When Cuba gained its independence from Spain shortly before the turn of the century, the country got ready to re-invent itself as a modern nation. In the first decades of the 20th century, palatial buildings started to emerge in Havana to house the offices of new democratic institutions, successful businesses, families, recreational facilities, and so on. More than simply serving a utilitarian function, these buildings were sending a message to the world about Cuba’s prosperity and wellbeing as an independent nation. Many of them remain to this day the most beautiful ever in the local architectural landscape.
Inaugurated in 1929, this beautiful Neoclassical building by Cuban architects Evelio Govantes and Felix Cabarrocas served for many years as the seat of the Cuban Government, until the 1959 Revolution changed the country’s government structure.
At the time of writing, it is still closed due to a capital renovation that started in 2013, after which it’s expected to be inaugurated as the new seat of the Cuban Parliament.
Similar to the Capitol in Washington, the building is crowned by a cupola – which for a good part of the 1950s was the highest point in Havana (until the construction of the Revolution Square). Inside the building, a statue representing the Republic rises over 55 feet (17 meters) into the inside of the cupola, which makes it the third largest indoor statue in the world. At her feet, a 25 carat diamond marks Cuba’s Kilometer Zero.
Expanding to the laterals of this central point (accessed through a 55-step stairway leading to Paseo del Prado Street) there are halls that connect with semicircular chambers on the extremes of the building.
The motifs and decoration of the Capitol Building feature gilded lamps, marble floors, statues by Italian sculptor Angelo Zanelli, and gardens designed by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier (the designer of the Champ de Mars gardens below the Eiffel Tower).
The Bacardi Building is one of the most beautiful Art Deco buildings not only in Cuba, but in Latin America. Of the many Art Deco buildings in Havana, this was the only one that fully embraced the vivid and colorful appearance of Art Deco architecture. Its façade, floors, and interior are covered in marble and granite, which according to construction records were imported from at least seven European countries, including Germany, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, Belgium, and Hungary.
When it was inaugurated in 1930, the 12-story building became the tallest Cuba had ever seen. Originally built to house the headquarters of the Bacardi rum company, today it is an office building that accommodates foreign and Cuban firms.
Great Theater of Havana
The place where U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the Cuban people during his historic visit to Havana in 2016, the Great Theater of Havana has a long history as one of the main cultural and artistic centers in the country. Designed by Belgian architect Paul Belau, this Neo-Baroque building, inaugurated in 1915, has an elegant façade featuring four sculptures by Giuseppe Moretti that symbolize charity, education, music, and drama.
Since 1964, the theater has served as the headquarters of Cuba’s National Ballet and the prestigious Havana International Ballet Festival, as well as the headquarters of Cuba’s Lyric Opera House, and of the National Spanish Ballet Company.
Great Theatre of Havana, 458 Paseo de Martí, Old Havana, Cuba, +53 7 861 3096
Museum of the Revolution
Inaugurated in 1920 as Cuba’s Presidential Palace, the building that now houses the Museum of the Revolution is one of Havana’s architectural gems. The eclectic construction was designed by architects Rodolfo Maruri (Cuba) and Paul Belau (Belgium), and executed by General Contracting Company from the U.S.
The copula that tops the building, covered in beautiful colored tiles, is particularly tantalizing, but the inside of the building is where its beauty really resides. The floors and staircase are made of Carrara marble, and the interior decoration was commissioned to New York’s Tiffany & Co. The Hall of Mirrors imitates the gallery of the same name in the Palace of Versailles, in Paris, France. It was the hall where the swearing-in ceremonies were held for new Cuban presidents, and where distinguished guests and new ambassadors were welcomed by the president. The Golden Hall served as a dining hall for official dinners.
Museum of the Revolution, Avenida Bélgica, Old Havana, Cuba, +53 7 860 1524
National Museum of Fine Arts
This building originally housed the Asturian Center, a social club and charitable organization for people from Asturia in Spain, and their families in Havana. Inaugurated in October 1927, this eclectic construction combines Spanish Baroque and Plateresque styles, seeking to convey an image of grandeur and elegance. A case in point is the sumptuous staircase leading to an equally astonishing fixed skylight of stained glass that depicts the arrival of Columbus’ ships to the Americas.
The construction of the building, led by Cuban architect Manuel del Busto, used state-of-the-art techniques. Fancy materials, such as marble, were imported from Italy, Spain and the U.S., and Cuban mahogany and cedar were used for woodworks.
After a renovation led by Cuban architect Jose Ramon Linares Ferrara from 1999 to 2001, the building was re-opened as the new home of the international art collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts.
Casa de la Amistad
Considered the most beautiful building in Cuba when it was inaugurated in 1926, this mansion was originally built by landowner Pedro Baro for his new wife, Catalina Lasa. Catalina was a beauty queen who defied laws and social prejudices when she abandoned her first husband to marry Baro. Sculptures, Carrara marble, sand from the Nile river, and a garden featuring a graft hybrid rose named after Baro’s wife are just a few of the extravagant components that brought this home to life. This is a place not to miss if you visit the John Lennon Park in Havana.
Museum of Decorative Arts
The former house of a rich Cuban family, the Museum of Decorative Arts is a beautiful Neoclassical-style mansion that was designed in Paris by French architects P. Virad and M. Destuque. Built between 1924 and 1927, the building is located in Vedado, which was the center of the newest part of the city at the time.
Upon entering the mansion, it’s easy to tell that this is no ordinary house, and that every detail is designed to the point of perfection. Two gardens, one on each side of the building, show beautiful sculptures of different styles: to the right, the Four Seasons Garden features Italian marble sculptures from the 19th century representing spring, summer, fall and winter; to the left, the Night Garden is decorated with Rococo and Neoclassical sculptures.
Inside the house, different rooms are devoted to different styles (Rococo, Art Deco, Art Nouveau) from France, Italy, and Asia. Beautiful antiques made of silver, porcelain, ebony, ivory, lapis lazuli, and nacre, are tastefully combined in every room, including the bathrooms.
The collection also includes pieces by famous designers like Louis Comfort Tiffany, Émile Gallé, René Lalique, and Demétre Chiparus.
Museum of Decorative Arts, Calle 17, Havana, Cuba, +53 7 830 9848