The time has come in this travel series from Cuba for a post on what to see in Old Havana. This part of the city is so picturesque that it’s a must-see when traveling to the island. I took a short ride from my Varadero hotel every chance I got to visit different landmarks. I would just pack a few sweets, coins, my guidebook, and a camera and I was once again peeking behind another colonial building.
What to see in Old Havana
You probably heard about the Malecon promenade, which is another landmark of Cuba. It’s the 7 kilometers long seafront area, which can be splashed by waves on stormy days, and where locals meet, sit, swim, and fish – overlooked by the sea on one side and buildings of various architecture on the other.
Malecon is famous for its great sunset views. And strolling along this boulevard, it’s easy to reach the Habana Vieja (Old Town), declared as part of the world’s cultural heritage by UNESCO in 1982.
Plaza de la Catedral
This is the largest colonial center in Latin America and is adorned 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 a visit. Aristocratic buildings and the 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 housed the remains 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 a few lovely buildings at the Plaza. You will find Palacio de los Marqueses de Arcos, built in the 1700s, with an art gallery. It was once the main post office and you can still see the original letterbox on the outside wall. Then, there is Museo de Arte Colonial, another beautiful building in Old Havana 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 about Cuban rum), 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 the place where the well-known Paris Restaurant used to be in the 1900s.
Plaza de Armas
When one goes to the right, towards Plaza de Armas, one 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. Since it was too far inside the bay, it later became the residence of governors. In 1634 a weather vane known as La Giraldilla was placed on the lookout tower, which soon became the symbol of Havana. (If this made you think about the Giralda bell tower in Seville, you are on the right track. This one was built to resemble it.)
There is a nice park in the Plaza. When one turns right, there is another item on what to see in Old Havana list – a building that resembles 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 aslo the statue of Columbus in the courtyard.
When one continues along Calle Obispo (Bishop Street where the city bishop resided once), one 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, there are a lot more of those “what to see in Old Havana” landmarks. For instance, one will pass by a few old shops, the old pharmacy, the Ambos Mundos Hotel we mentioned in the Glimpse about Ernest Hemingway’s stay in Cuba, etc. There is also an interesting old letterbox shaped like a man’s face with an open mouth for letters to be put in.
Go around the block and you will find a beautiful 17th-century mansion, known for its Baroque doorway, reputedly sculpted in Spain – Casa de la Obra Pia or Charity House. The nobleman who lived here in the 17th century gave a dowry every year to five orphan girls to get married or enter a convent. The house is so pretty with its luxurious rooms and yellow walls.
Not far from here, there is Casa de los Arabes, another charming building with a typical Moorish courtyard and a true “what to see in Old Havana” landmark.
Just take a pick, I’m sure you would love every one of these charming buildings. And there’s more on our what to see in Old Havana itinerary. But also, wait until we reach Centro Habana in the next Glimpse, just click below.
The full Cuba SERIES