Present day Havana is a collection of neighborhoods that have grown out from the historic center over several centuries, each with distinct histories that have given way to distinct local flavors. Today, Havana is a city without a center, but rather a collection of loci, each with it’s own unique look, feel, and function. No matter where in the city you rest your head at night, it’s worth it to explore several different locales to get a true sense of its history and its people. Here’s a brief overview of some of the most interesting and accessible neighborhoods of the city’s and what sets each apart.
Old Havana encompasses the almond shaped area along the western edge of the Bay of Havana and is where the city was founded over four centuries ago. As the oldest part of the city it has a treasure trove of historically significant sites dating from four centuries of Spanish rule on the island, a period during which Havana grew immensely and was among the wealthiest cities in all of the Americas. The old city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, which has helped to fund a preservation and project to restore its unique collection of buildings, forts, and plazas. For the past three decades, the restoration project has been directed and carried out by the Cuban government’s Office of the Historian, which has used its mandate to renovate and rezone buildings as it sees fit. While the restoration project has largely been praised, the inevitable displacement of some residents to allow for tourist-based commercial enterprises has been controversial.
Today, Old Havana’s narrow streets and grand plazas are teeming with locals, tourists, taxis, bikes, bicitaxis (three wheeled bikes with a covered bench for paying passengers) and a motley collection of scruffy canine residents. The Malecón seawall, which begins along the narrow mouth of the bay before heading west along the edge of Centro Havana and Vedado, is a great place to take a break from the bustle at any time of the day and night and catch a fresh breeze. The old city is larger than most of the historic city centers of Latin America—about a half a mile by a mile—making it easy to spend a day getting lost in the endless parade of curiosities around each corner.
During walks like these, there are lots of places to stop for food, drink and other amenities, though most of the shops, bars, restaurants, museums, markets and art galleries are concentrated in the northern half of the neighborhood. The southern half has received much less restorative attention, revealing a more unvarnished reality, and yielding more representative picture of the city’s people and “well-aged” housing stock. Running roughly down the center of Old Havana, from Parque Central to the Plaza de Armas, is the bustling thoroughfare of Calle Obispo and it’s many restaurants, hotels and bars—it’s offerings are mostly for tourists, but there are quite a few locals mixed into the throngs of gawking, camera-clad foreigners.
Staying in Old Havana is ideal for travelers who are interested in being able to step out of the door of their casa and walk to anything, but at the expense of the claustrophobic feeling of not being able to escape that closeness. The streets are narrow, dirty, loud and bustling all day, and sprinkled with notes of the commodified nostalgia that pervades mass tourism in Cuba. Along with all of the bustle comes a healthy dose of garbage, car exhaust and ever present construction, but the energy and controlled chaos of everything can be wondrous and intoxicating at the same time.
Centro Havana is quite similar to Old Havana in its general feel and density. Many of the buildings date back to the colonial period as this area began to fill in rapidly after the city tore down the protective wall that ran along what is now Avenida Bélgica. What’s different is that the colonial era homes are mixed in with modern constructions, and the entire area hasn’t yet received any attention from the city’s historic restoration project. Centro Havana could’ve used some fresh paint in 1975, and at this point, many buildings are in varying states of disrepair.
Needless to say, Centro gets less attention from foreign tourists than Old Havana, but this is also what makes it unique and visually stunning—it’s a safe, middle class neighborhood, full of social and commercial activity, and simultaneously it’s crumbling to the ground. It doesn’t have a ton of restaurants, bars or shops that cater to visitors, another plus, and the ones that do exist — like La Guarida and San Cristobal — serve some of the best food in the city and utilize the rustic surrounds to great effect.
Centro Habana’s most desirable region is the north side, with its easy access the cool breezes of the Malecón. The closer you are to the eastern edge, the easier it is to walk to Old Havana, and the closer you are to the west, the easier it is to walk to downtown Vedado, another locus of life in the city. Centro also has a fair number of churches, a variety of local shopping complexes (fascinating for anyone who is curious about the Cuban economy or consumer landscape), and several busy thoroughfares (the portico lined streets of Galeano, Padre Varela, and Infanta) with nightlife, eateries, and other commercial activity. Running east-west, Neptuno is the most direct and interesting way to traverse it from Old Havana to Vedado, with Parque Central at one end and the University of Havana at the other.
Vedado was the original well-to-do neighborhood of Havana post independence, when the city began a period of rapid expansion and development. Built where there was once a vast dense forest of banyan trees that had been purposely left untouched to thwart pirate attacks, it’s streets are wide and full of trees and green spaces. Streets are placed on an easy to navigate grid with a letter and number naming system, and were once sparsely populated with large estates and spacious patios, porticos, gardens and lawns. Things have filled in over the years, and now, among stately 200-year-old mansions are an eclectic collection of architectural examples, including art deco stylings, high-rise residential buildings and soviet brutalist designs. After the Revolution, many homes changed hands and often those that were once occupied by a single family now house multiple households, leading to an ongoing trend of creative renovations and other interesting space saving solutions.
Vedado’s main thoroughfares are Calle 23 and Línea, but many of its restaurants, bars and other attractions are sprinkled haphazardly throughout the neighborhood. Office buildings, residential high rises and hotels dot the skyline of the northeastern edge of Vedado (Hotel Habana Libre, Hotel Nacional, FOCSA), and as well as the Malecón (U.S. Embassy, Hotel Riviera, Hotel Melia Cohiba), which runs along the entire northern edge. The wide avenues of Paseo and Presidentes offer a park-like ambiance with benches, ample shade, and statues of prominent political leaders.
Walking the neighborhood is a great way to get a sense of the city’s architectural variety and glimpse everyday life for many Cubans in Havana. If you stay in a casa particular here, it will require taking a taxi to get to Old Havana, but the cost of a trip is quite reasonable and only takes 10 minutes or so.
Vedado itself is home to many of the city’s great cultural gems, including the trendy Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the University of Havana, and Colón Cemetery. It’s also home to several cinemas, theaters, and the Beth Shalom Temple El Patronato, the largest Jewish synagogue on the island.
Miramar, extending along the coastline west of Vedado across the Almendares River, is a neighborhood that had just begun to flourish in the 20th century. It became the home of the modern, stylish upper crust of Cuba — ambassadors, politicians, foreign heads of multinational companies — and all the amenities that went along with being part of this echelon of society — members-only social clubs, pools, mansions, nightclubs, and luxury. Today, just as it was then, much of the luxury is hidden behind gates and relatively unassuming facades, but the streets have a quiet and elegant feel that whispers of privilege, and only more so over the past decade or two of accelerated economic stratification. The area remains the most desirable residential zone in the city, so if you’re looking for an obscenely picturesque mansion to rent on your next trip, search here on Airbnb.
The neighborhood is home to the Karl Marx Theatre, Iglesia de Jesús, a growing list of terrific paladares. It’s a stone’s throw from the Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba’s premier art school, the legendary Tropicana Cabaret and Fusterlandia, a renouned public art project by artist José Fuster.
Regla and Casablanca
The neighborhoods of Regla and Casablanca sit just east across the bay from Old Havana. A quick ferry ride that costs mere cents and runs between seven a.m. and midnight, shuttling locals back and forth every twenty minutes. Casablanca feels worlds apart from Havana’s bustling, dirty streets. It sits on a hill with great views of the city and within walking distance to the Cristo and the colonial Spanish military fortresses guarding the mouth of the bay. Regla is known for its Afro-Cuban roots—the Nuestra Señora de Regla church right on the water is famous in Cuba for it’s Virgen de Regla statue, which is adored and worshiped in Catholicism as well the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion of Santería, which has hundreds of thousands of adherents across the island. The neighborhood has a distinct feel from Havana, and houses a handful of off-beat historical sights like a monument to V. I. Lenin (constructed before the Revolution) and the Regla Cemetery that dates back over a hundred years.