On a recent post I covered the Malecon with a set of stunning photographs and a short introduction to this Cuban landmark and longstanding icon of Havana. On this post I'm going to talk about the Malecon in more detail, going over the many elements and facts that the average holidaymaker may overlook on a short visit.
So, join me on my personal 8-kilometre-long journey to the Malecon, learn a little bit about its history and gain first-hand knowledge of the sights not to miss, the places to stop at and the general atmosphere to be absorbed, depending on the time of day and the occasion. Follow the footsteps of a born-and-raised habanera and get the most personal insight of this seaside beauty.
No one can really say they have experienced the real Cuba if they haven't been to the Malecon. Holding a special place in the heart of every citizen of Havana, this panoramic seawall promenade is a form of identity and a focal point in the city, facing the sea on one side and a long line of impressive colonial buildings and striking architectural marvels on the other.
Growing up in Havana, the Malecon had great significance to me. As a child I went there with the school for special festivals, social gatherings, political walks and historical celebrations, while on my spare time I visited with friends and family, to catch up, enjoy long walks, grab a bite from local vendors, see old men fishing with their rods, admire the pirouettes of daring teenagers as they dived right into the often choppy waters and to hypnotically stare at the constant crashing of the waves against the stones, often spraying a mist of salty coolness in your face; what I always considered to be an impromptu kiss from the sea.
But beyond my personal experience, and my own love affair with the Malecon and the sea, there is magic to this place that can be found in multiple ways – from the rich history to be uncovered to the panoramic bars, the elegant restaurants and lively street musicians; there are certainly many angles from which to contemplate this seaside gem. My aim through this post is to show you as many as possible, or at the very least, all the essential ones.
The Malecon throughout the years – Its origins and history
With a name that roughly translates to English as "jetty" or "embankment", the construction of this great structure began in 1901, and at the time it was planned, designed and kick-started by the U.S. during a time of temporary American military rule in the island.
It took a little over half a century to finish this magnificent structure and as good things come to those who wait, it certainly proved no different with the Malecon. The construction of the Malecon as we know it today was done in several stages, where the work would suddenly come to a halt and then would be picked up again a few years later. These frequent delays and rather laidback approach to the building plan perfectly reflect the Cubans' relaxed attitude to pretty much everything, never rushing to get things finished - without mentioning that it was indeed a monumental structure to be completed, spanning along almost eight kilometres.
The first 500 metres of seawall were built between 1901 and 1902, and to celebrate the completion of this section, the American government built a lovely roundabout at the intersection of the long and beautiful promenade of Paseo del Prado. This is where local bands played popular Cuban songs every Sunday and people gathered to dance and socialise. The now decayed and forgotten Miramar Hotel was built right in front of the roundabout and quickly became a very fashionable property in the first 15 years of its existence; it was the first one in the island where waiters wore tuxedos, waistcoats with gold buttons and were required not to have moustaches.
The second phase of the Malecon was built by a subsequent Cuban government, and by the late 1920s the seawall went as far as the Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine. By the end of the 1950s the extension had reached the mouth of the Almendares River in Vedado, and between 1948 and 1958 the last final stretch was erected, which went from Vedado's Calle G ('G' Street) to the Tower of La Chorrera, an ancient fort-like building (now housing a popular restaurant) where the seawall structure ends and where the sea meets the city's river.
The original purpose of the Malecon was to protect the city from the often violent lashings of the sea, as well as to serve as a means of protecting the city from potential enemy attacks. In reality though, it rapidly became the favourite hangout spot for strolling couples, an entertainment centre where musicians serenaded lovers and passers-by, a gathering place for young people and the ideal place to watch spectacular sunsets as well as an important source of income for local fishermen. The much-loved and visited seaside promenade soon flourished as a desirable venue for habaneros to come and meet or simply relax and enjoy a moment of tranquillity gazing over the glistening waters and far out into the horizon.
The Malecon of today goes from the Havana Harbour in Old Havana, through to the modern neighbourhood Vedado, with its middle section also facing the neighbourhood of Centro Habana.
The long four-mile walk – parks, monuments and buildings to spot along the way
Covering such a wide stretch of land, the esplanade of sidewalk, roadway and avenue that extends along the Malecon is full of interesting buildings, historical monuments, pretty hotels and lively cafes and restaurants. In fact walking along this seemingly endless promenade is a must when you're in Havana, not only for the great people-watching opportunities but also, and most importantly, for immersing in the local culture, getting a sense of daily life in this busy side of town and generally appreciating the city's contrasting architecture.
Whether you choose to start the long stroll from Old Havana or from the newer Vedado side, the long Malecon pavement was made not only to be walked and admired but also to be breathed and felt through the energetic vibe of its walkers-by, its onlookers, its frequent visitors and its majestic, often crumbling buildings that tell a tale of years gone by.
Because in Havana, the Malecon is a symbol of the citizens' relationship with the sea, when you walk through its sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky pavement you get a sense of what the city is all about, of the inhabitants' state of mind, of their laidback attitude, their carefree ways, their positive philosophy of smiling through the rough times and their warm approach to nearly everything - it all comes to life here by the seaside and you can witness it in the way a child embraces the menacing waves of a restless sea, jumping along in excitement, becoming at one with the elements. You can see it in the unmovable patience and resilience of an old fisherman with its rod, never losing hope of a good catch after waiting for hours. It all comes to life here.
So, my personal suggestion, if you want your Malecon experience to be like a walk through time, is to start in chronological order, right from where construction first started to where it finished 50 years later, from the oldest side of the city to the newest, following the Malecon's original building timeline. However you go about your journey through the Malecon, do it with wide open eyes, a relaxed state-of-mind and an open heart to truly embrace the unique atmosphere of this place. It will give you something to write home about, and unforgettable memories to forever keep in your heart.
From Paseo del Prado to El Terral
The journey starts at the beautiful roundabout of Paseo del Prado, a long boulevard promenade extending along a shady street dividing the line between Old Havana and Centro Habana. If you want, you can make it a whole day's walking adventure and start right here, in the luxuriant shade of the giant trees, in the breezy comfort of the marble benches, in the charming beauty of the street artists who gather here with their collection of paintings (the price of which you can negotiate) or in the intoxicating beats of impromptu Afro-Cuban musicians and dancers that all of a sudden can start a street party.
Once you start to make out the Malecon as you reach the end of the long Paseo del Prado, you will notice how a long and busy avenue divided into six lanes runs along the seawall, dividing the pedestrian-filled seaside promenade from the sea-facing buildings that stand tall, looking out to the sea, almost as if defying the often ferocious waters that have attacked their now fragile structures time and time again. Despite their visible decay and crumbling state, many of these buildings have valiantly withstood the relentless beating of years of bad weather and utter neglect without a lick of painting or the faintest maintenance work.
Many of these old buildings, most of which have been badly battered by the unruly seaside weather and damaged by the constant beating of saltpetre throughout the years, are now being slowly being rescued from oblivion and neglect by the city's Historian, who has returned many of these structures to their former glory in the form of new hotels, such as the recently opened El Terral, the first in Havana to be facing the Malecon.
As you make your way from Paseo del Prado, walking along the sometimes narrower sometimes wider stone esplanade, on the other side across from you, one of the first buildings you will spot is the Castropol. With its bright orange façade standing out from the line of discoloured, grey buildings, the Castropol restaurant by the Spanish Sociedad Asturiana (the Asturian Society in Cuba) is a fantastic place to eat offering beautiful panoramic views of the ocean from the terrace. Highly rated on TripAdvisor by past diners, this little known restaurant is a real gem and a great place to stop off and have a hearty meal before you continue on your long walk along the Malecon strip.
Further down the esplanade, right in the confluence of Galiano Street, once a vibrant commercial corner of Havana, you will spot the old Deauville Hotel, a structure that dates back to 1958. Once glamorous and chic, the Deauville of today is a little more lacklustre and neglected, yet still remains a historically popular hotel offering budget accommodation as well as magnificent sea views from its rooms and panoramic rooftop pool (you can take stunning pictures from this high point while tanning on a lounger).
Standing out among its neighbouring buildings, Cafe Neruda is next, with its open façade and white walls it will no doubt catch your attention as a modern and fresh piece of architecture amidst the long line of decayed, crumbling buildings. This is a lovely, mellow and breezy spot to enjoy a delicious cocktail, a revitalising coffee or a good selection of seafood dishes featuring the freshest catch of the day (caught just across the road by one of the fishermen). This new structure, featuring open gardens and furnished patios, was built in 2008 from the rubbles of an old building that had succumbed to the passing of the years. Now it has become one of Malecon's most pleasant stopovers also thanks to its massive glass screens protecting the area from the outside rush, noise, spit and smoke of traffic.
A bit further down, your steps will take you to spot yet another lovely eatery sitting across the road; La Abadia. This panoramic tapas bar will no doubt strike you with its peculiar pointy domes resembling a rather futuristic abbey. It will strike you that its somewhat gothic look somehow manages not to look out of place next to the two colonial beauties that stand right next to it. Inside, the mood is set by the period furniture, inspired in the furnishings of monks of the Middle Ages. Serving traditional Spanish fare with a tasty selection of tapas and "montaditos", this is yet another excellent spot for people-watching and admiring spectacular sunsets over the Malecon.
If you keep on walking, the next building that will catch your attention, because of its distinctively sleek and modern outlook, with shiny floor-to-ceiling glass windows and see-through glass balcony railings, is the new hotel El Terral. This new and recently opened hotel is the first boutique property on the Malecon and the only one of its kind to be facing the long seawall promenade. It is also a fantastic place to stop by and enjoy a cooling cocktail at the lobby bar before continuing your journey. The food at the onsite restaurant is also very good and features fresh local produce and the freshest catch of the day.
Reaching the half-way mark
After a few more minutes of walking you will reach the spacious and flat grounds of Antonio Maceo Park, stretching before your eyes as you make out its wide open area just across the road. For a while there'll be no more buildings on the other side, instead you will find a grand open space where the only tall structure that stands out is the monument of Antonio Maceo, an important and heroic figure in the long independence wars between Cuba and Spain. Fringed by wrought-iron railings, this ample esplanade was built in 1925 while the sculptures in it were designed by Italian artist Domenico Boni .This is one of the city's most beautiful parks and monuments, on its platform you can see four important figures that represent Justice, Law, Action and Mind. Standing tall behind the park is one of Havana's tallest buildings, the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital.
Here you've reached what can be considered the half-way mark in the Malecon promenade, with the centric Centro Habana municipality sitting right behind the Antonio Maceo Park, the popular and modern Vedado neighbourhood stretching along further down to the right, and the Habana Vieja behind to the left, leaving it further and further behind with every step you take as you make your way down to very end of this long and curved bay.
Soon you'll be reaching Calle 23 (23 Street), best known for its final stretch that extends all the way to L street until it reaches the Malecon. This place has become a popular centre for habaneros, with its four blocks being the most popular in the whole of Cuba, home to establishments such as the famous Coppelia ice cream restaurant, various cinemas, an array of restaurants, hotels and nightclubs, as well as the sales offices of all the airlines that service the island. At night this area is filled with youngsters looking for nighttime entertainment and recreation in a popular hangout spot and meeting place.
Standing on a promontory you will make out the famous and iconic Hotel Nacional, majestically sitting and looking out over the Malecon; a landmark in itself. This prestigious and historic hotel has welcomed a long list of famous past guests.
Further along in your journey you will come across the confluence of L and K streets with the Malecon, where you will find the "Mount of Flags" La Tribuna Antiimperialista Jose Marti, an "anti-imperialist platform" erected by the government in 2000 and sitting in front of the United States Interests Section in Havana, formerly the American Embassy in Cuba (the U.S. no longer has formal embassy representation in Cuba because of the two countries' estranged relations). On this square is where political demonstrations, patriotic marches as well as special events and concerts take place.
Calle G, or 'G' Street, also known as Avenida de los Presidentes (because of the many monuments of memorable past presidents found along the way), is what you'll be spotting next along your seaside walk. The avenue's beautifully landscaped lawn areas, perfectly manicured trees and inviting benches welcome hundreds of pedestrians by day and youngsters by night, who flock here after sunset to mingle, play some guitar tunes and generally, have a good time with friends. This long park avenue goes all the way to the Malecon and right at this intersection you will find the equestrian monument to Calixto Garcia, a General that fought in the Cuban wars of independence against the Spaniards.
The Last Stretch – from Galerias Paseo to La Chorrera
The journey continues towards Paseo Avenue, which descends down from the iconic Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) and ends in the sea. Right at this intersection you will spot the blue and tall façade of the Riviera Hotel, famous during the 50s for its glamorous casino and for being one of the favourite hangout places of the U.S. mafia in the Cuban capital.
On the other side of this hotel stands the more modern and luxurious Melia Cohiba hotel, a five-star property built in the 90s and offering some of the highest standards of accommodation in the country. On the hotel's ground level there is a convenient shopping complex with a variety of stores. Also at ground level you will find the ever popular Habana Cafe, a night time venue with nightly shows and DJ sessions for dancing afterwards.
Close to both hotels is the Galerias Paseo Shopping Centre, a modern complex where you can find a varied assortment of all kinds of goods, from groceries to beachwear, shoes, clothes (including designer labels), restaurants and more. This place is the closest you can get to an American-style mall in Cuba and it's also home to the popular Jazz Cafe with outstanding jazz musicians performing here regularly. There are many amazing jazz musicians in Havana and this is one of the places to find them.
At this point we're now reaching the last stretch of the Malecon strip, with its end located at the start of the long tunnel that divides the municipalities of Vedado and Miramar and reaching the Almendares River at the other end. This is where you will find the ancient fort known as Torreon La Chorrera, or La Chorrera Tower. This colonial structure once erected with the purpose of defending the city. After the English took over Havana during a brief period back in 1762 the structure suffered significant damage but it was later repaired and is now home to a very popular eatery, El Meson de La Chorrera. This Spanish-style taberna serves delectable Spanish cuisine with amazing views over Havana's coastline.
To end your walk, at the Malecon's westernmost point, very close to Meson La Chorrera, you will find the also highly popular 1830 Restaurant. Dating back to the 19th century, when it was called Arana, this establishment now lives up to the original restaurant, offering a very similar menu with dishes that were served here two centuries ago. Back when it was called Arana, this open-air restaurant offering al fresco dining with spectacular views, was famous for house specialties such Arroz con Pollo a La Chorrera (chicken and rice done in La Chorrera style) and Bacalao a la Vizcaina (a traditional Spanish dish from the Basque region consisting of salt cod cooked in a tomato and red pepper sauce), both of which are still served here. There are frequent live shows and live music performances too. The perfect way to end your long walk along the Malecon, especially as the sun begins to come down.
From the other side – the Christ of Havana and El Morro fortress
In the previous paragraphs we focused on the buildings, parks and hotels found across the Malecon's pedestrian promenade, but on the other side, there are some equally interesting sights to admire, the most notable of which is the Christ of Havana. A smaller version of the one in Rio de Janeiro, this imposing 66-feet-long structure can be seen from many points in the city as it is perched on a hill at 167 feet above sea level and rising to a total height of 295 feet.
Carved out of the finest white Carrara marble, specially brought to Cuba from Italy after each of the 67 blocks were personally blessed by Pope Pius XII, this impressive sculpture was built in 1953 by Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera. The stature represents Jesus of Nazareth and it sits on a hilltop overlooking the bay of Havana. Facing the city, with the left hand near his chest and the right hand near the chin in a gesture of blessing, the statue was purposely left with empty eyes to give the impression of looking at everything and everyone, from any point in the city.
But you will only be able to spot this architectural marvel from the less known and smaller Malecon seawall stretch that goes from Paseo del Prado to the San Francisco de Asis Square, in the opposite direction from which you started your journey. You see, the Malecon, didn't just expand in one direction after construction began in the 1900s, but in two, only that the longer and more popular section is the best known and most walked by tourists. The other, smaller section starts right at the Paseo del Prado intersection, facing the El Morro fortress and extending towards the right along Avenida del Puerto until it reaches the San Francisco de Asis Square.
Top sights to spot along this smaller Malecon section in Old Havana include the Parque de la Maestranza (a good place to bring the children if they come along for the journey), the imposing El Morro castle with its iconic lighthouse and a little further along La Cabaña fortress, where every night at 9:00pm you can come to witness the canon shooting ceremony known as "El Cañonazo de las Nueve" (something that if you're in Havana you shouldn't be missing anyway).
Malecon by day
Busy with traffic, but otherwise occupied by mostly tourists and a few passers-by, during the day the Malecon can be found lonely in parts, slightly busy in others. After school children flock here to play, dive and generally make a splash, while bored housewives take some time out to enjoy the cool salty breeze.
During the day, and especially in the afternoon and weekends, the Malecon is one of the best spots in Havana for people-watching. Citizens from all walks of life come here to get to and from work, to enjoy a walk with a view, to gaze into the horizon, to meet with friends, to fish for the catch of the day or to simply relax and unwind by the sea. As you walk along the seawall, watch out for the rectangles carved into the stone, once used (and still used) as sea baths where youngsters like to make a splash when the high tide fills them with pools of water. These baths allow people to take a dip while being safe from the currents; you might like to join the locals and dip your toes in one.
If you start your long promenade along the seawall during the day you will find many places to stop by and enjoy a cooling drink. As mentioned in the previous paragraphs you will come across plenty of cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels along the way, where you can stop off for a drink, a snack or a fresh seaside meal. And if towards the end of your walk (or the beginning, depending where you start your stroll from) you start to get tired of the long walk and your feet start to ache, you'll find a convenient taxi rank by the Melia Cohiba hotel, located at Malecon's westernmost point.
Malecon by night
Mellow in places, loud and lively in others, another side of the Malecon comes to life as the sun comes down. If you come just before night falls you're in for a show of lights and colours as the sun paints the sky in a rainbow of vibrant oranges, purples and soft pinks just before finally surrendering to being swallowed by the mighty sea.
Havana's most romantic spot for couples welcomes lovers to serenade them with a starry sky, a cooling sea breeze and the soft musical background of the waves crashing into the walls, interrupted only by the frequent live music played and performed by impromptu musicians that walk along its narrow length. The air buzzes with an electrifying vibe of romance and warmth and the mood is set for a magical evening.
After enjoying your romantic seaside stroll, if you're ready to party the night away you can do so at several places along the Malecon. If you're looking for a Cuban-style cabaret show you can head to the Habana Cafe adjacent to the Melia Cohiba hotel or Le Parisien cabaret at the Nacional Hotel. Both venues offer an entertaining show with dinner and then bring on a DJ who plays the latest international and local hits to fill up the dance floor space well into the early hours.
If you're a jazz lover then a short walk or taxi ride to the nearby Jazz Cafe in Galerias Paseo will give you a memorable evening experience. Located on the third floor of a large mall, this venue is highly regarded by many foreign visitors and locals. You only have to read the many reviews on TripAdvisor to see how amazing this little musical corner is. The place has an excellent reputation for providing outstanding jazz music and soulful Latin beats at the hands of talented Cuban musicians. The best of the best come here to perform.
The Malecon at night is the place to be in Havana, filling up with amateur guitar-strumming musicians, star-gazing couples and even the rare occasional parade of transvestites who use this long promenade as their catwalk and meeting place.
The Malecon of Today
Once an opulent, fashionable and shiny promenade faced by brightly-painted houses, the Malecon of today may be a little greyer, significantly older and sadly dilapidated, but it has not lost any of its original charm and unique enchantment. Some of the houses may be crumbling down; some of the buildings may be eroded by the relentless passage of time and the harsh beating of the sea, but even the forgotten piles of rubble add to this place's undeniable magic.
Whatever feelings this long seaside walk may awaken, whatever mood it may strike in you, one thing you can ponder on as you leisurely stroll along its lengthy curvature, is perhaps the amusing fact that there's no habanero that hasn't professed their eternal love to that special someone at one time or another (or at several in fact!) whilst facing the glistening waters of this gorgeous bay. This graceful old lady that the Malecon is; has witnessed the stories of many of the city's citizens; it has echoed the laughter, rejoiced in the parties and embraced the tears of so many Cubans that have called this place a secondary home at anyone point in time.