It was the ultimate Caribbean destination, the “Paris of the Americas” (hemingway ), the “key to the gulf (of mexico) the bulkward of the Caribbean” (King Philip II of Spain), to the whole of Cuba. It brings back memories of childhood, and still vibrates the world from no matter what place on the fence you might be. It is a beautiful city, if only can be kept in one piece.
You first arrive most likely by the Jose Marti International Airport in Rancho Boyeros, just outside the city of Havana,and on the province (State/department) of Havana. The real name from its founding in 1519 AD was San Cristobal de la Habana (St Christopher of the Havana), the saint is the name for the genovese navigator Cristobal Colon (Christopher Colombus), Habana is an old indian word meaning a savanah between two rivers the Almendares and the Cojimar. The old center is all of a UNESCO heritage site.
If you go by El Templete you will see an old Oak tree where the first religious Mass was held on the island on 1519 AD. There lies a bust to Christopher Colombus and 3 paintings by French painter Jean-Baptiste Vermay. It gain notoriety when the Spanish crown decided that the city will hold all shipment coming from the rest of the Americas to be sent in convoy to Spain this in 1561 AD. Finally in 1592 king Philip II declares it a city!
It fell to British rule in 1762 after a succesful attack by British ships and naval man, it was then exchange for Florida in 1763, and Havana came back to be Spanish for good. In 1774 the first census of the city is done with 170 000 inhabitants, and on 1796 the remains of Christopher Colombus arrives to be put in the Cathedral, later to be transfered to Spain as my leyend goes. In 1837 the first railroad is born from Havana to the town of Gûines, a first in the Spanish speaking world. In 1863 the old city walls were destroyed so the city can enlarge into the suburbs being the first one, the Vedado. It became a free Republic on May 20 ,1902 under Republica de Cuba. After some not so good dictators, it fell into the worse in 1959 where still is under a communist dictatorship.
The longest river is Almendares for 50 kms (31 mi), and the name for an old baseball team, my familys favorite. The highest point is at tetas de Managua at 210 meters (693 ft). The bay of Havana is one of the biggest and best in the world but ,also,highly contaminated. The average temperature is 25°C or about 77°F. But near the airport it has been recorded as low as 4°C about 36°F in 2010. Today it has about 2,5 million inhabitants or about 20% of the island population.
Some of the places of interest to see are the followings : Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña or simply La Cabaña in the west side of the harbor; Capitolio Nacional, built in 1929 replica of the one in Washington DC USA; Castillo del Morro, El Templete, Cemeterio Colon or Colombus Cementary ,the largest in the Americas; Plaza de la Revolucion ,old Plaza Jose Marti; University of Havana, founded in 1728 and one of the oldest in the Americas; Catedral de la Habana or Cathedral, Convento de San Francisco, Convento de Santa Clara, Palacio de Aldama, Estacion Central de Ferrocarril Or the railroad station, Castillo de Atares, Castillo del Principe, El Torron de Cojimar, Acuario or national aquarium of Havana at avenida 3ra; Museo de la Revolucion in the old Presidential palace ; Fabrica Partagàs, cigars of Cuba; go outside towards Cojimar at Vigia to the house /Museum of Ernest Hemingway, his old property; Walk on bulevard Prado, Manzana de Gomez, a whole city block building of stores, Cinema Yara the old radio city hall, Castillo de la Real Fuerza; Castillo San Salvador de la Punta; Palacio del Segundo Cabo, the home of the 2nd in line governor of old Cuba under Spanish rule; Gran Teatro; Teatro Amadeo Roldan; old Captain’s General building where the only throne room in the Americas is located, the site of the governor of Cuba in colonial times and today a museum, Chinatown, as the Chinese quarters.
The way for transport is complicated, and very saturated but its the travelers choice to mingle with the locals and feel ,see the way of life as it is. There are metrobuses lines such as this one with 17 lines, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/Plano_rutas.jpg
For the real travelers to join the locals in inter city travel use the Astro buses from the plaza de la revolucion, where if pay in foreign currency you can get a preferential seat. You can also take the more tourist oriented via Azul line such as http://www.viazul.cu/asp/reserva/Default.aspx
Taxis are regulated under Cubataxi, but if you want to go places, hire a local “colectivo” in private time to take you around. For hotels or eating places with the locals try the “Casas Particulares” private folks with official approval.
The places to eat best are again at the Casas Particulares that also offered restaurant service;then you have the old reliable like La Bodeguita del Medio, and Floridita Bar (the best bar in the world in 1957 by Esquire magazine); El Aljibe in Miramar, La Ferminia also in Miramar section,El Conejito in Vedado ,the old family hangout of rabbit dishes; Los Doce Aposteles in the Morro castle; La Divina Pastora overlooking the harbor, La Zaragozana ; El Potin, near prado and Linea, and Coppelia for ice creams are some of my family favorites.
Its a very friendly city that will have no problem finding help and very safe. Driving is not recommended for visitors unaware of the laws and bad road signs but if willing to the best is Havanautos company at the airport, the gas station pay in foreign currency are run under Cupet.
Some links for Havana and Cuba in general are http://www.havanautos.com/HomeCars2.aspx for car rental info
places to book and info on Cuba are http://www.cubahotelbookings.com/default.asp?lID=1 , and the old reliable junky at http://www.cuba-junky.com/ , and netssa at http://www.netssa.com/
The Cuban tourist organisation is at http://www.cubatravel.cu/otros/index.php in Spanish. The official page in Canada n English and French, http://www.gocuba.ca/client/home/index.php?locale=en ; and the tourist board of Cuba in France ; http://www.cubatourisme.fr/
some pictorials of photos on Havana.