Centro Habana is the grittier, more authentic third of the city compared to Habana Vieja or Vedado. It’s also, not coincidentally, the neighborhood where a large majority of the Cuban people live within Havana’s borders. For tourists, most of the neighborhood’s attractions lie right on the border between Centro Habana and Habana Vieja, along Paseo de Martí. While this area is certainly worth checking out, the more authentic version of Centro Habana lies within the crowded, noisy streets to the west.
While the center of the city may seem a bit seedy at first, it’s worth noting that there’s relatively little crime within Cuba, and given the severity of the punishments for crimes against tourists, the people here are probably more afraid of you than you are of them. Don’t give into the temptation to write off Centro Habana as a place to walk quickly through while tightly clutching your wallet, as the scenes depicted in these streets are some of the most uniquely Cuban.
Spend some time wandering through Havana’s Chinatown; Enjoy some delicious Swedish meatballs at Casa Miglis, Cuba’s (and probably Latin America’s) only Swedish restaurant; Enjoy a perfectly concocted daiquiri on the roof of La Guarida; Dance to the pounding rumba along Callejon de Hamel; or visit the Museo de la Revolucion. While its certainly not the most obvious area of Havana to visit, time spent in Centro Habana can often have the biggest payoff.
El Vedado is the cleaner, newer, and more affluent section of Havana to the west of the city center. Various embassies are interspersed among charming Spanish colonials, various elementary schools, and the ever-present smattering of buildings in various states of disrepair. El Vedado is definitely the quieter section of Havana — there are limited to no jineteros looking for your cold hard cash and you won’t get accosted by a taxi driver every two minutes. Furthermore, its relative wealth makes it a safer bet for housing especially when compared to the city center. The Hotel Nacional and the Melia Cohiba bookend the region on the east and west respectively while dozens if not hundreds of little casas particulares provide cheaper and more charming options between the two hotel giants.
While El Vedado succeeds in offering travelers safe and affordable housing, its a bit sleepy and lacks much of the intrigue of the old city. On the flipside, while it may lack in daytime attractions, El Vedado hosts some of the best paladares as well as the most trendy nightlife venues. Ultimately, this region of Havana is a quieter, less touristy sector of Havana with great food, great accommodations, and, if you know where to look, great nightlife. And while this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it might serve you best as a place to spend the night rather than a place to spend the day.
Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is the oldest neighborhood in Havana as well as arguably the most unique. Founded originally by the Spanish in 1519, this location was an obvious choice for the beginnings of a city thanks to its proximity to Havana Harbor. The area grew throughout the years, eventually becoming Havana’s second most densely populated district, and in 1982 this section of the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After being awarded this honor, an ambitious restoration process was undertaken with the help of the City Historian’s Office to repair the buildings and recreate the unique beauty of Havana’s oldest neighborhood.
Today, Habana Vieja is the most touristy section of the city, and not without reason. Historical buildings, museums, art galleries, and restaurants line every street, and thanks to the recent restoration funded in part by UNESCO, this neighborhood has become the cleanest, and most well-kept section of the city. In addition to some of the best restaurants and bars in the city, this district is sprinkled with public plazas, quiet parks, and numerous sights unique to Havana, making it a top destination within Cuba for just about any kind of traveller.