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HAVANA – In some destinations, tourist areas are located far from the rhythms of everyday life. But visitors who wander through Old Havana — Habana Vieja, as locals call it — can't help but get a sense of how ordinary Cubans live.
You'll see uniformed school children, street vendors selling colorful fruits and peppers from carts, clotheslines hung from patios, and small dogs sunning themselves on sidewalks. There are lines at government-run offices for phone service and banking, and bicycle taxis ferrying passengers through the narrow streets. You might hear a rooster crow, a caged songbird, salsa music or the engine of an old car roaring as it trundles past. Watch out for pipes jutting from windows: Water may pour out from housework being done inside.
Nearly every street seems to have a sign attesting to something of cultural or historic significance. O'Reilly Street, for example, named for an Irishman who became a leader in the Spanish colonies and married into a prominent Cuban family, bears a plaque with a rather poetic allusion to the histories of Ireland and Cuba: "Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope."
Many buildings are terribly rundown. It's not unusual to see the sky through a roofless stone facade or piles of rubble in the street. But other sites have been beautifully restored, especially around the squares in the eastern half of the neighborhood bordering the water. Spend a few hours walking through Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco and Cathedral Square. Many museums and other attractions are located here, including the Museum of Rum, which offers visitors a swig at the end of the tour, and the Ambos Mundos Hotel, which has an excellent short tour of a room where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote.
Another cluster of major attractions is located in the western half of the neighborhood, near the Prado or Paseo de Marti, a boulevard that divides Old Havana from Central Havana. The Prado itself is worth a stroll, especially on Sundays when it hosts an outdoor art market. Adjacent to the Prado is the Parque Central (Central Park), home to a statue of revolutionary hero Jose Marti. A block over, between Agramonte and Avenida de Las Misiones (Belgica), you'll find the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, with extraordinary collections of Cuban art in one building and international art in another, and the Museo de la Revolucion, with a tank and the famous boat "Granma" used by Fidel Castro outdoors and a wall of cartoons inside called "Cretins' Corner" mocking American presidents Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.
Watch out for hustlers near the Parque Central. Resist all invitations from overly friendly strangers who invite you to a bar or to buy cigars. But if you need a drink, choices abound, including a trio of historic spots. Hemingway frequented El Floridita (located at Obispo No. 557) and La Boguedita del Medio (Empedrado No. 207), while Sloppy Joe's, where the messy ground beef concoction supposedly was invented, was a setting for the movie "Our Man in Havana," based on the Graham Greene novel about a bumbling spy.
But more enjoyable than the tourist crowds and watery mojitos at La Bodeguita are the relaxed outdoor cafes in the old squares on the other side of Habana Vieja. Nothing is lovelier than sipping a Cristal beer in Plaza San Francisco or Plaza Vieja in early evening, when the day's heat dissipates and sweet sounds from a three-piece band playing "Guantanamera" drift across the square.