Havana - An Aesthete's Tour in Pictures

I've talked about where to stay and where to eat  in other posts but I'd like to give you a sense for what you'll see in Havana too. We loved this city and I could rave about it all day. The truth is I wasn't expecting to love Havana, which seems to be the "trophy trip" of the moment.  Somehow I'd hear too much about it and thought it would be over run with Americans trying to "beat the embargo" - but this wasn't the case. Though perhaps that was because we visited in May which is the height of the low season. It's true we did see what looked like "cruise ship" crowds in one section of Havana and bus tour groups at the iconic Nacional Hotel but they can be easily avoided. My impression is that many Americans still come on organized programs, or through travel agents, but it's easy to navigate Cuba on your own as Europeans  and other travellers have done for decades. The truth is we just roamed around, walking for hour after hour, visiting museums and galleries and stopping to take photos or  for frozen  limonadas. 

This is a relatively low rise city and I recommend taking every opportunity to get a roof top view which is available from several church towers, hotel rooftops and at the camera obscure on Plaza Viejo. Note the classical El Capitolo  on the left below. Modeled on the US capital this was the seat of government prior to the revolution. Currently undergoing a renovation, it now houses the Academy of Sciences.
The city is divided into various neighborhoods but the ones with the most significant to tourists are Havana Viejo, Havana Centro and Vedado. Each neighborhood has it's own character; Havana Viejo is, as the name indicates, the oldest part of the city and it's filled with historic squares and Spanish colonial architecture, we loved staying here. Centro is a slightly newer area but the streets still look old and are filled with characterful and often decaying buildings. Vedado is a little further out and this is the newest part of the city filled with houses and building in a more modern style, many dating between 1930 and 1959.
As we stayed in Havana Viejo lets start the tour here.  As you can see above Havana Viejo is a neighborhood built around traditional Spanish colonial squares, often flanked by a church on one side. At the top of the post is the plaza outside the main cathedral and as you can see the square is lined with shady arched porticos on the right side. This is the oldest part of the city and if you look up you'll see lots of architectural details. 

Much of the  architecture is Spanish colonial but there are also a number of building in a classical style. 
Much of the central historical district has  been restored under the long serving city historian and these buildings and squares are a contrast to our image of Havana as city of genteel decay.
However, you don't have to go far to see the real living conditions. Water supply is a constant issue in Havana and the declining situation in Venezuela means that electrical shortages may increase. Most people in this part of town live in very small subdivided spaces, though increasingly flats are being renovated and rented to foreigners. The question is how do you restore and improve without displacing the local population?
Probably the most striking think about the architecture in Havana is the eclectic blend of styles and influences. In addition to classical and colonial architecture and the modernist influences in Verdado, you'll also encounter quite a number of interesting Art Deco buildings throughout the city, most significantly the spectacular Bacardi Building built for the well known  rum manufacture. Situated between the two Belle Artes Museums the Bacardi building is spectacular with every detail screaming "Art Deco" as you see below.
When it opened in 1930 this was the tallest building  in the city and it remains a significant standout in the skyline of Havana. The roof is currently undergoing renovation and a small sum paid to the man at the downstairs front desk ( for a non existent "ticket") gave us access to the rooftop after the construction crew had left for the day. It was well worth heading up there to see the city view but it was also great to get a closer view of the top of the building itself, which has some wonderful ceramic details.
While there aren't a large number of  modern building in central Havana there are  some government buildings, including ministries built after the revolution. You'll also find the 1954 Palacio de Bellas Artes  which houses the Cuban collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Havana  (below).
Despite the ongoing restoration of the city by Havana's famous city historian  Eusebio Leal,  (outlined in this wonderful Washington Post article) much of the city remains in a decaying state - as you can see from this street view from a balcony in Havana Centro. 
The joy of Havana is that it's a mixture. It isn't all one thing or another; restored or decaying, colonial or contemporary, classical or modern, it's variety is its charm. 

As you can see here classical details are often juxtaposed with modern lines right next-door.  

The homes in Verdado below show how the owners have extended the living spaces where they can and much of the building work in Havana has a rather haphazard fee,l as if everything is held together by cement and a piece of string. One cannot forget the extraordinary impact of the US Embargo which has stifled the opportunities for Cubans but has also stoked the most extraordinary ingenuity in the population.

No city tour of Havana would be complete without a walk along the Malecon which runs along the bay and about which Cubanos rhapsodize. This is an important public space in the city and people come to walk, swim and fish. The couple walking along the Malecon below  are adherents of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religious group who can often be identified but their white clothing. I found this article in Vice on the changing status Santeria in Cuba interesting. 

As we strolled out to the iconic Nacional Hotel and Vedado along the Malecon, we also saw lots of the vintage cars for which Havana is famous. All date from the years prior to the revolution and it is like being in a living automotive museum where the clock stopped in 1959. below you can see the eclectic combination of styles and form which we loved in Havana. 
As you make your way to Vedado  you begin to see a large number of modern  building as this neighborhood was developed in  the first half of the twentieth century. If you're interested in modernist architecture I'd highly recommend  Eduardo Luis Rodriguez's The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965 . We took it out to Vedado and constructed our own tour along Calle 23. It's quite fascinating to see the number of interesting buildings in this area which reflect the wealth and modernity of Cuba in the pre revolutionary period. It's easy to see how much money was concentrated in these  enclaves. Below you can see the well known Yara Cinema which retains it's stylish facade.
There are lots of colorful and distinctively modernist apartment buildings and quite often just the right taxi comes by as if just for the photo opportunity.
 Who could resist this delightfully spotted streamline moderne building with  a red car.
D. picked a variety of buildings including this wonderful apartment below. The residents where surprised to see us admiring it and curious to find a building on their street was in an English language book. I would let you know when it was built, and by whom, but we left the book in Havana for some friends. 
One thing I liked about the book is that it had pictures of each building recently after they were completed and it was so interesting to see how these buildings had changed. In one case a small minimalist glass box of a florist had been transformed into a mechanic's garage. With the glass replaced by roll down metal doors, the only identifying factor was the swooping roof. It seemed a metaphor for Havana where  rigid utilitarian principles of the revolution replaced the excesses of the Bautista regime.
This tour is in no way comprehensive and we could have spent far more than five nights in Havana. However, I hope it gives you some small send of the city and what we saw.