Havana 500 Portrayed in the works of countless artists and writers, Havana is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its founding The city of Havana was the seventh village to be founded in Cuba by the Spanish conquerors in the early XVI century, and the third and definitive capital of the island. The city, originally called San Cristobal de La Habana, was founded on November 16th, 1519 under the ceiba tree that still grows now near the El Templete church on Plaza de Armas, and this year it will celebrate its 500th anniversary. Over the course of a half a millennium since its foundation Havana has undergone significant changes, witnessed countless historical and cultural events of great importance, and was recently named Wonder City of the World. Now, in order to provide the city with the best possible celebration for its 500th anniversary the government and the people are all working on transforming the city and making it even more beautiful than it is now. The campaign for the city’s restoration dedicated to the 500th anniversary of Havana started back in 2017 and was claimed to consist of three phases. The first stage extended up to the 499th anniversary of the city on November 16th, 2018. This stage focused on solving the problems that there were in the city, thus changing the city not only aesthetically, but also improving its infrastructure. Every single citizen has had a chance to participate in this part of the preparations for the anniversary, as the tasks that have been carried out started with such small things as cleaning the city, taking care of public parks and installation of LED street lighting. Other changes include 4,500 renovation works on pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices; educational centres, sports centres, commerce venues and gastronomy, including restaurants, butcher shops, fish markets, bakeries and the famous Cuban bodegas. In addition, the rehabilitation of some famous landmarks of the city, such as the lighthouse of the Morro Fortress and the Capitolio building also form part of the program. The authorities state that these works are not going to stop after the campaign for Havana’s 500th anniversary ends, and represent only a small part of all the upcoming projects intended to make a better Havana for its residents. The second stage of the program is the one the city is currently in. It will last for 365 days since the day of Havana’s 499th anniversary on November 16th, 2018, to the same date in 2019, when the actual 500th anniversary celebrations will take place. The projects for this period include the building of a chain of seven new luxury hotels, some of them sponsored by foreign investors, and a 42-store skyscraper in the Vedado area, which apparently is going to tower over the current tallest buildings of the city, such as the FOCSA building. Besides, the government has confirmed that before the day of the anniversary, several establishments that have not been functioning for many years will be reopened. These include the Cuatro Caminos market, now transformed into a modern shopping centre, and the Central Railway Station, among other museums and historical spots. The citizens of Havana are also anticipating a new bicycle system, which is expected to cover all over the city, and a new housing program intended to improve the dwellings of hundreds of Cubans. Lastly another stage of the anniversary campaign is said to start on November 16th, 2019, but still has no ending date. In this stage, the changes that the city has undergone will continue to occur, showing that the works for the improvement of Havana are not limited by its anniversary date, but are supposed to continue constantly, and with the help of all the Cubans, not only the residents of the capital. The half millennium anniversary of Havana is also seen by the government as an opportunity to promote the island as a tourist destination. Therefore many festivals and other events have been arranged to take place in 2019. Some other cultural events have to do with music: in order to celebrate the anniversary, the Cuban Institute of Music prepared concerts that already take place the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of every month. The most popular music groups of the country will take part in these performances, and they will continue for many months ahead up to November 2019. The closer to the date of the anniversary the more parades, live concerts and theatre performances honouring the history of Havana are going to take place in the capital of the country. Despite all the recent changes and innovations that have taken place in the city during the campaign for Havana’s anniversary, the Cubans do not forget their traditions. One of the most famous traditions of the island is related to the way the people of Havana celebrate their city’s date of foundation. Every November 15th at night both locals and tourists start gathering on Plaza de Armas, in front of El Templete, where the city was founded in 1519. Then, at midnight, small groups of them start approaching the old Ceiba tree. The tradition is to circle the tree three times, throw some coins to its roots, and make a wish. It is possible to perform the ritual on other days as well, not only at dawn of November 16th, but they say that if you do it on the day of the city’s foundation, then you will not only be granted your wish but also have good luck during the whole upcoming year. Following the tradition on such a significant day as the city’s 500th anniversary has a special importance for all the people who love Havana, and is an amazing way to take part in the celebrations for Havana’s half a millennium. One of the great attractions of this city is Old Havana (Habana Vieja), its old town. Woven by a labyrinth of delightful alleys, this neighbourhood was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. One of its most important corners is Plaza de Armas, headquarters of the Governor’s Palace (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales) and the Morro Castle. In addition to monuments that leave the newcomer speechless, you will also find handicraft markets. Do not miss the unforgettable Malecón, a unique promenade with a soundtrack played by street musicians. In any case, the truth is that any space in Havana is perfect to enjoy Caribbean beats. You can also visit the many salsa or jazz clubs, where you can delight yourself with the best music while sipping on a glass of rum, a daiquiri or a mojito. Visit the neighbourhood of Havana Centro too, with its iconic Paseo del Prado dominated by the unmistakable silhouette of the National Capitol of Havana (1929). The same could be said about Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolución), where there is a second-hand book market. Another place that deserves your attention is the neighbourhood of El Vedado, created in the 19th century and with landmarks such as the Christopher Columbus Cemetery and the famous Rampa (or 23rd street), which is the centre of Havana’s nightlife. Right next to it is Playa-Miramar, a residential area dotted with mansions and estates. There are also marinas and the exclusive Fifth Avenue. It is also convenient to mention the beaches of the East, where you will find the most famous seafood restaurants in Cuba, Las Terrazas, which feature in two novels by Ernest Hemingway. If you are passionate about cultural tourism, get ready to fully enjoy your trip to Havana. There you will find buildings with centuries of history, as well as a first-class museum offer. Surrender to the Museum of the City, in the Governor’s Palace, and to the National Museum of Fine Arts. Inaugurated in 1918 in the heart of the Cuban capital, this institution exhibits important samples of Cuban, Ibero-American and international art. An ideal option to visit Old Havana is to ride on a horse-drawn carriage, on a route that starts right in front of the Capitol. Another great idea is to rent an almendrón, the traditional vehicles of American origin that managed to survive the Revolution. Would you like to treat yourself to a special evening? If so, be sure to discover the Gran Teatro de La Habana, home to the National Ballet of Cuba and a few steps from the Capitol, and the famous restaurant La Floridita. Another reference of the Antillean scenic arts is the Amadeo Roldán Theater, where you can attend dance or music shows, played by the National Orchestra of Cuba. If you’re tempted to go shopping in Havana, there’s nothing better than taking a walk down Empedrado Street. Do not hesitate to wander around its bustling craft stalls. This same artery also accommodates another of the great claims of Havana: La Bodeguita del Medio, an establishment where you can savour the aroma of an authentic Havana cigar. Of course, we could not forget the pleasures offered by Cuban cuisine. All those who wish to taste typical local dishes, such as ropa vieja or fried beef, should book a table in the best restaurants in Havana. One of them is Casa Miglis, whose stoves are dedicated to Swedish-Cuban gastronomy. We could not forget to mention the beaches of Havana, that go from the Malecón to the sandy beaches of the East. All of them are ideal to sunbathe, swim or contemplate the most beautiful sunsets in Cuba. Among the most beautiful beaches of Cuba and its surroundings, it is worth mentioning Guanabo, Santa María del Mar, Mar Azul and Jibacoa, a natural sandy area that unfolds in a calm and peaceful bay, halfway between Havana and Varadero. And that’s not all: it is also an ideal setting for diving in Cuba, exploring the secrets of a beautiful barrier reef. So, go on and celebrate!
... discover the history and rhythms of one of the Caribbean's most beautiful cities