Reza Amirinia takes us on an exploration of Havana’s iconic old town visiting many of his favourite sights.
The rhythmic music announces that I have arrived back in Havana – Cuba’s bustling capital city – which is high on most people’s bucket lists. For me, it’s my favourite city in the Caribbean and this is my third visit.
Havana is delightfully different from most tourist cities in the world. Cuban cigars still reign supreme, the intoxicating sound of jazz echoes around the streets and revolutionary slogans adorn the walls and portraits of Che Guevara remain to watch over the city.
A combination of artistic image, colonial architecture and Caribbean buzz join together to give a lightness of spirit to this city. No wonder it’s a magnet for tourists.
Havana is said to be the safest city in the world, but like many other capital cities, it suffers from hustlers. Don’t be too annoyed by this persistent group of people as they are an inevitable part of the city’s economy.
The Central Park (Parque Central) blossoms where once the city walls stood. In the centre of this park is a statue of José Martí, a national hero and symbol of Cuban Independence and is surrounded by 28 palm trees representing his birth date – January 28, 1853.
Located as it is between old Havana and Centro Havana, Parque Central is an open-air museum of culture and architecture. It’s surrounded by the Great Theatre of Habana (the Gran Teatro de La Habana opened 1915) and several old 19th Century hotels including the Hotel Inglaterra, the Plaza Hotel and the Telegraph Hotel. A new arrival was added to this old world charm, the 5-star luxury Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habanais. This is about as different from the existing hotels as it is possible to be. For the first time, a European style luxury shopping arcade has been built below the hotel showcasing famous designer brands.
Is this a foretaste of the ‘new Cuba’ now friendlier relations have been resumed with the west?
From here you can reach other city attractions through a network of parallel streets. To get a good look around the City there is a bus stop opposite the Inglaterra Hotel where you can catch the hop-on-hop-off tourist buses. This is probably the best way to explore the city as you get a guided commentary and it only costs 10 CUC for a whole day. Note: At the time of writing (during the COVID pandemic), this service is currently suspended.
Of course, Havana is famous for its American classic cars that double as taxis and those picturesque horse-drawn carriages that elegantly expose you to the charm of this city. Havana can be easily explored on foot or you can always try a three-wheel, bicycle taxi.
Cuba’s National Capitol building, built in 1926 and looks like America’s Capitol building (the House of Congress). Here was the seat of Government until 1959.
To get a great overview of the city while enjoying a refreshing drink go to the roof terraces of any of the hotels there. The strains of jazz permeate the atmosphere while you watch the flickering lights of the city.
In the morning, I strolled to the old city. There have been significant changes since my last visit. More buildings have been restored; the streets look cleaner and the colourful floral displays make them feel greener. While you can still see the warmth and friendliness in the cheerful faces of the locals there is the feeling of new energy surging through the city.
I’ve walked through Calle Obispo (Bishops Street) in the heart of old town many times before but it is always good to discover new things. Calle Obispo is nearly 500 years old and is the longest pedestrianised street in Old Havana. Here you will find a mix of locals and tourists as they saunter into shops, galleries, book stores, handicraft stalls, hotels, restaurants and bars.
Buildings along Obispo are an eye-watering combination of styles including Moorish and Spanish architecture which has been overlaid with strikingly bright Caribbean hues. Other buildings are very reminiscent of the European Baroque style. One of these is the Cuban Ministry of Finance on the corner of Cuba Street in the banking district.
No doubt a jewel of a bygone age and certainly one of the oldest pharmacies in Havana is Farmacia Taquechel, built in 1898. The pharmacy sells organic products plus modern drugs as well as acting as a museum. Displays of antique apothecary jars, instruments, pots, a water filter and a solar microscope are among the exhibits. Another old pharmacy, the Farmacia Drogueria Johnson, built in 1914 is covered with mahogany shelves from top to bottom. An impressive sight it has to be said.
Further down the street is Universidad de San Jeronimo or the University of Havana which was built in 1728. On previous visits, I had seen students with their laptops and smartphones working away as this was a rare internet hot spot. Now WIFI is more available and the signals are stronger the students have clearly moved on to pastures new.
Opposite the University on the corner of Mercadere Street is the Ambos Mundos Hotel, built in 1924, and where Ernest Hemingway used to base himself in the 1930s.
After a good long walk, I reached Plaza de Armas. This square is dominated by the eighteenth century Palacio de Los Capitanes Generales. (Palace of the Captain Generals.) The building, which used to be a political powerhouse during the rule of Spanish and was once the home of Cuban Presidents. Today it is the City Museum. Several other impressive colonial buildings surround the plaza.
In this exciting and ever-changing city, I have given you just a glimpse of old Havana through my eyes. Hidden gems abound and await your discovery in the alleyways, courtyards and plazas of Old Havana.
I never turn down the opportunity to return to Havana and continue to explore further beneath the skin of this fascinating city.
Images © Mohammed Reza Amirinia
Tell me more about exploring Old Havana
The Cuban Travel Portal provides all the official tourist information on the sights and sounds of Cuba and Old Havana.
Most tourists require a visa to travel to Cuba. There are two kinds, an individual and one for group travel. Your local Cuban embassy, airline or travel agency can help with this.
British Airways, Air Europa and Iberia offer flights to Havana from the UK via Madrid from Gatwick and Heathrow. Fares from £450