No other area in Havana gives such a vivid and immediate impression of the city’s history as Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Cobbled plazas, shadowy streets, colonial mansions, leafy courtyards, sixteenth-century fortresses and architecture famously ravaged by time and climate are all remarkably unmarred by modern change or growth. Ironically, however, the very lack of urban development between the 1960s and 1990s, which allowed the historical core to be so untouched, was the same force that allowed for the area’s subsequent decay. The huge restoration project of this UNESCO World Heritage Site that began some 25 years ago is visibly still underway today, and though there are now one or two whole streets almost completely lined by beautifully renovated buildings, much work remains. But though its central streets are heaving with visitors, Habana Vieja is no sanitized tourist trap, and the area buzzes with a frenetic sense of life and a raw sense of the past – for every recently restored colonial building, there are ten crumbling apartment blocks packed with residents. And in the side-streets, neighbours chat through wrought-iron window grills and schoolchildren attend classes in former merchants’ houses.
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 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.