How to Spend a Day in Vedado, Havana
Continuing with my pastel-toned, mojito-infused weekly Wednesday Cuba travel series, today I am going to show you how to spend a day in Vedado, Havana!
Our third full day in Havana (you can see day one here and day two here) was the first day of our trip that things were finally beginning to open. When planning our trip we had no idea that the 31st December-2nd January were all national holidays, shutting down most museums, smaller restaurants, and other various attractions. It was a little bit of a bummer, as I had created daily itineraries for us to be able to see everything, but it meant that we had to be a little more flexible and relaxed with our plans. Luckily, Cubans are experts in chilling (something we admittedly need a little bit of help with), so we were more than willing to learn from their ways.
Our first stop of the day was the Colón Cemetery, one of the most remarkable cemeteries in the world. People often think that visiting cemeteries while traveling is a rather morbid use of time, but I think that cemeteries can be incredibly beautiful places filled with gorgeous architecture, flowers, history, and art.
Established in 1876 as the prosperous Spanish colony began expanding its architectural work into new posh neighbourhoods, the Colón Cemetery was named after Christopher Columbus, the Spaniard who “discovered” Cuba. Located in the heart of Havana, it contains over 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults. Designed by a Madrid-educated Galician architect by the name of Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso (what a name!), the cemetery is laid out in a grid of main central avenues and smaller side streets. Occupants are organised according to their rank and social status, with the wealthy and well-connected occupying prominent spots on the main avenues and the lower classes assigned to the suburbs.
Loira, the architect, was the very first occupant and the 140-acre cemetery currently holds over 800,000 elaborately sculptured graves. No matter where you stand, in every direction you look, there is a sea of graves reaching out in front of you. As it is still in use, reserving a space is pretty much a competitive sport, so (apparently) remains are moved after three years and boxed up and put into storage, making room for the next batch of burials. Lovely.
The most celebrated and visited tomb in the cemetery is that of Señora Amelia Goyri, also known as La Milagrosa (the miraculous one). On May 3rd 1901, Ameila sadly died while giving birth. For many years after her death, her heartbroken husband visited the grave several times a day (#couplegoals). He always made sure to knock one of the iron rings on her burial vault and to walk away backwards so he could see her for as long as possible. When their bodies were exhumed years later, Amelia’s body was found to be uncorrupted (a sign of sanctity in the Catholic faith) and the baby, who had been buried at it’s mother’s feet, was found in her arms.
Understandably, this was a huge deal in uber-Catholic Cuba. So, after news spread of the miracle, Amelia became a cult-like figure. Thousands of people visit the grave every year, bearing gifts for La Milagrosa, with the hopes of fulfilling their dreams or solving family problems.
The marble figure of a woman with a large cross and baby in hand is easy to find (especially if you buy a CUC$1 map at the front), due to the many flowers piled on the tomb and the locals flocking towards it. If you visit, make sure to keep with tradition and knock with the iron ring on the vault and leave walking backwards.
With some new friends from our AirBnB as companions, we continued walking through the neighbourhood of Vedado. Originally, thick swaths of forest were converted into a closed military defence zone by Spanish colonizers, hence the name; “Vedado” means “forbidden” in Spanish. In the decades following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish-American war, Vedado was transformed by American investors and those benefitting from Cuba’s sugar trade boom. Then this part of the city became the notorious Mafia-run commercial district. Now it is largely a leafy residential quarter, filled with beautiful, albeit forgotten, mansions from another era.
We wandered through the grid of homes (the streets are numbered and lettered instead of having names, making it one of the easiest areas in Cuba for outsiders to navigate), stopping for a quick lunch, and then heading to a very special destination.
While Beatlemania was sweeping the world, communist Cuba resisted. Fidel Castro believed the Fab Four were the epitome of mindless, vulgar consumerism and in 1964 declared a nationwide ban of Beatles music. But then, almost four decades later and with “All You Need Is Love” playing in the background, Castro unveiled this bronze statue of John Lennon in a Havana park. At the ceremony, held on the twentieth anniversary of Lennon’s 1980 murder, Castro spoke of his respect for the former Beatle.
“What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas,” he said. “I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.”
Slight change in tone, Castro?
In the dictator’s eyes, at this point Lennon was no longer an enemy but a political dissident hounded by the U.S. government. He saw Lennon as a revolutionary dedicated to emancipating the working class, much like Castro himself. Sitting on a bench in John Lennon Park, the statue captures Lennon in his long-haired, anti-war activism years, and his iconic-rimmed glasses have been stolen so many times that a guard stands nearby to ensure they remain. (She came at me when I tried to touch them!)
As my family is from Liverpool, I always find it amazing that the music of the Beatles transcends place, time, and culture. No matter where in the world you go, you can almost guarantee you will here Beatles music vibrating out of a radio or boombox. It never ceases to give me goosebumps. Good job I like their music too, Eleanor Rigby is my favourite if anyone was wondering!
Vedado couldn’t be more different from Habana Vieja or Centro Habana. While Habana Vieja is filled with cobbled plazas and narrow streets fringed by museums and stunning colonial architecture, Vedado is full-on mid-20th century. It was in Vedado that laundered US-Mafia profits metamorphosed into the ritziest high-rise hotels outside Las Vegas.
Landmark hotels like the Hotel Nacional, the Capri, and the Riviera are located here, all towering odes to the opulence of the 1950’s. Meyer Lansky — who owned the Riviera before it was nationalised after the 1959 revolution — and other U.S. mobsters ran casinos, while a decorated string of Hollywood stars frequented spots like the Hotel Nacional. Most of pre-revolutionary Havana’s big hotel casinos and nightclubs were also here, but walking around it is almost hard to imagine the mobster mania that occurred on these streets. It abruptly came to an end in January 1959, when Fidel Castro rolled into town with his army of rebels and seized power.
A couple of other recommendations for Vedado include:
Coppelia — World’s largest ice cream store and a shrine to Modernist architecture
Fábrica de Arte Cubano – Trendy art-filled club where we spent New Year’s Eve
Plaza de la Revolución – Base of the Cuban government and where large-scale political rallies are held
You can also check out my travel vlog from this day to get more of a feel for the area.
By now it was time for a drink. What better place for a genuine El Nacional cocktail than the patio of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba?
Upon its grand opening in 1930, the Hotel Nacional epitomised the glamour of Cuba as a travel destination for the international set. Everybody who was anybody passed through these doors, from stars like Frank Sinatra (who was very friendly with the mob) and Ava Gardner to boxers like Rocky Marciano, and numerous heads of state (hello Winston Churchill!). The hotel was also the site of the infamous 1946 mobster summit where Lucky Luciano and fellow hoods decided to carve up control of Cuba (as not-totally-accurately depicted in Copolla’s The Godfather).
After a stroll along the Malecón, we headed to this historic landmark for a pre-dinner drink (which turned into four rounds) and a cigar. Panoramic vistas of Havana Harbour provide the setting, made even more beautiful if you time it jussssst right and are there around sun-set.
Obviously this trip was a few months ago, and it seems strange to see myself in such summery outfits when I have been in cold places since (very disappointed in you Greece!). I am looking forward to getting back to LA in a couple of weeks so I can finally feel some warmth!
I picked up this J.O.A. Los Angeles top and Akira lace-up shorts when I was in Chicago last summer and, despite never making it to the blog, they were firm summer 2016 favourites. These gold Zara sandals have been featured on here numerous times (here, here, here, here, here) and will no doubt be getting their fair share of love this summer as well. As always I am lusting over so many of Zara’s new shoes, like these gold braided sandals, these golden heeled-sandals with fruit detailing, these fringe heeled leather sandals, these multi-strap sandals, and these satin platform espadrilles.
Looking back on these photos and our day in Vedado, I instantly remembered how wonderful this trip was. Even though I have been non-stop traveling since the beginning of the year, Cuba remains a firm favourite out of all of the places I have been. I can’t wait to continue showing you more of Cuba! There will be new Cuba-related blog posts (travel journals and travel tips) up every Wednesday for the next few months!
Photos by Jenny Heyside and Tristan Marsh