Sasha Arms explores the unique and unpredictable museum scene of Havana, and reveals her five favourite options for oddball culture in the ever-surprising Cuban capital.
Few would argue that Havana is a city of intense contrasts and the unexpected – rapidly evolving and recreating itself almost on a daily basis. While guidebooks and keen travellers document the ‘best’ and ‘most Cuban’ of Havana experiences, other travellers will turn up on another day and encounter a totally different situation to their travel-predecessors. The museum scene in Havana is no different. While the likes of the Museum of the Revolution and the National Museum of Fine Arts are well-stomped stop-off points for visitors to the city, Habaneros are also fans of single-roomed, homespun odes to peculiar facets of history or culture. Stumble upon that makeshift ‘museo’ sign and chances are you’re on to a winner. They may be open or closed according to the mood of the proprietor, or even there one day or gone the next. It’s like London’s fascination with all things pop-up, Havana style.
Playing Card Museum (Museo de Naipes)
Whether you’re a fan of card games or not, Havana’s Playing Card Museum is one museum worth visiting for the sheer geekiness of it. There are 2,000 sets of playing cards that now call this museum home, the oldest dating back to the late 1800s. Designs include depictions from countries as far flung as Japan and Russia, caricatures of Hollywood actors such as Robin Williams and Sean Connery, cards with an educational quality to explain how people dress in other regions, and a set of cards designed by a prisoner, who apparently found an alternative-yet-creative way to pass the time. If a mere browse around is not exciting enough for you, other services offered by the museum include “guided visits, specialist consultations, technical advice and presentations of curious specimens”.
Havana Pharmacy Museum (Museo de la Farmacia Habanera)
Habaneros have a bit of a fascination with museums of the pharmaceutical nature, as the Museo de la Farmacia Habanera is one of two pharmacy museums in the city (the other is the Farmacia Museo Taquechel). It’s no secret that Cuba is a world leader in terms of healthcare, both in terms of the access to healthcare for citizens and the number of doctors the country trains, so this is doubtless part of the pride embodied in the pharmaceutical museum trend. The Havana Pharmacy Museum dates back to the 1800s and as well as a museum dedicated to capturing the provision of medicine for Cubans, is also a working pharmacy for Cubans to this day. The contrast of the nineteenth century mock-up of the store against the working pharmacy is both quaint and striking.
Calle Brasil (between Calles Compostela and Habana)
Car Museum (Museo del Automovil)
Tucked away behind an unassuming façade in the centre of Havana, the Car Museum is packed to the rafters with old classic cars leftover from the US years. How they squeezed them into these two tiny rooms remains a mystery and how they’ll get them out again is even less certain, although some taxi drivers in the city would no doubt be anxious to play swapsies given the excellent condition of some of the cars they’d see as still having plenty of life left in them yet. Non-car fans will marvel at the aged designs and mysteries of times past, while motor fanatics will whoop over the Baby Lincoln, the Cadillac V16 and 1959 Oldsmobile. There are also horse-drawn carriages (minus the horses), a hearse, steam engines, tractors and a fire department truck.
Presidential Car Museum (El Coche Mambi)
Turn a random corner in Havana’s old town and you may well be confronted by a train carriage in pristine condition, also known as El Coche Mambi Museum. It’s surprising to see a train carriage apparently dumped so randomly and unceremoniously in the street, not least because few things look so shiny, sparkly and new in Havana. The train carriage was built in the US, as are many of the transportation relics on Cuban roads, and was brought over to Cuba in the early 1900s to be used by Presidents traversing Cuba’s rail network. This presidential carriage has been preserved as it was used back in the day, with bedrooms for the President and his wife, bathrooms, cool storage facilities for food, a kitchen, a dining room and the President’s desk – each one grand and luxurious and a deep contrast to the streets to be seen outside the window today.
Chocolate Museum (Museo del Chocolate)
Pretty much anything can be considered a museum in Havana, as Havana’s Chocolate Museum illustrates. More of a café than a museum, it makes it’s museum-worthy nod to history with the odd trinket displayed relating to the history of chocolate in the country. Forget traipsing around musty exhibits, what people really come here for is to indulge. In the drink form, both hot and cold chocolate is on the menu – although it’s so thick and gloopy you’re often better off eating it with a spoon. Everything is hand-made on site and comes in all colours, consistencies, shapes and sizes – get there early in the day to ensure there’s actually some left. Fans of bitter dark chocolate will be especially amused by their visit – the ‘museum’ is located on none other than Calle Amargura (Bitterness Street).
Calle Amargura (near Calle Mercaderes)
Read our Havana travel guide for more about the Cuban capital, including eating out, nightlife, hotels and all the top sights.