Cuba's amazing capital city is an unforgettable combination of the magnificent and the decayed, the lively, the hip, the arty and the humdrum, the exuberant, the defiant and the fractured.
It's hard to capture Havana in a few words, but let's start with some history.
Havana was founded by the Spanish at the mouth of a wide bay that makes a wonderful natural harbour. The new city became a vital staging post for Spain's other colonies in the New World, notably to Panama for the shipment of gold and silver from Peru. Attacks by France, Britain and pirates led to the building of fortifications to shield the port, including thirty foot city walls to landward.
What is now Old Havana developed in this confined space, so its streets are narrow and every square inch is used. The magnificent buildings funded by the port's trade, are crammed in cheek by jowl.
Eventually the walls came down and the city spread westward, phase by phase.
Today as you travel through Havana from east to west each area is marked by the styles of its period, from the colonial baroque of the old city, through restrained neoclassical styles of the nineteenth century, to bourgeois suburban, now peppered with bold modernist and brutal soviet styles.
This is a city that has been wealthy, and even in these harder times still seeks to impress. Five times bigger than the next largest city in Cuba, Havana speaks for whole country (or thinks it does), and stands for Cuba to the world.
Any city by the sea should have a grand seafront boulevard, and Havana is no exception, with its 'Malecón' skirting the bay past the Old City, then sweeping westward by the long Atlantic shore. Grandly planned avenues march across the city, between plazas small, large and enormous (for political rallies).
It's a city marked with bold gestures too: here a wall of flags, there a superbly ornate theatre for ballet, here a sixty foot portrait of Ché Guevara. Political slogans abound, with pictures of Fidel or Ché, calls for the return of the Cuban Five, the importance of Youth, or condemning the US for its invasions or for its part in the world's economic woes.
The old city, Havana Vieja, spans 500 years. Every street seems to have a story to tell, every building a message from the past.
The oldest and most monumental buildings are closest to the waterfront. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza guards the entrance to the bay, while the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi has guarded the souls of the city's believers since 1738. Both are historically important but neither need detain you.
It is in the narrow streets behind, bounded by the line of the old city walls, that Old Havana lives and breathes. Impossibly grand mansions sport pillared porticos, hung with doors ornately carved in Spanish oak, their upper storeys festooned with elaborate balconies in iron or stone. Many look onto equally outrageous neighbours just ten feet away on the opposite side of the street.
But this is Cuba. The buildings are crumbling, their elegance is threadbare and become a backdrop to ordinary working lives. Families chat, hug, cook and laze. Dusty hallways clatter to the sound of ball games. Laundry, pot plants and music spill out from open windows.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 1982, Old Havana is being restored. It's a long process, but the city's building teams have been steadily busy. The results are good: structures are preserved, façades brightened, magnificence restored, and at least some of the families remain to enjoy it. But the old city is a big place, and only a portion has so far been touched. Elsewhere the grandeur remains faded and the streets ooze romantic decrepitude.
The busiest streets can be jostlingly busy, and though sometimes given over to visitors are not at all bad for it-it's a lively and colourful mix. There are some excellent new hotels in this area too, with a special effort to preserve their historic buildings while providing modern comforts - often with considerable taste and style.
For your first visit, you will want to see the main plazas, the most distinctive streets and the notable buildings. There is plenty to absorb and entertain you-and many jineteros to tempt a few extra notes from your wallet.
You may also feel that Old Havana deserves more, and you vow to return for another taste of the atmosphere and colour of this fascinating place.
By the mid-nineteenth century Havana could no longer be contained within the Old City and the westward expansion began. The city walls were torn down and new streets put up in styles you'd find in Paris or Madrid-now faded.
Separated from Old Havana by Parque Central and the Capitolio Nacional, Centro is Havana's busiest district today, and buzzes with the 'real' life of a modern city - Cuban style. It's not touristic, but Centro definitely has plenty to explore.
Apart from scruffy urban streets of shops, offices and apartments, there is a thriving Chinatown, the Callejón de Hamel-a street dedicated to Santería, and the remarkable but little-visited neo-gothic Church of the Sacred Heart.
Where Old Havana is historic, and Centro commercial, Vedado exudes affluence, comfort and suburban space. Elegant boulevards lined with grand houses, in every style from art deco to faux renaissance, flow between leafy parks.
Hot money poured into Cuba from the USA in the 1920s and 30s, bringing to Vedado an explosion of hotels, nightclubs, and casinos that injected the loucheness of Atlantic City or Harlem. It made Havana a place for Hollywood to be seen in, and put the city in the pocket of Mafia mobsters.
Vedado's main avenue, La Rampa, rises from the Malecón between the gargantuan Hotel Nacional and the 27-storey tower of the modernist Tryp Habana Libre. The Yara cinema, the Coppelia ice cream parlour, the La Zorra y el Cuervo jazz club, and many lesser venues are all on La Rampa, as it runs on, regaining its sobriety, towards the campus of Havana's distinguished University.
Miramar and Playa
Leaping the Almendares river, Havana's westward expansion became ever more elegant and affluent in the districts of Miramar and Playa.
Before the revolution this was where the wealthiest Habañeros lived and had their country clubs. Afterwards their mansions were given over to government offices or were divided among favoured ordinary families. These days foreign companies and international banks congregate here as Havana gradually opens to outside capital - Cuban style.