Havana was founded on November the 16th of 1519 by the Spanish conqueror Diego Velázquez. This city represents the main economic and socio-cultural centre of the nation. Havana is called as the capital of all the Cubans, as many people from around the country have decided to move this city. The population is about 2.1 million people, but the floating population is estimated to be around half a million.
Havana architecture is a confluence of different styles, predominating colonial in the oldest part of the city, and more widely Art Deco, eclectic and modern styles. In 1976, UNESCO gave the Havana’s Historical Centre the status of World Heritage. Amongst other six cities around the world, Havana has been recently recognized as Wonder City according to the New 7 Wonders voting campaign.
Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
Habana Vieja stands for the historical part of the city, only space in which Havana was placed during the first centuries of colony. The main fortresses and ancient monuments of the city are located here. The architecture reveals the city’s colonial influences, featuring different styles like baroque ( Cathedral of Havana) and Art Deco (Edificio Bacardí). A place to visit is definitely the Capitol, an eclectic style building, small replica of the one in Washington.
Habana Vieja has a vast collection of interesting places to visit, including great museums, parks, shops and restaurants. In contrast to other cities, which have a central open-air plaza, Havana Vieja has not only a principal square, but several, each one with different features that make them unique. A good way to scour about Habana Vieja is hoping from one square to another. You can start walking along Obispo boulevard to reach the Plaza de Armas. Near there you can visit the Plaza de la Catedral and then go to the harbour side. The next one is the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, where you can explore the convent. The last square is the Plaza Vieja, site of an extensive tourist complex.
This is the downtown of the city, home of the former upper classes. This residential area has some of the most affluent houses of the Republican period. It also stands out for their harmonious combination of parallel streets and wide avenues full of trees, highlighting the 23 Street, main artery of the city. The buildings are mainly of modern style, but some of them show eclectic characteristics, like the majestic Universidad de La Habana (University of Havana). There are a number of theatres, museums, restaurants and hotels, standing out the renowned Hotel Nacional (National Hotel). Here is where the tallest buildings in the city are located: the FOCSA and the “Habana Libre” Hotel.
Vedado is famous for including the Havana’s largest network of cinemas. Those located at La Rampa and the corner of 23 y 12 Streets, are the main ones that host the prestigious Havana Film Festival. During the day, there is a hectic activity and a great movement of people, whilst at night comes alive the cultural face of the city. A favourite place for Cubans to meet is the Malecón (the seawall), who stretches along all the coast of Vedado.
Miramar is the residential district of the municipality of Playa. It was synonym of exclusiveness in the Republican period, but still today living there is recognized as a great spin. Some of the sumptuous mansions of the former aristocracy are now used as offices and embassies.
You can find the Karl Marx theatre, the usual venue for concerts by prominent Cuban musicians, and other cultural events. An excellent place to appreciate Cuban music here is the Casa de la Música, where you can watch live performances and enjoy a variety of gastronomic offers. There are also some coastal hotels such as the Meliá Habana, Memories Miramar and Panorama. Another important place is the Miramar Trade Centre, a mixed-use complex and headquarters of some commercial agencies. You can also visit the National Aquarium and attend the dolphins and seals show.
Playas del Este
Havana has a large coastal zone, but only the eastern part of Havana is full of tropical beaches, which extend from the eastern exit of the tunnel below the Bay of Havana. There are several beaches, namely Bacuranao, Tarará, El Mégano, Santa María del Mar, Boca Ciega, Guanabo and Jibacoa. You can travel to them via the taxis or buying a return ticket for the buses leaving Old Havana every half an hour.
Most of the beaches are surrounded by nature, except for Tarará community, Boca Ciega and Guanabo which are small towns. There is a variety of hotels if you want to stay the night, but there is the option of the hostels. Especially Guanabo is well known for having a number of hostels and paladares for tourist travelling to the beaches. Nevertheless, Santa María is the favourite beach to swim and go for a walk in the sand, alongside many locals who choose to come here in the spare time. If you’re into water sports, you can hire a sailing boat or an aquatic bike or go scuba diving and appreciate the beautiful coral reefs, particularly in Bacuranao and Jibacoa. Playas del Este is a good choice for those who want to unwind far away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
Centro Habana is a neighbourhood located between Vedado and Habana Vieja. It was a supply zone of the latter in the first decades since the city foundation. In the 18th century the construction of the streets began, amongst them the famous Belascoaín, San Lázaro and Reina. Nowadays, Centro is a heavily built-up area, being the most densely populated neighbourhood in Havana. The main characteristics of their buildings are the fully decorated facades and the balconies above the narrow pavements. It is essentially a trade area, with a variety of shops, markets and business centres. There are plenty of nice restaurants; amongst them you can find the popular La Guarida and Paladar San Cristóbal. The neo-gothic architecture of the Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón stands out over other buildings near the corner of Belascoaín and Reina.
Cayo Hueso is a small neighbourhood within Centro Habana and near the Malecón. It was founded in 1990, and it owes the name to the Spanish pronunciation of the words Key West, referred to the southern key of the Florida state in the US. This is a very historical area, where several events related to the revolutionary struggles took place. An important site is the Fragua Martiana, a museum to learn part of the history of the National Heroe José Martí.
The inhabitants have always been part of the working class. They are bearers of a deeply-rooted musical legacy, and many of them are part of the comparsa “Los Componedores de Batea” (traditional music group) since 1937. Several Cuban musicians have lived or visited this neighbourhood, highlighting the greatest exponents of rumba and the Feeling movement. A can’t miss attraction is the Callejón de Hamel (Hamel’s Alley), an outdoor art gallery that worships the Afro-Cuban roots. The cultural project has a bearing on different expressions such as plastic arts, music and folkloric dance.
San Isidro neighborhood was once famous for being the region with most gambling houses and brothels in Havana. However, after the triumph of the Revolution all the buildings in this area were turned into houses and San Isidro became an average neighborhood. It is far from the historic center of the city and lacks important tourist attractions, which is why the neighborhood is often left behind by tour guides and history researches. Nevertheless, recently the neighborhood has been attracting young artists from all over the city. Art studios and cultural centers arise in San Isidro with the aim of creating a place where everyone will be able to enjoy art right on the streets.
This neighborhood appeared in 1858 on the corner of Zanja and Rayo, and 100 years later it occupied the space between the streets Zanja, Salud, Galiano and Lealtad, becoming the biggest Chinese colony of Latin America. In 1899 there were 15,000 Chinese inhabitants in Cuba of which 49 were women; in 1907 this number decreased to 11800 and in 1930 increased again to 24000. In 1867 and 1868 there already was a society of aid, a company importing Asian products, a newspaper, a luxury restaurant and a theater in Zanja and San Nicolas.
Nowadays the “barrio chino” is known for being a Chinatown with no Chinese people. There still are a few Chinese restausants, and the Lunar New Year is commemorated yearly with a dragon dance, as well as the anniversary of the first Chinese migrants to the island. Otherwise, there is nothing indicating that there was once a whole community of Asians in Cuba.
The neighborhood of Regla was founded on March 3, 1687 as a place to worship the Virgin of Regla, one of the saints most adored by Cubans. Today there are a little more than 43,000 inhabitants in the neighborhood of Regla and it extends for 10 km2. Its economy is significant for the capital of the Cubans and the whole nation; there is a petrol refinery, a container terminal, a factory of grain, a shipyard, and units that move literally all the merchandise that enters and exits the port of Havana.
The most beautiful places of the neighborhood are the church of the Virgin of Regla, the big square of Regla and the “Lanchita de Regla” that is used for crossing the bay. From Regla you can appreciate a different vision of Havana: it is the pass to the other neighborhoods of the east and of the south of the capital. Regla brings another view of the city.
The Cerro neighborhood, which is at this time pretty populous, in 1863 only had 3 streets. In those days the neighborhood was a place for office workers and diplomats par excellence. In the XX century the embassy of the United States was there for many years. In 1807 there was built a wooden church; in 1843 it was replaced by another made in masonry dedicated to San Salvador. In the hospital “La Dependiente” today known “10 de Octubre” in 1907 was realized for the first time in Cuba and second time in America a heart suture. In Cerro, you should visit Fabrica del Ron Bocoy: a distillery with old-fashioned equipment and Calzada de Cerro, where there are the mansions built in XIX and XX centuries.
In 1858 the neighborhood of Marianao was created in an area where before only was countryside. In 1911 the first neighborhood of workmen in Cuba was created here. it was in Marianao in the street Panorama number 42, where a Chinese mulatto called Wifredo Lam worked on his masterpieces. Not far from there, in 5ta San Jose, Lidia Cabrera wrote “El Monte”. And years before in this territory Carlos Juan Finlay was finishing his investigation about the transmitter of yellow fever.
Since that time in Marianao famous nightlife centers such as San Souci and Tropicana alternated with precarious and marginal cabarets of Playa. “La Tropical” stadium was very famous since its building in 1929. In 1944 the obelisk memorial to Carlos Juan Finlay was opened.