Streets that have been walked along for centuries hold a special magic. How many lives would they be linked to? How many people made them an essential part of their daily life? Some, the oldest, have even disappeared and only a vague memory of their splendor of yesterday remains. To others, the restoration offered by the Office of the City Historian has given them new life. As we feel it is important to know which are the most historically significant and functional, we have made a list of the ten oldest and most important streets in Havana.
Havana was founded, near the entrance to the bay, by the Spaniard conquerors in 1754, who gave it the name of Villa de San Cristóbal. Legend has it that, under a leafy ceiba tree, the first mass was celebrated in the presence of the conquerors and the welcoming local tribe, and the city’s first town-hall set up. It is believed that this act of foundation took place in what is known today as the Templete (little temple), in the heart of Old Havana, where a ceiba tree is still kept alive and worshiped by Cubans every 16th of November, the anniversary of the city’s founding.
We begin our tour just across the park in front of the Templete in, 1. Cuba Tacón street. -constructed as a tribute to Captain General Don Miguel Tacón. It is a short street stretching for only a few blocks. Its main attraction is that it has been restored with wooden paving from an endemic Cuban tree called Ácana and begins just opposite the Palace of the General Captains. It is a very easy street to walk down and observe the remains of the ancient city walls.
Following the winding course of Cuba Tacón street, we arrive at where it is crossed by the famous 2. Empedrado street, which, as its name indicates, was the first street in the city to use the stones known as "chinas pelonas" (bald stones, cobbles) as pavement. One stretch of this street was especially well known and well-traveled, leading from the Cathedral of Havana, located between Mercaderes street and San Ignacio street, to the famous Bodeguita del Medio, a place where hundreds of famous artists and visitors have eaten and left their mark.
Three sister streets go from the National Capitol to the Avenida del Puerto, these are 3. Obispo, 4. O'Reilly and 5. Obrapía, each with its own story. Since the founding times, these lively arteries flourished with traffic and commercial activity. At present, Obispo, above all, houses a large number of places where one can buy themed souvenirs of the city, as well as restaurants and hotels.
Parallel to Obispo street, and closer to the bay, runs O'Reilly street. During the colony and until 1863, when the Wall of Havana began being demolished, this street was the main intramural commercial artery and connected to extramural Havana through a door in the antique Wall known as the Puerta de Monserrate. Overpopulated since the early seventeenth century, it was criticized for the amount of land it occupied and the appalling state of its facilities. In the 1940s it became known as "the street of photographers", since, of the 15 photography studios that existed in Havana in 1879, eight were located in O'Reilly. A tradition that is still maintained through numerous art galleries.
Also parallel to Obispo street, but on the opposite side from O’Reilly, is Obrapía street. It was named in honor of a charity which, every year during the colonial period, gave five young orphans a small fortune (a dowry) so that they could get married and start a family. It is currently one of the most interesting streets in the city as it contains various cultural attractions such as the House of África museum, the House of Benito Juárez, the House “La Obra Pía”, and the House of the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín.
Three streets connect the old part of the city with the new one. To get from the old center of the city to Vedado there are many road arteries; however, after the sea-front Malecón, the three most important are 6. San Lázaro, 7. Zanja and 8. Carlos III.
San Lázaro street runs parallel to the Malecón, beginning in an area called La Punta occupied by the Castle of San Salvador, the prison where José Martí was held, the obelisk where eight medical students were shot in 1871 and the statue of the poet Juan Clemente Zenea. It ends at the foot of the steps of the University of Havana, crowned with Alma Mater. Covering nearly 25 blocks, it is full of history and interesting localities.
Meanwhile, Zanja street begins in Havana’s Chinatown and runs quietly through Centro Habana, crossing Vedado at the intersection between President´s Ave. and Boyeros Ave. Its route passes various other sites, such as the central Police Station and the students residence of the National Art School (ENA).
Carlos III Avenue was one of the first routes created during the expansion of the capital city. Captain General Miguel de Tacón ordered it to be considered a “walk”, or promenade, giving access to other areas of the city, primarily to the Prince's Castle, where he resided, the jail and also to the Quinta de los Molinos, resting place of the captain generals. It is currently one of the main arteries of modern Havana, directly connecting with Vedado through Avenida de los Presidentes, and with the Jose Marti Airport through the 15km-long Avenida de Rancho Boyeros.
Finally, do not forget to visit two “walks”, or promenades, 9. Paseo del Prado and 10. Alameda de Paula, both born of the intention to create spaces for the people of Havana to meet, stroll and enjoy themselves.
At present, the Paseo del Prado is a majestic, treed, European-style boulevard extending from the Fountain of India and the Fraternity Park to the fortress of San Salvador de la Punta and the Malecón. Eight bronze lions guard their intersections, and it is where varied interests mix, ranging from those of the tourist to those of the local community. Every weekend, a spontaneous flea-market of art takes place along Prado below the gentle shade of its trees.
In turn, the Alameda de Paula promenade was named after the church of Saint Paula, formerly a hospice. It is a walk from which you can see the interior of the bay of Havana. In addition, if you are interested in souvenirs, art and other handicraft, you will find nearby the Almacenes de San José, an enormous warehouse full of these typical items.
Right at the far end of the Alameda de Paula, you can finish your extensive city tour at the port's brewery, as the former Warehouse of Wood and Tobacco is known, to enjoy a delicious craft beer.