Okay, we took a break at the beach in the last Glimpse and I hope you are now ready for a walk, for – what to see in Old Havana. There is so much to see in the city and I was actually hoping on the bus every once in a while since there were daily rides from my Varadero hotel. Just packed few sweets, coins, my guidebook, and a camera and I was once again peeking behind another colonial building!
You have probably seen pictures of the Malecon Havana promenade, which is a must when you travel to Cuba. It’s the 7 kilometers long seafront area, which can be splashed by the waves on stormy days, and where locals meet, sit, swim, fish – overlooked by the sea on one side, and buildings of various architecture on the other. Malecon is famous for great sunset views. And strolling along this boulevard, it’s easy to reach the Habana Vieja (Old Town), declared as part of cultural heritage of mankind by UNESCO in 1982.
Plaza de la Catedral
This is the largest Colonial center in Latin America and it’s characterized by Hispanic-Andalusian architecture. The best way to explore it is by foot, of course. I came down to Plaza de la Catedral which seemed like a great place to start. Aristocratic buildings and present-day Cathedral were built in the 18th century. Here you will come across a colonial costume lady who strolls under the arcades and offers to “read your fortune”.
The Cathedral was renamed in 1796 as Catedral de San Cristobal de La Habana because, according to popular belief, from that year until 1898 it actually housed the relics of Christopher Columbus himself. The Cuban Baroque facade is grandiose with two large bell towers and an abundance of columns. There is a huge wooden statue of St Christopher.
There are few lovely buildings at the Plaza. You will find Palacio de los Marqueses de Arcos, built in 1700s, with an art gallery. It was once the main post office and you can still see the original letter box on the outside wall. Then, there is Museo de Arte Colonial, another beautiful building with blue doors and windows, that houses an exhibition of Colonial furniture and objects.
On the left of the Cathedral there is the famous La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant (more about it in one of the previous Glimpses!), but also Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras. There is a bar restaurant in the inner courtyard and in the square, and it bears a French feel. This was actually the place where the well-known Paris Restaurant used to be in the 1900s.
Plaza de Armas
When you go to the right, towards Plaza de Armas, you will soon reach Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the 16th century castle with its broad moat. (I took so many pictures here!) The castle is built to protect the city from pirate attacks, but since it was too far inside the bay, it later became residence of governors. In 1634 a weather vane known as La Giraldilla was places on the lookout tower, which soon became the symbol of Havana.
There is a nice park in the Plaza. When you turn right you will see the building resembling a temple. That is El Templete which stands on the spot where, according to legend, the city of San Cristobal de la Habana was founded in 1599. On the left, there is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, now Museo de la Ciudad. This baroque palace was built for Cuba’s old Colonial rulers. There is the statue of Columbus in the courtyard.
If you go by this building and continue along Calle Obispo (the Bishop Street where city bishop resided once), you will still have that feeling of an open-air museum because of the Colonial architecture dating back from the 16th to the 19th century.
Here, you will also see few old shops, the old pharmacy, you will pass by the Ambos Mundos Hotel we have mentioned in the Glimpse about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Cuba etc. You will come across an interesting old letter box shaped as a man’s face with an open mouth for letters to be put in.
Around the block and you will find one beautiful 17th century mansion, known for its Baroque doorway, reputedly sculpted in Spain – Casa de la Obra Pia (Charity House). Nobleman who lived here in the 17th century gave a dowry every year to five orphan girls for them to get married or enter a convent. The house is so pretty with its luxurious rooms and yellow walls. Not far from there, there is Casa de los Arabes, another charming building with typical Moorish courtyard.
Just take a pick, I’m sure you would love every one of those places. And there’s more, wait till we get to Centro Habana in the next Glimpse!
The full Cuba SERIES