Step off the plane in Havana and it’s clear you’ve traveled to a city trapped in time. There are no waiting areas for Lyft or Uber, just dozens of drivers carrying paper signs or sitting behind the wheel of a classic American car. Havana is Cuba’s capital and largest city. Situated on Cuba’s north coast, Havana was a key shipping hub and a mecca for American tourists before the Cuban revolution. About two million people live in the city, founded by Spaniards in the 16th century. Havana is also Cuba’s cultural center and home to its finest museums, public squares, and churches. Its core sights are located across a number of adjacent and highly walkable neighborhoods. Here are five to add to your Havana itinerary.
Also known as La Habana Vieja, Old Havana is the city’s historic core and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This area is defined by what were once Havana’s city walls. This is the Havana of postcards and daydreams, a collection of large public plazas anchored by churches and surrounded by architectural gems and buildings that have seen better days. These are the winding cobblestone streets Ernest Hemingway once wandered. Old Havana is where you’ll find Cuba’s National Capitol building, the iconic Floridita Bar, and the ornate Gran Teatro de la Habana. It’s an ideal venue for people watching, window shopping and wandering through artisan markets.
This is the beating heart of urban Havana. Music spills through open windows and doors into streets where kids play and men tinker with old American cars. Centro Havana is less polished and more densely populated than Old Havana. There’s less glamour, less glitz and fewer tourists. It’s clear the crumbling buildings in central Havana have stories to tell. People watching is a neighborhood pastime, and neighbors tend to know one another’s names. If you’re looking for street art, this is a good place to find it. Pedicabs are plentiful as are street vendors and hole in the wall shops.
Vedado is newer than Central Havana and laid out on a near-perfect grid of numbered and lettered streets, making it easier to navigate than Old Havana or Centro Havana. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Vedado was a place to see and be seen. Reminiscent of Miami or New York, Vedado was especially popular with the American mafia in the 1950s. Nowadays, Vedado is a residential area with mansions tucked in between apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, boutique hotels, and jazz clubs. Vedado is home to the Hotel Nacional, an iconic luxury hotel once frequented by Al Capone, and to Coppelia, a spaceship-like ode to ice cream.
The first thing most people notice about Havana’s Chinatown is that there aren’t actually very many Chinese people. Chinese laborers began coming to Cuba in the 1840s as the global slave trade was shrinking. By the 1920s, Barrio Chino was thriving, but much of Havana’s Chinese population left the island when Fidel Castro came into power. Today, Calle Cuchillo is the center of activity in this small neighborhood just west of the capitol building. The Cuban government added a pagoda-shaped arch and bilingual street signs in the 1990s.
Washington, D.C., has Embassy Row and Havana has Miramar. Before the Cuban revolution, Miramar was a wealthy beachside residential enclave. In the years since, many of the mansions and villas in this well-manicured part of western Havana have been transformed into foreign embassies, particularly along Avenidas 5ta. The Russian Embassy is among the architectural standouts in the area. Miramar is also where you’ll find area Cuba’s Acuaria Nacional and the city's answer to New York’s Coney Island theme parks. Miramar is popular with expats but more business focused and further from Havana’s core sights.