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Havana at 500

Photos: Otmaro Rodríguez

Havana 500
Monserrate Street, Old Havana

Havana, this bustling and talkative city —so well captured by visual artists René Portocarrero and Luis Enrique Camejo— is maritime, open and unprejudiced, yet has its own unique inner life. It’s a city with every style and no style, “a style without style that, in the long run, through a symbiotic or amalgamative process, takes on a particular baroqueness that functions as a style,” as the great Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier wrote.

It’s a baroque city in that it’s heterogeneous and disjointed, “shy, sober, almost hidden,” built on a human scale, whose architecture never dwarfs man. This is the case in its historic center and also in more modern areas of Havana where skyscrapers, sometimes impersonal, don’t block out the sun or prevent the sea breeze from passing through.

Five centuries after it was founded, Havana is among the Latin American cities that best preserves its historical legacy and its colonial core. The foundational center of the city, in so-called Old Havana, is one of the most important urban complexes in the region. There you can see 88 monuments of historical-architectural importance, 860 of environmental importance, and 1,760 harmonic buildings, some corresponding to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It’s a monumental zone par excellence.

Famous corner of 23rd Street and Malecón
Famous corner of 23rd Street and Malecón
Balconies in Havana
Balconies in Havana

Visitors may think they’re visiting a museum—a living museum, amidst offices, schools and commercial establishments, in an area with some 100,000 residents. The restoration process in Old Havana, years in the making, has managed to avoid turning it into a static zone, dedicated to contemplation; rather it’s being preserved and revitalized as a dynamic urban area in which housing, cultural, and tourist elements coexist harmoniously.

El Vedado is the best area of modern Havana, one of the most coherent manifestations of contemporary urbanism. While there are damaged areas there, like in other parts of the city, it’s the most coveted residential area for habaneros.

View from the Hotel Inglaterra and from the Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro on Paseo del Prado, Havana
View from the Hotel Inglaterra and from the Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro on Paseo del Prado, Havana

According to architect Mario Coyula, so much value is placed on Old Havana that there’s a risk of thinking that the rest of the city doesn’t have much to offer. For him, more than half of the city has architectural value given the various styles and trends from all eras.

“The essence of Havana is the concert that it puts on of its own volition, and the most important element is the scale—the rhythm that light and shadows play on its facades,” adds Coyula. In his opinion, there are two emblematic buildings in the city: the Palace of the Captains General in Old Havana, and Las Ruinas restaurant, in Lenin Park, on the outskirts of the capital.

Havana is Cuba’s main tourist destination—it’s where you can find the big hotels, the glittering cabarets, the most famous restaurants, and a strip of beaches east of the city that stretches over ten kilometers of white and fine sand and crystal-clear ocean.

Plaza de La Catedral
Plaza de La Catedral

The city also excels at culture: it’s a great mosaic where the Spanish and African influence combine to engender their own identity. About 40 first-rate museums open their doors here and Havana’s international fairs and film, book, music, arts and ballet festivals attract specialists and curious people from all over the world. The university, founded in 1728, is very prestigious and its medical and scientific institutions enjoy recognition far beyond the island.


The sanctuaries of the three most revered saints by Cubans are in the capital: San Lázaro, patron saint of dogs and wooden crutches, the leper of miracles; Santa Bárbara, in the humble neighborhood of Párraga; and the Virgen de Regla, the black saint in the blue cloak who carries a white child in her arms. These deities are identified in the Santeria religion, respectively, as Babalú Ayé, Shangó, and Yemayá, mother of all orishas.

Havana, with its Santeria drum ceremonies and its coconut pieces thrown at random to read the future and other African rites. Where, sometimes, in the same house it’s possible to find attributes of both Palo Monte and Santeria, and images of Christian deities.

Havana, of rumbas de cajón and leather sandals, of great carnival revelry and spontaneous neighborhood house parties.

Many claim that Havana is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Ernest Hemingway, the famous American novelist who lived here during the final years of his life, said that only Venice and Paris surpassed the Cuban capital in beauty. It’s possible. For now, we can say for sure that the light of the tropics, nights on the Malecón—the most popular and cosmopolitan place in the city—, and habaneros’ friendly smiles, among other charms, win over visitors for years to come. The view of the city from El Morro at sunset is an unforgettable sight.

At the end of the sixteenth century, in view of its favorable geographical position, someone defined Havana well, calling it the “Key to the New World.” The German savant, Alexander von Humboldt, whom Cubans consider the country’s second discoverer, saw it as the most cheerful, picturesque and charming of cities. A poet once exalted Havana as a woman with three rival lovers: the sun, the sea and the sky. Another poet, after laying eyes on its portals and columns, its parks and squares and, above all, its forgotten and hidden corners, waxed on about the city of dreams, built of clarity and seafoam.

According to lore, the first mass was held and the first town hall was built in the shade of a ceiba tree on the northwest side of what would become the Plaza de Armas. El Templete, a monument dating from 1828, commemorates the founding act of the town.

In Afro-Cuban religions, the ceiba tree is sacred. Blacks coming from Africa as slaves entrusted their legend in it. For the believers, their ancestors, Catholic saints, and many spirits have settled in that tree over time. The ceiba is treated as a saint and cannot be cut, burned, or otherwise removed without permission from the orishas.

Legend has it that if you circle the ceiba tree at El Templete three times, you’ll be granted whatever you wish for. This is the welcoming and generous spirit of Havana.

Havana’s seawall. Photo: Kaloian Santos Cabrera
Havana’s seawall. Photo: Kaloian Santos Cabrera