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Havana on foot - Old Havana's Plazas

Havana on foot - Old Havana's Plazas

Old Havana, crammed with narrow streets, plazas, Cuban baroque churches, columned mansions, and flower-filled courtyards, is testament to the wealth and power of the Spanish Colonial empire in the New World.

Start your walk at El Templete [1], the memorial hall that marks the foundation of Havana in the corner of the Plaza de Armas. Havana was founded at its current spot on the Straits of Florida on November 16th 1519. The founding Mass was held in this corner of Plaza de Armas, and in 1828 El Templete (the small temple), a neo-classical memorial, was built to mark the spot.

The leafy Plaza de Armas [2], laid out in 1582, is surrounded by some of Havana's most important and most handsome buildings. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force), built between 1558–1577, now houses a fascinating shipwreck museum (Tues-Sat 9.30am-5pm, Sun 9.30am-12.30pm) [3].

Next door is the Palacio del Segundo Cabo (Palace of the Lieutenant-Governor) [4]. Across the entire west side of the square is the Cuban baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the Captains Generals) now the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum) (Daily 9.30am-6.30pm) [5]. On most days a second-hand book and curios market draws visitors to the square. The Gigantes, entertainers on stilts, regularly wander up and down Havana's only wooden road which was laid out in front of the City Museum to silence carriages. Admire Old Havana's view from the roof terrace of the stylish, colonial Hotel Santa Isabel [6] on the southeast corner of the square.

Old Havana's Plazas - Map

Call into La Casa del Agua La Tinaja (Water House) [7] for a free, reviving glass of mineral water before heading south along Calle Oficios to the Plaza de San Francisco. This route passes the Deposito del Automovil [8], a museum showcasing a number of classic cars including those belonging to famous Cubans (Tues-Sat 9.30am-5pm, Sun 9.30am-1pm); and the Casa de los Arabes (House of Arabs), which is home to Havana's mosque [9].

The wide portside Plaza de San Francisco de Asis [10] dates from 1628. At its southern end rises the 1738 Basilica Menor y Convento de St Francisco de Asis (Basilica and Convent of St Francis of Assisi) [11]. Today, it's famous for its classical music concerts and the statue of the El Caballero de Paris (The Gentleman of Paris), a bronze sculpture of a Spanish down-and-out [12]. Legend dictates that anyone who strokes the statue's beard will have their wishes granted. Facing the basilica tower is the 1909 La Lonja de Comercio (Stock Exchange) [13] topped by a statue of Mercury. The beautifully restored Hotel Palacio del Marques de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal [14] is one of Havana's newest hotels, and displays the work of contemporary Cuban artists.

Head west off San Francisco square along Calle Teniente Rey (Brasil) to the stunningly restored 16th-century Plaza Vieja [15]. Head up the Camara Obscura tower [16] (top of the Gomez Avila building), for an unusual perspective of the city (Daily 9.30am-5.30pm) before heading inside to the new Planetario [17] and its exciting high-tech star-gazing bulbous auditorium that projects the sparkle of the night sky (Wed-Sun 9.30am-5pm).

Relax with Cuban coffee and ice cream at the alfresco corner cafe, Cafe Escorial [18], or the at the sprawling brewery, Factoria Plaza Vieja [19] with a Cuban beer.

Before leaving the plaza from the same corner you arrived at, head past the Count of Jaruco's house (built in 1737), now the Centro de Artes Visuales [20], to check to see if there is an exhibition.

Back at the northeast corner of Plaza Vieja, walk north up Calle Mercaderes. The first stop is the Museo de Chocolate (formerly the mansion of the Count of Lagunilla) on the corner of Calle Amargura [21], which is more of a chocolate cafe than a museum. Habana 1791 [22], on the corner of Calle Obrapia, sells artisanal perfumes. A real treat, great for adults and children alike, is the animated Maqueta de la Habana Vieja, (Havana scale model) (Daily 9am-6pm) [23]. A little further on is the salmon-pink Hotel Ambos Mundos on the corner of Calle Obispo. Novelist Ernest Hemingway's room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos [24] is now a small museum. Turn left (west) along Calle Obispo, Old Havana's main shopping street, passing the Colegio de San Geronimo, on your right [25], which sits on the former site of the University of Havana founded here in 1728; on the left is the 1898 Farmacia Taquechel [26].

On the corner of San Ignacio, turn north (right) to head towards the Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) [27]. Old Havana's most beautiful square is dominated by the coral-embedded stone of the 18th-century Cuban baroque Catedral de San Cristobal [28]. On the east side of the cobblestone plaza is the columned Palacio de Lombillo [29] and the Casa del Marques de Arcos [30]. The south side is flanked by the interesting Museo de Arte Colonial (Daily 9am-6pm) [31]. On the west side the pretty Casa del Marques de Aguas Claras houses the popular El Patio bar and restaurant [32].

Just off the square is the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wifredo Lam [33], a home for temporary art exhibitions, and Hemingway haunt La Bodeguita del Medio on Calle Empedrado [34]. Avoid the signature tipple – the lacklustre mojitos– and try the tasty ropa vieja (shredded beef in sauce) out the back. Off the southwestern corner of the square is Callejon del Chorro [35] and one of the best paladares (private restaurants) in Old Havana, Dona Eutimia [36].

Claire Boobbyer

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Claire Boobbyer

Cultural Explorer

A self-confessed wanderluster and devoted culture lover, Claire writes about her frequent travels...

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