Remarkably unmarred by modernity but famously ravaged by time and climate, Habana Vieja (Old Havana), despite all the redevelopment, remains a true vision of the past. Cobbled plazas, shadowy streets, colonial mansions, leafy courtyards, sixteenth-century fortresses and, at its core, hardly any motorized traffic, make it a real living museum. But though its central streets are heaving with visitors, Habana Vieja is no sanitized tourist attraction, and the area buzzes with a frenetic sense of life. Neighbours chat through wrought-iron window grills while school lessons are delivered in open- window classrooms, a metre from the road, and school kids take their breaks and play sport in the street. For every recently restored building, there are five more packed to the rafters with residents – and tenement buildings are cobbled together from the decaying mansions of imperial counts.
Ironically, the very lack of urban development between the 1960s and 1990s, which left the historical core so untouched, also allowed for the area’s subsequent decay. The huge project to restore this UNESCO World Heritage Site that began some thirty years ago is still in evidence all over Habana Vieja. Some of the largest and most prestigious buildings have been renovated in recent years, and there are now a significant number of whole blocks completely lined by beautifully renovated buildings – but much work remains.
Habana Vieja’s main sightseeing area is relatively compact and made for exploring on foot. Although the narrow streets and eclectic architecture lend a sense of wild disorder, the straightforward grid system is very easy to navigate. The Plaza de Armas is the core of the historic old city and the logical starting point for touring the district, with numerous options in all directions, including the prestigious Plaza de la Catedral three blocks away to the north and the larger but equally historic Plaza Vieja five blocks to the south.
For the other unmissable sights and things to do, head from the Plaza de Armas up Obispo, Habana Vieja’s busiest street, to the Parque Central. The wide boulevards and grand buildings on this western edge of Habana Vieja differ in feel from the rest of the old town, and belong to an era of reconstruction heavily influenced by the United States, most strikingly in the Capitolio building. Some of the most impressive museums are here, including the Museo de la Revolución and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba’s best and biggest art collection.
There are many restaurants in La Habana Vieja that offer traditional Cuban food, as well as restaurants that cater to tourists and offer a variety of cuisines. Moros y Cristianos is the most typical dish in Cuba, a plate full of rice and beans. The dish is traditional and will be on the menu in all Cuban restaurants if you wish to taste some culture. Cuban Libre is the Cubans version of Rum and Coke and is popular amongst locals.
The oldest of Habana Vieja’s squares, the Plaza de Armas is where Havana established itself as a city in the second half of the sixteenth century, and for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the seat of government in Havana. It still boasts some distinguished colonial buildings, several of which now house museums, most notably the Museo de la Ciudad. The three brick streets that form the edges of the plaza and, uniquely, its single wooden one are dominated by Havana’s biggest and best secondhand book market, enclosing the square’s bushy central gardens with the buzz of commerce. Often seething with tourists, and bathed in live music wafting over from the restaurant in one corner, this is the beating heart of the old town for most visitors.
The attention-grabber on the Parque Central is undoubtedly the Gran Teatro, one of Havana’s most magnificently ornate buildings, an explosion of balustraded balconies, colonnaded cornices and sculpted stone figures striking classical poses. Home to the Cuban National Ballet, it was closed for several years for a meticulous restoration. The theatre reopened in 2016, when performances returned to its stage once again and the grande dame of Cuban ballet Alicia Alonso’s name was added to the building’s title. It’s particularly awe-inspiring at night when its shining regal exterior, which has been cleaned so thoroughly you’d think it had only just been built, is now captivatingly lit.
Set along the broad avenues that fill the relatively open spaces on the western edge of Habana Vieja, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is the most impressive and spectacular of Havana’s museums and by far the largest art collection in the country, with its collection divided between two completely separate buildings, two blocks apart. The museum stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of its city rivals, smartly presented and properly curated, with no unnecessary clutter. The large and rather plain-looking Art Deco Palacio de Bellas Artes showcases a history of exclusively Cuban art, offering a detailed examination of the history of Cuban painting and sculpture, including everything from portraits by Spanish colonists to Revolution-inspired work – though pre-Columbian art is notably absent. Artists from the rest of the world are represented in the Centro Asturiano, with an impressive breadth of different kinds of art, including Roman ceramics and nineteenth-century Japanese paintings.
No English translations have been provided for any of the titles in either building, which can be a hindrance to fully appreciating some of the works on display – particularly in the ancient art section, where it’s not always clear what you are looking at. Both buildings have bookshops where you can buy good-quality, Spanish-only guides to their collections, invaluable if you have an interest in the context and background of the paintings.
In contrast to the Art Deco simplicity of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the interior of the stately Centro Asturiano, on the east border of the Parque Central, is a marvel to look at in itself. Housing the international collections of the Museo de Bellas Artes, this grandiose building is plastered with balcony-supported columns and punctuated with carved stone detail. The entrance hall with its wide marble staircase is a real knockout, punctuated by thick pillars and, looming above, spacious balustraded balconies from which you can admire the stunning stained-glass ceiling.
The exhibits are divided up by country of origin, with the largest collections by Italian, French and Spanish artists, on the fifth, fourth and third floors respectively. There are one or two standouts among the more mundane British, German, Dutch and Flemish collections, all on the fifth floor, such as Kermesse by Jan Brueghel (the younger), one of the only internationally famous artists in this section. The painting depicts a peasant scene with all sorts of debauchery going on, a focus typical of his work.
Elsewhere you can see ancient art from Rome, Egypt, Greece and Etruria, including vases, busts, and most notably the coffin from a 3000-year-old tomb; a small room of nineteenth-century Japanese paintings and, sketchiest of all, a haphazard set of Latin American and North American paintings.
No other collection of Cuban art, of any sort, comes close to the range and volume of works on display in the beautifully lit, air-conditioned Palacio de Bellas Artes, a two-minute walk north along Agramonte from the Parque Central. The collection spans five centuries but has a far higher proportion of twentieth-century art, though given the dearth of colonial-era painting around the island the museum can still claim to best represent the country’s artistic heritage.
The best way to tackle the three-floor, chronologically ordered collection is to take the lifts up to the top floor and walk around clockwise. From a set of relatively ordinary colonial-era portraits and landscapes there is an abrupt leap into the twentieth century, the most substantial and engaging part of the collection. Among the most famous of the paintings is Gitana Tropical (Tropical Gypsy) by Victor Manuel García (1897–1969), one of the first Cuban exponents of modern art. His evocative yet simplistic portrait of a young native American woman is a widely reproduced national treasure. Paintings by other Cuban greats such as Wifredo Lam (1902–82) and Fidelo Ponce de León (1895–1949) are succeeded by art from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s respectively, and then finally a section dedicated to works produced since 1979. This includes installation art, sculptures and, in the work of Raúl Martínez (1927–95), an example of a very Cuban take on pop art.
To see anything from this century, check the single room on the top floor by the lifts, where temporary exhibitions are hung, or visit the bookshop (the best in the city for books on Cuban art, with a decent selection of posters too) on the ground floor, where you’ll also find a simple café and the pleasant open courtyard, dotted with a few modern sculptures. Before leaving, check the notice board in the entrance hall for upcoming events in the museum, often in its 248-seat theatre.
Animated and chock-a-bloc with visitors, Plaza Vieja, at the southern end of Mercaderes, more than any of the other old town squares, hums with the energy not just of a tourist attraction but as somewhere to come for a drink, a meal or to while away some time, for Cubans as well as foreign tourists, though certainly there are more of the latter. To a lesser but significant extent the square still reflects its original purpose as a focus for the community, with some of the buildings around its colourful borders still home to local residents and others occupied by educational and cultural institutions. This has been one of the most redeveloped spots in Habana Vieja over the last decade, distinguished with a central fountain, a museum, a planetarium, a photography gallery, an arts centre and primary school, a rooftop camera obscura and some decent shops, restaurants and several excellent cafés. The only significant edifice yet to be restored is the Art Nouveau Palacio Cueto in the southeastern corner. Built between 1906 and 1908, it became a stunning hotel in the 1920s and is set to be one again if the renovations ever finish, having started over a decade ago.
Despite its name, this is not the oldest square in Havana, having been established at the end of the sixteenth century after the creation of the Plaza de Armas. It became the “Old Square” when the nearby Plaza del Cristo was built around 1640, by which time Plaza Vieja had firmly established itself as a centre for urban activity, variously used as a marketplace and festival site. Most of its beautifully restored, porticoed buildings, however, were built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, long after its foundation.
The annual street dancing festival takes place in La Habana Vieja for 4-5 days in April. The atmosphere is burning and soulful, with dancers in colourful costumes and people crowding the streets to take part in the celebrations. The impromptu performances are fun and lively, often taking part all over the streets in Old Havana but also other random places such as parks and museums.
Walking the streets of Havana you may notice people dressed head-to-foot in white, a bead necklace providing the only colour in their costume. These are practitioners of Santería, the most popular of Afro–Cuban religions, and the beads represent their appointed orisha, the gods and goddesses at the heart of their worship.
With its roots in the religious beliefs of the Yoruba people of West Africa, Santería spread in Cuba with the importation of slaves from that region. Forbidden by the Spanish to practise their faith, the slaves found ways of hiding images of their gods behind those of the Catholic saints to whom they were forced to pay homage. From this developed the syncretism of African orishas with their Catholic counterparts – thus, for example, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, embodies the orisha known as Oshún, the goddess of femininity, in part because both are believed to provide protection during birth. Similarly, Yemayá, goddess of water and queen of the sea – considered the mother of all orishas – is the equivalent of the Virgen de Regla, whom Spanish Catholics believed protected sailors. Other pairings include San Lázaro, patron saint of the sick, with Babalu-Ayé, Santa Bárbara with Changó, and San Cristóbal with Aggayú. There are some four hundred Afro–Cuban orishas in all.
The cigar stereotype somewhat fits when in Cuba. Sinistro, a cigar brand that is infamous worldwide, has a factory in Old Havana. The hand-crafted cigars are made in this historic factory and the cigars themselves are iconic to smoke whilst on the streets of Old Havana. Tours around the factory with a guide are available, and quite interesting to learn of the historic beginnings of cigars in Cuba.
Featured Image, Habana Veija © Alex W / Shutterstock