Havana architecture: four buildings that helped define the city

Now that Havana airport has reopened visitors to Cuba can once again experience the architectural gems of the enchanting capital city. Read on to find out more.


Four iconic buildings that define Havana

One of the big draws to visit Havana is the stunning architecture that permeates the city's streets and avenues. As you move around the city, Havana's architecture is capable of evoking all kinds of emotions, often at the same time with its mixture of both beauty and decay, elegance and decadence. To choose four buildings that helped to define the city is to some extent a subjective endeavour, but the following should give you a taste of the structures and stories that have helped to make Havana such a special place to visit. They each represent four different aspects of the city's history and culture: colonial defence, religion, performing arts and government.

La Cabaña fortress

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana

Technically a fortress rather than a "building", its historical importance to Havana cannot be understated. The majestic 700 metre long fortress, usually referred to in shorthand as "La Cabaña", dominates the view across Havana Bay. It was constructed between 1763 and 1774, ordered by the Spanish King Carlos III a year after British forces had captured Havana for six months. The British gave the city back to the Spanish as part of a treaty (in which the Spanish gave Florida to Britain), but King Carlos III was well aware that the city had shown its weakness and could be prone to further attacks in the future. Not taking any chances, La Cabaña was built on the very ridge that had been used by the British to shell Havana and cause the city to submit.

Historic canon in Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, Havana, Cuba

The fortress was built as a self-contained village, with a chapel, lodgings for soldiers and officers, a prison and an execution site among other things. It played a role in Cuba's history right into the 20th century. Today you can enter the main fortress for a fee, where you get to see the aforementioned features plus a lot more.

Every evening La Cabaña plays host to a centuries old tradition known as "El Cañonazo", a canon blasting ceremony whereby a canon is fired every night at 9pm by soldiers dressed in nineteenth century uniform. This dates back to when this loud bang sounded to the public that the city gates had been closed, though today it is done for the sake of tradition.

Havana Cathedral

Tourists in the busy Plaza De La Catedral with the Cathedral to the background, Havana

Situated in the heart of the Old Havana and dominating the popular Cathedral Square, Havana Cathedral was constructed between 1748 and 1777, and has enchanted the city ever since. The seminal Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier once described its appearance as "music set in stone". One of the types of stone that was used to make this "music" was coral stone. At the time this was a commonly used building material across Cuba and the Caribbean, being available in abundance. It helps gives the cathedral its elegant look, something that has been well maintained by a recent restoration project. If you go up close to the stone you can see the shapes and patterns of various marine life that became fossilised many thousands of years ago.

Astute architectural enthusiasts may be surprised when stepping though the entrance of the cathedral. From the outside the cathedral is exemplary of the "Cuban Baroque" style, with elaborate concave and convex curving patterns. But the interior is much more neoclassical in its style. The reason? In the early 1800s it underwent a makeover on the instruction of Bishop Espada. This included plastering over the original wood ceilings, and replacing the baroque altars with neoclassical versions.

Interior of Cathedral of San Cristobal, Havana

Havana Cathedral is one of eleven Catholic cathedrals in Cuba. Catholicism is not the only religion that has historically had a major impact on Cuban life. Santería, a complex blend of West African Yoruba religion and Catholicism, has existed in various forms since the Atlantic slave trade began in the 16th century and is still going strong.

Grand Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso

Old vintage car passing by Grand Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso

This is the country's most prestigious location for opera, ballet and performing arts. It is home to the Cuban National Ballet company. Its history dates back to 1837 when it was constructed as the "Tacón Theatre". The theatre was expanded and renovated in 1914 into the building you can see today, which is considered one of the finest examples of Baroque Revival architecture in Cuba.

The facade contains four large sculptures by the Italian Giuseppe Moretti his American assistant Geneva Mercer. They depict four different aspects of the activity intended to take place inside: charity, education, music and theatre. The female in each of the statues is modelled on Geneva Mercer. In total, the pair made over a hundred statues and decorative figures for the theatre.

Details of statues of the Grand Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso

Since 2015 the theatre has been named after Alicia Alonso, a Cuban ballerina and choreographer that defied lifelong problems with her vision to become one of Cuba's most famous dancers. She founded her own ballet company in 1948 that in the 1960s became the Cuban National Ballet company, and it has resided at the Grand Theatre ever since. She remained artistic director until her passing in October 2019 at the age of 98. Her funeral included a long procession through Havana, her home city, with thousands of people lining the streets.

Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alicia Alonso on the stage with members of Cuban National Ballet company

In 2018 a sculpture of Alicia by the Cuban sculptor José Villa Soberón has been installed in the lobby. The sculpture is called "Giselle", the name of the ballet in which Alicia had her breakthrough performance in 1943. She had taught herself to dance much of that performance in her mind two years earlier when she was temporarily blind and bed-bound for a year whilst recovering from a series of eye operations.

El Capitolio

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El Capitolio, with its enormous dome and imposing structure, has been an iconic feature of Havana's skyline since its construction in the 1920s. Nothing on this scale had been built in Havana before El Capitolio and it became the tallest building in Havana upon completion at 92 metres (302 feet) tall. It was not overtaken as the tallest building until 30 years later, when in the 1950s the radio and television network building FOCSA was constructed, which still today stands as Havana's tallest building.

The main architect behind El Capitolio was the Cuban Eugenio Rayneri Piedra. The building officially marks kilometre zero for Cuba and for Havana. To be very precise, the exact spot is marked in the centre of the main hall by a replica diamond. Why a replica? The original 24-carat diamond, thought to have originally belonged to the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, was stolen in 1946. It was returned later that year, but it was wisely decided not to have such a valuable item on display that could tempt thieves to steal it again.

Diamond on the spot which officially marks kilometre zero for Cuba and for Havana

The gardens were designed by the French architect who designed the park surrounding the Eiffel Tower Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier was in his 60s when he moved to Havana for 5 years with some new assignments. One of them was for El Capitolio. Surrounding the building is some elegant gardens. Whilst Forestier brought some French influences with him to Havana, he was also respectful of using Caribbean elements, such as adorning the gardens with local trees.