Studded with architectural jewels spanning five centuries, Habana Vieja (Old Havana) enchants visitors with one of the finest ensembles of urban edifices in the Americas. At a conservative estimate, Old Havana contains over 900 buildings of historical importance, with myriad examples of illustrious architecture ranging from intricate 17th-century baroque and 19th-century neoclassical to glitzy Art Deco.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982, as is Havana’s grand El Morro-Cabaña fortress complex, Habana Vieja is usually the first stop on the tourist trail and the main focus of exploration. It’s easy to see why: With its 500 years of rich architectural heritage and an impressive and eclectic concentration of museums and galleries, there’s an enormous amount to do and see as you explore cobbled plazas and streets throbbing with everyday life. The most important plazas and buildings gleam afresh like confections of stone thanks to a huge restoration project centered, thus far, on the four principal colonial squares and the cobbled streets in-between. The streets are made more colorful by mulattas dressed Carmen Miranda-style in traditional colonial costume. Heavily rouged, they’re eager to plant a thickly lipsticked kiss on men’s cheeks—for a CUC1 tip, of course!
But that’s only one side of the story. Habana Vieja—the colonial city once enclosed by a daunting muralla, or wall (it was demolished beginning in 1863)—measures 25 blocks north-south by 13 blocks east-west: A huge grid populated by 60,000 habaneros living cheek-to-jowl in often decrepit buildings. Despite its many historical charms, it would be hard to describe Old Havana as a decorous museum piece. Three-quarters of Habana Vieja is untouched by, and desperately in need of, restoration. In fact, visitors are as likely to be excited by the noisy commotion that is Old Havana’s intimate and gritty streetlife as they are by the plethora of museums and quaint plazas. Just wandering the streets is its own reward, delivering serendipitous and often surreal encounters aplenty.
Today, Habana Vieja is considered to include the streets immediately west of the old muralla, which ran along today’s Avenida de los Misiones (Monserrate) and Avenida de Bélgica (Egido). The area extends to the Paseo de Martí, Parque Central, and the Capitolio—late 19th-century entities that many people consider the epicenter of Havana’s social life and ground zero for exploring the city.
Habana Vieja’s street names can be confusing, as maps and common speech use official (post-revolution) and older (and more popular) names interchangeably. But within Habana Vieja, it’s not hard, with a good map, to find one’s way around the grid of narrow streets and plazas.
On the down side, Old Havana is the area most targeted by jineteros (literally ‘jockeys’, or hustlers) eager to make a buck off tourists by selling fake cigars, offering guidance to a paladar (for a commission), or touting their sisters for sex or themselves as your guide for the day. The best strategy is to keep walking—the slightest eye contact can rev them up.