Of all the capital cities in the Caribbean, Havana has the reputation for being the most splendid and sumptuous. Before the Revolution, its casinos and nightlife attracted the megastars of the day in much the same way as Beirut and Shanghai, and remarkably little has changed since then. There may be no casinos now, but Havana’s bars and clubs with their thriving music scene are still a major draw for foreigners and Cubans alike. There have been no tacky modernizations, partly because of lack of finance and materials. Low-level street lighting, relatively few cars (and many of those antiques), no (real) estate agents or Wendyburgers, no neon and very little advertizing (except for political slogans), all give the city plenty of scope for nostalgia.
Havana is not a modern city in the materialist sense and is no good for people for whom shopping and eating well are the central leisure activities, although the privately run paladares offer a varied and eccentric dining experience. It is, however, probably the finest example of a Spanish colonial city in the Americas. Many of its palaces were converted into museums after the Revolution and more work has been done since La Habana Vieja (the old city) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. There is also some stunning architecture from the first half of the 20th century, although much of the city is fighting a losing battle against the sea air – many of the finest buildings along the sea front are crumbling and emergency work is underway to save some of them.
The old city is the area with the greatest concentration of sites of interest and where most work is being done to restore buildings to their former glory. New museums, art galleries, hotels, restaurants and shops are opening all the time in renovated mansions or merchants’ houses. Several days can be spent strolling around the narrow streets or along the waterfront, stopping in bars and open air cafés to take in the atmosphere, although the nightlife is better in Vedado. Don’t forget to look up to the balconies; Habaneros live life in the open-air and balcony life is as full and intricate as street life.