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Havana Cuba is a city of great beauty and vitality, but the island’s largest metropolis is also ripe with the contradictions that pervade Cuban life. Between Old Havana (Havana Vieja) and the Vedado — the tourist-friendly areas in the center of town — sits the Habana, a nineteenth-century residential neighborhood that exemplifies the energy and pulse of the city. Caribbean waters splash against these central areas, and a walk along the long El Malecon promenade provides a great introduction to a Havana vacation. Miles of urban and suburban areas surrounding the center, some home to Cuba’s rising middle class, many still suffering from want and poverty, house Havana’s diverse population.
Situated on the largest natural harbor in the Caribbean, Havana Cuba was founded in 1515 as San Cristobel de La Habana. The small Spanish villa relocated several times before flourishing in what is now Old Havana. Havana grew into the major trading port on the island and a key stopover for Spanish ships voyaging between Europe and the vast Spanish New World. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (finished in 1630) and a maze of city walls (finished in 1740) failed to protect Havana from British occupation in 1762. Liberal British trade policies energized the island’s sugar industry and sent ripples through Cuban society before the city was reclaimed by Spain in exchange for Florida.
Havana’s peak came in the nineteenth century, when Cuba stood as one of the few remaining outposts of Spain’s diminished New World empire. Many of the splendid buildings in Habana and Old Havana date from this period.
The early twentieth century, following Cuba’s independence, saw Spanish political imperialism give way to U.S. cultural imperialism. Havana Cuba became a playground for rich Americans. Relics of this period can be seen today in the great art deco hotels and tower blocks, including some of those along Havana’s famous El Malecon promenade.
Havana’s post-revolutionary architecture followed the utilitarian Soviet mold of apartment complexes and concrete blocks, but distinctive Cuban flavor can be found even in buildings from this period, many of which are decorated in bright colors.
UNESCO’s declaration of Old Havana as a world heritage site did little to stem the city’s decline in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the island’s benefactor for many years. Fortunately, the city has seen a renaissance in recent years spurred by an influx of tourist dollars as visitors flock from the Americas and Europe for a Havana vacation.
Popular tourist attractions in Havana Cuba include the Museum of the Revolution, the splendid Capitolio Nacional, the Museo de Ernest Hemingway, the famous Fabrica de Tobacos Partagas cigar factory, the Museum of Belle Arts, and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.
Many of these landmarks, and a considerable number of other attractions, are located in and around Old Havana (Habana Veija). The central Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Catedral make good beginning points for explorations of the historic area. From these squares, the Capitolio, the Museo de Belle Artes, and the Museum of the Revolution are easy walks. Other nearby sites of interest include the baroque Havana Cathedral, the Museum of Colonial Art, the Gabinete de Arqueologia, and numerous colonial mansions, the best of which are the houses of the Marques de Aguas Claras and of Lombilo.
Elsewhere in Habana Vieja, you can find the National Museum of Natural History, the excellent Museo de la Ciudad (a museum of Cuba’s colonial period), the Rum Museum, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the Museo de los Orishas, the Fabrica de Tobacos Partagas cigar factory, the birthhouse of Cuban national hero Jose Marti, and the historic 1856 Hotel Inglaterra. Even if you can’t visit all these great Havana tourist attractions, be sure to take a stroll down the Obispo boulevard and stop in the Parque Central or some of the area’s other gorgeos urban parks.
Outside Old Havana there are many other sights and activities to lively up a Havana vacation. Central Havana (the Habana Cuba) has not enjoyed the renaissance that restored Habana Veija or the Vedado, but it is worth a visit for the El Malecon promenade or to see some of the splendid, though dilapidated, nineteenth-centry architecture.
Havana’s other much-visited area is the Vedado, the cultural heart of the modern capital. It is in the Vedado’s many nightclubs and bars that you can hear the best of Cuban music. Many of the city’s best hotels and restaurants are also clustered in this neighborhood. Major Havana tourist attractions in the Vedado include the Parque Zoologico, the huge Colon cemetery, the unique Napoleon Museum, and memorials to heroes of Cuban history Che Guevara and Maximo Gomez.
Like any large city, Havana Cuba has its share of crime. Tourists are most likely to be exposed to only petty acts like bag-snatching or pickpockets. In recent years, Cuban authorities have made concerted efforts to limit the harassment of tourists, with some success.
Despite minor inconveniences, most visitors to the city are likely to enjoy a rich Havana vacation: get out, explore, eat some food, hear some music, and savor the vibrant world that is Havana Cuba.
OVERVIEW for your visit to Cuba:
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