Havana Cuba is a blend of beautiful old buildings and a newer section. Although no blog, nor pictures, nor words can describe the beauty of Old Havana, this blog will try to wet your appetite to visit this beautiful city.
We spent many, many hours wandering Old Havana’s streets and exploring most of it historic sites both alone and with our guide Adrian. Although some of the streets are somewhat dark, Old Havana is very safe to walk through. Many of the pedestrian zones are marked by cannons embedded mouth down in the middle of streets—both to prevent cars from entering and to signify that Cuba’s wars have ended. Some of our favorite Old Havana sights include:
- Plaza Viejo (Old Plaza), which was laid out in 1559 around an ornate fountain. It is surrounded with arcaded buildings from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The most important and interesting of these is the 18th-century Conde Jaruco House (home of the Countess of Merlin) and the Art Deco Hotel Placio Cueto. Just off the square, meanwhile, is an excavated remnant of the city’s original (build from 1565-92) underground water system.
- Plaza de Armas was the most important and is still the largest and most beautiful of the city’s squares. Built in the 1670s, the tree-lined grass square has a statute of Carlos Mannuel de Cespedez (who is considered the father of the country for enlisting slaves to aid in the successful revolt against their Spanish masters) at its center. Most importantly for the importance of the square, it is lined with the:
- Palace of the Captain General (the colonial ruler). This is an incredible mansion, with the currently-restored portions filled with historic relics. These include 17th– and 18th-century weapons and military uniforms, portraits of many of the colony’s leaders and most prominent citizens and personal and personal effects of the late 18th-century governor’s household. These include formal carriages and elaborate furniture and furnishings. Among the many most impressive pieces are an ivory-inlaid chest ones owned by Catherin de Medici, the commander’s throne, Murano glass chandeliers and porcelains from all across Europe. Obviously money was not an issue.
- Palace of the Lieutenant General (the second in command), which now houses a cultural exchange center;
- Real Fuerza castle, which served as the city’s first military fortress;
- Temple that marks the spot of Havana’s founding and the location of where the first city’s first mass was held; and
- Building that housed the city’s first school;
- Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is the oldest hotel in the city and where Ernest Hemingway once lived. It now displays a large collection of Hemingway photos. As we toured the interesting old photos, some millennials asked us who Hemingway was. Oh well…….I guess high school literature mandates have evolved to a new generation of “classics”.
- Cathedral Plaza which is surrounded by the 270 year-old San Cristobal Cathedral, the San Carlos and Ambrosio Seminary and 18th and 19th-century mansions, that had been owned by two Marqueses (of Arcos and of Aquas Claras, respectively.
- San Francisco Plaza, a pretty, open square that was right near the wharf at which Spanish galleons and warships once called. While the San Francisco Basilica (now a concert hall) is the most important of the square’s buildings (which also include former mansions and a lovely, domed office building), it is built around a pretty fountain and contains one of the neighborhood’s most interesting public sculptures. Just outside the square is the pretty, old House of Representatives building, which is now home to the Communications Ministry.
- Calle Obisto, the Old City’s main commercial and entertainment street (and one of its prettiest) is loaded with historic historic buildings (many of which are difficult to fully appreciate, given the narrow street). It is also filled with strolling people (residents and tourists alike) who are either shopping, people watching or just looking for the next bar with the best music.
This, of course, just scratches the attractions of this lovely and historic neighborhood. The best way to appreciate it is just to stroll (ideally with a beer and a cigar) and explore the entire area. Even on the smallest, least visibly interesting streets, you are likely to run into gems. Think, for example, of the Merced Church which, a 1755 structure that, from the outside is relatively nondescript. The interior, however, has a lovely alter and mural-covered walls and ceiling.
Then there are many facts of little historical importance, but quite interesting, nonetheless. Consider the block in front of the Captain General’s mansion. Why have the cobblestones that cover all the neighborhood’s other streets, been replaced by small, smooth rows of wood? It is, of course due to the Captain General’s wife. This is the same woman who served as the inspiration for the city’s symbol—a small statuette of a women standing atop some of the city’s tallest cupolas, scanning the horizon for the ship that will bring the return of her husband. She was continually disturbed by the sound of horses and carriage wheels on the stone streets outside the palace and had the block repaved in wood blocks—a feature that remains to this day.