25 Things You Should Know About Havana


A Pope, an American president, and a British rock group walk into an island nation’s capital … and with each visit, Cuba has opened up a bit to the rest of the world. Today, the rush to see time-capsuled life in Havana, or La Habana in Spanish, has shifted into overdrive. Even though President Barack Obama announced that individual travel is now legal, activities still must fall under the educational people-to-people requirements. But with direct flights from the United States increasing and a cruise from Miami starting in May, these 25 things about Cuba’s biggest metropolis are now truly just a mere 100 miles from Florida.

1. When Havana was founded around 1515, it was on the south coast of Cuba in a swampy area near where Batabanó is now. Just a few years later, the city moved to its current spot on the northern coast with a built-in bay, which is now the harbor.

2. The former Presidential Palace built between 1913 and 1920 and used through Fulgencio Batista’s presidency is now the Museum of the Revolution. Inside, there's a Room of Mirrors, resembling the one at France’s Palace of Versailles. The palace's interior was embellished to the nines, thanks to Tiffany & Co.



3. Inside a glass enclosure behind the museum is the Granma yacht, which Fidel Castro used to sail to Mexico in 1956 along with 81 other revolutionaries. It's said that the 59-foot-long boat had been locked up and guarded day and night to prevent anyone from using it to escape to Florida.

4. Every night at 9 p.m., the traditional cannon blast, or cañonazo, takes place at the fortress, La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The guards start marching about 20 minutes before and perform a ceremony leading up to the explosion. The daily ritual is as much an attraction for locals as it is tourists, with a crowd of about 1000 showing up for the big event every day.

5. One of the most popular sites in Old Town: The Catedral de San Cristóbal. Its baroque exterior and classical interior were designed by Italian Francesco Borromini and originally built by the Jesuits in the 18th century.

6. Opened in 1930, the eight-floor Hotel Nacional de Cuba was built by two American firms, McKim, Mead and White and Purdy and Henderson Co. Though mostly Art Deco in style, the five-star accommodation also has influences of old California, Hispano-Moorish, neoclassical, and neo-colonial styles.

The towering hotel is so proud of its guests that it has a Salon de la Historia, or History Hall, featuring photos of its most famous visitors organized by decade. Among those on display: Walt Disney, Mickey Mantle, Frank Sinatra, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mohammed Ali, Steven Spielberg, and Ban Ki-moon.

8. Fifty-two panels covering 3229 square feet make up the outdoor mural on Mercaderas Street by artist Andrés Carrillo. Carillo used only four colors for the mosaic, soaking natural rocks to achieve the 13 shades that make up images of 67 characters throughout Cuban history.

9. “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita,” reads a handwritten sign, seemingly autographed by Ernest Hemingway, which hangs at La Bodeguita Del Medio in Havana's Old Town. Tourists now flock to try both cocktails at Hemingway's favorite haunts. A bronze, life-size statue of the author sits perched at the corner seat of the bar at El Floridita, waiting for his daiquiri. 

After indulging in Hemingway’s favorite drinks, follow his footsteps to where he slept, at the salmon-colored, 52-room Hotel Ambos Mundos. This was the writer’s first Cuban home, where he stayed for seven years during the 1930s. Room 511, where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, is now a museum.

11. Posed outside the San Francisco Church in Old Town is a bronze statue of José María López Lledín, an itinerant who wandered the streets of Havana in the 1950s. Thanks to his genteel manner, Lledín was nicknamed the Gentleman from Paris—even though he was actually from Spain. Touching his statue is said to bring luck. Some get more specific and say holding his index finger brings prosperity and rubbing his beard means you’ll return to Havana again someday.

12. Technicolor murals line every inch of Hamel Alley, or Callejon de Hamel, which captures the soul of Cuba’s Afro-Cuban culture. The narrow street is lined with cafes and shops selling Santeria art and if you’re lucky, you'll be able to catch live musicians and locals grooving to rumba.


Beyond a triple-arched entrance in the Vedado neighborhood is the 138-acre Colon Cemetery, or Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón, named after Christopher Columbus. When it was laid out between 1871 and 1886, the Roman military camp-like rectangular blocks were divided based on social status.

14. Across the way is the Chinese Cemetery, or Cementerio Chino, which started construction in 1892, during Cuba’s final years under Spanish rule, making it one of the oldest Chinese cemeteries in the Americas. Finished in 1933, the 96,875-square-foot site was inaugurated in 1947 and nationalized in 1967.

15. Hop in a vintage Buick or Chevy and cruise down the Malecón for a quintessential Cuban experience. The 5-mile oceanfront stretch of road mixes colorfully eclectic architecture on one side with the harsh crashing waves of the Florida Strait on the other. 

16. In 1964, Fidel Castro banned The Beatles’ music in Cuba, but by 2000, he had changed his tune and was at the dedication of Havana’s John Lennon Park unveiling his statue. “I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality,” Castro told the crowd gathered. Nowadays, you can sit on the bench with Lennon, but his vision may be blurred. The statue's real glasses kept getting stolen by tourists, so a local retiree decided to put himself in charge of placing the wire-rimmed glasses on the bronze statue whenever tourists come by.


Cuba’s famous rum, Havana Club, has its own museum in Old Town inside an 18th century colonial townhouse. The tour takes you from the construction of the oak casks to the detailed distillation process, but the real highlight is the tasting room. Afterwards, head across the way to the Havana Club Bar where traditional Cuban music is played while you indulge in a mojito, daiquiri, or “cata vertical,” which is a sampling of all the rum, in age order.

18. Standing 39 floors, the Edificio Focsa is the tallest high rise in the capital—and at the time it was built in 1956, it was also the second-tallest building made of concrete in the world. The building, which contains 373 apartments, was constructed in a quick 28 months. Now the 33rd floor houses the La Torre restaurant with a bird’s eye view of the city.

19. Not your local drugstore: With its dark wood shelves and porcelain medicine jars, Old Town’s Johnson Drugstore looks more like something out of Harry Potter than the CVS down the street. The store was restored in 2013, but had its heydey in the 19th and early 20th centuries where it doubled as a gathering place to catch up on the town’s latest news.

20. Singer Gloria Estefan was born in the Cuban capital on September 1, 1957. Her dad was a bodyguard for President Fulgencio Batista and when Fidel Castro rose to power, she moved to the United States with her family.

21. Another famous Havana-born name? Andrés Arturo García Menéndez, better known as Andy Garcia. A couple of years after he was born in 1956, his family lost ownership of their land during the revolution and migrated to Miami. After focusing on basketball as a student, Garcia discovered acting and went on to star in classics like 1987’s The Untouchables, 1988’s Stand and Deliver, and 1990’s The Godfather: Part III.

22. Even though it’s called the Museo del Chocolate, this Old Town establishment is actually a cafe at which nearly everything on the menu contains some of the sweet stuff. It's ironically located on Calle Amargura, which translates to Bitterness Street.

Snapchatting on the go? No such thing… yet. The Internet is still limited in Cuba, or as some locals put it, their phones are stuck on “airplane mode.” While Google announced this month it is in the early stages of expanding access for the island, currently, Wi-Fi is only allowed in a set number of public squares in Havana by using a (relatively expensive) access card from the government’s ETECSA telecommunications company. So for now, only locals who can afford access huddle alongside tourists in the parks to connect—with youngsters scouring screens for YouTube sensations, students researching on their laptops, and families crowded around cells Facetiming relatives.

24. From bread to toiletries, Cubans line up for everything. But one of the guaranteed longest queues is for the state-run Coppelia ice cream shop. Fidel Castro himself was behind the mission—after tasting every flavor of the 28 containers of Howard Johnson’s ice cream shipped to him from Canada, he set up a factory with equipment from Sweden and Holland, and put his private secretary Cecilia Sanchez in charge of the parlor, which opened in 1966.

25. Imagine Picasso meeting Gaudi—and exploding all over a neighborhood. Welcome to Fusterlandia, a community project of artist José Rodriguez Fuster. As soon as you turn down the street in the Jaimanitas neighborhood, the color splashes begin, culminating in a multi-level artistic Willy Wonka world, which is the artist’s home studio. Fuster often mingles with visitors, and is always ready to take a selfie with passersby.

19 Must-Visit Stops on Mexico City's Metro

About 5 million people ride the Mexico City subway every day—but most commuters don’t realize how much there is to do and see without ever having to go above ground. From piano stairs to a space tunnel, exploring the attractions hidden within the metro just might be the most fun you can have for 5 pesos (about $0.25 USD). These Mexico City metro stations settle the old question once and for all; it’s both the journey and the destination.


Talisman station (line 4) has a mammoth logo for a reason: Mammoth fossils were unearthed during construction of the metro, and you can see the bones—which date back to the Pleistocene—on display there.


space tunnel at La Raza station
Sharon Hahn Darlin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

How do you make a long transfer fly by? Transform it into a walk-through space tunnel illuminated by a glow-in-the-dark night sky, the highlight of the science museum located within La Raza station (lines 3 and 5).


Viveros (line 3), a station named for the nearby nursery, is in full flower: It was recently given a jungle makeover complete with imitation palms, jaguars, and snakes to raise awareness for the preservation of southern Mexico’s Lacandon Rainforest.


Complement your day trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacan with a stop at the Pino Suarez station (lines 1 and 2), where you can see a 650-year-old pyramid dedicated to Ehecatl, the Aztec god of wind. Tens of thousands of users go through the station daily, making the pyramid one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico. (Though it's referred to as Mexico’s smallest archaeological zone, the National Institute of Anthropology and History doesn't consider it a "proper" archaeological zone "due to its size and the fact of being located in a Metro Transport System facility.")


Hidalgo (lines 2 and 3) may be the most miraculous of all of Mexico City’s metro stations: In 1997, someone (possibly a street vendor) discovered a water stain in the shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe in one of its floor tiles. The apparition attracted so many pilgrims that metro authorities eventually had to remove the tile, which is now enshrined just outside one of the exits (follow the signs for Iglesia), near the intersection of Paseo de la Reforma and Zarco. And if you happen to visit this station on the morning of the 28th of any month, you’ll be swarmed with pious commuters carrying figurines of Saint Judas Thaddeus—patron saint of delinquents and lost causes—who is venerated at the nearby San Hipolito Church.


No time to visit the vast National Museum of Anthropology? You can still catch reproductions of Mesoamerican statues at the Bellas Artes (lines 2 and 8) and Tezozomoc (line 6) stops.


miniatures on the Mexico city subway
Randal Sheppard, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Miniature maniacs shouldn’t miss the scale models of Mexico City’s main plaza at the Zocalo stop (line 2). They depict, in tiny form, the metamorphosis of the capital from the Aztec Templo Mayor to the present-day Metropolitan Cathedral. (And bonus points to anyone who can spot the cat who lives in this station.)


The music-themed Division del Norte station’s (line 3) free karaoke corner draws a crowd gathered to watch fellow riders belt out boleros and ballads on their way to work. The unassuming abuelitas laden with bags from the market always have the most impressive pipes.


piano stairs at Polanco station
Victor.Aguirre-Lopez, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Don’t take the escalators at Polanco station (line 7), because the stairs are a giant musical piano keyboard. Finally, here’s your chance to live out Tom Hanks’s piano dance scene from the movie Big.


The Guerrero stop (lines B and 3) is a tribute to the legends of lucha libre, with costume displays and murals dedicated to 45 of Mexico’s finest masked fighters.


The largest bookshop in Latin America can be found in the long passage between the Zocalo and Pino Suarez stations. The underground emporium known as Un Paseo Por Los Libros sells titles from textbooks to manga and also hosts free workshops, lectures, and movie screenings.


murals in the Mexico City subway
Thelmadatter, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Any visitor to Mexico City should check out Diego Rivera’s murals—but on your way, don’t forget to look up at the murals that decorate many metro stations. Particularly impressive are Guillermo Ceniceros’s ambitious chronicles of art through the history of time on the walls at the Copilco (line 3) and Tacubaya stations (lines 1, 7, and 9). On the kitschier side, see how many famous faces you can pick out in Jorge Flores Manjarrez’s I Spy-style mural of pop stars at the Auditorio stop (line 7).


A museum of caricatures located inside the Zapata stop (line 12) is an homage to Mexican cartooning, including plenty of satirical interpretations of the mustachioed revolutionary who gives the station its name.


If Chabacano station (lines 2, 8, and 9) feels unsettlingly familiar, it might be because it was used as a shooting location for the subway chase scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall. Legend has it you can still spot splashes of fake blood on the ceiling.


Museo del Metro de la Ciudad de México
ProtoplasmaKid, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Has this metro adventure turned you into a super fan? Do a deep dive at Mixcoac station’s (line 12) sleek Metro Museum, where you can learn even more fun facts about the subway’s 50 years of history while you wait out rush hour.

Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in The Met Breuer exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.


Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.


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