Callejón de Hamel
Entering this two-block alleyway from the streets of Centro Habana is like stepping into a vibrant, technicolor, rhythm-infused dream world. The alley’s walls are lined with panoramic murals, sparkling mosaics, and eclectic sculptures depicting Afro-Cuban history and the Santeria religion. Local artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona began transforming the once-slum area in 1990, and today the Callejón de Hamel is a major source of neighborhood pride where young local artists can acquire skills and contribute to a cultural masterpiece. On Sunday afternoons, Rumba musicians and dancers provide an enthralling glimpse of community, cultural and religious expression.
This four-mile long corroding seawall serves as an epicenter for Havana’s social life. Free and accessible to all, the Malecón is dotted with sun-kissed fishermen patiently awaiting their next catch, lovers seeking a romantic escape, families celebrating birthdays, guitarists singing ballads on foot, and travelers soaking in the salty breeze at any given time of day. When the tides are high, the road along the Malecón closes and visitors can witness breathtaking six-foot swells crashing deafeningly over the withering wall. At night, tourists looking to engage in local life can grab a bottle of rum or a few beers and join the open-air party.
La Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana)
Situated in the Vedado district of Havana and founded in 1728, Cuba’s top University is one of the oldest in the Americas and a declared national monument boasting columned lecture halls, lush greenery, and an expansive 88-step stairway entrance, atop of which sits the famed Alma Mater sculpture by Yugoslavian artist Mario Korbel. The building also showcases some of the island’s greatest neoclassical architecture. Today, the University of Havana has partnerships with at least a dozen U.S. schools including Brown, Tulane, and American, and hundreds of college students from the U.S. are enrolled in classes at the university. Visitors can roam the campus bustling with young intellectuals for a first hand glimpse at Cuba’s renowned education system.
Located in Jaimanitas just outside of Havana, this fantastical neighborhood feels like stepping into the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Local artist José Fuster, one of Cuba’s most celebrated, began to coat the rundown fishing neighborhood in brightly colored mosaic tiles. To realize his dream of reclaiming the neighborhood and turning his hometown into a living art exhibit, Fuster received permission from more than 80 residents to decorate their homes with his vision. Over the course of a decade he made his way slowly from building to building to create what is now an artistic hub and magical escape for locals and travelers alike.
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
Visitors can wander the ancient, history-laden streets of Old Havana for days without getting bored. A constant vision of lively metropolitan chaos, the crumbling, baroque building facades host countless cafes and tourist shops. Open doorways offer glimpses into the not-so-private lives of locals, and passersby may catch invigorating salsa beats wafting from the windows of an impromptu dance lesson or views of aged men bent intensely over a heated game of dominoes. In the Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square), architecture-lovers can take in the city’s namesake and characteristically asymmetrical cathedral, built in the 1700s. Nearby Plaza de Armas is the oldest of the city’s many plazas, dating back to the 1520s. Its palm-riddled garden once hosted a second-hand book market. Cobblestoned Calle Mercaderes offers travelers a quaint stroll lined with many free museums such as the Museo del Tabaco (Museum of Tobacco) and the Casa de Asia, a museum dedicated to Asian culture in Cuba.
La Playa (The Beach)
Cuba’s countless beaches of powdery white sand are a must-visit for anyone exploring the island. Cuba boasts some of the best coral reefs and scuba diving the world has to offer, and many claim that the beaches surrounding the island’s keys are the best places to enjoy miles of snowy sand and breathtaking turquois shallows. However, just a 20 minute ride from Havana, the ivory coast and sparkling waters of Santa Maria del Mar provide a convenient and alluring escape from the city. Beach-goers can make the short trip out of Havana via bus or taxi. Regardless of how you get there, lounging on the sand with a freshly cracked coconut in hand, you'll be sure to discover your own paradise in Cuba.