La Habana Vieja is a small diamond, partly polished, partly unpolished.
The renovated part of the neighborhood looks like a European capital.
Then suddenly, at the turn of a street, a tangle of small, populous and decrepit streets appears! Halfway between Rome and Delhi, Habana Vieja is like Cuba, full of paradoxes!
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Habana Vieja in a few words
Listed as a Unesco heritage site since 1982 for its architectural richness mixing baroque and neoclassicism, Habana Vieja is the oldest district of the capital.
It stretches for about 5 km. on the western shore of Havana Bay.
Churches, convents, forts and palaces of all kinds, some of which are 500 years old, follow one another along the charming cobbled streets of Habana Vieja.
Beware of the jinteros, the touts, who storm the neighborhood in search of gullible tourists.
They are not pushy, however, and will leave you alone if you kindly decline their offers.
Most tourists stick to the plazas and renovated streets.
But it is by venturing into the small, winding, untidy alleys that you can truly take the pulse of Habana Vieja and discover the daily lives of its inhabitants.
Habana Vieja is full of cobblestone squares, each one more charming than the next.
The Plaza de la Catedral
The Plaza de la Catedral, in the north of the neighborhood, is for us one of the most beautiful. Lined with baroque buildings made of limestone and dominated by the Havana Cathedral, the square has an incredible charm.
Its uniform structure and architecture give it the air of an old European city center square, far from the colorful extravagance we are used to in Cuba.
The Plaza de Armas
To the east, the Plaza de Armas is the oldest square in Cuba, even if the buildings that surround it today were mostly (re)built in the 18th century.
Shaded by numerous royal palms, the square is an oasis of coolness in the middle of the bustling Habana Vieja. A second-hand book market is held here every day except Sunday.
The Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
The Plaza de San Francisco de Asis is a colonial plaza dating from the 16th century. Completely restored in the 1990s, the plaza is now adorned with three statues: the marble fountain la Fuente de los Leones, dating from the 19th century, el El Caballero de París dating from the 1950s, and La Conversación added in 2012.
Plaza Vieja is the most colorful and eclectic square in Habana Vieja.
Contrary to what its name may suggest, it is not the oldest square in Havana.
It was originally called Plaza Nueva.
The square is home to many bars and restaurants where you can take a short break before continuing your exploration of the neighborhood
Calle Mercaderes is a pedestrian street that has been completely restored to its 19th century appearance. It is full of stores and restaurants. Don’t miss the Armería 9 de Abril, the armory that was stormed by revolutionaries during the 1958 revolution.
Dating from the 16th century, Calle Obispo is the most animated street of Habana Vieja. You will find a lot of galleries, bars and restaurants. Some people regret that, too touristy, it does not reflect the true face of Havana.
For the record, it was at the corner of Obispo and Mercaderes that Ernest Hemigway lived during his stay in Cuba.
La Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana
Located in the Plaza de la Catedral, the Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana, or simply the Catedral de la Habana, is a baroque cathedral dating from the second half of the 18th century.
In contrast to the facade, the interior of the cathedral is more austere neoclassical.
It is here that the remains of Christopher Columbus rested from 1795 to 1898, before being repatriated to Seville.
Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced
Begun in the 17th century, it wasn’t until more than two centuries later that the construction of the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced was completed.
Baroque in style, it is one of the most famous and most frequented churches in the capital.
There is no bell tower here, but inside you will find frescoes, gilding and paintings galore.
The church owes its fame to its lavish and opulent interior decoration.
A cloister adjacent to the church invites you to take a short break from the heat and bustle of Habana Vieja.
The Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís
Located in the San Francisco de Asís square of Habana Vieja, the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís was originally built by Franciscans in the 17th century.
After violent storms, it had to be rebuilt in the 18th century in a baroque style.
A beautiful cloister was also added to the building
The Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís has not been a consecrated place since the 19th century.
After being used as a warehouse and then as offices, the building now houses a museum of sacred art and a concert hall.
Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de Belén
The Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de Belén is the largest religious complex still existing in Habana Vieja, although, like San Francisco de Asís, it is no longer consecrated.
The church and convent were built in the early 18th century by the “Orden de Belén”, the Order of Bethlehem, a religious order created in the 17th century in Guatelama.
Over time, the baroque building passed into the hands of the Jesuits and then became the headquarters of the Academy of Sciences.
It now houses a government-funded community center.
The Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula
With its beautiful dome and colorful stained glass windows, the Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula is one of the most charming churches in Habana Vieja.
It was originally built in the 17th century and included a women’s hospital.
Destroyed by a hurricane in the 18th century, the church was rebuilt in a baroque style very inspired by Spanish architecture.
Completely renovated in 2000, the church now hosts concerts and exhibitions of Cuban artists.
Located on Avenida de Bélgica, the Edificio Bacardí is a magnificent Art Deco building dating from 1929. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest building in Cuba.
Its bell tower overlooks the entire neighborhood and offers a panoramic view of the capital (count 1 CUC to go to the top). Restored in the 1990’s, the Edificio Bacardí houses mainly offices, but you will also find a bar.
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Facing the sea, on the Plaza de Armas, the imposing Castillo de la Real Fuerza was built in the 16th century.
Pirates were then a heavy threat in the Caribbean, plundering and sacking all the cities that made their fortune thanks to the trade between Europe and the Americas.
In order to defend themselves, the Spaniards erected in Havana a system of gigantic fortifications.
The Palacio de los Capitanes Generale
It is also on the beautiful Plaza de Armas that you will find the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales.
Built in the second half of the 18th century, it is one of the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture in Cuba.
The palace was first used as the residence of the governor of Cuba, before being converted into the Presidential Palace in 1902, and then housing the City Hall in 1920.
Today, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales houses the Museo de la ciudad.
The museum depicts the rich and eventful history of the city through a beautiful collection of historical artifacts (period furniture, uniforms, photographs…).
The Museo del Ron
is owned by the famous Havana Club rum brand and is located a few steps from the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. The museum traces the different stages of rum making, from barrel making to fermentation.
Count 7 CUC for the entrance and the guided tour (available in French).
Not surprisingly, there is also a bar and a store on site.
At the end of Calle Léonor Perez, you will find José Marti’s birthplace. This small house, where the famous Cuban independence fighter was born in 1853, is now home to a small museum that recounts the life of José Marti and his struggle, with letters and memorabilia of all kinds.
The Museo ” 28 de Septiembre ” de los CDR
To understand the impact that the Castro regime had on the daily life of Cubans, we recommend a visit to the Museo “28 de Septiembre” de los CDR (2 CUC).
In all subjectivity (as always in Cuba), this small museum explains the fundamental role that the CDRs, the “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution”, play in Cuban society, even today. Anecdotal, but interesting.
What are the Best Restaurant in Habana Vieja ?
For a change from the usual Ropa Vieja, we recommend you to go to the restaurant Van Van, Calle San Juan de Dios, a few minutes walk from La Estrella.
The setting is very nice, the service is great and the menu offers delicious Cuban and international dishes (the chicken curry is to die for, especially after a few weeks in Cuba!).
The Sandwichería La Bien Paga is the perfect place for a quick lunch in Habana Vieja.
This small sandwich shop offers a nice menu of sandwiches and burgers, either to eat in or to take away.
American classics or Cuban specialties, there is something for everyone.
For the anecdote, it is also one of the few places in Cuba where we found real Coca Cola (most of the time, they serve the local version of Coke, the Tukola)
For a delicious shady break on the Plaza de Armas, we recommend the restaurant La Mina.
It’s a little bit expensive (location in the heart of Habana Vieja), but the fish fillets with rice and vegetables are particularly delicious!
Is it Possible to take a Guided tour in Havana Vieja ?
It is possible to take the Habana Vieja tour in a small group with a professional guide.
For 3.5 hours, your guide will take you on a tour of the emblematic monuments of Habana Vieja and tell you about its rich history.
The tour also includes lunch in a restaurant featuring local cuisine.
You can book your guided tour here! You have the possibility to cancel up to 2 days in advance (full refund).
Now Your Turn
Now I would like to know, do you have any question ?
Or maybe do you have some information to add ?
Either way, let me know in the comments below