Many consider Havana, a city of 2.2 million inhabitants, the epicenter of all things Cuban. In spite of and perhaps also because of its falling apart and frozen-in-time façade, La Habana is uniquely enchanting. Roaming troubadours fill the narrow streets of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) with the familiar melody of “Guantanamera,” passing street hawkers who vend everything from Panama hats to roasted peanuts to Che Guevara paraphernalia. Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Deco architecture styles comingle on any given street and bring the glamour of a bygone era in Havana’s history to life. Vintage American jalopies roar down the iconic Malecón esplanade as Cuban families stroll, couples embrace and friends congregate along the expansive seawall.
Today, Havana is a colorful combination of romance, intricate history, intriguing culture and yummy cuisine. Thanks to its 500-year history, an exploration of Havana’s diverse neighborhoods is a lesson in the city’s compelling past. However, the crumbling stone and rickety scaffolding on the majority of buildings speaks to the formidable challenge the city faces in restoring its deteriorating infrastructure after decades of neglect. Pockets of Old Havana—a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982—have undergone a facelift thanks to ongoing restoration efforts and an influx of tourism dollars. Moving west from the harbor, the less touristy but attractive Vedado neighborhood hosts an abundance of bars, theaters and nightclubs. Bordered by imposing Soviet-style architecture, Plaza de la Revolución or Revolution Square, is where Fidel Castro famously orated for hours on end to the Cuban masses on numerous occasions during his 32-year presidency. And in upscale suburban Miramar, wide avenues are lined with leafy trees, grand mansions and embassy buildings. Each with its own character, the 15 distinct urban municipalities (which occupy 281 square miles of Cuba’s northwestern coast), coalesce to form La Habana, one of the world’s most captivating cities.