Cuba: Old Havana

Old Havana is a city still suspended- for the moment- in time, so I urge you to go NOW before the changes brought on by a bourgeoning tourist trade and foreign investment by China and India in property development begins to be seen and felt. It’s crazy fun to wander around and take in the friendly, local life and  the colorful, faded glory of the architecture as well as explore the cultural centers and private art galleries that are popping up. Our group arrived a few days after Castro had died so the country was in a state of mourning with no music or dancing allowed, which must have been very difficult for the Cubans who take their salsa and music very seriously. Thank goodness rum (and tequila for me) was still served at our hotel and all the restaurants we visited (all surprisingly yummy btw.)


My company were fellow members of the Design Leadership Network, an association of designers, architects and vendors devoted to the highest practice of their crafts. Organized by Soane Travels and Academic Arrangements Abroad (same folks who organized Beyonce and J-Z’s recent visit), the itinerary with its emphasis on the arts, history and architecture of Cuba proved educational and inspirational and perfectly tailored to my curious and game travel mates. Below are snapshots and descriptions of some of the highlights of the tour. (Thanks to Chas Miller of Soane Travels for much of the detailed information and text below.)

Our first stop: the famous National Arts School (ISA) created in the 1960’s by Castro on the Old Havana Country Club grounds. Seen above, the school buildings were designed by architects Vittori Garatti, Roberto Gottardi (Italians) and Ricardo Porro (Cuban). We explored the School of Arts, visiting their print making, ceramics, painting , and metalwork studios. Then most of us lined up to buy various pieces that had caught our roaming eyes. See the film “Unfinished Spaces” about the creation of the school.

After lunch at our lodgings, the all new Hotel Saratoga, we headed to the 1920’s mansion known as the Catalina Lasa House (pictured below) to explore the interiors by Lalique before making our way over to Fabricade Arte Cubano (pictured below)- a former peanut- oil factory which has been converted into a vibrant complex for artist exhibitions, performances, and more, including cocktail and coffee bars that serve multi-generational locals looking to come together as a community in an artful setting. Unfortunately, due to the period of mourning, we were unable to experience this hip, cool spot in full swing.

Supper was with local artists at the penthouse of a 1950’s apartment building overlooking the city, now housing the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, a non-government organizations that supports artists, architects and others in the arts,  followed by a roof top drinks party back at the hotel.
The next morning Jose “Pepe” Viera, former minister of foreign affairs, gave us an insightful lecture on Current Cuban Reality and we met his wife Cecilia, herself a former deputy minister of cultural affairs. Wonderful to get an inside scoop on the Cuban perspective from a couple deep inside the Castro camp to balance out what we see and hear when home on US soil.
Highlights of the day included a walking tour of Old Havana , which provided an excellent opportunity to peer into doorways (pictured below) and windows to see how real Cubans live and to observe where and how improvements and renovations are being made throughout the city. We hit the three main squares: Plaza de San FranciscoPlaza del Armes and Plaza de Cathedral before hopping on the bus to Ernest Hemingway‘s home “Finca Vigia“, a place of great charm especially to us architects and designers who love nothing more than to study how certain “special” people with their sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities live. In this case, Hemingway expertly under- decorated his home with game heads, chintz sofas, strikingly simple bookcases, and lots of ashtrays for his cigars! It really has to be one of the chicest, most romantic settings I’ve ever had the privilege to visit (pictured below.)

Al Fesco Cubano!

Seen here, we had a fresh, delicious lunch of fresh fish and vegetables on the banks of the glistening Almendares River at Rio Mar, a delight of a spot to spend a sunny afternoon with friends eating, drinking wine, and telling stories.

Dinner later that evening was at the magical La Guarida in Central Habana, one of the most elegant paladares in town. Nothing quite prepares you for the stripped down beauty (seen below) of the marble staircase as you enter this impressive 1913 building. This paladar, which opened in 1996, was the location for the film Strawberries and Chocolate. We concluded the evening with, yes, more drinks at McKim Mead and White’s Hotel National de Cuba (from 1930). Don’t miss sticking your head into the iconic Cigar Bar (pictured) if you go.


Our last day included a stop at the Art Deco Barcardi Building (pictured below) to view the stunning, polished marble lobby and exterior details, including the Maxfield Parrish plaques. Our next point of interest-the Casa de Jose Miguel Gomez Mansion (which now houses the Alliance Francaise)- is located on the main drag of Paseo de Prado and held several delights including the faux marble detailing  on the entry door surrounds (using the “scagliola” technique of mixing plaster with glues and dyes, which is then painted to look like imitation stone and finally polished for full effect (pictured below).) The spectacular, sky-lighted inner courtyard is especially beautiful and memorable as it provides natural light to all the adjacent rooms and hallways upstairs and down. Plus we had good photo ops for all from the second floor as we gazed from the interior windows opening out into the courtyard. Speaking of capturing instagram- able moments, while exploring the Vedado area of town near the Hotel National (pictured below), we stumbled briefly through the lobby of an apartment building that showcases a lovely almost Venusian statue (pictured below) in its’ great circular atrium… a real find and a must-see! 


We then swung by the fabulous time piece- the once hyper swinging and stylish Hotel Riviera- completed in 1957, with few changes since except the upholstery. This famed landmark was originally owned by mobster Meyer Lansky and features a domed casino, a grande dame of a swimming pool (pictured here), and- long ago- cabanas overlooking the straits of Florida. A classic!

We had a leisurely lunch at Elite- a relatively new paladar with all black and white interiors- before visiting several private artist collectives and studios listed below.

331 Art Space in Playa

The artists are:

Frank Mujica- (pictured on bench) landscape drawings

Alex Hernandez- painter of lighthouses, sharks, pools, quiet scenes in Miami and Havana.

Adrian Fernandez- photographer of still life flowers, postage stamp details, Tropicana dancers.

The Merger, a collective of three men who never use their individual names- all works and sculptures are done under the signed title “The Merger.” (pictured scuplture garden)

By the very late afternoon, the period of mourning had finally lifted and La Floridita- the local bar frequented by Hemingway back in the day- was open again and serving their infamous daiquiris for those of us following the news .


Our final night was a blow out treat. We departed the hotel in grand style in a parade of 17 beautiful 1950’s classic convertible cars for a night drive, enjoying the buildings and sights and a cruise along the Malecon, until our arrival at the Vedado home of American born Pamela Ruiz and her artist husband Damian Aquiles for drinks and a delicious, super stylish buffet supper of chicken and seafood paella in their luscious garden. Their stunning home, which has been featured in the New York Times, showcases the work of Damian and their friends. 
We capped off the evening with a cabaret style show at the world-renown Tropicana Club, which opened its doors in 1939 at Villa Mind, a six-acre suburban estate with lush tropical gardens in Havana’s Mariana neighborhood. Many of our crazy crew made their way onto the stage for dancing after the show. When in Cuba!