El Vedado District

Old Havana might reign supreme with day tripping tourists, but any Cuban will tell you that the El Vedado district is the true centre of day-to-day life for locals in Havana. Developed mostly during the 20th century, El Vedado spans a wide range of architectural styles reaching into the 1950s when things seemingly froze in time. The end result is a zone of hotels, mansions, government buildings, shopping centres, and skyscrapers totally unique from anyplace else on the planet.

A Brief History of El Vedado

With a name that translates roughly into English as “the forbidden place,” it should come as no surprise that for a good part of Havana’s history El Vedado was off-limits to the average citizen. This was a military zone exclusively until the mid-19th century, when an ambitious street grid featuring wide European-inspired boulevards and spacious public spaces was approved. But it was during the early 20th century that development really began here, thanks in large part—at least at first—to the many sugar fortunes being made in Cuba during that period.

As the century rolled on, foreign investment mostly from the United States began playing an increasingly larger role in the development of the by then flourishing El Vedado district. The area became home to Havana’s first modern skyscrapers including former Havana Hilton—now the Havana Libre hotel. It was here, on the 23rd floor, that Fidel Castro made his headquarters after his rebels rolled into Havana in 1959.

It was also in the El Vedado district that perhaps the world’s most iconic photograph was taken; an image of Che Guevara that now adorns t-shirts, posters, and other memorabilia around the world. The El Vedado area continued to be a focus of development for the new government, though most of the district’s grandest architectural achievements harken back to its 1950s tourism heyday.

El Vedado Today

Despite the fact that Old Havana is without a doubt the most famous and popular district for tourists in the city, El Vedado is the true cultural centre of Cuba’s grandest metropolis. Though there are plenty of colonial-style mansions and other architectural gems thrown into the mix, El Vedado is overall strikingly modernist. Perhaps the finest example of this architectural style is Coppelia, the world’s largest ice cream parlour, which holds up to 1,000 customers at a time in a building that some say resembles a flying saucer. This is also the city’s prime skyscraper district, home to the FOCSA Building, Cuba’s tallest, as well as the Hotel Riviera and the aforementioned Havana Libre.

Key landmarks of interest to tourists in El Vedado also include the Hotel Nacional, whose illustrious guest list has included the likes of Winston Churchill, and the massive and meticulously maintained Cementerio Colon (Columbus Cemetary). Famous streets include Calle 23 thanks to its many cinemas, Calle Linea with its theatres, Calle G and its many mansions, and Calle Paseo, used for marches every year on March 1st. The area also features the Casa de las Américas cultural institution and the University of Havana, the island’s grandest educational institution.

The El Vedado district is also home to important venues as La Fabrica de Arte, El Gato Tuerto or jazz clubs as La Zorra y el Cuervo and the Jazz Cafe.

Despite all of this, visitors to El Vedado need not plan out their exact itineraries beforehand—the sprawling district is home to a seemingly endless number of streets off the tourist map that nevertheless offer exciting things to see from architectural, historic, and/or cultural perspectives. A walk through El Vedado will take you past relics. Take it all in and enjoy it, because there’s no place else appealing like this in modern Havana.

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