Havana is a city best explored on foot, but this means a lot of looking up at the cityscape — sometimes it’s nice to to get a bird’s eye view and look down over the most picturesque city in the Caribbean. Here are the places that offer the best views of the surrounding city:
In downtown Vedado, situated just off the Malecón between the U.S. Embassy and the Hotel Nacional, is Havana’s tallest and most imposing structure: the FOCSA building. It was an engineering marvel when it was built in the late 1950s, and has a unique curved shape like a boomerang with a square tower at the center connecting the two sides. It’s 39 stories tall and at the top floor of the central tower is a restaurant and bar called La Torre (the Tower) with almost 360 degrees of floor to ceiling glass windows.
On one side of the tower is the restaurant: a state-run operation where the food’s not great and a bit of a formal vibe. On the other side is the bar: a generic and somewhat spartan place where the formal, old school, government-run feel somehow feels right, even if a drink costs 2.50 or 3 CUC. The mix of tourists and locals gives it a nice energy, since everyone is there for the view, which doesn’t dissappoint. It’s a great place to check out as the sun is setting after exploring downtown Vedado, and after you have a drink or two, there are tons of great dinner options nearby.
Old Havana is situated on the west side of the narrow opening to Havana Bay. To the east of the bay is a hill on top of which sits a Spanish fortress that once protected the bay from marauding pirates as well as a more recently constructed Christ statue (completed in 1958, days before the Cuban Revolution took control of the island) looking down over the city. It’s no comparison to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, but a trip to the statue offers a nice breezy break from the crowded city and a terrific view not only of Old Havana but also the increasingly busy port area, once the most important and heavily guarded in the Spanish Empire. Today the port sports a refinery, various cruise ship docks and other industrial operations and is rather unsightly, but at one time it was replete with fleets of sailing ships loaded down with gold awaiting passage back to Europe. Nearby are the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and the Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cabaña, a Spanish castle and fort which house museums of maritime history, fortresses construction and colonial era weaponry, and a museum dedicated to the life of Che Guevara. Every night at 9pm there is a canon firing with a reenactment of the ceremony by costumed actors as well.
To get to the Cristo, you can take a car through the tunnel under the bay, or you can take the ferry (la lanchita) from the newly built landing on the Old Havana waterfront at Calle Luz. The price of a ticket is a fraction of a Cuban peso, and ferries come regularly all day. Make sure you take the one going to Casablanca, not Regla, or you will end up a long way from the Cristo statue. The ferry lets you off at the bottom of the hill and by following the winding road upward you will end up at the Cristo in around 15 minutes.
Jose Martí Memorial Monument
In the Plaza de la Revolución, Cuba’s Revolution Square, the images of revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos look down from the facades of the surrounding government buildings, surrounding the vast gathering area where Fidel Castro gave indelible five hour speeches and mass political rallies still to take place regularly. But above them towers is the José Martí Monument, a thin, star-shaped obelisk dedicated to the nation’s founding apostle. Martí was a writer, poet, and martyred hero in the war for independence from Spain that began in the late 1800s. His aura is something like that of George Washington and the U.S. founding fathers combined — he is featured on Cuba’s money, quoted in political speeches, and even lived during exile in Manhattan for a time. The tall, thin granite monument is reminiscent of the Washington Monument in D.C. Ultimately, the fight for independence led him back to his beloved island where his ideas continue to hold great importance.
For a small entrance fee, guests can tour the museum dedicated to the life of Martí at the bottom of the monument and ascend the tower to the top, where glass windows allow visitors to glimpse Vedado from above, as well as the ever present Cuban vultures that gracefully glide by and occasionally perch on the highest ledges of the tower.
In the heart of Old Havana is the Plaza Vieja, which is lined with the homes of former well-to-do Spaniards that now house art galleries, shops, cafes, and restaurants. On the northeast corner, where Teniente Rey (Brasil) and Mercaderas, there’s a kiosk that sells tickets for 3 CUC to a “black box” camera oscura presentation on the top floor, which includes a sun-powered light projection of the surrounding cityscape. The presentation is strange but quite fascinating — visitors enter a dark room where a large optical lens (a gift from Spain) mounted in a periscope on the roof projects a crisp image of the city outside on a concave surface at the center of a darkened room.
Perhaps equally as impressive is the view from the rooftop patio that guests are allowed to explore after the show. The view is a dense trove of landmarks, deterioration, and signs of renewal.
Hotel Saratoga/Hotel Parque Central
Walking through Parque Central in Old Havana, there is eye candy in every direction — cars, buildings, horse drawn carriages, statues, people local and foreign — it can feel a bit chaotic to be among the milieu for more than a few minutes. Looking down on the scene from around six floors up, the bustle recedes and the rooftops of Centro Habana emerge. At the north end of the park, take the elevator to the top of the Hotel Parque Central, where there’s a pool with food and drink service. Even if you’re not a guest, they’ll allow you to go up as long as you promise to order a drink.
You can do the same at the classy Hotel Saratoga (Jay-Z and Beyonce stayed there), on the other side of the Capitolio two blocks to the south of the park. There is a similar one drink minimum for non-guests, but the view of the Capitolio and the golden crown of the ETECSA Building beyond the Parque de la Fraternidad is more than worth it.
The last stop going up in the elevator of the Hotel Habana Libre is the 25th floor — there’s a restaurant, and a nightclub. The restaurant is called Sierra Maestra, and is named for the mountain range that runs along Cuba’s southeastern coastline near Guantanamo and Santiago. It’s expensive, cavernous and a bit “old world” even at the top of a modern high rise building with a wall of windows offering views of the city. Of the food I can’t say much — the one time I ate there I got food poisoning.
The nightclub is called Pico Turquino which is the name of the highest point of elevation in the Sierra Maestra, and on the island as a whole. It shares the 25th floor, and is similarly grandiose and amazing, but somehow out of place. My only visit was on New Year’s eve fifteen years ago, when I vaguely remember watching costumed dancers perform original choreography to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and staring out of the stunning floor to ceiling windows at the panorama of Havana and the Caribbean waterfront below. The gridded streets of Vedado to the east and the string the Malecón that illuminates the boarder between the city and the sea at night were mesmerizing, and I imagine they still are, despite (or possibly thanks to) the pricey mojitos. There is often a cover charge of 10-20 CUC to get in, and the crowd is mostly foreign and corporate types, but the view is impressive.