Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
La Real Fuerza
Old Havana (La Habana Vieja)
Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is the original city center, built originally by the Spanish in 1519. It was burned by a French corsair and rebuilt as a fortified city later that same century. The impressive old stone forts that were later built are still there guarding the entrance, as are pieces of the original wall that surrounded the city.
Old Havana has close to 3000 old buildings, and about a third of these have historical significance. These buildings range from very old colonial to neo-classical and Cuban baroque. Adding to this old mixture was the beginning of the 20th century where Havana was spectacularly rich. Fantastic public buildings and private mansions showed the wealth of the owners. Even the later art deco can be found here. If you like history and architecture, this is definitely one of the Top Things to do in Havana
Plaza de Armas
Old Havana is the perfect walking tour. You can walk from the seawall to the neighboring park-like Plaza de Armas. The name came from its original use as a military parade grounds.as a military parade ground. The statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes is found here. He is considered the father of the country. He initiated the wars that eventually led to Cuban Independence. The plaza has large gardens and huge cobblestone area with book selling vendors.
Also here is an old ceiba tree at the Temple Templete. This little neo-classical building is the first temple built in Cuba (early 1800's). It marks the spot where the first mass and first meeting of City founders took place in 1519. This date of November 16th is also considered Havana's birthday. Each year on November 16th hundreds of people line up to circle the old ceiba tree three times, making 3 wishes and dropping coins at its roots. This tradition continues even though the original tree was uprooted by a hurricane and replaced in 1753. Note: This tree looked lifeless when I photographed it. I have heard it has since been removed. I will verify this.
Catedral de Habana
Plaza de la Catedral
Plaza de la Catedral is diagonally across from Plaza de Armas. It is an open cobblestone square with the 1700's Catedral de San Cristobal at one end. This cathedral and the surrounding buildings are an ode to Cuban baroque. The Jesuits started this church, but they were expelled and it became a Catholic cathedral, one of the oldest in the Americas. The Church interior is rather austere compared to its exterior.
There are two other squares here, Plaza Vieja, and Plaza de San Francisco de Asis.
Beyond the historic squares though is the true beauty of La Habana Vieja. Some 3000 old buildings spanning centuries of architectural style are crammed together. Just walk down the little side streets and see magnificent old hotels, museums, public buildings and spectacular old mansions from Havana's rich past.
You don't know what you will find just wandering the streets. Ernest Hemingway's two favorite bars, La Bodequita and La Floridita are in Old Havana. For Hemingway lovers, check my page on his Cuban hoous Finca de Vigia, now a museum just outside of Havana.
Historic Preservation in Havana
What is truly amazing is the amount of preservation work going on here. The work was started in earnest in the 1970's by Eusebio Leal Spengler, the Havana City Historian. He has done amazing works in preservation at a time when Cuba had little money. He formed Habaguanex in 1994. This conglomerate has local hotels that are restored for tourist business. The profits from this go into preservation of other buildings and in urban regeneration. Even all the work going on is just a drop in the bucket of what is still in ruins. Unique in preservation though is that the work benefits the 91,000 inhabitants of Old Havana, it isn't just funneled into a tourist area of old preserved buildings.
See the post on the Scale Model of Old Havana that was built in 1999.