With beautiful colonial buildings, racy salsa music resonating around every corner, animated nightlife, and a buzzing city vibe, Havana possesses many charms that captivate all those who make a visit. Nevertheless, the Cuban capital’s magnetism would not be complete without the breath-taking seaside vistas it offers. Its location by the bay, is one of the city’s main attractions, and has long inspired poets, writers, photographers and lovebirds.
Today, one of Havana’s most iconic settings and preferred reunion spots is the popular “El Malecon”, a seaside walkway that extends for 8 kilometres (5 miles) through the picturesque Old Havana and Centro Habana to the modern Vedado and Playa municipalities.
The seawall is the perfect place to appreciate the island’s eclectic urban beauty, from old buildings and new trendy establishments to the long trail of “almendrones” (American cars from the 50s) constantly rolling through the promenade. Whether it inspires you for an early morning jog or a relaxed break sitting on its seawall watching the sunset, including “El Malecon” in your Havana itinerary will certainly leave you with memorable experiences.
El Malecon Habanero – a brief history of how it came to be
First named Avenida del Golfo, the Malecon was created with the main purpose of protecting the city from the water during storms and cold fronts. Its construction began in 1901, during temporary U.S. military rule. The project was originally undertaken by Don Francisco de Albear, Cuba’s greatest engineer at the time, who was also responsible for other great water-work projects including the Palatino aqueduct, which once supplied the entire city and is still in use today. Albear came up with a complex but smart design for the seawall, which was to be a lot more than just a promenade. According to historical records, the avenue was supposed to be constructed 4 meters above sea level.
The whole project would cost 850,000 Cuban pesos, but the Spanish government didn’t bring itself to issue the construction permit and Albear’s proposal was postponed. Once the island became independent from Spain, the works to build the seawall began. After the first stretch was completed, for which several public facilities were demolished, construction works were resumed in 1921, and again in the 1930’s. Adding to the architectural richness of the Malecon, are the beautiful stately homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, followed by a row of 20th century buildings with an unusual combination of styles and profusion of portals, columns and pilasters that loosely follow classical lines.
To celebrate the construction of the first 500-metre section of the seawall, the American government built a beautiful roundabout at the intersection of Paseo del Prado, which, according to architects of the period, was the first one built in Cuba with steel-reinforced concrete. In front of the roundabout, where every Sunday bands played Cuban melodies, the Miramar Hotel was built, which was very much in fashion for the first 15 years of independence and which was the first one where the waiters wore tuxedos, vests with gold buttons, and did not have moustaches.
Later on, Cuban presidents throughout the first half of the 20th century continued the extension of the first section of the Malecon. In 1923 it reached the mouth of the Almendares River between K and L streets in Vedado, where the United States Embassy was built, the Jose Marti Sports Park and further out, the Hotel Rosita de Hornedo, today, the Sierra Maestra hotel. From that time until now, this stunning promenade has been one of the capital’s most beautiful and beloved sites.
A refuge for habaneros today – El Malecon as an iconic landmark
Although Malecon remains an iconic rendez-vous spot for locals, the seawall has seen better days. Fighting an ongoing battle with the corrosive effects of the ocean, many of the thoroughfare's magnificent buildings now face decrepitude, demolition or irrevocable damage. To combat the problem, 14 blocks of the Malecon have been given special status by the City Historian's Office in an attempt to stop the rot.
Moreover, the authorities have been actively making an effort to continue embellishing the promenade and making it even more attractive to locals and visitors. Perhaps the most recent contribution to this stunning seaside walkaway is the new Regla Ferry Terminal, where passengers can board the ferry that takes them across the bay, from Old Havana to the municipality of Regla.
Another interesting addition is the “Paseo Maritimo” built beside it. This long floating platform stretches out from the seawall above the bay, and was completed only a couple of years ago. Lately, the spot has become popular with couples who head out to observe the views and romance (some have even gone as far as writing their names in locks and attaching them to the railings, in the style of Paris’ Pont des Arts and Pont de l’Archeveche).
But beyond the architectural value of this walkaway and the constructions around it, El Malecon’s greatest charm lies in being somewhere to stroll or hang out on a stiflingly hot day. It is a place where locals come to unwind, clear their minds and simply gaze at the sea beyond, in the company of hard-working fishermen who patiently wait for their catch. It is Havana’s outdoor lounge.
The Malecon is extremely popular amongst all kinds of people, as this public space means anyone can enjoy sitting on the seawall, especially as those of lesser means whose other entertainment options are limited. It is common for Havana’s residents to have a few stories where the main setting was the city’s iconic seawall. From romances to nights out with friends or childhood memories attempting to dive in the waters of the bay, El Malecon usually holds special sentimental value for Cubans.
Things to do and places to see close to El Malecon
The broad walkaway which extends for approximately 8 kilometres is surrounded by interesting sites to see. If you would like to experience the magic of El Malecon at first hand, these are some suggestions to plan your Havana city trip around its spectacular seaside promenade.
Walking from one end to the other
Although you could very well take a classic car taxi for a ride along the Malecon, you might find it more enjoyable to use your feet. As the walkaway stretches from Old Havana to Playa, it is a great way of discovering the city; from its stunning colonial old town to its more modern and sophisticated venues in Vedado and Miramar.
It shouldn’t be a dull affair either, as there many interesting sites to see along the way. Some of the most important monuments comprise the parks and statues General Maximo Gomez, Antonio Maceo, General Calixto Garcia, and the Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine.
On the other side of the bay, as you move in the direction of Old Havana, the impressive Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (the iconic Morro Fortress) and its beautiful lighthouse salute from the other side of the bay. Right next to it, a majestic statue of Jesus Christ blesses all of the people in the city.
Feeling Vedado’s nocturnal vibe on 23rd Street
At the intersection of 23rd Street, the Malecon marks the northeast end of the "La Rampa" section of 23rd Street, Vedado, and is very active at night. Take pictures with the beautiful fountain of Hotel Nacional as a backdrop or gaze upon the sea. The spot around the fountain that flows from this renowned landmark is especially popular among locals, who spend a couple of hours or more sitting on the seawall enjoying the breeze and view. From teenagers to people in their fifties and sixties, couples like to come here to spend time together. Groups of friends spend the evening here as well passing around a bottle of rum, chatting, laughing and possibly singing as someone strums on a guitar.
Snapping breath-taking shots of the Morro Fortress and Lighthouse
Situated on the opposite side of the harbour from Old Havana, the majestic Morro fortress in Havana shares its name with structures in Santiago de Cuba and the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Officially named “Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro”, the fortress tells the history of colonial times and can be viewed from miles around as it dominates the port entrance. Built initially in 1589 in response to raids on Havana harbour, el Morro protected the mouth of the bay with a chain being strung out across the water to the fort at La Punta.
Today the view of the Morro fortress from the seawall makes for some of the most beautiful photos of Cuba’s capital. Its lighthouse is beacon of beauty as well as a nautical instrument and an ideal place to get a shot of. Right beside this monument, stands another great symbol of the capital: the Christ of Havana. With his hands blessing all of Havana’s residents and visitors, the statue of Christ is smaller than the renowned Brazilian one, but just as beautiful.
Getting a feel of the complex USA-Cuba relations
Not only will you learn about the city itself whilst walking down the Malecon, but also catch a glimpse into the complicated bonds between Cuba and the US, as two important landmarks related to the country are situated on the Malecon.
The monument to the victims of USS Maine shows the history of when the two countries fought together to rid Cuba of Spanish rule. In 1925, this structure was erected in memory of the victims of the explosion of the USS Maine in the Havana Harbor in 1898—the incident that led the United States to take part in the Cuban War of Independence against Spain, resulting in the Spanish–American War. The monument used to be crowned with an eagle with extended wings until 1961, when tensions between Cuba and the U.S. escalated, and the eagle (seen on the island as a symbol of imperialism) was taken down by a mob.
Further down the promenade, you will find the Plaza de la Dignidad with a statue of Jose Marti and in front of the Embassy of the United States, the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform. Shaped like a torch with flames pointing in the direction of the embassy, the square (which has the capacity for approximately 100,000 people) is decorated with steel structures resembling arcs and palm trees that represent Cuban identity and unity.
A statue of Jose Marti protecting a child in his arms is one of the central features of the platform. This large square today hosts a number of big events including rallies and concerts, such as the performance given by Major Lazer back in 2016.
Dining and drinking with views to the Malecon
If strolling through the Malecon gets a little too intense under the relentless Havana heat, rest assured there are many places to take a break and refill your energy with thirst-quenching drinks and delicious food. Some of the venues situated right on the promenade are the charming Nazdarovie, a Soviet-themed restaurant with delicious Russian dishes, Castropol, an excellent seaside option specialising in seafood and paellas, and La Chucheria, a more laid-back venue offering delicious snack-style meals, including sandwiches, burgers and pizza.
Others, although not directly on the promenade, are in close proximity and offer amazing views to Havana’s bay, such as the Jazz Cafe and the 3D Cafe in Miramar, two excellent spots for dining and for enjoying nocturnal entertainment. The first, as you must have guessed from the name, offers live performances by talented local jazz artists every evening, whilst the second has special guests each night, usually singers and comedians.
Creating your own Malecon memories
No matter the length of your stay in Havana, make time and space for a stroll down the city’s dazzling maritime promenade. Whether you prefer to take time for yourself as you peacefully watch the waves or would rather share sitting on the seawall with a group of friends or that special someone, make sure that El Malecon becomes part of your Havana memories.