Vedado is quite possiblythe city’s most pleasant and walkable neighborhood. It’s a gridded system of streets lined with overgrown foliage, relatively intact sidewalks and a never ending array of eclectic residences—neoclassical mansions, art deco buildings, and Soviet construction—much of it renovated over the years in strange and interesting ways. It’s easy to just wander around until you end up at the Malecón (head downhill), but there are certain areas within Vedado that the walking visitor shouldn’t miss. Here are three different approaches to tackling this sprawling district:
Downtown Vedado — University of Havana to the US Embassy
Total Time: ~2.5 hrs.
Walk Time: ~40 mins.
This walk has the most bustle and the most to see, since “downtown” Vedado (the northeastern end that borders Centro Habana) has a dense mixture of high-rise hotels along with commercial and residential buildings. The University of Havana, which sits on a hill overlooking the neighborhood, is the logical place to start, before snaking downhill toward the water. The University’s campus is public and open to visitors, but remember to go on a weekday—it’s closed on weekends.
The University is an important historic site, with clear design links to Columbia University in the U.S. —from the columns and frescoes to the bronze Alma Mater sculpture overlooking the grand staircase that leads to the main campus. The lush interior garden area is surrounded by the pillared buildings of each of the main academic departments, or “facultades.” The law building was were a young Fidel Castro, at that time president of the student federation and a vocal opponent of the government, began to cultivate his reputation as a formidable political actor in the city of Havana.
Walking along Calle L, you’ll pass shops and cafes as well as the imposing Havana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton) on the right, which served as headquarters for the fledgling Revolution in the weeks and months after it’s victory. The intersection of 23 and L is one of the city’s busiest and serves as the main route for taxis and buses traveling between the grittier areas of Old/Centro Havana and the upscale neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar to the west. Diagonal from the Habana Libre is Coppelia, an outdoor ice cream park that features snaking lines of Cubans at each one of its entrances. There are rarely more than a couple half-melted flavors on hand, but the offerings are quite inexpensive–an “ensalada” (5 balls of ice cream) costs about 50 cents CUC. Across from Coppelia is Cine Yara, a movie theatre that regularly features American movies attained (without any licensing agreements, of course) from unknown sources. English subtitles are rare, but admission is well under a dollar.
Take a right down Calle 21 and you’ll pass the Hotel Capri and Salon Rojo, a former casino and venue that fell into disrepair before a recent renovation in 2015. Straight ahead, in all it’s grandeur, you’ll see the entrance to the Hotel Nacional, the seat of power for much of the mafia and gambling related activity in the city pre-1959. Meyer Lansky, one of the chief architects of the gaming industry on the island, lived for several years in a penthouse suite atop the hotel, entering and exiting through a secret underground parking lot en route to meetings with the former dictator Fulgencio Batista, among other unsavory characters. The hotel exudes it’s bygone past, and has a terrific garden area in back overlooking the Malecón, complete with defunct underground military trenches that guests are free to explore.
Continuing down Calle O, you’ll quickly arrive at an open area called La Piragua near the Malecón where kids often play soccer and vintage car enthusiasts gather on weekends. Beyond La Piragua is a monument paying homage to the U.S. sailors who lost their lives in the sinking of the USS Maine, the event that sparked the United States’ involvement in the Spanish-American war and led to four years of U.S. occupation of the island. The monument originally had a bronze bald eagle affixed to the top which was blown off during a hurricane. Then, after fashioning a replacement, the eagle was again toppled during the Cuban Revolution, and had to be retrieved by fleeing U.S. embassy workers. Today, the eagle is on display at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, and the monument serves mostly as a place for evening gatherings among young Cubans.
Just down the way along the Malecón is an outdoor public concert stage known as the Anti-Imperialist Tribunal. Its location next to the U.S. Embassy is deliberate—over the years the venue has been used for many anti-U.S. musical events, parades, and other gatherings. During the George W. Bush years, when the U.S. Embassy (then the “Interest Section) erected a sign displaying the number of political dissidents on the island, Cuba constructed a wall of flags to block the sign, as well as several billboards denouncing U.S. human rights violations around the globe. Today, the embassy building is again an embassy, and the signs have been taken down.
At this point, the average walker will be looking for a drink, and I can (highly…) recommend La Torre, a bar and restaurant on the top floor of the massive FOCSA building just up the street. Enter along Calle 17, between the ground floor shops and the main entrance on the corner. There should be mirrored hallway with an elevator–head to the top, and enjoy the floor to ceiling view of Vedado from 33 floors up!
Colón Cemetery to Fabrica de Arte Cubano
Total Time: ~1.5 hrs.
Walk Time ~40 mins.
This walk has a similar guiding philosophy as the first one—start at high ground and head toward the Malecón, hitting the interesting sites along the way. This is the more quiet, residential end of Vedado, so it’s mostly just block after perfectly square block of interesting architecture and overgrown greenery, with the occasional stop off. To beat the midday heat definitely start this walk just after the sun is at it’s peak around 3 or so—Colón Cemetery is located at Calle 12 and Calle 25 and closes around 4 and it’s worth it to spend at least a half an hour or even a full hour wandering. You can also hire a guide to hear sumptuous stories of Havana’s history tucked away among the stunning ruins of the mausoleums, dating back over a century. In terms of architecture and history, it’s considered second in Latin American only to La Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
Head down Calle 12 for a couple blocks to the intersection with Calle 23, Vedado’s main drag. Cine 23 y 12 is off to the left as the road curves toward Calle 14, and down 23 to the right the large white building houses the Cine Chaplin, as well as the main headquarters of the storied Cuban film institute (ICAIC). Cine Chaplin is known for it’s cinephile’s programming, and houses a small art gallery in the main lobby as well.
Across from the ICAIC building is a small shopping center that provides a window into the state of scarcity of everyday consumer products that would be easily attainable in the US and other countries with less centralized distribution models and fewer barriers to international trade. Continue down Calle 10 to Calle 17, and a few blocks up on the right you’ll see Parque John Lennon, with a bronze sculpture of the man himself sitting on a bench at the corner. Just beyond him is the relatively new Yellow Submarine, a basement bar that pays homage to the Fab Four and the rock’n’roll genre more generally, and regularly hosts live bands.
Walk down to the hill to Linea—once a main trolly line in Havana—and take a left so the even street numbers are increasing again. In a few blocks you’ll get to Calle 18, a block from the water and the Torreón de la Chorrera, a Spanish fort that once guarded the entrance to the Almendares River. Salsa club 1830 is just around the corner, or you can continue on a few blocks to la Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the city’s most unabashedly hip spot for artsy, beautiful people. It’s part gallery, with revolving exhibits by Cuba’s hottest contemporary artists, and part multi-use performance venue, with several spaces for film screenings, live music, dance, and DJ-fueled clubbing. Just to top it off, there is a terrific restaurant next door called El Cocinero–make a reservation and then see La Fábrica after–since doors don’t even open until 8pm (and only Thursday-Sunday).
El Malecón — West to East
Total Time: ~4 hrs.
Walk Time ~2 hrs.
It doesn’t take a Havana expert to tell you that the Malecón is where it’s at, but a walk from one end to the other is a rather epic feat, and shouldn’t be attempted without some preparation and a few places in mind to stop and smell the roses. I recommend beginning at the western end and heading east—and I would begin in the morning, the earlier the better. For most of the first stretch along Vedado, there won’t be much worthwhile to stop at, and save for a few fisherman the promenade will be quiet. The morning is the best time to appreciate the vista that the Malecón provides—the crashing waves, coral just off of the wall, the sky and the sea. It’s one of the few places in Havana where you can feel close to nature, and away from people.
As you approach Avenida de Paseo, you’ll see the Hotel Riviera and Hotel Melia Cohiba—this is a great place to stop and snoop around or get a break from the sun, and the Melia Cohiba has a nice cafe in the lobby. The Riviera is the more interesting of the two design-wise—it was built at the height of mafia involved casino activity and hosted acts like Ginger Rogers and Abbot and Costello, and had a long list of celebrity guests. If you want to take an extended rest or you’re ready to bail on the walking, a day-long pass to the Riviera’s pool is 10 CUC and includes credit for some poolside eats.
Another 10 minutes down the Malecón is Avenida de los Presidentes (Calle G) which has busts of famous historical figures, Cuban and non, including a monument to Calixto García, a Cuban independence hero. Just beyond G is a crumbling stadium where you may catch some locals excercizing, and a few blocks further down you’ll see the imposing U.S. Embassy and the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, site of great open air concerts as well as massive anti-U.S. political rallies.
As you pass the Tribuna, you’ll see the Hotel Nacional up on a promontory—this is another great place to stop for a rest. You’re now in the area of downtown Vedado known as La Rampa—a hub of commercial activity, hotels, nightlife, and Cubans using wifi. The Nacional has a beautiful back garden that merits some exploration, or just a stop-off for a refreshment.
Centro Habana begins just after La Rampa, and it’s here along the waterfront that crumbling facades have restored and new cafes and restaurants have been moving in. As you walk this next stretch, there are plenty of places to stop for snacks or a meal, and if it’s midday, you’ll probably be ready to get out of the sun for a bit. Centro Habana is also a great place to turn into the city for a few blocks and explore—despite it’s weathered look, it’s quite bustling with activity and renewal, with surprises around every corner.
Marking the edge of Centro Havana and Old Havana is La Punta (Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta). In the afternoons, it’s a great place to see locals swimming in the waves and fishing off of the point. La Punta sits at the thin mouth of the Bay of Havana, and has a great view of the lighthouse and Spanish fortress on the other side. The final, and oldest, stretch of the Malecón curves around Old Havana toward the port, but at this point, your best move is to head down the narrow streets of the old city, in search of the abundant food and drink offerings that have popped up over the past few years. Old Havana along this stretch is bursting with activity—tourists, locals, museums, historical sites—you can head in practically any direction depending on your interests and find what you want in a matter of a few blocks.
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