Finding culture in Cuba is easy. Music and dance are in every Cuban’s DNA and their love of culture spans the spectrum from ballet to the cha-cha-cha, mambo, and sizzling salsa hot enough to cook the pork. Cubans can’t seem to exist without music, and everywhere you go you’ll be surrounded by hip-swinging vibes.
As to the art scene: It stirs the senses with its vitality and creativity across the multidimensional spectrum. And as to the architecture! Havana is a trove of virtually every imaginable genre spanning five centuries, while cities throughout the island reflect their own individual styles.
Strolling the streets of Havana proves a magical mystery tour of architectural delight. Habana Vieja’s four colonial plazas, and the streets that link them, are lined with testaments to Spanish colonial might. Nearby, Parque Central boast the Capitolio and the exuberantly baroque Gran Teatro, while the not-to-be-missed Edificio Bacardi, nearby, is Cuba’s finest Art Deco building.
And Havana’s Vedado neighborhood offers an astounding wealth of 20th century buildings, including such 1950s Modernist gems as the Hotel Habana Libre and Hotel Riviera. Don’t miss the 1930s-era Hotel Nacional for its marvelous mudejar lobby. For more avant-garde sights head to Fusterlandia, a remarkable community art project on Havana’s western outskirts.
In Cienfuegos, the Moorish-inspired Palacio del Valle is striking. Stop to admire it while en route to Trinidad—the most completely preserved colonial city in Cuba. Here, a must-visit is the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial. Camagüey also boasts a well-preserved colonial core and a unique architectural styled. Santiago de Cuba reflects its early colonial ancestry and French-settler influence.
At the root of much of Cuban musical tradition is danzón. Old-timers of the Piquete Melodías Antillana, in Santa Clara, keep the genre alive. For Buena Vista Social Club-style nostalgia, you can’t beat the elderly crooners at Havana’s Café Taberna. Cuba’s African traditions infuse the experience at the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional (Saturday afternoon) and Rumba de Salvador’s Alley (Sunday afternoons).
Beyond Havana, the Casa de la Trova in both Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba are renowned as the best venues in Cuba for traditional son. Santiago de Cuba also hosts the island’s hottest Carnaval each July, and its Tumba de Francesa maintains Haitian culture.
Where to begin? Havana’s nightlife paints the town red, so to speak. Salsa aficionados should check out the Casa de la Música and Salón Rojo. Cubans love kitschy crooners, who belt out fílin (feeling) music. Our fave venues include Café Concierto Gato Tuerto. Jazz lovers should beeline to the basement La Zorra y el Cuervo. Even lovers of The Beatles are served, at Havana’s Club Submarino Amarillo, and venues in cities throughout Cuba. And expats swear by the matinee at Tun Tun—expect anything from reggaeton to salsa.
On Saturday evenings Havana’s Basilica de San Francisco de Asís resounds to classical and choral music, with a changing menu. Look for performances by the world-class Ballet Nacional and Ballet de Camagüey, and by such choral groups as Cienfuegos’ Cantores de Cienfuegos.
Cuba is replete with galleries and museums, from small to large. The full spectrum is encapsulated in Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes; don’t miss its Cuban section. Havana’s long list of private galleries not to miss includes Kcho Estudio Romero and the multi-dimensional Fábrica de Arte.
Further afield, be sure to check out the Casa-Estudio Lester Campa, in Las Terrazas; the Cassa-Estudio Lázaro Neibla, in Trinidad; and the Estudio-Taller Martha Jiménez, in Camagüey.