Wedged between the colonial masterpiece known as Old Havana and the city’s “newer” last-century neighborhoods, sits Central Havana. Its most obvious landmark is its massive Capitolio. As the name implies, this was the city’s historic state house and happens to be a slightly larger replica of the United States’ own Capitol Building.
Less than a block down the road on the Paseo de Martí, one of the streets that separates Old Havana from Central Havana, is the exquisitely designed Gran Teatro La Habana “Alicia Alonso.” It was recently renamed after the late, world-renowned ballerina who led Cuba’s National Ballet for decades. That building is one of several in the area beckoning visitors to look skyward. It hosts statues of angels posing in dramatic exaltation on its four corners. Central Havana is also home to Callejón Hamel, one of the best places to learn about the Caribbean island’s African music, dancing, and spirituality; as well as Cuba’s own China Town. Waiting beyond its traditional paifang or arch are numerous restaurants showcasing the culinary traditions of a population whose ancestors arrived here in the mid-1800s.
Now in its 505th year, the city’s Old Havana is one of the Americas’ best-preserved examples of the old Spanish empire, and a hotbed of Cuban cultural life. As such, it’s best to start your visit with a trip to one of its emblematic plazas, which, in classic European style center on elegant cathedrals, stately municipal buildings, and intricately sculpted balconies – lots and lots of balconies.
Pull up a patio chair at a bistro in Plaza Vieja or Plaza de Francisco de Asis, sip on a limonada or cuba libre or snack on some ham croquetas as you listen to Cuba’s distinct rhythms and the melodic flute and strings of a classic son band. And while you’re at it, enjoy some unabashed people watching. Cubans are generally very warm and friendly, and are often more than willing to oblige if you ask for a photo. In fact, they might pull out their own smartphone cameras and ask you to take a picture with them!
Playa & Miramar
Moving west from Vedado along the Malecón Boulevard, the Playa and Miramar areas would be considered the most modern parts of Havana, showcasing a wide range of Mid-Century architecture. Along its coast you’ll find some of the most up-to-date European chain hotels offering fast internet connections and cool AC, all accessible with a purchase of a meal or a drink at the lobby bar. As this neighborhood houses many of the country’s foreign embassies and their staff, grocery stores and modern restaurants are plentiful.
Looking for something novel to do? Take a walk past the massive gray tower of the old Russian Embassy. It’s a striking example of Mid-Century brutalist architecture. In Playa and Miramar, the sun shines hot and the blocks run long, so it doesn’t take much walking before you start feeling wilted. But the body is easily cooled and the sense of wonder restored with a visit to the oceanside deck of the Copacabana Hotel. For just a few dollars, you can pay to use their facilities, which include a natural swimming pool built into the ocean along the property’s coral reef. Bring your goggles so you can stare down at brightly patterned tropical fish as you swim laps.
Moving toward the more “modern” side of Havana, the tree-lined streets host a wide array of stately turn-of-the-century mansions and Spanish bungalows from the roaring 20s. Some now serve as houses of arts and culture, bed and breakfasts, or privately-run restaurants commonly known in Cuba as paladars. Looking for a quiet place to sit and snack after a long walk down the Malecon’s seawall? Hike up 23rd Street to Coppelia, a giant ice cream parlor built in 1966 celebrated for its cool treats, edgy modernist architecture, and a park with a tree canopy for outdoor dining. You can also catch a movie in air-conditioned cinemas such as Cine Yara and Cine 23 y 12. And if you want to feel as though you’re in a movie, head to the grassy courtyard of the elegant Hotel Nacional, catch a WiFi connection on your phone, and read up on the visits paid by mobster Al Capone and his family. Perched on a rocky cliff, Hotel Nacional offers spectacular views of the Malecón Boulevard and the Morro Castle on the other side of the Havana Harbor.