For many visitors the crumbling buildings and bustling streets of Centro Habana, crammed between the hotel districts of Habana Vieja and Vedado, are glimpsed only through a taxi window en route to the city’s more tourist-friendly areas. Yet this no-frills quarter has a character all of its own, as illuminating and fascinating as anywhere in the capital. Its late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century neighbourhoods throb with life, particularly around San Rafael and Avenida de Italia, renowned shopping streets where many of the most glamorous department stores were located before the Revolution, when the Avenida de Italia was known as Galiano, the name most locals still use. Near the southern end of Galiano is El Barrio Chino, Havana’s Chinatown, small by international standards but still a busy focal point for the area.
For the most part, Centro Habana is not that attractive on the surface. Full of broken sewage systems, potholed roads and piles of rubbish, it isn’t for the faint-hearted, and hasn’t yet enjoyed the degree of investment and rejuvenation lavished on Habana Vieja. However, the famous Malecón seafront promenade is starting to regain its former glory, with many of its buildings given face-lifts in recent years, and there’s nowhere in the city that feels more alive. Centro Habana’s streets buzz with people and non-stop noise, ringing with an orchestra of street vendors shouting their wares, bicitaxis blasting their sound systems, schoolchildren’s screams and doorstep politics.Read More
El Barrio Chino and around
El Barrio Chino and around
About a block inside Centro Habana from Habana Vieja’s western border, the grand entrance to El Barrio Chino, Havana’s version of Chinatown, is likely to confuse most visitors, as it’s placed three blocks from any visibly ethnic change in the neighbourhood. The entrance, a rectangular concrete arch with a pagoda-inspired roof, is south of the Capitolio Nacional, on the intersection of Amistad and Dragones, and marks the beginning of the ten or so square blocks which, at the start of the twentieth century, were home to some ten thousand Chinese immigrants. Today only a tiny proportion of El Barrio Chino, principally the small triangle of busy streets comprising Cuchillo, Zanja and San Nicolás – collectively known as the Cuchillo de Zanja – three blocks west of the arched entrance, is discernibly any more Chinese than the rest of Havana. Indeed, the first thing you are likely to notice about El Barrio Chino is a distinct absence of Chinese people, the once significant immigrant population having long since dissolved into the racial melting pot. The Cuchillo de Zanja itself does, however, feature its own tightly packed little backstreet food market, composed mostly of simple fruit and vegetable stalls. It’s lined with eccentric-looking restaurants, many still charging in national pesos, where the curious and unique mixture of tastes and styles is as much Cuban as Asian. Among the better restaurants here is Tien Tan.
The Malecón and around
The Malecón and around
The most picturesque way to reach Vedado from Centro Habana or Habana Vieja is to stroll down the famous Malecón sea wall, which snakes west along the coastline from La Punta for about 4km. It’s the city’s defining image, and ambling along its length, drinking in the panoramic views, is an essential part of the Havana experience. But don’t expect to stroll in solitude: the Malecón is the capital’s front room and you won’t be on it for long before someone strikes up a conversation. People head here for free entertainment, particularly at night when it fills up with guitar-strumming musicians, vendors offering cones of fresh-roasted nuts, and star-gazing couples, young and old alike. In recent years it’s grown in popularity for the city’s expanding clique of gays and transvestites, who put its sinuous length to good effect as a nightly catwalk and meeting place, especially the area close to the Hotel Nacional in Vedado. In the daytime it’s crowded with schoolchildren (intent on hurling themselves into the churning Atlantic), wide-eyed tourists and anglers climbing down onto the rocks below.
The Centro Habana section, referred to on street signs as the Malecón tradicional, has been undergoing tortoise-paced renovations for around two decades now. Lined with colourful neo colonial buildings, it’s the oldest, most distinct and characterful section in the city, though – potholed and sea-beaten – it looks much older than its hundred or so years. Construction began in 1901, after nearly a decade of planning, and each decade saw another chunk of wall erected until, in 1950, it finally reached the Río Almendares. Today there are a few places worth stopping in for their enjoyable sea views. The best of these is Café Neruda, Taberna El Galeón, Castropol and the La Abadía tapas bar.
During the 1950s, Havana’s most prestigious shopping destination was the Centro Habana intersection where San Rafael and Neptuno converged with Galiano. At its heart, on the corner of San Rafael and Galiano, stood El Encanto, the most renowned of the department stores, occupying an entire block and boasting the patronage of Hollywood stars like Lana Turner, John Wayne and Errol Flynn. In 1961 the store, which by this time had been nationalized, was burned to the ground, the result of a bomb attack in the tumultuous early years of the Revolution.
Five decades later and general neglect coupled with the effects of the US trade blockade has left the area sorely dilapidated, and instead of swanky shopfronts, it’s now peppered with a selection of artless hard-currency stores and murkily lit peso shops. Rather than unearthing great retail finds, the real pleasure here is spotting the vestiges of a glamorous past in the old shop signs, marble pavements, faded interiors and elaborate tiled frontages that dazzle amid the ruins. In particular, look out for the Hotpoint mosaic on San Rafael esq. Industria; and the stylish flourish of lettering spelling out Fin de Siglo along the building on the corner of Aguila and San Rafael, once a fancy five-floor department store featuring a hair salon decorated with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, now the scene of a huge, jam–packed ground-floor market selling secondhand clothing and other goods; and the Flogar logo imprinted on the dusty glass frontage of the large, half-empty store at Galiano no.42, where once mannequins displayed the latest fashions in the Macy’s-style window displays.
The only department store to have been fully redeveloped since the Revolution is La Epoca, reborn a little less than a half-a-century after it first moved into its home on the corner of Galiano and Neptuno in 1954, becoming the third largest department store in Havana at the time, employing over four hundred staff. Locals flock here today to buy counterfeit brand clothing, electrical goods and homewares, though the current design of its five floors owes more to modern supermarkets than the chic interiors of yesteryear.