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Havana History

Christopher Columbus first espied Cuba in 1492 and declared it the ‘most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen’ – or so legend has it.

The Spanish were determined to colonise the island and bring its inhabitants (and natural resources) under the Crown’s control.

The ravaging began in 1512 when Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar landed; Havana was founded two years later, becoming the capital in 1607.

Marauding pirates and the threat of competing colonial powers convinced authorities to build the region’s longest, strongest fortification: the Castillo del Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña were completed in 1630 and 1774 respectively.

After two wars spearheaded by Cuban ‘apostle’ José Martí, along with national heroes Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez, Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1898.

The USA entered the battlefield late, took credit for victory early and commandeered Cuban politics and industry until the 1959 revolution.

The Cuban government was dominated by leaders coddled by the USA, allowing the latter to occupy the Guantánamo Naval Base in 1903 and intervene militarily in island affairs in 1906, 1912, and 1917.

Prohibition saw Americans flocking to Havana, which had turned into a mafia-financed playground of liquor, prostitution, gambling and fancy nightclubs.

In 1952, dictator Fulgencio Batista staged a military coup, ruling through violence and fear.

A failed assassination attempt on Batista in 1957 resulted in all but three of the 35 students involved being shot.

A small group of guerrillas, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, overthrew Batista in 1959, triggering massive emigration by the upper and middle classes.

In 1961, the Kennedy Administration dispatched a CIA-trained mercenary force to overthrow Castro and company. However, their forces suffered a resounding defeat at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón).

Cuba declared itself socialist and the USA imposed a full trade blockade. Only today are there signs of these restrictions being loosened.

In 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro declared: “Only tourism can save Cuba.” It did, nearly 10% of Cubans are now employed by the travel & tourism industry and the sector is predicted to be worth more than 12% of GDP by 2026.

Did you know?
• Havana is nicknamed the ‘city of columns’.
• Writer Ernest Hemingway lived in Havana from 1939 until 1960.
• A sculpture of John Lennon was unveiled on a Havana park bench in 2000.

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Featured Hotels


Parque Central Hotel

This well-situated, upscale hotel straddling Central Havana and Old Havana has been setting the standard for luxury lodging in the Cuban capital for years. In 2010, the Parque Central added 149 rooms in its new, chic La Torre building, further cementing its reputation as one of the city's best places to stay. Connected to the original building (with 277 rooms), La Torre is more low-key and the rooms fresher. The rooftop pool with panoramic city views is a real draw here.

Hotel Santa Isabel

To date, the only (supposed) 5-star hotel in Old Havana's historic core, the Santa Isabel occupies a privileged spot on picturesque Plaza de Armas. The setting is charming, with many of the 27 rooms overlooking the Plaza or Havana Harbor, which is largely what attracts famous guests including Jimmy Carter and Robert Plant. However, like many historic buildings (this one dates from the 1700s), interiors can be dark and musty, plus hotel staff can be bristly and less than efficient.

Hotel Habana Riviera

Once upon a time, this hotel overlooking the Malecón was a major mobster hangout (it was built by infamous mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky) and everything from the retro, low-slung couches in the lobby to the legendary shows at The Copa Room cabaret throw back to that bygone era. Unfortunately, it can feel like the rooms haven't been updated since then. On the upside, even standard rooms are giant, each has city or sea views (go for one on the upper floors, with a balcony), and the windows actually open. The seawater pool here and lobby bar are attractions in themselves.

Hotel El Terral

One of Havana's newest properties, this boutique hotel is superbly perched overlooking the Malecón – and every room has a private balcony from which to appreciate the killer sea views. One guest says it's like being on a ship, you're that close to the water. So chic and popular is this place, you'll be lucky to land one of the 14 rooms. Doubly lucky are those that book a corner room (with two balconies) or one of the two suites each with long, deep terraces. The staff are friendly and pay meticulous attention to detail, plus you can walk to some excellent restaurants and sites.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Built in the 1930s by a New York firm, this historic hotel is a national monument and a destination in its own right. The rich and famous have always favoured its beautiful gardens overlooking the Malecón – notable guests include Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Steven Spielberg and Uma Thurman. The hotel's cigar bar is tops (especially during December's film festival when the Nacional is packed with luminaries) and the Cabaret Parisien is popular for its scantily-clad, floor show. The rooms here are nothing fancy; upgrade to the sixth (executive) floor if you're coming for more than the history.

Saratoga Hotel

Widely considered one of Havana's top luxury hotels (just ask Beyoncé and Jay-Z who celebrated their wedding anniversary here in 2013), the Saratoga offers understated elegance in a prime location across the street from the majestic Capitolio Building. There are 96 equally-comfortable rooms, though décor varies from charming colonial to modern chic – 'deluxe patio' (or standard rooms) overlook the interior patio and are less desirable. If budget allows, upgrade to a suite – from the wraparound balcony to mahogany interior, they're spectacular.