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.