[dropcap type=”1″]O[/dropcap]ld Havana (Habana Vieja) is the area around the original Spanish settlement by the bay, once surrounded by a defensive wall to fend off pirates and rival European armies. The wall was demolished in the 19th. century to allow for expansion (only a few fragments remain today), but the layout of narrow, cobbled  streets and squares lined with colonial buildings remained almost intact, and it is one of the main charms of Old Havana.

What to See in Old Havana:

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas is the prime square in Old Havana (it was given its present form in 1589), and one of the most pleasant to spend some time in, specially late in the afternoon when the swarms of tourists are gone. Large ficus trees provide shelter against the tropical Sun, the shaded paths with fountains lead to a monument in the center: in the spot where there used to be a statue of Spanish king Fernando VII, now one of Cuban independence hero Carlos Manuel de Cespedes proudly stands.

Looking around the square, you would understand why the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier called Old Havana the “City of Columns”: the facades of the fine colonial Baroque-style buildings are supported by arcades of columns, allowing pedestrians to stroll in the shaded galleries of cobblestone sidewalks.

Courtyard with statue of Columbus, City Museum.
Courtyard in the Captain Generals’ Palace, Plaza de Armas

On the West side of the square is the Captain Generals’ Palace, now the City Museum. The Captain General was the colonial Governor of Cuba, over 60 of them ruled the island from this palace built in 1791. After Cuba’s independence, this was the Presidential Palace for a short period of time. The focal point in the center of a serene courtyard is a statue of Christopher Columbus, erected in 1862.  The Museum today holds exhibits of colonial ambiance: furniture, paintings, glass, carriages, and other decor artifacts and relics of the period. There is also a collection of colonial military uniforms and weapons, flags, and  exhibits about the Cuban wars of independence. Admission: 3.00 CUC

Going clockwise around the square, to the right of the City Museum is another stately limestone facade: the Segundo Cabo Palace, built in 1771 for the Post Office administration and the Second Lieutenant Governor’s mansion. Under renovation at the moment, it will become a cultural center when it re-opens in the future.

Royal Force Castle
View of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza

Next to the Segundo Cabo Palace is a well preserved fortress, complete with a moat and a drawbridge: Castillo the La Real Fuerza (The Royal Force Castle). Built to defend Old Havana from pirates and corsairs, it was completed in 1577. The defensive position was determined to be a poor one, since it was too far from the mouth of the bay to be effective. As other fortifications were built, it served as the residence of the governors of Havana for centuries. Notice the little weather-vane statue on top of the watchtower: it is La Giraldilla, now the symbol of Havana. The one on top of the fort is a copy, the original is kept at the City Museum across the square. La Fuerza is a maritime museum now, with exhibits about the times when Havana had one the largest shipyards, including a 13 ft model of the Santisima Trinidad, the heaviest-armed ship in the world when it was re-built in 1798.

The gate of the fortress is facing a fenced monument with a shrine-like building behind a Ceiba tree, on the corner of the square: El Templete. This is the landmark of the foundation of Havana on this spot in 1519, when the Spanish settlers held mass and the first council under a similar tree. Inside the little temple are three frescoes from 1828 representing those events by French painter Vermay. It is a long running tradition in Old Havana to enter the monument on November 16th., to go three times around the tree touching the trunk with a hand and tossing a coin under it, for good luck.

To the right of El Templete monument, there is another 18th. century mansion with arches and columns, the house of the Counts of Santovenia; today it is the Hotel Santa Isabel, enjoying a privileged location in Old Havana. On the South side of the square are a library and the National Museum of Natural History, run by the University of Havana. It contains exhibits of stuffed mammals, reptiles, birds, and snakes from around the world, with a focus on species found in Cuba, and samples of audio recordings of birds.

From the square take South on Oficios, a typical Old Havana cobbled street lined with former homes of merchants in the 17th. and 18th. centuries, now turned into restaurants, boutique hotels, museums, and artists’ studios.  Worth peeking inside is Casa de los Arabes (Oficios 16) for a fine example of the architectural style of the era; now a museum about Islamic cultures, with the only hall of prayer for Muslims in Havana. Walk 3 blocks to one of Old Havana’s historic squares, the:

Plaza de San Francisco de Asis

The large square Plaza de San Francisco opens on one side to the cruise terminal across Port Avenue. As you enter the square you immediately notice the Convent of San Francisco the Asis, (Admission: 2.00 CUC) a former Minor Basilica and Franciscan monastery from the 16th. century. During the occupation of Havana, the British used the church as their house of worship for the Anglican faith; when the Spanish rule returned, the church was never used again for religious services, as it was considered ‘desecrated’. The convent was closed in 1841, and the building was neglected for a long time. After extensive renovations it is now a sacred-art museum and a concert hall with excellent acoustic: this is the home base of Camerata Romeu, an award winning all-female ensemble that performs here regularly, check the schedule for dates and times if you enjoy chamber music.

San Francisco de Assisi Square
Plaza the San Francisco de Asis, Old Havana

Notice the white marble fountain in the square: Fuente de los Leones, by the Italian artist Gaggini (1836). A more recent bronze statue also adorns the square in the likeness of El Caballero de Paris, a street person  who wandered about Old Havana for decades; he was so well known that after his arrest for vagrancy in the 1940’s public reaction led to his immediate release. The beard of the statue is polished by the hands of tourists stroking it for good luck.

Opposite to the convent is the building Lonja del Comercio (1909), formerly Havana’s commodities and stocks exchange. Now an office building after major renovations and updating in the 1990’s, it is worth taking a look inside to appreciate the modern interior with a glass atrium leading up to a dome, capped by a statue of the Greek god Mercury.

Pass the entrance of the convent on Oficios, and make a right on Teniente Rey Street; walk one block and you will arrive at one of Old Havana’s most popular spots:

Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja in Old Havana
Plaza Vieja in Old Havana

The Old Square (which was originally known as New Square when it was laid out in 1559) was conceived as an open space for public events: executions, bullfighting, and religious festivities; for a period of time in the 1800’s it became Market Square, with 60 market stalls: a commercial hub in the heart of the city. In the 1950’s the square was dug up to build an underground parking lot. In its latest incarnation, Plaza Vieja has seen a remarkable comeback in recent years: extensive renovations turned around the formerly derelict 18th. century houses, restoring the buildings to their original elegant appearance. The plaza has become one of the essential places to visit in Old Havana. It is worth nothing the House of Conde Jaruco at the corner of Muralla and San Ignacio (now Gallery ‘La Casona’, with contemporary art exhibits) for its beautiful facade with stained-glass ‘medio puntos‘ over the second floor windows.

When you are done exploring Plaza Vieja, head North on:

Mercaderes Street

This pedestrian-only cobbled street is now lined with old buildings meticulously restored: shops, cafes, museums, and hotels. There are social projects too, like a maternity home for Old Havana residents. Take your time to explore at will, the atmosphere is relaxed and most of the museums are free of charge to visit: Casa de Asia with Chinese art, Casa de Africa with exhibits of santeria ritual artifacts, Firemen Museum, Museum of Chocolate, and the House Museum of Ecuatorian painter Guayasamin.

At the corner of Mercaderes and Obispo you will see the

Ambos Mundos Hotel

Known for a famous guest who stayed here for 7 years from 1932: American writer Ernest Hemingway. If it is time for refreshments, this is a good spot: you can sip a drink in the lobby bar, browsing the many photos of Hemingway in Old Havana. Or even better take the vintage open-cage elevator to the roof top terrace and enjoy a drink and the live music taking the fantastic views in all directions. The hotel keeps “Hemingway’s Room” (511) as it would look when ‘Papa’ was living here, with a typewriter, old magazines, a model of his yacht Pilar, and other artifacts. (Admission: 2.00 CUC  Mon – Sat 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM) He began writing “For Whom the Bells Toll” while staying at the Ambos Mundos. Hemingway eventually moved out in 1939, when he purchased the house in Finca Vigia just outside Havana as his winter residence.

The Ambos Mundos Hotel is on the intersection of Mercaderes and

Obispo Street

The busiest pedestrian street in Old Havana: half a mile long with lots of locals and tourists alike walking up and down, it connects the main hubs Parque Central and Plaza de Armas. The street is packed with galleries selling art and crafts by local artists, bars with live music, shops…and lots of people.  Be prepared to be approached by hustlers trying to sell you all sorts of things or services, or just trying to get you to buy them a drink.

You can take North on San Ignacio Street and walk two blocks, and you will reach:

Cathedral Square

The most Baroque of the squares in Old Havana, this Plaza is one of the most beautiful and also the newest of all: the Cathedral and all the building around the square are from the 18th. century. The Jesuits began building a seminary and a temple here, but after 29 years of construction they were not allowed to finish: the Spanish King banished them from Spain and all its possessions in 1767. The church was completed ten years later, and consecrated as Cathedral in 1788. It soon attracted wealthy families to build mansions around the square: the low-lying area that used to be a swamp, then a shipyard and water supply for ships, became one of the most fashionable in Old Havana.

Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja
Cathedral Square in Old Havana

The Havana Cathedral is Tuscan style, with two lateral bell towers. One tower is noticeable thinner, it is said to be built like that to avoid blocking the natural flow of rainwater to the ocean on that side. The Baroque design of the facade contrasts with the more austere interior, in the Jesuit style. If you come closer you can see fossils of seashells and mollusks embedded in the rock: it is coral stone from the nearby reefs, the material used for the construction of most of the finest buildings in Old Havana. Entering the Cathedral you will notice a large statue of Saint Christopher (the patron saint of Havana) made in Seville in 1632. Three main naves with eight side chapels, the plan is almost square. Behind the main altar dedicated to Virgin Mary, there are three frescoes by Giusseppe Perovani. The remains of Christopher Columbus were kept in the main nave of the Havana Cathedral until 1898, when they were shipped back to Spain, after the end of the colonial rule. They now rest in the Seville Cathedral.

A top rated sight in Old Havana, the square attracts lots of visitors but it never feels crowded. Worth noting is the house on the West side, slightly encroaching into the square:  now restaurant El Patio, it is the former house of the Marquis of Aguas Claras, a descendant of Juan Ponce de Leon (the explorer of Florida). On the opposite side, the house of Count of Lombillo, and next to it the house of the Marquis de Arcos, which became the Royal Post Office in the 1800’s. On the south side, the house of Captain General Luis Chacon, predating the Cathedral.

From Cathedral Square take West on Empedrado street for half a block, and you will find the legendary

Bodeguita del Medio

The most famous bar/restaurant in Old Havana, serving typical Cuban cuisine and the emblematic Mojito cocktail. What stated in the 1940’s as a general store (bodega Casa Martinez) where the owner occasionally served drinks and food to friends, soon became a popular hangout for musicians, writers, and journalists. The establishment opened as a restaurant in 1950, adopting the name La Bodeguita del Medio due to its location in the middle of the block, not at the corner as it was usual for bodegas.

One of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes in Old Havana, many local and international celebrities have patronized the place over the years, as documented by the pictures on the wall: writers, poets, movie stars, politicians. The walls are totally covered in graffiti, as it is customary to leave your mark. The menu is basic but tasty Cuban fare: roasted pork, ropa vieja, black beans, rice, fried plantains, pork rinds, and more.  La Bodeguita claims to be the place where the Mojito cocktail was invented. The bar is small, and usually very busy with tourists; but it has a lively atmosphere with music and a steady flow of Mojitos: Cuban rum, mint leaves, sugar, lime juice, club soda, and ice.

“My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita” Hemingway