As the name suggests, Old Havana or Habana Vieja is the oldest part of the city, founded by the Spanish in 1519 around the Bay of Havana. As an important link in the flow of treasure from the New World to the Old, the city was very rich and the streets and plazas were lined with grand Neoclassical and Baroque buildings. Many of those buildings still stand today, some beautifully restored, some crumbling. Spend at least a few hours here just wandering the narrow streets and people-watching in the many squares.
Plaza de Armas
This is where Havana was founded, originally the governmental and ceremonial center of the city, where military exercises and parades were held. Today, you’ll see lots of book sellers, a shady park and the Hotel Ambros Mundos, where Hemingway lived for a while. The stately 18th-century Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which now houses the Havana Museum, forms one side of the square and Castillo de la Real Fuerza fortress is nearby.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
Havana’s 2nd oldest square is named for the 16th-century Church and convent of St. Francis of Assisi that overlooks the wide-open square from the south. The church is now a museum and concert venue. The weekly concert schedule is posted just inside the main entrance. For great views over Habana Vieja and the harbor, climb the church’s 138-foot bell tower. This square is usually more laid-back than other parts of the Old City, a good place to catch your breath. It opens onto the harbor so there’s a chance of nice sea breezes there. The Lion’s Fountain is charming, the old stock exchange building looks very important and the Sierra Maestra ship terminal is a festive gateway to Havana from points far and wide.
Founded in 1559, this was originally the residential area of the city’s elite. The square was an entertainment venue, with bullfights, public celebrations and executions. Most of the buildings around the square have been renovated as part of the larger restoration project begun in the 1980s after UNESCO declared Old Havana a World Heritage Site.
Plaza de la Catedral
This square dates from the 18th century and is named for the Baroque Cathedral of Havana, dedicated both to the Virgin Mary and St. Christopher. The area was a swamp and then a naval yard before becoming one of the poshest neighborhoods of colonial Havana. The square is surrounded by beautifully restored, grand old mansions, some of which house bars and restaurants. The Museum of Colonial Art is here. This is one of the liveliest squares in the old city and it’s especially impressive and atmospheric after dark, when the cathedral is illuminated.
After walking around Habana Vieja for a few hours, you’ll surely need a drink. El Floridita, with its gleaming hardwood bar and red-aproned bar tenders, is a stylish place to rest your feet and wet your whistle. It’s famous for being the hangout of Ernest Hemingway and he’s still a fixture, although in bronze now, on his corner stool.
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