The old part of the city was declared part of the heritage of mankind by UNESCO, and there can be no doubt, with the beauty of its streets, the colonial balconies and the baroque and gothic constructions which surround Old Havana that this title is well-deserved. The atmosphere in Havana is lightened by the cheery character of its people who walk through its Arabic-style streets, not to mention the Malecón, where tourists and locals come together to watch the sunset while they enjoy the soft sea breeze.
At night, Havana becomes a magical carnival with its shows, night-clubs and discotheques inviting you to go in and join all the fun that this beautiful Caribbean city has to offer.
In Havana you will find four main areas of interest. First there is Old Havana, where you will come face to face with Cuban history and culture. Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral and the Parque Central are excellent examples of Colonial architecture. Besides the wonderful atmosphere provided by the buildings and open spaces, there are many cafés, restaurants and bars on every street, offering the perfect excuse to escape from the strong tropical sunshine and try the many traditional Cuban dishes on offer. You could even try a drink or two in the Bodeguita del Medio or the Floridita, where Hemingway used to drink his mojitos and daiquirís. Old Havana is also home to several important museums, such as the Museo de Autos Antiguos (if you like antique cars), La Casa del Arabe, La Casa de Africa, La Casa de Asia, Museo de la ciudad, and the castles of Morro and La Real Fuerza (where you will see one of the famous symbols of Havana, the weather-vane on one of its towers, La Giraldilla). This is the favourite area for tourists, who come here to walk and take pictures of the area.
Walking upwards along La Rampa, from the Malecón, you will get to the Vedado area, one of the most charming sectors of the city, with its 19th century houses and mansions which are now home to several embassies, ministries and cultural organisations. On the corner of Rampa and Calle L is the ice-cream parlour, Coppelia, famous for its excellent tropical fruit ice-creams. Making your way up the University hill you will eventually come to the Plaza Ignacio Agromonte, where the neo-classical Havana University buildings stand. There are also two museums: the Montané Anthropology Museum and the Felipe Poey Natural History Museum. Further along, you will come out to the Plaza de la Revolución, a symbol of Cuban's socialist system. It is star-shaped and has an enormous statue of José Martí standing in the middle, (the view from the top of the monument is truly sensational). Opposite the statue, on the other side of the avenue, you will find a fresco of Ché Guevara. This is where president Fidel Castro makes his speech every year on the 1st May.
To end this tour, we recommend you pay a visit to Miramar, one of the most "exclusive" areas in Havana, with truly beautiful colonial houses, now home to embassies, cultural centres and foreign companies. The Parque Emiliano Zapata (Avenida 5- Malecón), which has within its grounds a number of pools, is also worth a visit.
For lovers of the romantic and picturesque, don't miss the chance to go to the Almendares river, where you can rent a boat if you wish, and enjoy the evening breeze in a breathtaking setting. Palm trees line the avenues and there are a good number of cafés, bars and restaurants near the Marina Hemingway resort. Try the Chan Chan, El Mandarín or Rumbos and you won't be disappointed.
History of HavanaIf you wish to get to know a little more about the history of Havana by visiting its museums and historically important places, you ought to start in the historical heart of Old Havana. Here you will find a web of narrow streets stretching from the sea to the modern part of the city. The port town was originally known as the Carenas port until 1519, when the Villa de San Cristóbal, founded by Diego Velásquez in 1514, was brought to Havana, where it was to remain. Afterwards, it would become famous by the name of Havana. The Templete is a tiny temple on one of the sides of the Plaza de las Armas, very popular with tourists and locals.
The Plaza de las Armas is surrounded by important palaces and buildings, among which are the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, a wonderful colonial building, and the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which is today an interesting museum standing on the only street in the city which still preserves its wooden tiles. In the centre of the square stands the statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. You will also notice a curious and unique establishment, La Casa del Agua, where fresh water is sold.
Very close to the Plaza de Armas is the Catedral, a highly unusual construction given its asymmetry, in contrast to most other Cathedrals in the continent. Its towers are of different sizes, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the gothic architecture inside. The Jesuits started its construction, but they stopped when they were forced to leave, and thus left the baroque construction unfinished for many decades. This construction forms the foundations of the cathedral we see today.
The constant attacks from the pirates forced the Spaniards to protect the city. To one side of the Templete, you will see the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, built in the times of piracy in Havana, and an example of what was once one of the most fortified cities in the Old World. A drawbridge takes us inside the castle, which is now a Weapon Museum and also has a room where collections of the work of local artists are exhibited. On the top floor of the castle, on a terrace overlooking the bay, you will find a Spanish restaurant. At the top of the castle there is a watch tower with a weather-vane of great value, La Giraldilla, which is a replica of the famous Giralda in Seville, Spain.
Quite nearby is San Salvador de la Punta Fort. Making your way along the Malecón you will come across another important fortification, the Chorrera Tower, named after the river which opens out to the sea, and which is now known as the Almendares river. Across the bay, you will see other important forts such as the castles of Morro and San Carlos de la Cabaña. On your way you will no doubt notice what is left of what was once the Muralla, Havana Wall, knocked down at the beginning of the 20th century due to the rapid expansion of the city. Every day at nine o'clock a cannon would fire a shot from the San Carlos de la Cabaña castle to announce that the city gates were closing. This has remained a tradition in Havana, and it is still carried out every day, by soldiers dressed in Spanish 18th century uniform.
If we now start walking away from the bay, we arrive at Havana city centre. The Capitolio, a replica of the one in Washington, and currently the building of the Cuban Academy of the Sciences is definitely worth visiting. You should also take the opportunity to visit the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts), which is right next to Granma, the yacht museum, and very near the Museo de la Revolución, the former Presidential Palace.
To continue the tour, we recommend a walk along the Malecón towards the Vedado area, where you will have the chance to visit the Plaza de la Revolución and the José Martí Memorial (which is 142 metres high!). This is the place where people get together and most of the national celebrations take place. Very near the Plaza is the Teatro Nacional, a good example of Cuban modern architecture and home to this important theatre.
If you like architecture, a visit to the Cementerio Colón, with its wonderful sculptures and marble-work will be an unforgettable experience. If you like tropical fruit ice-creams then you might want to stop at the Coppelia ice-cream parlour, which is near Havana University.
After this tour, visitors ought to have a reasonable idea of what the city is like, as well as what it was like so many years ago.
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