements of Afro-Cuban folklore.
Remember, if you come here, make sure it’s on a Sunday and hang around long enough to catch the massive afternoon street party for the quintessential rumba session you shouldn’t miss out on!
You would have no reason to visit the otherwise ordinary residential municipality of Alamar in Havana were it not for Gallo’s Garden of Affection. A junkyard like no other you have ever seen, it feels harsh to call it a junkyard at all, yet this quirky museum is made from thrown out objects, broken artefacts and discarded personal belongings that were lovingly turned into something else: popular art, more specifically “Art Brut”.
The creator of Havana’s most outstanding art gallery is 90-year-old Hector Pascual Gallo Portieles, who put so much thought and care into giving these items a new lease of life that you daren’t call it rubbish anymore, especially not after close inspection.
Created in the name of love with the intention of recovering lost values in today’s younger generations, this is a garden where Gallo proudly grows “exotic plants of human nature”, offering an introspective look into our lives, the chance to become wiser through art and a love lesson in giving old, worn things a second chance.
This prolific garden is in constant expansion, with Gallo’s ongoing recycling being a task he considers a spiritual ritual that feeds his imagination and allows him to express himself through the many quotes he imprints on objects; like this one: “When you feed your soul, the heart is thankful”.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano – FAC
Cuba’s most avant-garde recreational space is an art gallery, cinema, concert hall, theatre, fashion catwalk, restaurant and bar all in one. Housed inside a former oil factory, this cultural project provides evening entertainment in a multitude of ways, with separate spaces dedicated to different art expressions, from permanent exhibits to seasonal displays, and a full programme of performances and events that changes weekly.
With a modern look and edgy industrial decor, this trendy venue is the place to be in Havana ever since its foundation in 2014. With initials that stand for Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) this innovative, all-encompassing entertainment joint proved a massive success from day one and was an instant hit among Havana’s younger generations.
Recent visitors have included the likes of Jon Bon Jovi, Mick Jagger and Usher, and last year it earned itself a nomination for the World Travel Awards due to its phenomenal combination of cultural recreation tied to community projects that aim to promote local talent and engage children in the arts through workshops and courses.
FAC is a nightlife hub like no other in Havana, and you should come to experience its unique flair, eclectic ambience and many quirks.
This once crumbling house found inside a dilapidating building at the heart of Centro Habana has evolved throughout the years to become the city’s quintessential dining experience, and an exceptional one at that.
After rising to fame as the set of Oscar-nominated Cuban film “Strawbery and Chocolate” in 1993, the owners decided to convert this humble abode into a “paladar” (a privately-owned restaurant) and they did so by keeping most of the original objects and mismatched (sometimes odd, sometimes quirky) decorations that featured in the film (including “Roco”, a non-working 50s fridge).
The ambience is decidedly vintage, the decor verges on the baroque, the eclectic and the downright kitsch, yet the restaurant retains a peculiar air of timeless elegance that enchants and bewilders. The menu has evolved over the years and now offers the perfect mix of fine dining and homely local dishes with a twist.
In recent years, La Guarida has attracted a long line of celebrities, from the King of Spain to the Kardashian clan, Natalie Portman, and Madonna, who celebrated her 58th birthday with a big bash up on the restaurant’s rooftop.
Another cultural project that took over an entire community, “Muraleando” (which literally translates as “muralling” or “mural-making” was kick-started by a duo of local artists and their need to find a space to teach young children arts outside of the classroom. Thus, the workshops were moved to the streets, and public murals started springing up in the municipality of Lawton, found just south of Havana, approximately 20 minutes from the city centre.
Helping a previously disconnected community come together through the appreciation of art, Muraleando has had a massive positive impact in this municipality, with huge ripple effects that have reached other parts of the city. The murals take over metres and metres of street walls and even buildings, with lively depictions of local traditions, celebrations and representations of different aspects of Cubans’ daily life. Check some cool photos in this site.
Sculptures from recycled materials have also added to this open-air museum, made from spare parts and discarded bits, contributing to the colourful, whimsical nature of this project. Come to admire the art, or better still to join in with the locals during a “Pena Comunitaria” party where entire blocks are closed off, tables and chairs are set up I the middle of the street and guests include musicians, poets, actors and singers.
Callejon de los Peluqueros and ArteCorte
Borne out of a local barber’s love for his profession and his community, the “Callejon de los Peluqueros” (Barbers’ Alley) in Old Havana has now become a place of cult.
Popular in his small neighbourhood of Barrio del Santo Angel – a very picturesque part of the city that was also the setting for one of the the island’s most famous books, (“Cecilia Valdes” by Cirilo Villaverde) – “Papito”, as he is affectionately called, decided to put the passion for his profession to good use by elevating it to new heights and offering to train local youngsters in the arts of barbering and hairdressing for free; thus helping them get jobs in a growing collection of hair salons that soon sprang up everywhere in this small community.
But ArteCorte is not just a training project; it’s also the name of Papito’s main hair salon, a vintage wonder like very few others in the world, doubling as a museum dedicated to the art of hairdressing, this place is full of refurbished hundred-year-old barber chairs, where you’ll find original cash registers from past centuries and all manner of retro hairdressing-related paraphernalia.
The proceeds from Papito’s hairdressing business go a long way towards funding community projects, from the “Barbeparque” children’s playground to a centre for the elderly and a football pitch. Other businesses in the area, from art galleries to restaurants, have joined the ArteCorte movement and are active contributors to funding its social projects.
Unique not just to Cuba but all of Latin America, Havana’s quirky and magnificently grand Napeolonic Museum houses a splendid collection of over 7,000 original objects that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte.
Collected by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo, this impressive selection of furniture items, paintings, fine bone china and personal objects was acquired in auctions during the first half of the 20th century.
Displayed over four floors in a stately Vedado mansion (actually a 1920s Renaissance-style palazzo) close to the University of Havana; the museum exhibits a meticulous recreation of Napoleon’s bedroom and study, as well as some rare objects like sketches by Voltaire, a regal eight-branched chandelier by Percier and busts by Romagnesi, Chinard and Bartolini.
The stunning collection (valued at over 8 million dollars in 1986) offers a glimpse into the French conqueror’s life with a varied array of interesting items, including a bronze death mask made two days after Napoleon’s death and original paintings depicting the Battle of Waterloo. An amazing walk through European history in an unlikely tropical setting.