Southern Habana Vieja

A poor area little frequented by tourists, southern Old Havana gives visitors the opportunity to experience the normal, earthier daily life of hard-up habaneros, many of them living in sobering conditions. Wandering at will delivers a true slice-of-life. But there are also some astounding sites worth seeking out in an area known as the “Ecclesiastical Quarter,” mainly noteworthy churches and convents, like the 1720 baroque Convento e Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belén, situated where Compostela and Luz Streets meet. And along Calle Acosta, one block to the west of Compostela, is the orthodox Sinagoga Adath Israel de Cuba.

The harborfront has been undergoing significant restoration in recent years. A stroll along the Alameda de Paula promenade delivers you at the exquisite Iglesia San Francisco de Paula (today a significant concert hall) and, opposite, the Almacenes de San José—a former wharfside warehouse that now serves as Havana’s premier arts and crafts market. Next door, the Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y el Tabaco opened in 2014 as a brewpub serving delicious fresh-brewed suds to slake your thirst. The complex is adorned by antique steam trains outside.

More centenary locomotives might draw you further west along Avenida del Puerto (it becomes Desamparados); turn right—north—and follow a large section of the old muralla city wall to the Estación Central de Ferrocarriles, or main railway station. This imposing structure will intrigue architecture buffs for its stately Plateresque styling. On the station’s north side is Parque de los Agrimensores (Surveyors’ Park), where you can settle on tree-shaded benches to admire more than a dozen antique steam trains that serve as museum piecse. Cuba’s National Hero, José Martí, was born in the lovingly restored yellow-and-blue home directly opposite the station’s façade: The Casa Natal de José Martí is open for public view.