With some 2.5 million inhabitants, Havana is the very heart of Cuba. The city has a rhythm all its own, halfway between the easy tempo of a sleepy tropical resort and the feverish pace of a metropolis like New York. The first thing that strikes visitors when they get to Havana is its urban character. Not a false, superficial urbanity, but one that is deeply rooted in its very walls, its way of life and its population.
Founded in 1514 under the orders of Diego Velázquez, Havana was once the third greatest city of the Americas, surpassed only by Lima and Mexico City. The city's historic centre boasts a superb architectural legacy that has led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site. A veritable "gateway to the New World" for the Spanish who steered its destiny for close to 400 years, Havana was ruled with a firm hand by the United States from 1898 to 1902, following the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the Americans and the Spanish.
The Republic, which lasted until the 1950s and was indirectly governed by Washington, saw its capital city change radically under the influence of the United States, which affected everything from the lifestyle of the local residents to the city's architecture. The 1940s and 1950s brought about casinos, cabarets and nightclubs, and certain hotels found in the Vedado district provide a reminder of this controversial era during which authors Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene both drew inspiration from the city.
Fidel Castro's ascension to power in 1959 and the establishment of a socialist system further altered the habits of local residents. The large fresco of Che Guevara that watches over the Plaza de la Revolución and the Cuban Communist Party headquarters decorated with the colours of the Revolution serve as proud reminders of the West's only socialist system and make this a resolutely unique city in the Americas.