The Capitals of the World: Havana
Havana is the leading commercial center of Cuba and its capital city, officially known under the name of Ciudad de La Habana and stretching mostly westward and southward from the bay, which is entered through a narrow inlet and which divides into three main harbours: Marimelena, Guanabacoa, and Atarés.
The city is the second largest in the Caribbean region, with the Almendares River traversing the city from south to north and entering the Straits of Florida a few miles west of the bay.
Havana was granted the title of city in 1592 by King Philip II of Spain and in 1553, after the Spaniards built fortifications in this region, they also transferred the governor’s residence to Havana from Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, thus making Havana the de facto capital; today Havana is the center of the Cuban government and various ministries and the headquarters of several businesses.
Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one: Old Havana, with its surrounding area being declared part of mankind’s heritage by UNESCO due to its old narrow streets and overhanging balconies and historical structures; Vedado, centered on the uptown area, being a new section of the city; and the newer suburban districts. Old Havana is the traditional center of Havana’s industry, commerce and entertainment, but also the an important landmark, home to many residential buildings, museums and places of historical interest, one being the Plaza de la Catedral, a market for crafts and arts. The Cathedral was built in 1777 in a Baroque style and could be the best point from where to start your tour in the city. The Centro Wilfredo Lam is located down the Calle san Ignacio and houses an interesting collection of works made by the world-renowned Cuban painter and sculptor himself but also other contemporary Latin American artists; the Plaza de las Armas is an interesting place for all the literature lovers because here you can buy antique and second-hand books. The largest fort built by the Spaniards during the colonial period is the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (El) and every night at 9 p.m. a cannon will shoot from the castle, a custom which announced in the past the closing of the city’s wall.
Down the Calle Oficios you will get to see many museums and interesting cultural locations, like the La Casa del Arabe, the Museo de Autos Antiguos, La Casa de Africa with a fascinating collection of Afro-Cuban art and objects; the Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís, housing an interesting exhibition of archaeological findings; or you can enjoy a good paella at the La Paella, located in an 18th-century mansion.
Toward the Parque Central and along Calle Opispo you will reach to the Gran Teatro Nacional, with several statues representing Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca; and to the nearby Capitolio Nacional, built in 1929 as the Senate and House of Representatives and housing the third largest indoor bronze statue in the world. The building is recognizable by its dome and today it houses the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (the National Museum of Natural History) and the Cuban Academy of Sciences headquarters.
You also have the chance of visiting the parliament and its famous de Salón los Pasos Perdidos (The Room of the Lost Footsteps), named that way due to the echo sounds caused by the sound of visitors’ footsteps.
The Museo Bellas Artes or the National Museum of Fine Arts is located on Calle Trocadero and exhibits the largest collection of art in Cuba while the nearby Museo de la Revolución exhibits an important collection of documents and objects related to the Cuban Revolution and can be found on Calle Refugio; the Museo de Música or the National Music Museum houses an interesting collection of traditional and modern musical instruments.
Miramar located west of Vedado along the coast is an exclusive area of the city and home to many diplomatic residences, upscale shops, mansions, foreign embassies, and facilities for wealthy foreigners and the main location of the International School of Havana.
Havana is unique due to its unrivalled rhythmic arcades built largely by Spanish immigrants, with many of its interior patios resembling the designs often found in Granada, Cadiz and Seville; but in the beginning on the 1900’s, the French head of urban planning in Paris, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, left a huge mark on Havana’s city planning and at the turn of the 20th century Havana, along with Buenos Aires, was the grandest and most important Latin American city in terms of architecture.
Other landmarks are the El Malecón Habanero, an avenue running beside the seawall built along the northern shore of Havana, from Habana Vieja to the Almendares River, and forming the northern boundary of Old Havana, Centro Habana and Vedado; the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, which is a fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay and constructed with the purpose of protecting the city from pirate attacks; the El Cristo de La Habana, carved from marble in 1958 by Jilma Madera and located on the other side of the bay, being somewhat similar to the Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro; the Museo de la Revolution, with the yacht Granma on display behind it and located in the former Presidential Palace; or the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, one of the most famous cemeteries in Latin America and an open air museum, built in 1876 and containing berly one million tombs and several gravestones decorated with the designs of world-renowned sculptors such as Ramos Blancos.
Havana’s Chinatown (Barrio Chino), once Latin America’s largest and most vibrant Chinatown incorporated into the city by the early part of the 20th century is located on The Zanja Canal or el Cuchillo de Zanja, being a pedestrian-only street adorned with many red lanterns, a great number of restaurants that serve a full spectrum of Chinese dishes, laundries, banks, pharmacies, theaters and several Chinese-language newspapers, many of the current settled Chinese immigrants being brought here by the Spanish settlers from Guangdong, Fujian, Hong Kong and Macau.
Havana is renowned for an excellent network of public transportation by bus and taxi and has a network of suburban, interurban and long-distance rail lines, the only one in the Caribbean region. The Havana public buses are carried out by two divisions, Omnibus Metropolitanos (OM) and MetroBus, the last being known as the “camellos” (camels).
Havana is served by José Martí International Airport, the main hub of Cubana de Aviación, located at about 11 km south of the city center and handling international and domestic flights while the Playa Baracoa Airport, is a small airport located to the west of city and used primarily by Aerogaviota for some domestic flights. Also know the important fact that even the Cubans living abroad are required a visa to enter their own country and those who want to leave the island have to obtain a permit from the authorities.11