By Zoe Denenberg
Traveling to Havana, Cuba is like traveling back in time. The vintage cars, extravagant cabaret shows and handmade cigars seem straight out of the 1950s – and that's because they are.
When Fidel Castro rose to power in the 1950s, he nationalized Cuban industry and expropriated American businesses. These protectionist actions resulted in a lack of economic growth, and prevented Cuba's production methods from changing or developing during Castro's reign. Cuba's capital city, Havana, stayed frozen in the 1950s.
Cuba's unique history has directly shaped the environment and culture of modern-day Havana. Explore the city for a glimpse into the traditions that make Cuba so distinct.
1. drive a classic car
Have you always dreamed of riding in a vintage 1950s Corvette? Well, this is your chance. Havana's streets are packed with an array of colorful, old-school American cars that would be worth big bucks in the USA. But in Havana, the rare automobiles function as the city's taxis.
So why do Cubans continue to drive these classic cars? During Fidel Castro's 40-year rule, the import of foreign automobiles was banned, so Cuban citizens could not purchase updated models of American cars. Although the ban was recently relaxed, many Cubans still drive their vintage cars instead of importing new, expensive foreign models.
2. sample the signature products
Havana is best known for three things: rum, coffee and cigars. These three emblems of Cuban identity have propelled Cuba's economic growth throughout its history, earning the small island a place on the world stage as an important source of raw materials and a center of production.
Cuba's hot, sticky climate is ideal for growing products like sugarcane and tobacco, and the country's isolation from the world during Castro's regime ensured that production techniques remained top-notch.
Cuba's fine Spanish-style rum is required to age for at least two years in wooden barrels, ensuring a light, crisp flavor and smooth texture. Havana Club, which is jointly owned by the Cuban government and a private French company, is the most popular Cuban rum brand.
As rum ages, it grows darker in color. Less mature white rum does not have a sharp alcoholic taste, so it is used to make light cocktails, like mojitos and Cuba Libres. Darker rum ages for a longer period of time, so it develops a stronger flavor and is usually enjoyed neat or on the rocks. If you're looking for a virgin beverage, try guarapo, which is pure pressed sugar cane juice.
Cuban cigars are praised around the world for their high quality; in fact, they are the only cigars still made 100 percent by hand. Each year, thousands of cigar aficionados flock to Cuba for El Festival del Habano, a week of celebration of the Cuban cigar that culminates in a glamorous gala.
Another important Cuban agricultural product is coffee beans. In the 18th century, coffee plantations proliferated on the small island, especially in the mountainous area of Sierra Maestra.
"Café Cubano" is the nation's specialty, and is made by mixing Cuba's distinct espresso with sugar. While a Café Cubano is typically ordered after lunch or dinner, "café con leche," or coffee with milk, is a popular breakfast coffee. Coffee consumption is a social ritual in Havana, where friends or acquaintances will sit and chat for hours over cups of coffee.
3. watch the sunset at el malecón
This waterside pedestrian area is a popular hangout spot in Havana. It's the perfect place to meet up with friends before a night out. Just be sure to specify which part of El Malecón you are going to, because this promenade stretches for 8 kilometers, or 5 miles, along the island's coast. During the day, El Malecón is frequented by fisherman, who cast their lures right from the sidewalk. At night, street musicians perform as the sun sets over the harbor.
Another great spot to watch the sunset is el Castillo del Morro, a 16th century fortress designed to protect Cuba from foreign invasion. Situated across the harbor from El Malecón, the castle includes a well-preserved lighthouse, impressive stone walls, a huge dry moat and a series of cannons. Each night, the cannons fire at 9 PM in what is called the "cañonazo de las nueve." You can watch this spectacle from the castle itself or from El Malecón.
4. experience the nightlife
From the cabaret to the ballet, Havana has always been a diverse center of the arts. Dance is a principal part of the nightlife in Havana, where extravagant cabaret clubs have been the go-to destination since the 1950s. Cabaret Tropicana is notorious for its flashy, over-the-top cabaret performances, where dancers dress in ornamental headdresses and vibrant, frilly outfits.
Although this dance club is now a tourist hot spot, it has a rich history. In the 1950s, Cabaret Tropicana was the epicenter of Cuban nightlife, attracting foreign dignitaries and public figures like John F. Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway. Rosa Lowinger, author and art conservator, compared going to Havana in the 1950s to going to the Hamptons – for American visitors, the cabaret epitomized extravagance.
For a less touristy experience, visit one of Havana's lively salsa clubs or bars. It may seem stereotypical, but almost everyone in Cuba truly does know how to salsa dance. And you do not have to be in a club to dance the salsa – spontaneous salsa outbursts can occur anytime, anywhere, from street corners to restaurant terraces.
5. watch the ballet
While Cuba is best known for its flashy cabaret and its steamy salsa dancing, it is also famous for its ballet. Havana is home to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the largest ballet school in the world with 3,000 students. The troupe was founded in 1948 by Alicia Alonso, often called the matriarch of Cuban ballet. Alonso has trained some of the world's top ballerinas to perform on Havana's stage.
"It has stocked companies across the ballet world, which has long marveled at how a small, impoverished nation has produced so many beautifully trained classical dancers," said Brian Seibert.
6. visit fusterlandia
From Havana Vieja's pastel buildings to bright pink and blue vintage cars, the entire city of Havana is bursting with color, but eclectic artist José Fuster takes it to the next level in his mosaic fantasyland. Fuster turned his average neighborhood home and studio into a rainbow-tiled jungle that quite literally looks like an adult playground.
Lonely Planet perfectly sums up the display: "Imagine Gaudí on steroids relocated to a tropical setting."
Fuster began the project around 20 years ago with the mission of connecting and engaging the Havana community through art. His artistic tradition appeals to Cuban national pride and inspires many of his neighbors to create their own artwork.
7. walk around havana vieja
Havana Vieja, or Old Havana, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of spectacularly colorful and historic buildings. This portion of Havana contains the nucleus of the original city, along with the national Capitol Building and the Plaza de Armas. One of the most fascinating features of Old Havana is its diverse architecture, which reflects elements of Moorish, Spanish, French and Roman styles.
The San Cristobal Cathedral is a must-see site in Old Havana; its Baroque architecture distinguishes it from the city's predominantly colonial design. The Cuban Capitol building and the National Theater are also nestled downtown in central Havana. If you are searching for artistic inspiration, wander the cobblestone streets of the Plaza de Armas, where antique book vendors and street artists set up shop.
8. watch a game of baseball
Thought baseball was just the USA's national pastime? Think again. Cuba is a country of baseball fanatics, especially when it comes to Little League. Aside from formal games, kids can be spotted playing baseball in the streets and parks all day long.
Havana is also home to the Estadio Latinoamericano, a baseball stadium of major league quality. Havana has two teams in the Cuban National Series, a baseball league made up of 16 teams from provinces around Cuba. At least 200 players born in Cuba have made it to the American Major Leagues, and many MLB teams pass through Havana to play.
9. shop at the open-air markets
Every city has its own take on street food, but in Havana, the roadside offerings are natural and healthy. Fruit stands and open-air farmer's markets pop up all over the city, offering a variety of fresh fruits and produce. Havana's citizens build relationships with the vendors and purchase their groceries from the same farmer each week.
The markets are brimming with baskets of fruits and vegetables, many of which you have probably never heard of. The offerings vary by season, but some of Cuba's standout products are pineapples, papayas and plantains. Coconuts are also refreshing street-side treats on Havana's infamously sweltering hot days. One of the city's best open-air markets is Almanaces de San José, located on the Port of Havana.
10. experience the street life
No matter the time of day, Havana's streets are perpetually buzzing with activity, from card games to street performances. And in Havana, street performances are taken very seriously. Groups of musicians set up full bands on the sidewalk, complete with cellos, drums, saxophones, guitars and even standing keyboards. Dancers young and old dress from head to toe in traditional, colorful garb and belt into microphones in the town plazas while stilt walkers parade down the street in billowing pants and rainbow tops.
The "rumba," originally a shorthand phrase for "party," is a form of dance that was developed in the Afro-Cuban areas of Havana. Since then, the rumba has developed into a signature folkloric dance style in Cuba.
And don't be surprised to see a table set up on the side of the road for a game of dominoes. This classic game is one of Cuba's favorite national pastimes, and matches can run late into the night. With all of this action, the party never ends on the streets of Havana.
Don't miss: El Festival del Habano
From plantation to gala, follow the journey of the notorious Cuban cigar and its glamorous festival.