Cuba’s capital city, Havana, is one of the worlds most exciting cities to visit. Well, at least that is what we at Havana Adventures think anyway. It’s uniqueness inspires the imagination, and it’s rich and colourful history fascinates. After more than half a century of relative isolation, Havana is fast becoming more accessible. Right now could perhaps be the best time ever to experience the wonders of Cuba’s capital. The ways of life of the residents under the socialist revolution are still very much in evidence, and the culture of the Cubans that has intensified in isolation, insulated from the rest of the world, is for the moment largely preserved, while at the same time, for the first time in more than 50 years, services for visitors to Havana have reached levels of comfort that are acceptable for even travellers on the more fussy end of the spectrum. It’s an adventurous destination, seemingly on the verge of massive change.
Havana is divided into several distinct zones. Understanding these is an important start to discovering the city and uncovering it’s mysteries. The zones that are of most interest to the visitor are:
- Old Havana - the colonial core
- Vedado - the newer centre of business and commerce, since the early 1900’s, and residence for some of the wealthier Cubans
- Central Havana - the area in between these two that is also framed to the north by the Atlantic ocean
Apart form these 3 main tourist zones, other areas of Havana that are of interest to the visitor are:
- The area across the bay from Old Havana where the fortresses of El Morro and La Cabana were built to protect the city
- Miramar - the suburb beyond Vedado to the West where the wealthiest residents lived in the 1950’s and where many of those mansions are now used as embassies and consulates
- Playas del Este - a stretch of beaches about 30 minutes East of Havana, and
- Jaimanitas further west of Miramar where the street art barrio of Fusterlandia is located
Old Havana (or Havana Vieja as it is known locally), is the main area of interest for the vast majority of tourists that visit Havana. As you would guess by it’s title, it’s the oldest area of Havana. A majority of the buildings are more than 100 years old and many date from the 18th century when Havana was going through one of its growth spurts. There are said to be more than 900 buildings of historical importance with architectural styles ranging from Baroque to Art Deco all on show. Originally, in the colonial days, this part of town was encircled by a 1.5m thick and 10m high wall to protect the residents from attacks from pirates, buccaneers, and filibusters (these 3 names are different versions of basically the same thing - different types of organised thieves some of which were sponsored for a time by competing colonial powers such as England and Holland). The impressive wall was built by African slave labour and today there are only a few sections of it remaining - one of these is near the police station down into Old Havana from the main steps of the Capitolio, and some better sections are near the main train station on the far south edge of the Old Havana.
Today the old part of the city is a pretty happening place. There is a lot of tourism and tourists, but also a large number (about 70,000 at last count) of locals that live in the area. So it’s not difficult, nor far, to head away from the main tourist streets (such as Obispo and Mercaderes) and feel like you are in an authentic part of town amongst the locals doing their own thing and going about their daily routines. The streets are narrow and buildings generally about 3 stories tall, so it’s a densely populated and buzzing atmosphere. There isn’t much motorised traffic in these streets either - mostly pedestrians and bicycle taxis - so simply going off exploring on foot in a random direction in Old Havana makes for an interesting and (being quite flat terrain) pleasant experience. You will for sure have some unexpected and fascinating experiences and encounters. Havana Adventures runs a walking tour of Old Havana with daily departures.
The fact that such a large population of locals live in this most popular and central tourist area of town is largely a result of what seems to be a well run, smartly operated, and quite responsible restoration organisation that has a certain autonomy in its own special zone with its own unique rules within Cuba called Habaguanex.
It’s been led for some time now by one of Cuba’s internally most respected people - Eusebio Leal.
The vision this man and his team have been working on is the restoration of the oldest and most important buildings of Old Havana while maintaining an authentic neighbourhood of locals who live and work in this part of the city. It’s no small task. It involves temporarily relocating whole buildings of residents in temporary housing so that their building can be restored. You may be able to spot some of this temporary housing (it stands out because of its plastic looking modern style) if you do wander away from the main tourists streets of Old Havana.
What’s perhaps even more impressive, is that the money needed to be raised to fund the restoration works of the buildings in Old Havana, comes directly from taxes of local businesses. These taxes also go to funding the schools and aged care facilities, and the like, as well. So in effect, the taxes earned from tourists visiting Old Havana goes pretty much straight back into the restoration works that should (and most likely, will) bring more tourists to Havana, and to fund the community services in the same area of town. The fact that the locals, by large part, haven’t been kicked out, means that this development and restoration is carried out in a sustainable way for the benefit of the locals themselves. Some Cubans will tell you that a system such as this that is running efficiently in practice, is by far an exception to the way things normally work in Cuba which is typically characterised by lack of resources, inefficiencies, corruption, and poor organisation and maintenance.
The typical walking tours of Old Havana such as the one that Havana Adventures runs, last about 3 hours, and will take you on a route that passes through 4 of the impressive old plazas of the old city - The Cathedral Plaza, The Plaza de Armas, The Plaza de San Fransisco, and the Plaza Vieja as well as visiting some interesting buildings along the way.
Sandwiched in between the suburbs of Old Havana and Vedado is the area of Havana called Central Havana or “Centro Habana”. It’s the barrio where you will probably feel Cuba at it’s most intense. It is similar to Old Havana in character and style - most of the buildings here, while not as old as those in Old Havana, are still very old and many of them are of historical interest and heritage value - however there is less glamour and grandeur, and fewer tourists.
For many visitors, this is authentic Havana at its grittiest, and earthiest best - narrow streets with old crumbling buildings and full of locals who are not placed there for tourists, but rather because this is their home. You will see them working, going to school, socialising, and going about their daily lives. Watch out for the old American cars if you need to step off the footpath. Cuban’s use the big old American cars as a form of collective public transport and many of the set routes that these maquinas (or almendrones, or boteros as they are known locally), run from Old Havana through the narrow streets of Central Havana, through to the further afield suburbs of Vedado, Miramar, Marianao, and La Ceguera.
Wherever you are in Central Havana, the bay of Havana and the sea side promenade of El Malecon, are never far away. It’s a straight, gentle declined stroll down any of the transversing streets to get there, and this is exactly what many of the local residents do on a weekly or daily basis - to breathe some fresh air, socialise, have a romantic encounter, or simply to get away from the cramped living conditions that many of them live in.
Heading away from the Malecon on the South end of Central Havana, and towards Old Havana you’ll find Havana’s China Town in an area behind the Capitolio. The Chinese came to Cuba in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as labourers, living on miserly wages, and replacing the African slaves after slavery had finally been abolished. Their settlement concentrated itself in this corner of Havana. Most of the Chinese left with the triumph of the revolution in 1959, and only relatively few people with Chinese facial characteristics are left in the area. However the neighbourhood retained it’s characteristics and it’s here that you can find some of the better economical restaurant options in Havana.
Close to the border between Old Havana and Central Havana is the fetching tree-lined boulevard called “El Prado” which runs all the way from the bay up to Central Park and then past the Capitolio and Havana’s most expensive hotel - The Saratoga. It was around this Prado that, back in the day, a Sunday evening ritual of horse carriage riding was carried out by the city's richest residents up and down the Prado as a social tradition. The street has retained its charms, and for many (locals and visitors alike) this is a favourite area of Havana - a space in the middle of the city where children play, artists perform all in the shade of some beautiful big trees. The buildings either side are impressive - a ballet school, a Basque cultural centre, a marriage “palace” and an historic hotel once run by the Mafia (the Hotel Sevilla) among them.
At the other end of Central Havana next to Vedado is the neighbourhood of Cayo Hueso, a place mentioned in the songs of the dual Grammy winning Cuban hip hop / rap band Los Orishas. Being traditionally a poorer neighbourhood compared to the adjacent Vedado and Old Havana, Central Havana ended up with a high proportion of Cubans with African descent. It’s in this Cayo Hueso corner of Central Havana where the African ancestry is most apparent. Cuba’s best rumba music venue - El Palacio de La Rumba - is located here facing Parque de Trillo, and nearby in a small alleyway called Callejon de Hamel, there are rumba dance and drumming sessions every Sunday at 12 noon. This alleyway is now days very colourful and highly decorated, and it is here that Havana Adventures runs a daily tour with a local guide who is an expert in the subject of Afro-Cuban religions. These religions of varying levels of syncretism, form an integral part of Cuban culture today, and elements of these religions can be found in wider Cuban society, such as through African words that have found their way into the Cuban coloquial lexicon, or in the particular way Cubans practice Catholicism. A significant proportion of Cubans (about 1 in 10) are thought to be followers one of the Afro-Cuban religions.
More recently Central Havana has become known as the location of some of Cuba’s best and most famous paladares (privately run Cuban restaurants). On their visits to Cuba, both President Obama and Beyonce dined in restaurants in Central Havana. La Guarida, San Cristobal, and Miglis, are some of the most celebrated. Havana’s most famous music house - La Casa de La Musica - is also located in Central Havana. In fact there are 2 of these, the other one is located in Vedado.
Being adjacent to both Old Havana and Vedado, and close to the Malecon, Central Havana represents a convenient neighbourhood in which to stay to explore Havana, as well as a interesting choice if you want to have a more intense version of authentic Havana.
Vedado is sometimes referred to as “New Havana”. There is truth to this moniker as Vedado, compared to Old Havana and Central Havana is a much more recently built suburb and where there was a concentration of commerce and business during the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, Vedado is actually quite old itself, with pretty much all the buildings having been constructed before 1960, and since many of the buildings have been poorly maintained since then, it’s appearance, like that of Old Havana and Central Havana, is still one of decay and deterioration and one which transports you to a different era, stimulating the imagination and the senses.
While Old Havana is the principal destination within Havana for most tourists, Vedado is definitely worth spending some time visiting. It’s where the Mafia concentrated their investment in Cuba in the 1950’s, building casinos and hotels like the bayside Hotel Riviera and the recently renovated Hotel Capri. The most impressive building in Vedado for many visitors to Cuba is the palatial Hotel Nacional. It sits on a high point at the end of Vedado’s main street “Calle 23”. From the garden at the front of the building there are some great views to contemplate the city of Havana. While you are sipping on a mojito in the garden bar, your eyes will take you along the Malecon all the way to Old Havana, across the harbour to the fortresses across the bay of Havana, then out to sea where you will reflect on the journey that so many Cubans have made (and tried to make) to get to Florida, only 90 miles away from where you sit.
Vedado is the part of Havana that most reminds the visitor of the wealthy areas of the United States in the 1950’s. Apart from the classic American 1950’s cars like the Cheverolets and Pontiacs cruising the streets, there are 1950’s cinemas, theatres, and wandering further into the residential areas, some jaw dropping mansion like houses, complete with Roman and Greek columns, front and back gardens, and large verandahs.
Within Vedado there are several places of interest including: the Colon Cemetery, The Revolution Square, The Coppelia icecream parlour, John Lennon park, the US Consulate with it’s adjoining “protestadrome” plaza - the symbolic epicentre of the conflict between the US and Cuba, and the striking Hotel Habana Libre which in pre-revolutionary days was the Habana Hilton.
Vedado is also where some of the nicer private guesthouses, are located. Rooms in such guesthouses are generally a bit more spacious and more likely to have windows to outside areas, than those in the more cramped neighbourhoods of Central Havana and Old Havana. There are also plenty of bars, restaurants, and music clubs (including a couple of excellent live venue Jazz bars). So it’s a good choice of suburb to stay in and alternative to the more sought-after Old Havana, especially for those who like a little extra space and more peace and quiet. It’s also only a short (10 minutes at the most) taxi drive to Old Havana along the Malecon.