To the uninitiated, the names of the neighborhoods in Havana might not ring any immediate bells. It doesn’t have places with the name recognition of Brooklyn or Bondi Beach, but the various parts of Havana will permanently etch themselves on your memory. There’s also the vaguely smug feeling you can get when you tell your friends that while the mojito is perfectly acceptable, it’s not a patch on the one you had at a dive bar in Vedado. Of course, this is also a really effective way to annoy your friends. So what are some of the coolest parts of Havana that are just waiting to be explored?
The Heart of the City: Havana’s Old Town
Havana’s tourism sector begins (and for some visitors, ends) in the Old Town (known as La Habana Vieja). It was always the heart of the city, and was once the entirety of the city. Like many former colonial outposts, Havana used to be a walled settlement, with massive sturdy walls to keep the citizens safe from hostile foreign forces, and often also from actual pirates. There are some remains of the city walls left standing, but most of them made way for the necessary growth of the city as it rapidly expanded beyond its original designated boundaries. Maintenance of the area was not a priority during the period when the US and Cuba were not on the friendliest of terms, to put it mildly.
Much of Cuba’s foreign aid came from the USSR during this time, and it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that really opened up Cuba’s tourism sector, allowing for the heart of this beautiful city to be maintained, with many of the glorious colonial buildings being restored to their former stunning selves. It was also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1980s, which certainly helped matters. This is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Havana, and while it might be the beginning of your explorations, it should definitely not also be the end.
Refinement in Havana: Miramar
Miramar is one of the closest things that Havana has to a diplomatic quarter, with many embassies being located here. One of the most prominent is the Russian Embassy (which was briefly the Embassy for the Soviet Union prior to its collapse). This beautifully brutal building vaguely resembles a sword stuck into the earth, although some have remarked that it could be more equated to a syringe. This is where a number of the wealthier residents of Havana still call home, and the stores along the main street, Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) reflect this. Miramar is also where many of the rapidly growing number of luxury hotels in Havana have set up shop. It might lack the vibrancy of other parts of the city, but Miramar offers an interesting opulence not seen in other neighborhoods in Havana.
Where the Cool Kids Play: Vedado
Many visitors to Havana will generally do their wining, dining, and partying in the Old Town. This area is not exclusively for tourists, but many locals (particularly younger locals) will be more likely to hang out in Vedado, just a little further along the waterfront. It’s slightly more ramshackle than the restored beauty of the Old Town or the refinement of Miramar, but what it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in attitude and atmosphere. There are dozens of narrow streets and alleyways, all seemingly populated with bars and clubs. Havana’s minimal LGBT scene is also largely found here. It was once a fairly upmarket area, but many of the stately homes were abandoned and fell into disrepair. While it never fully embraced capitalism (which is arguably part of its charm), it’s now infinitely easier than it used to be to open a private business in Cuba. In the capital, this resurgence is obvious on the streets of Vedado, where a lot of old buildings are being repurposed as achingly cool bars and clubs, with many delectable restaurants, making Vedado one of the liveliest neighborhoods in Havana.
Hidden History: Chinatown
Havana’s Chinatown (Barrio Chino de La Habana) is unlikely to worry the Chinatowns of London or New York in terms of its size, but this pocket of the Cuban capital is one of the more interesting neighborhoods in Havana, and one that not many people know about. The Chinese population of Cuba rose and then fell in line with the political history of Havana. When slavery was outlawed in 1886, foreign migrants flocked to Cuba in order to make up the shortfall, albeit in a paid capacity. Havana’s Chinatown became the heart of their community, and many restaurants and stores opened to cater to them.
Those who didn’t become Cuban citizens were affected by the Cuban Revolution, when restrictions were imposed on foreigners owning businesses. Many of them opted to leave the country, and the Chinese population fell. Havana’s Chinatown continued to flourish, although at a somewhat reduced rate. It’s now a fascinating glimpse at one of the many cultures that make up contemporary Cuba, and like most Chinatowns, is about the best place in the city to get some awesome Chinese food.
One of the Most Unique Neighbourhoods in Havana: Jaimanitas
Jaimanitas is a nifty little fishing village on the outlying edge of Havana. While it’s far from being an upmarket part of the city, it was once significantly impoverished. Cuban artist José Fuster relocated to this part of the city in the 1970s to establish a studio. Not content to fill the space with his work, he quickly began to decorate the exterior of the building with his bright, amazingly outlandish work. Not content with that either, he accepted the invitations of his neighbors to decorate their homes in the same way, and now there are entire streets that have been overrun with his imaginative work. A stroll around this large scale installation and interacting with the numerous childlike sculptures and street art is an experience unlike any other.
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