Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is polished, nicely cobbled and touristy. Rather than beggars, you find jaunty old men with giant cigars eager to pose for a dollar. Rather than begging, panhandlers find an excuse to make business. The old center is built around five Colonial Age plazas. The most historic square, Plaza de Armas, celebrates the founding of the city in 1519. These squares are decorated with modern art and ringed by inviting bars with tables spilling out onto the cobbles. Signs and furniture feel like everything just opened up last year (which is often the case). This is the tourist-friendly zone -- appealing and fun, but not giving an honest look at the character and economic metabolism of Havana.
As is the case in many developing countries, Western tourists gather in the most Western-friendly hotel, where they can get online, arrange tours, enjoy food that feels safe to eat, and interact with well-dressed, English-speaking locals. The Hotel Inglaterra, across the street from the iconic capitol building, is the favorite -- constantly filled with tourists struggling to catch a little of the fleeting local Wi-Fi.
Our guide walked us to the obvious tourist attractions, which included colorful Afro-Cuban culture expressed by joyful dancing and religious sects that mix Christianity with African religions that came over with the slaves.
Tourism is ramping up in Havana, and in a few major stops in Cuba beyond the capital city. This hop-on, hop-off bus tour ($5 for a two-hour loop with a live guide, runs three per hour) is like any you'd find in Europe -- but at a fifth the price.