Cuba may not be your first port of call for classical music and dance, but a deeper look into its artistic heritage and culture reveals a country worthy of global artistic recognition. The island’s streets resound with cow bells, improvised guitar melodies, shrill saxophones, brassy trumpets and intense African beats. From the moment you step off the plane it is clear that music is at the core of Cuban life.

Music is at the heart of life in Cuba © Greg Montani
Music is at the heart of life in Cuba
© Greg Montani

In addition to the traditional boleros, salsa, rumba, jazz and other musical styles that have sprung from Cuba’s colonial past, there is an exceptionally high level of dance and classical music on offer, not often seen on the Latin American continent. On the whole, this has to do with leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who not only believed in free education and healthcare but also had dreams of turning their "island of dance" into a global artistic destination. Just one year after the revolution, world renowned Alicia Alonso, a Cuban principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York, returned to Havana to found her own ballet company, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company which later became the Cuba's National Ballet company. With its attached school (the Cuban National Ballet School) cultivating young talents such as Carlos Acosta, José Manuel Carreño, Xiomara Reyes, Yonah Acosta, Alejandro Virelles, Javier Torres ... and the International Ballet Festival (which is hosted every two years in Havana) , Alonso's company established itself as one of the best classical ensembles in the world.

 So where to begin in this nostalgic and often chaotic land? We begin as most do, in the streets of Havana, which is the country’s electric capital and central hub – just don't say this out loud if you are in Santiago de Cuba, the former capital, where African musical heritage reigns and salsa and rum overflow onto the streets. In Havana, the support and funding that have been given to the arts are made evident simply by wandering along the city's main street, the Paseo del Prado (officially Paseo de Martí) which is flanked by lions, lined by verdant trees and reminiscent of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. As you stroll under the shade of the trees you will come across several artists’ easels, buskers and dancing couples.

Music and art are taught to all at school, unlike in other countries where it has been dropped as essential subject. Normally, when it comes to a government on a budget, funding for the arts is the first to be cut, but not here.

Along the Paseo del Prado you’ll find the recently renovated Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, named in honour of the prima ballerina. It’s the National Ballet’s and the Ballet Festival’s stage, also showcasing operas, zarzuelas (a traditional form of Spanish comic operetta), operettas and concerts from company Centre Pro-Art Lírico throughout the year. First funded by the Galician immigrants who came to Cuba soon after its independence, the Gran Teatro is Cuba’s oldest theatre, and the ornate building itself is worth a visit even if you don’t get to see a production.

Cuba's National Theatre - el Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso © BarbeeAnne
Cuba's National Theatre - el Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso
© BarbeeAnne

Another impressive architectural feat is the Teatro Auditorium Amadeo Roldán, named in honour of the Cuban composer and violinist. It opened in 1928, was refurbished after the revolution, restored after a fire in 1977 and finally reopened in 1999. Surprisingly, the building has managed to retain much of its original splendour, and today it is home to the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.

Continuing on your way to Havana’s Plaza Vieja, you will pass by the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, on Calle Obispo, a lively pedestrianised street. This small but enchanting 17th-century church does not have fixed opening hours or, in fact, a telephone, but announcements about classical music events are clearly written on notices exhibited at the front. Once you reach the Plaza Vieja, you can also visit Latin America’s only Camera Obscura. It’s a great way to get an overview of this metropolis: you can see all the way out to the wealthy Vedado neighbourhood, about 3 miles away. On the square you’ll find the high-ceilinged, pastel blue Cafe Bohemia, which serves up delicious smoothies and light Italian lunches.

Entrance to San Francisco de Asis Basilica © Alicia Tompsett
Entrance to San Francisco de Asis Basilica
© Alicia Tompsett
Around the corner, on the Plaza de San Francisco, you’ll find the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis and the convent of the same name. After the British Invasion of Havana, the church was used in Anglican services and ceremonies, which meant that once the Spanish returned it was no longer deemed suitable for Catholic worship. Today, the church is one of Havana’s finest concert halls, home to the Camerata Romeu, a well-known all-female chamber orchestra in Cuba. The nave also houses the Museum of Sacred Art and smaller art exhibitions. The real place to go for art, however, is of course the National Museum of Fine Art, or Museo de Bellas Artes, which is conveniently located across the road from the Revolution museum, so you can get your dose of history and art all in one. In the same area is the locally celebrated restaurant, Donde Lis, where you’ll find typical dishes and tasty Cuban cocktails.

Interestingly, Cuba’s classical music delights do not stop at the capital city. The colonial city of Cienfuegos, also known as the Paris of Cuba, is home to Teatro Tomás Terry, a theatre built to resemble London’s Royal Albert Hall, though much smaller and incorporates French and Italian influences. The theatre is currently undergoing restoration, like much of Cuba itself, but it is still open to the public and worth a visit. The city has a wealth of art and music, with thriving outdoor restaurants and a main House of Culture on the principal square. At the end of Cienfuegos, overlooking the sea, is the peculiar Palacio de Valle. Whilst its ornate façade makes it look like you should be somewhere in Morocco, the interior echoes a luxurious European palace.

Most tourists will do a western-central tour of the island beginning in Havana, passing by the nature-rich valley of Viñales, onto the historic Bay of Pigs, followed by Cienfuegos and the pastel-coloured city of Trinidad – which was originally founded for the sugar trade. On your way back to Havana, be sure to stop at Santa Clara, where you will be able to visit Che Guevara’s statue and witness the historical places that marked the beginnings of the Cuban Revolution.

Cuba has an air of revolutionary magic about it, so it’s not surprising to see it raise so many artistic talents. Dancer Carlos Acosta claims that Cuba has a real “potential to become an artistic destination for the world”, for him Cuba is his source of life and inspiration. After visiting this striking Caribbean island, it’s not hard to see why.

The Cuban countryside (Viñales) © Alicia Tompsett
The Cuban countryside (Viñales)
© Alicia Tompsett