First-time visitors to Havana can feel they are in a dream, coasting through a fantastic cityscape of colonial fortifications, Art Deco towers and Fifties hotels, uncluttered by advertising but punctuated by the bold colours and lines of painted propaganda. Part of their character comes from their decay, from the peeling layers of lemon-yellow and sea-green paint, chipped tiles and tumbling plaster.
Yet not everything is run down. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its architecture, the historic district of La Havana Vieja has in parts been well restored and forms a wonderful walkable grid of narrow streets, graceful squares and wide avenues lined with pastel mansions. Check out the Catedral de San Cristóbal, its wide facade decorated with the restrained swirls and classical columns of the Cuban Baroque style, and the Art Deco Bacardí building, which looms over the district’s west side like a wild Gotham City creation, its trademark bat adorning everything from the brass door handles and cracked light fittings to the Gothic sculpture that crowns the roof.
West from the La Havana Vieja lies Vedado, bounded to the north by the long line of the sea wall (malecón), the city’s promenade and the focus of its nightlife. Here you’ll find the bulky Hotel Nacional with its twin arched towers and the
shell-like form of concrete Coppelia, the city’s enduringly (and endearingly) popular ice-cream parlour – in this impoverished city an ice cream is the closest most people get to a treat. In contrast, Havana’s lavish pre-Revolutionary decadent era is recalled in the Fifties Riviera building, built by the mob as a casino hotel and still with its original sculptures, furniture and fittings miraculously intact.
Like the Italian cities which survived unblemished only because of centuries of poverty and neglect, Havana is a time capsule, one that makes life hard for locals who can’t afford repairs each time hurricanes batter their homes. The limited conservation work shows how Havana could be restored to its proper place as the most glamorous city in the Caribbean – for now, it remains a fascinating hotpotch.
You won’t need any transport to get you around Old Havana, and it’s possible to walk to Vedado along the malecón. Otherwise, look for a metered taxi near one of the large hotels. You can visit the bar in the Bacardí building for a drink, and ask at reception to be taken up the tower for the views.