The city of Havana (La Habana) is the capital of Cuba, and the largest city in the island with a population of 2.1 million. It is by far the main destination in Cuba, every year 1 million visitors arrive to Havana mostly through the International Airport Jose Marti.
Today’s city is divided in 15 municipalities, but the areas of Old Havana, Centro Habana, and Vedado are the most interesting to visitors and the easiest to explore. Old Havana has preserved for the most part the atmosphere, layout, and many buildings from the colonial era: it was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. Vedado is the area developed from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, when the city experienced rapid expansion, and where most of the government offices and buildings are located today. Center Habana is a residential area connecting the two with its most striking feature: El Malecon, the seafront thoroughfare with many colorful but decaying buildings facing the ocean, and waves crashing on the sea wall.
The Habaneros are today a rich mixture of people of Spanish and African descent, many of them coming first or second generation from the East of the country, as the city experienced a rapid growth in the last decades due to internal migrations to the capital.
Colonial times: Havana was founded on its present location in 1519, the Spanish ‘conquistadores’ quickly recognized the good quality of the bay as a safe port for ships in transit to Spain from the nascent colonial empire in Central and South America. From the start, the settlement was under constant danger of pirates’ raids, and was sacked and burned down several times until the Spanish authorities began the construction of fortifications.
Havana Bay became the gathering point for ships loaded with gold, silver, and other products from the New World. Hundreds of ships would wait weeks for the Flotas (fleets) to be assembled, to sail to Europe in convoys escorted by warships; this fueled a rapid development of infrastructure, commerce, and agriculture in the city and surrounding areas, catering to the crews, and providing the necessary supplies to stock and retrofit the ships for the perilous voyage.
Eighteen century Havana was the most important Spanish port and largest shipyard: at the time Havana was larger than Boston and New York, and the 3rd. largest city in the Americas. Despite its already impressive fortifications, a massive British force of 50 ships and 11,000 men took Havana in 1762 during the Seven Years War. Havana was occupied by the British for almost a year, until the Treaty of Paris when the Spanish Crown ceded Florida in exchange for Havana. The Spanish learned from the experience and turned Havana into the most heavily fortified city in the New World.
During the 19th. century sugar exports, slaves trade, and commerce with North America made Havana a very prosperous city. However, a rebellion was raging in the East of the island, where Cubans were fighting for independence from Spain. Apart from being the entry port of Spanish troops coming to fight the rebels, Havana for the most part did not experience the effects of the war, and the harsh Spanish repression of the rebellious Cubans. Finally, in 1898 the United States declared war on Spain after an incident in the port of Havana, where the visiting American battleship ‘USS Maine’ was mysteriously sunk by an explosion. After ten weeks of Spanish-American War, the superior US forces overran the obsolete Spanish Navy and the Spanish colonial troops, weakened by years of battling the Cuban rebels and tropical diseases. The Spanish surrendered and ceded control of Cuba to the United States, abandoning their last and most precious possession in the New World. The American occupation ended formally in 1902 when a Cuban civil government was elected and inaugurated in Havana, although the US imposed restrictions and their right to intervene in Cuban affairs.
Republic: Havana became the capital of the new republic, and subsequent up and downs of the world economy reflected in times of booms and busts for the city during the first half of the 20th. century. Havana grew to the west and south, the area of Vedado saw the construction of high-rises, mansions, and apartment buildings. To the west, Miramar became a fashionable suburb for the wealthy. During times of economic bonanza of the sugar trade, many of the finest buildings were built for government institutions, societies, and sugar tycoons. Havana became a playground for American tourists, hotels and casinos were built at a rapid pace. Political upheavals in the Cuban society led to several changes of government, and dissatisfaction with the way General Batista seized power by military coup in the 1950’s produced a revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro, who ultimately toppled the Batista regime.
Revolution: Havana’s architecture saw very little change in the years following the ascent to power of the revolutionary government. Very little new construction and decades of internal migrations in Cuba to the capital, created a dense population and an acute shortage of housing. Many mansions of the wealthy that fled Cuba became tenements, other were taken over by offices of ministries and institutions, as the government assumed total control of the economy.
Lack of maintenance and dilapidated buildings are commonplace in Havana, as consequence of the economic hardships, specially after the collapse of the Soviet Union which subsidized the Cuban economy up to the late 1980’s. In recent years the government is turning more and more to tourism as a source of revenue, and some areas of Old Havana have seen a comeback, with meticulous restoration of spectacular colonial buildings and squares. But most of Havana seems frozen in time, and this is part of the appeal that brings lots of visitors and drives the interest in visiting Havana ‘before it changes’, and to experience its unique beauty, sensuality, and vibrant energy.
Read about beautiful Old Havana on this page: