Pretty much all our clients will include Havana on their Cuba holiday which means time spent exploring the atmospheric streets and plazas of Old Havana.
While the city is home to a number of plazas (and not all of them in Old Havana) there are four that are pretty much must-sees.
Plaza De Armas
If you can’t decide where to start, then you might as well begin with the Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in Old Havana. Set-out in the early 16th century, and originally known as the Plaza de Iglesia, it earned its current name towards the end of the same century when the governor began using it for military drills. The square as you see it today, including the surrounding buildings, generally dates from the 18th century.
Located at the end of Calle Obispo, Old Havana’s busiest street, Plaza de Armas is an attractive, traffic-free square with giant royal palm trees affording it plenty of shade. Around the perimeter of the square you’ll find a number of stalls selling books, antiques and other interesting bits and bobs.
Buildings of note facing the Plaza de Armas include the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (now the Museum of the City), the Palacio de los Condes de Santovenia (now the Hotel Santa Isabel) and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fortress dating back to the creation of the square. In the centre of the square is a statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, widely regarded in Cuba as ‘Father of the Nation’.
Plaza San Francisco
Just a few minutes’ walk from Plaza de Armas, the Plaza de San Francisco De Asis (to give it its full name) faces what is now the Havana Cruise Terminal but which, in the 16th century, was the city’s main harbour.
The square takes its name from the Franciscan convent built next to it but, despite this, the Plaza San Francisco was mainly important as a centre of commerce for the city as evidenced by the imposing Lonja del Comercio on the north side of the square and the Aduana (Customs House) on the east side.
Many of the buildings that surround two sides of the square are still used as offices although there are a few bars / restaurants together with a hotel.
Another very short walk from Plaza San Francisco, and heading in the opposite direction from the Cruise Terminal, takes one to Plaza Vieja.
Ironically, the square was originally known as Plaza Nueva (New Square) but, almost 500 years after its creation, Plaza Vieja (Old Square) seems more appropriate now.
Although referred to as a square, Plaza Vieja is very much rectangular in shape and is surrounded on all four sides by a mish-mash of attractive, architectural styles. It seems incredible now, but until the late 1990s Plaza Vieja was home to a hideous, underground car park which was demolished in 1996, allowing the square to be restored to its former glory.
Around the square are a number of different buildings including (and thankfully on different sides) a primary school and microbrewery. During the evenings, the microbrewery, with its restaurant, bar and outdoor seating in the square, is a popular venue for tourists. This, together with the almost nightly live music, makes the nearby Hotel Beltran de Santa Cruz an option for night owls only.
Plaza de la Catedral
The ‘newest’ of the four main squares in Old Havana, the Plaza de la Catedral was originally known as Plaza de la Ciénaga and only gained its current name in the 18th century when the baroque church of Compañía de Jesús was officially consecrated as a cathedral.
Today, this beautiful square is framed all four sides by some of the city’s most impressive colonial architecture.
Opposite the Cathedral, on the south side of the square, is the Casa del Conde de Casa Bayona, one of the oldest houses in the city and today the Museo de Arte Colonial.
On the east side of the square are the Casa de Lombillo, home to a couple of art galleries, and the Casa del Marques which, for a while, served as a post office (a post box can still be seen in the wall).
Perhaps the square’s most beautiful building is the 18th century Casa del Marqués de Aguas Claras. Famed for its beautiful inner courtyard and beautiful stained-glass windows, the building now serves as El Patio Restaurant. Much like Europe, tables and chairs are laid out in the square where there is often live music. The only slight downside is that the food generally doesn’t match its surroundings.
Finally, on the north-west corner of Plaza de Armas is occupied is Casa de los Condes de Peñalver, another building that dates back to the 18th century and which has gone through many guises. Today, it houses the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam.
For clients on a tailor made holiday to Cuba, we offer a number of pre-bookable Trips (excursions) in Havana including a walking tour of Old Havana. Clients on our small group, escorted tours of Cuba also have a walking tour of Old Havana included on Day 2 of their itinerary.
For more information on things to see and do in the capital, please refer to our Havana Travel Guide.