You’ve certainly seen and heard a lot about Havana, Cuba – but how much do you really know about this fascinating city? From its incredible foundation story (Havana was moved!) to the unbelievable tales of the Cuban Revolution, some facts about Havana are too crazy to make up.
These forty impressive facts about Havana range from details about the city’s foundation and history to its most recent additions and well-known figures. Some of these fun facts about Havana might be hard to believe, but they’ll help you get to know Havana inside and out.
Facts About Havana
1. Havana was founded in 1519
Havana was founded on Cuba’s north shore in 1519. It wasn’t named the capital of Cuba until 1553, when the governor’s mansion was moved from Santiago de Cuba to Havana.
2. Havana is not Cuba’s oldest city
Despite being Cuba’s capital, Havana was not the original city in Cuba. That distinction belongs to Baracoa, founded in 1511 by Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar.
3. Havana was moved
The city of Havana, first named San Cristóbal de la Habana, was originally founded on Cuba’s southern coast, near the modern-day city of Batabanó, in 1515. It was moved to its current location in 1519 after its original location was found to be too marshy and muggy for a proper city in Cuba, much less a capital.
4. Havana is known as the Ciudad de las Columnas, or, City of Columns
With the impressive architecture of Old Havana heavily featuring columns, it’s no wonder that Havana is known as the city of columns. Its moniker was further cemented when 20th-century Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier published a text and series of photos of the same name.
5. One-third of Cuba’s population lives in Havana
6. Pirates raided Havana
French pirates, led by Jacques de Sores, raided and burned Havana in 1537, though it was later rebuilt better than ever and continued under Spanish rule. If you’ve watched Pirates of the Caribbean, these facts about Havana might not be so hard to believe.
7. Havana was held by the British for 11 months
After laying siege to Havana from March to August 1762 as part of the Seven Years’ War, the British captured the city and held it for all of eleven months. It wasn’t returned to Spanish control until the Treaty of Paris concluded the war in 1763.
8. Havana is home to fifteen distinct municipalities
While not as large and sprawling as many other cities in Latin America, Havana has fifteen distinct municipalities within its borders. Among them include Old Havana; Havana’s second most well-known neighborhood of Vedado is technically part of the Plaza municipality.
9. Havana’s largest municipality is 10 de Octubre, named for the date of Cuba’s independence
Located in the heart of modern-day Havana, 10 de Octubre is a mostly residential municipality, home to neighborhoods like Santo Suárez, La Víbora, and Luyanó.
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10. Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
One of just nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cuba, Old Havana and its historic fortresses are considered a location of important cultural heritage.
11. Locals refer to Old Havana as Havana
If you get talking with a Habanero and they start saying they’re headed to Havana… but they’re already in Havana… they’re probably referring to Old Havana! Many locals simply refer to this area as Havana. The neighborhood’s Spanish name is Habana Vieja.
Read More: Old Havana: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide
11. The symbol of Havana is La Giraldilla
First created as a weather vane for the top of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, La Giraldilla is a bronze statue of a woman holding an ornate cross that once stood guard over the city. While many believe that the woman represents Isabel de Bobadilla, Havana’s first female governor and the wife of famous conquistador Hernando de Soto, La Giraldilla is bathed in legend.
Today, the original statue of La Giraldilla is found at the entrance to the City Museum in Old Havana.
12. Old Havana’s Calle O’Reilly has Irish roots
Now this is one of those facts about Havana that is hard to believe! The street known as Calle O’Reilly, which seems out of place to many visitors, was named after Second Corporal Alexander O’Reilly, an Irish marshal in the Spanish army. He was sent to the island by King Carlos III after Spain regained control of the city after the British occupation.
13. You can still see the old city walls of Havana
Like many of its Caribbean counterpart cities, Havana was once entirely walled to keep the city safe from roving pirates and greedy empires. While Havana’s walls were largely destroyed in 1863 due to the city’s rapid expansion, a few sections of wall still remain in Old Havana.
The most impressive section of Old Havana walls is located near Havana’s train station at Avenida de Bélgica.
Read More: Old Havana: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide
14. Havana’s nightly cañonazo represents the closing of Havana’s gates
Listen closely at 9:00 PM in Havana – you’ll be able to hear the nightly canonazo, or, cannon shot, fired from the San Carlos de La Cabaña fortress across the harbor from Old Havana. This tradition dates back to the 17th century and represents the traditional closing of the port and the doors of the walls of Havana.
Now, visitors can attend the cañonazo and watch the ceremonial firing of the cannon, which includes fortress guards in traditional attire, and offers some of the best nighttime views of Old Havana. It’s one of the best things to do in Havana.
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15. Christopher Columbus was buried inside Havana’s Cathedral
One of my favorite facts about Cuba is that Christopher Columbus once wrote that the shores of Cuba were “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen” upon spotting them for the first time in 1492. He was later buried in Havana; though he died in 1506 in Valladolid, Spain, he had expressed a desire to be buried in the New World, and was eventually laid to rest in Havana’s Cathedral.
After the Spanish American War in Cuba led to Cuba’s independence, his remains were removed and returned to Spain, where they’re now interred in the Cathedral of Seville.
Of course, these particular facts about Havana require a healthy dose of skepticism – a body was discovered in Santo Domingo that some claim to be Columbus,’ though DNA test have all but proven his body now rests in Spain.
16. San Carlos de La Cabaña was used as a prison
Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the same fortress from which the cañonazo is fired was used as a prison for loyalists to Fulgencio Batista, the dictator ousted by Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries. It’s estimated that 176 executions were performed here during this period.
17. The explosion of the USS Maine in 1898 in Havana started the Spanish-American War
At the height of tensions between the United States and Spain, a massive explosion on the USS Maine in Havana killed 260 American crewmembers. The United States blamed Spain for the explosion and declared war, though an investigation in the 1970s found that the explosion was likely an accident rather than an attack.
This is one of those facts about Havana that seem almost unbelievable, but you’ll even find a monument along the Malecón memorializing the tragedy.
18. The Malecón is almost 5 miles long
Havana’s famous sea wall, known as the Malecón, stretches for nearly five miles from Old Havana to the far end of the Vedado neighborhood near the municipality of Playa.
19. You can’t sit on the Malecón facing the U.S. Embassy
While the Malecón is a popular gathering place, you’re not allowed to sit on the Malecón facing the embassy of the United States, located along the wall in the Vedado neighborhood. Guards in front of the embassy will come to shoo you away, something that doesn’t occur in any other part of the Malecón.
Take our word for it – this might not want to be one of the facts about Havana you put to the test!
20. Cuba installed flag poles to block news reports projected from the U.S. Embassy
Cuba once installed dozens of flag poles outside of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, designed to block new reports that were being projected from the United States onto the outside of the embassy. Now this Malecón-facing plaza is used for concerts and events.
21. Havana’s Hotel Nacional was a favorite destination for the mafia (and Frank Sinatra)
Don’t take our word for it – visit the Hotel Nacional yourself! It’s worth taking a wander through the hotel’s lobby and gardens, where you’ll find exhibits identifying some of the hotel’s most famous guests, and even what they ate for dinner when they visited.
22. Ernest Hemingway lived in Havana’s Hotel Ambos Mundos before he moved to Casa Vigía
Before moving to his estate outside of Havana (visiting is still one of the best things to do in Havana!), the writer Ernest Hemingway spent years living in Havana’s Hotel Ambos Mundos. Yes, years! This is one of my favorite facts about Havana that few visitors know.
Visit the hotel today and see a small museum about the author in the room he used to occupy.
23. The Havana bar El Floridita popularized and perfected the daiquiri
While the daiquiri was created in the small Cuban coastal town of the same name, the daiquiri was perfect and popularized in Old Havana’s El Floridita bar. When you visit today, you’ll find a large bronze figure of Ernest Hemingway in the corner of the bar – he was said to down several at a time.
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24. There are bullet holes in the facade of the Museo de la Revolución
Havana’s Museo de la Revolución was the former presidential palace prior to the Cuban Revolution. Now, the bullet holes in the facade remain as a reminder of the revolutionary struggle – make sure to look for them when you visit.
25. The Museo de la Revolución houses a statue of Abraham Lincoln
Why is there a statue of an American president in Cuba’s most famous museum dedicated to the Cuban Revolution? Here, Lincoln is honored as a revolutionary for overhauling the United States by stamping out slavery.
26. The Granma is on display at the Museo de la Revolución
Well… not quite. Behind the Museo de la Revolución, you’ll find an exact replica of the Granma, the yacht that Fidel Castro and 81 other would-be revolutionaries used to travel from Mexico to Cuba to launch the revolution in 1956.
27. The Cuban Revolution was victorious on January 1st, 1959. Fidel didn’t arrive in Havana until January 8th
It’s a common misconception that the Cuban Revolution was won with Fidel and his forces taking Havana. While the Cuban Revolution was victorious on January 1st, 1959, when dictator Fulgenio Batista fled the country, Fidel Castro didn’t arrive in Havana for another week.
28. Fábrica de Arte Cubano used to be a cooking oil factory
Havana’s most famous nightlife spot, Fábrica de Arte Cubano (in English, Cuban Art Factory), was once a cooking oil factory. Founded by Cuban musician X Alfonso, the sprawling complex is now home to multiple stages, galleries, bars, and spaces used to mount shows and celebrations of all kinds.
29. Fábrica de Arte Cubano was named among the World’s 100 Greatest Places by Time Magazine
Time Magazine awarded the hotspot this incredible honor in its 2019 addition.
30. Havana’s Coppelia ice cream parlor once had 26 flavors of ice cream
Now the famous Havana ice cream parlor – with notoriously long lines snaking around the park – usually just has two or three flavors to choose from. For more fun facts about Coppelia, check out our next article, 50 Facts About Cuba You Won’t Believe.
31. Havana’s posh Vedado neighborhood was once a military buffer zone
The word vedado in Spanish means forbidden or restricted, alluding to its past as a military buffer zone during the Spanish colonial era. By the 1800s, the area began to see development, with many mansions constructed that remain a part of the neighborhood today.
32. The Habana Hilton was once the tallest and largest hotel in Latin America
When it opened in 1958, it boasted 630 guest rooms, six bars and restaurants, and a spacious casino. The hotel is still in operation today under the name Tryp Habana Libre.
33. Fidel Castro lived at the Habana Hilton
When Fidel Castro arrived in Havana on January 8th, 1959, upon the victory of the Cuban Revolution, he took up residence in the then-new Habana Hilton hotel for several months, occupying room 2324, the hotel’s Continental Suite.
How’s this for unbelievable facts about Havana – Fidel even gave his first press conference from the hotel! The hotel was later seized and nationalized, renamed the Hotel Habana Libre, or the “Free Havana Hotel.”
34. Cine Yara movie theater was once operated by the Warner Brothers
Opened in 1947, Havana’s most famous movie theater was once owned and operated by the Warner Brothers. After the Cuban Revolution, it was nationalized though it hasn’t lost any of its prestige and glory. You’ll often find film festivals showing international movies here, and ticket prices are cheap.
35. Havana has a Chinatown
While Havana’s Chinatown isn’t more than just a single street with a few pseudo-Chinese restaurants, it’s a unique addition to downtown Havana and speaks to the city’s diversity.
36. Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla is an important site for practicants of Santería
Santería is a unique religious tradition in the Caribbean and Latin America that first combined the West African religious practices of enslaved peoples with the Roman Catholicism of Spanish colonizers.
Santería is widely practiced throughout Cuba, and practicants hold Havana’a Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla in esteem despite it being a Roman Catholic church. The altar’s black Madonna statue is associated with Yemayá, an orisha (god) of motherhood and the sea.
Visitors can often see practicants performing rituals outside using a variety of fruits, vegetables, or even live chickens, often throwing them in the sea next to the church. Parque Almedares, whose river snakes through the park like the canals in Mexico City, is another spot in Havana where you’ll often see this.
37. Esquina Caliente is a bucket list destination for baseball fans
Havana’s Parque Central is home to a unique bucket list destination you might have heard about if you’re a baseball fan. The Esquina Caliente, or “hot corner,” is a well-known corner of the park where baseball fans come to passionately debate about the game… so you can imagine why things get “hot” here!
This corner is so well-known that many famous baseball players, even MLB players from the United States, have visited over time.
38. Plaza de la Revolución is famous for Fidel Castro’s long-winded speeches
Many Havana residents can recall spending hours in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square) listening to Fidel Castro’s famously long-winded speeches, especially on May 1st, International Workers’ Day.
39. Plaza de la Revolucion prominently features two images: Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos
While the portrait of Che Guevara on the neighboring building is quite recognizable, many visitors mistake the portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos, another important Cuban revolutionary, for Fidel Castro.
40. Havana has two different Museo de Bellas Artes locations
Cuba has always placed a big emphasis on fine arts, and it shows! Havana is home to two different Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) locations. The museum featuring Cuban art is located adjacent to the Museo de la Revolucion, while the museum featuring international art is across from the Parque Central.
Read More: 50 Facts About Cuba You Won’t Believe
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Home to Havana and Explorers Away. She is a serial expat and traveler, having visited 40+ countries and counting. Carley has written for publications like Travel + Leisure, MSN, Associated Press, Weather Channel, Wealth of Geeks, and more. Find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.