El Capitolio is one of the most emblematic buildings in Cuba. Yet I’ve passed by it for a year without ever wanting to enter.
I’m not fussy about going to museums and galleries and I’ve spent most of my time in Havana just walking around.
For me, Cuban culture is in its streets.
However, when Havana opened the Cuban capitol building for its 500th anniversary I was curious. While it’s not complete, so many people raved about it I had to go see for myself.
Sure I may not want to see museums when I’m just visiting a place for a week, but if I’ve been here over a year I have no excuse not to pop in.
I now understand why people were gushing with pride over the building. It’s an opulent building that is being beautifully restored.
And while I’m not one to spend hours in a museum, it was a quick 35 minute tour through the building.
If you travel to Cuba, you don’t want to miss it. Here’s why:
Why You’ll Want to See El Capitolio
Much like the recently restored Gran Manzana Hotel, El Capitolio is one of the most palatial buildings in Havana.
It was built when Cuba was in a prosperous period. The price of its key export sugar cane, tripled from high demand, as Russian sugar beet fields has been destroyed from World War I.
El Capitolio was part of General Gerardo Machado’s City Embellishment Plan. Machado was initially a very popular President in Cuba who wanted to make the country the “Switzerland of the Americas.”
MORE ABOUT CUBA
Unfortunately when sugar cane prices fell, so did Cuba’s prosperity. Although Machado promised to serve only one term, he mistakenly decided to run for a second.
In that term he misused police force and quelled free speech. He was forced to step down went from being revered to now often described as a dictator.
However, the grandiose capitol building was completed before all of this.
Inaugurated in 1929, it is the work of many engineers, architects and 5000 workers (although some say up to 8000). It cost the equivalent of 17 million US dollars.
Incredibly, it took only three years to build in the Cuban capital.
Much of the tools were imported to complete the work, as well as the construction material. This lavish structure included 60 types of marble, most notably Carrera marble from Colonnata Italy.
A Replica of the Washington Capitol?
The first time I saw El Capitolio, my Cuban friend shared that it is just like the Capitol building in the United States. He added with pride that it is a meter taller, longer, wider and more beautiful.
I had no reason to question any of that. While I haven’t seen the Capitol in Washington DC, it looks pretty much the same to me.
And it also made sense as it was built during prohibition when the United States (and the mafia) had their hands busy in Havana owning many hotels and bars selling American vacationers Cuba Libre cocktails.
It turns out NONE of this is true at all.
Although it was constructed primarily by Cubans, El Capitolio is not based on the United States Capitol building.
Many buildings around the world have similar neoclassical domed characteristics. The Cuban architect Eugenio Rayneri Piedra says the cupola was inspired by the Pantheon, which was inspired by Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio built by Bramante in 1502. Others remark that the building has similarities to the capitol in Buenos Aires, which is based on Rome’s Monte Capitolino.
That said, Havana’s capitol does have many architectural similarities to Washington’s. There are also two wings as it was originally created to be the home for the senate and the house of representatives.
What Happened After the Cuban Revolution
El Capitolio Nacional was used from 1929 – 1959. Prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the political system of Cuba looked much like the United States.
However, with the revolution there was no longer a need to house a congress.
From 1959 onward the Cuba Capitol was primarily the home of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology.
With this restoration, it will be the future home to Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, which is currently located at the Plaza de la Revolución.
Facts on the Side: Cubans Elections
Cuba has a one-party system with The Communist Party of Cuba, and Cubans do not vote for their president. Initially it was Fidel Castro, then his brother Raul Castro, and now Miguel Diaz-Canel.
However, Cubans do vote for members of the National Assembly, a municipal group that is home to 609 seats. Multiple people can run for a seat in a region, and all members must receive 50% of the vote to be elected. Voting is mandatory.
When the presidency moved from Fidel to Raul, Cubans were already familiar with Raul. He was part of the revolution and the transition made sense.
Raul was well liked before and his presidency included many changes including opening up private business in Cuba with paladares (private restaurants) and casa particulares (room and apartment rentals).
However, when the transition from Raul to President Diaz-Canel was announced, some Cubans expressed disappointment that they were not also permitted to vote for President as they do for the National Assembly.
When it transitioned from Raul many Cubans expressed the desire to vote who should be leader of the Communist Party of Cuba. They weren’t asking for a democratic society, just to vote as they did with the assembly.
This may have been because many did not have experience with President Diaz-Canel, although he had been in the party for years. They were unsure of Cuba’s future, and if he would continue the path of Fidel’s original vision or forge a new one.
President Diaz-Canel did bring some change. In February 2019 Cuba held a constitutional referendum to change some aspects of the constitution from 1976.
To outsiders the yes vote appeared like an overwhelming success but it was the lowest this party had ever encountered. Some Cubans complained the government wasn’t changing enough.
One of the points of contention was gay marriage, which was originally on the revisions but due to pressure from churches it was removed. Others felt the changes helped wealthy Cubans prosper but didn’t do enough for the working class (yes there ARE classes in Cuba).
Some voted no, and others abstained in protest. Voting was mandatory, although not voting wasn’t enforced.
Only time will tell as Cuba continues to deal with issues from the embargo, the economy and demands from tourism. Always complicated, the country continues to change.
The Restoration Process
Havana’s Historical Office started the restoration in 2010 after it was declared a national monument. Fortunately some of the original plans remained and were digitized to help the process.
It has taken a long time to restore because they first needed to evaluate the state of the building and what could be restored without causing further damage.
When I visited it was possible to see the north side but not the south as it is being restored in regions, allowing visitors to see the progress.
The roof had been leaking so it was tackled first. Yet they couldn’t simply fix the roof, they needed to understand why it was leaking and what supporting walls needed to be replace. Moreover, like everything in Cuba, the embargo slows things down as all materials need to come from Mexico or Western Europe.
A true restoration, the project did not attempt to simply make El Capitolio look as it once had. But strived to use the same materials that were originally used.
In some cases this was easy. For example, the marble quarries are still operating. However, in other cases it was more difficult, particularly with the chandeliers as some had disappeared over the years and some pieces were missing. They worked with a team in Mexico that specialized in onyx to recreate pieces of the chandelier.
New elements have been added for comfort and necessity. Fire protection and security alarms now exist, and central air conditioning exists in some rooms – which was much welcomed on the tour as it’s a warm building in some areas.
But that again came with new challenges as hey needed to create air ducts and upgrade plumbing.
Not all rooms have air conditioning as it wasn’t possible to do without destroying some of the existing design.
What Not to Miss at El Capitolio
It’s a quick 35 minute tour through through El Capitolio, but there are some aspects inside and out that you do not want to miss.
The outside is landscaped with French-inspired gardens. Walking up the 55 steps you can be easily overwhelmed by the gargantuan building. Reaching the top to the portico, there are 12 giant Roman-style granite columns and Italian sculptures anchoring both sides.
The tour begins inside so it’s best to come a bit early to appreciate the exterior, including the doors. If the group is large it’s not always easy to get a close look at things.
Italian Bronze Statues
There are two bronze statues, over 20 feet tall, at the entrance. They were created by Italian sculptor Angel Zanelli.
The statue on the left represents work, and the one on the right signifies virtue.
It’s worth coming here a bit early to avoid the crowds to look at the three bronze doors and bas-reliefs above them.
These illustrations share important events prior to the revolution, something tourists often don’t see. Most storytelling is dedicated to the revolution and post-revolution, but Cuba has a long history of conflict and struggle.
Hall of the Lost Steps – Salón de los Pasos Perdidos
Opening the doors you step into the massive hall. Its name comes from its incredible feat of acoustics, as it silences sound with its high ornate ceilings.
When I arrived there were so many people in the hall but barely any noise.
It is easy to get lost in the gold-plated detailing on the ceiling, the incredible marble floors and imported French lamps. However, once you get in immediately take photos otherwise members of your tour group will photo bomb them.
The neoclassical dome has a height of 92 m. Exactly one meter higher than the dome in Washington DC. The artwork underneath the dome with gold plating is beautiful.
Directly under the dome and in front of the statue of La Republica, is kilometre zero of Cuba’s main highway that connects Cuban cities. It is the starting point for all distances from Havana.
This point was marked with a 25-carat diamond from the crown of Czar Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. Rumour has it that the government bought it from a Turkish merchant.
Although the diamond was stolen in 1946, it was mysteriously returned after a few months. It is now in Central Bank and has been replaced in the Capitolio Nacional with a replica.
Estatua de la República (Statue of the Republic)
Unfortunately I could not see the bronze Republic sculpture symbolizing Cuban nationalism as they are restoring its 22 carat gold plating on the statue as well as the cupola that surrounds her.
Angelo Zanelli also created La Republica, at over 50 feet tall, it is the third latest indoor statue in the world – next to the gold Buddha in Nara, Japan and the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC.
It weighs 49 tons and was sculpted in Rome and then shipped to Cuba in three pieces.
The statue was modelled after Ceole Cuban model Lily Valty. Some say the statue is Jupiter, but it’s unconfirmed. Zanelli says the inspiration was Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.
Italian Renaissance Hall
Leaving the main hall, you enter the Italian Renaissance Hall, which is marked with a large statue for Cuba’s national hero Jose Marti. You can find statues of Marti all over Cuba, easily identifiable with his trademark bushy moustache.
Although he died in 1895, he is considered one of the most important authors, poets, and politicans in Cuba. He wrote many political theories and was a philosopher. Marti was vocal about Cuba’s need to become independent from Spain.
It’s not surprising that the room dedicated to him once included a huge mahogany-paneled library. However, it is currently without books as the team works on the very detailed walls and ceiling.
The Capitolio’s gardens were designed by landscape artist Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier. The Frenchman also designed the the Paseo del Prado as well as the park that surrounds the Eiffel Tower.
The classic gardens feature walkways with many flowers and were inspired by gardens in Europe. However, these gardens also include Royal Palm trees, the official tree of Cuba.
How To Plan a Trip to El Capitolio
Although most things in Cuba are complicated, this is one of the things that is not! I had no idea what the rules were to visit El Capitolio. I just showed up, asked where to buy a ticket and fortunately the next tour was in five minutes.
But you may want to know a few things first:
Where is El Capitolio
In Old Havana it is difficult to miss. The entrance to this giant domed building is on the southern end of El Paseo de Marti, better known as “Prado”. It is flanked by the streets of Dragones, Industria, and San José.
Prado is a giant promenade that runs all the way from the Malecon to El Capitolio and divides the neighbourhoods of Centro and Old Havana.
It is next to Parque Central, the Gran Teatro de La Habana (home to the national ballet) and the main bus station for Havana’s hop on hop off bus stop that goes to Havana beaches.
Food Lover Pro Tip:
After you go to the capitol building walk across the street to a little local spot that sells congrejitos (pronounced con-grey-hitos), which are warm pastries that have guava jam in them.
If you haven’t had guava, it is one of the most popular Cuban fruit and well worth trying.
They are a popular Cuban food, and ridiculously cheap. This spot across the street is known as the best place to get them. You’ll see a line of locals and when it’s your turn tell them how many you want.
They are served warm and they are amazing.
BE SURE to have one dollar bills or change to pay as they are cheap and they’ll be annoyed to change a large bill.
Where to Get Tickets for El Capitolio
Many tour operators are now including it as part of a package. As well, they often offer individual tours in the building.
However, you can also just head over and buy a ticket.
There are two ticket booths just to the left of the stairs. The one on the left is for Cubans, on the right is for tourists. The price for Cubans is 10CUP and for tourists is 10CUC, children under 12 are free.
Although you can often use Cuba’s two currencies interchangeably, this is one of the few spots where tourists must use CUC and Cubans must use CUP.
Confused about money? Check out this post on Cuba’s currency.
El Capitolio Tour Times
There are tours scheduled in Spanish and English daily (closed on Mondays).
Fortunately, tours are about 35 minutes long. Although they allow you to lag around afterwards to take photos in the main hall. You cannot visit El Capitolio without a tour.
Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays: 10am, 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm 4pm
Wednesdays: 10am, 11am 12pm
Sundays 10am, 11am, 12pm
Map of Havana
You will definitely not miss this building, but I’ve pinned el Capitolio Havana Cuba on this map.
I also highly recommend downloading maps.me, which is what Cubans use as you can download the map of Cuba to use offline.
For more tips on essential apps for Cuba, check out my best tips for internet in cuba.
Pin it For Later: Best Things to Do in Cuba
Image of La Republica has been released into public domain. You can find the original source here.
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