After spending a few days in Havana you may come to the conclusion that visiting museums here is a waste of time. The country’s history, culture and art are interred in every crumpled heap of rubble, every street painting and each and every colourful character you’ll no doubt meet along your travels. Yet Havana’s history and culture is actually quite complex and intriguing, so spending a few hours away from the lively streets and intently snuggled in one of the city’s premier museums is both enlightening and educational. Considering most entry fees are just a few dollars and most museums conveniently close to the Old Town Centre, making room in your itinerary for a few worthwhile museums will no doubt deepen your Havana experience.
Here’s our pick of the best museums in Havana!
National Museum of Beautiful Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba
Cubans are known for their talented creativity and never is this more evident than in Havana’s Beautiful Arts Museum. This incredibly poignant museum strives to retell the engaging history of the country through the eyes of the art world. From colonial to contemporary times, the pieces are incredibly stunning and will certainly convert any modern art atheist. The building itself is striking and, although there is little written information available, joining a guided tour will see you absorb more than just the vibrant colours of the art.
National Museum of Decorative Arts, Calle 17
The grandiose opulence of Havana’s Decorative Arts Museum must seem like a slap in the face for most Cubans. This former colonial home, which contains the worldly possessions of one of the country’s most famous (and filthy rich) aristocrats, contains an almost obscene amount of French period furniture, Chinese Ming ceramics, French and Spanish Renaissance artwork and more gilded, marbled and bronzed treasures than anyone should have ever been allowed to own!
Outstandingly displayed treasures in one of Havana’s most beautiful colonial mansions; this museum is definitely worth at least an hour of your time. If you find the contrast between rich and poor in Havana poignant, wait to see what it will seem like once you step out of this world and join the masses on the streets once more.
Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolution), Calle Refugio
Cuba’s revolution brought an end to the kind of opulence the Museum of Decorative Arts displays. If you’re at all interested in the events and conditions which brought about the revolution, and to discover the drastic changes the country went through thereafter, head to the Presidential Palace in the Old Town Centre, and take a well organized chronological step through the most significant part of the Cuba’s history.
The revolution Museum is very comprehensive, and it almost makes it unnecessary to read up on the history of the revolution before one travels to Havana, however (and that’s a BIG however) this is only if you can read Spanish! The lack of English-language material, and guided tours, make it extremely hard for visitors to fully understand what it is they are looking at; so unless your Spanish is good enough, do make some researches beforehand and you’ll truly have a worthwhile experience here.
From personal effects to countless horrific detailed stories of oppression and brutality, this museum tends to leave most with an unrelenting respect for the cause. This is one of the more expensive museums in Havana (about 7CUC at last check), but it is probably the most educative in our humble opinion.
Start on the third floor and work your way down, and don’t forget to check out the tanks and missile launchers parked in the back garden of the museum.
The House of Che Guevara (La Cabana de Che Guevara) Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana
It is often said that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, but if you dare utter the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘Che Guevara’ in the same sentence in Cuba you can expect to be lynched on the spot. The enigmatic and controversial figure is Cuba’s foremost idol, akin to a God, as you’ll no doubt notice in Havana the moment you step off the plane. Funnily enough, most foreigners automatically assume Che was Cuban, when in fact he was originally Argentinean.
His former abode in Havana (at least for a few months) is a rather beautiful historic fortress, thought to be the third biggest in the Americas. Built in the 1700s by King Carlos III, after Cuba was returned to Spain by the British in exchange for Florida, the fortress was used as a military base during colonial times and a prison during the time of Batista.
Once the revolution took hold, Che Guevara stationed himself here and oversaw the political trials and executions which became the norm for the first few months thereafter. Che’s rooms have been kept in their original condition and display some of the rebel’s personal effects. Che devotees will certainly find it unmissable yet all who come here enjoy touring the historic complex and the stunning coastal views the elevated position gifts.
Car Museum (Museo del Automovil), Oficios #13
Havana’s Car Museum showcases the best of the American classics and is a great little showstopper for anyone interested in (obviously) automobiles and the history of Cuba’s love affair with grand old Yankee petrol guzzlers like Cadillacs, Thunderbirds and Lincolns. You’ll also find a few ancient carriages, fire trucks and steam engines.
You’ve got to love a museum which displays old cars in better condition than 90% of those found driving around the streets!
Chocolate Museum (Museo del Chocolate), corner of Amargura & Mercaderes
Some visitors have been known to complain about Havana’s Chocolate Museum; they say it’s not a real museum. Others think it is THE epitome museum: you don’t have to an entry fee, you get to eat the treasures on display and you can feast for hours on end in the comfort of air-conditioning. Certainly had us hooked!
Yes it’s true, the Museo del Chocolate is basically a chocolate cafe’ which showcases a few pieces of ancient cocoa production paraphernalia along with a drool-worthy display of delectable creamy chocolates of all sorts to eat, drink and siphon. If you’re after a long and detailed account of the cocoa industry evolution in Cuba you may be disappointed, but if you drown your sorrows in a super rich dark chocolate smoothie and scoff down more than a few delectable pralines…you may just get over it.
Museum of Beautiful Arts’ Holy Trinity via Wiki
Museum of Decorative Arts, Joda Stephen via Flickr
Museum of the Revolution, Vicky Telfer via Flickr
Che Guevara’s office via Wiki
Havana’s Car Museum, Tony Hisgett via Flickr
Museum of Chocolate via Old Havana Web