Havana, the capital of Cuba, is a place like no other. It’s a city teeming with wonders, from the warm ocean breezes to the lively nightlife. But one of the most captivating attractions of Havana is its historic core. This enchanting tale reveals the unique beauty that lies at the heart of the city. Follow us as we explore the past and present of Havana’s oldest and most treasured neighborhoods.
1. Exploring Old Havana’s Rich History
Havana’s Historic core has entranced locals and visitors alike for centuries. Rich in colonial charm and grand architecture, this section of Cuba’s vibrant capital is a magical delight. Here is a glimpse of the marvelous places and attractions that make it so special:
- The Plaza de Armas: This cobblestone square, where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World in 1492, oozes history and is a great spot for people-watching
- The City Walls: Built in the 1500s by Spanish settlers, these crenelated walls remain in remarkable condition and can be explored with a guide
- The Capitolio: This enormous building topped with a cupola was designed by an initiative of President Gerardo Machado in the 1920s
- The Cathedral of Havana: A beautiful sight, this Baroque-style cathedral was built in 1748 and boasts a museum and an impressive Gilded high altar
- The Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro: A stunning fortress built in the 16th century, this castle boasts a lighthouse, moat, and a salute battery.
Whether you’re interested in learning about the city’s past, getting an amazing view, or simply wandering around narrow cobbled streets, Old Havana is the perfect spot to explore. Take a stroll past the city walls and architecture, then immerse yourself in all the captivating sights, sounds and flavors of Havana’s Historic Core.
2. Setting the Scene: Taking in the Traditional Charm
When you first step into central Havana–or Habana Vieja–it is as if you stepped into a time warp. The cobbled streets and incredible colonial buildings, built over 450 years ago, tell a captivating story about this city’s past.
- Those Historic Streets: Stroll down Calle Obispo, the most picturesque street in Habana Vieja. As you do, you’ll find yourself getting lost in the captivating architecture, the grand plazas, and vintage cars.
- The Spanish Influence: Walk the Plaza de Armas and revel in the traditional grandeur of the place. Here you’ll find cafes, beautiful churches, and the grand Governor’s Palace, which was built in the 1700s.
- The Floridita: Get a taste of the city’s long-held traditions with a visit to La Floridita. This popular bar has been serving rum, cigars, and the world’s best daiquiris since 1817.
This is just a glimpse of what is in store as you explore the historic sights and sounds of Habana Vieja. From outdoor concerts in Plaza Vieja to the myths and folklore of Callejon de Hamel, there is a charming mystery to uncover in every corner of the city.
3. Captivating Architecture: Notable Landmarks
Encompassing a wealth of captivating architecture, Havana’s historic core stands as an iconic landmark of Cuban culture. Rich in architectural styles, Havana offers a merging of Spanish, Baroque, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau:
- Spanish Baroque: This style is visible in the city’s oldest churches, palaces, government buildings, and residential colonial-style architecture. The grandiose and esteemed El Templete, a pilgrimage spot for Cubans, and The Palacio Del Centro Asturiano De La Habana are some examples.
- Neoclassical: Characterized by its heavy columns and box-like structures, neoclassical architecture is visible in many government buildings, the Capitolio de la Habana, and numerous palaces, amongst others.
- Art Nouveau: Most of Havana’s art nouveau architecture, popular in wealthy residential areas, is housed within grand villas with smooth surfaces, curved balconies and floral motifs. Renowned examples include the Encanto Building and the El Senate Building.
On most sides, Havana is surrounded by vibrantly colored walls dating from the 16th century. Composed of fabulous shapes and patterns, these walls embrace the charm of Havana’s old buildings and make the view even more captivating.
The fortress La Cabaña, built in the 18th century and seen looming in the sky upon entrance to the city, is one of the city’s oldest fortifications and further complements the charm of Havana’s old buildings. As one of the foremost Spanish colonial fortresses, it stands in testament to the city’s history.
Cruising down El Malecon, the iconic seafront road along Havana, visitors are invited to take in the expansive view of the historic core of the city. Whether it be boats fishing in the harbor or locals relaxing on the pier, El Malecon gives locals and visitors alike an unforgettable view of this special city.
Overall, Havana is a stunning gift to the world. Its alluring architecture, invigorating colors, and unparalleled culture make the city a sight to behold.
4. Culture and Cuisine: Taste the Flavors of History
The city of Havana is home to a captivating and culturally meaningful heritage, bringing centuries of customs and mores to life within its walls. With many of its iconic architecture, churches and plazas having withstood the test of time, Havana’s historical core is as entrancing and enriching as ever.
Step into the streets of Old Havana and its colonial-style structures and charming courtyards and you will find a lingering reminder of its storied history. Whether it be La Bodeguita del Medio, associated with Ernest Hemingway or the legendary El Floridita, paying a visit to one of Havana’s bars is something of a must-do.
A journey throughout Havana’s history wouldn’t be complete without a few culinary delights. Traditional Cuban cuisine is rooted in African, Caribbean, and Spanish influences, with spicy and sweet flavors playing a large role in the city’s renowned dishes. Here are a few sets of dishes with a cultural history of their own:
- Ropa Vieja – “old clothes,” consisting of shredded beef cooked in a tomato-based sauce
- Congri – A combination of white rice and black beans
- Tostones – Fried green plantains with garlic
- Moros y Cristianos – Black beans and white rice
- Ajiaco - A Cuban stew with a variety of liver, root vegetables and squash
From its picturesque Plaza de Armas, the grand house of El Morro and its grand plazas, to its tantalizing cuisine, Havana’s melting pot of cultures and customs are alive and well. There is something for everyone in the fascinating traditional city – a treat for any curious traveler.
5. Insightful Activities: Uncovering Havana’s Hidden Gems
From well-worn cobblestones to flaking street art, the heart of Havana is an essential stop for culture lovers. It is here in the Spanish colonial streets and neoclassical plazas, where the city’s deep and diverse history can truly be discovered. These are the hidden gems and forgotten treasures that truly make this city so enchanting.
Revolution Square: One of the key gems of historic Havana is none other than Revolution Square. Formerly known as the Plaza de la Revolucion, it was a site of major events during the Cuban Revolution and has come to be a symbol of the country’s power and independence. It is also a reminder of the sacrifices made by the Cuban people and a chance to contemplate the city’s amazing history.
Francisco Xavier Cugat Museum: Just around the corner is the Francisco Xavier Cugat Museum, a wonderful tribute to the highly acclaimed Cuban-born, Spanish-Mexican artist Xavier Cugat. Amongst its displays, the museum houses some of his most renowned artwork including their signature abstract murals, providing wonderful insight into his life and works.
Let’s explore: Ready to unlock the secrets of Havana’s historic core? Here are some amazing activities to get you started:
- Take a stroll around the cobblestone streets of the Old Town and admire colonial mansions
- Learn about Cuba’s fight for independence in the Historical Museum of The Revolution
- Glimpse at one of the world’s oldest cabaret shows at the legendary Tropicana nightclub
- Shop at the Cuban craft markets and bring home something truly special
- Sample some of the best high-end Cuban cuisine at renowned private restaurants
Within the charming lanes and romantic plazas of the city’s historic core lies a rich tapestry of stories. From magical Cuban folklore to of tales of political uprising, each street corner shines a light onto a different layer of Havana’s captivating past. Go ahead and follow the path – you’ll never know what hidden treasures you may find!
6. Travel Tips: Making the Most of your Visit
1. Witnessing its Historic Sites
The cobblestones of Old Havana, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, hint at the magic and splendor of Spanish colonial-era Cuba. The plazas of Havana’s Historic Centre allow for a journey into a distant time, with its magnificently preserved architectural details, ancient forts, and grand boulevards. The captivating scent of traditional Havana culture unfolds as you make your way through the network of alleyways, with old markets and iconic establishments.
2. Exploring its Religious Sites
Havana’s deep religious identity is brought to life through the vibrant Cuban faith. The Baroque-style Iglesia de San Francisco dates backs to the 1700s and is renowned for its gold-topped towers. Its adjacent museum is filled with some of the city’s treasured religious art and ecclesiastical relics. Moreover, the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, built in 1768, is the second oldest church in the city and is replete with exquisite frescoes, a Cuban Neo-Baroque style altar, and grand statues.
3. Discovering its dining scene
The dining scene in Havana’s Historic Core is as lively as it is delicious. The city’s traditional Paladares offer a range of Creole and Cuban dishes, while cafes, bars, and rooftop restaurants serve everything from tapas to paella. Make sure to stop by the most iconic spot – La Bodeguita del Medio – to sample the local delicacies and even sample a cocktail of world-famous Havana Club rum.
4. Taking in its cultural marvels
From its ceremonial sites to its diverse art galleries and world-renowned artists such as Wilfredo Lam and Tomas Sanchez, Havana’s Historic Core stands as one of the city’s most vibrant cultural hubs. The Automobile Museum houses vintage car models from the past century, while the Great Theatre of Havana is home to some of the nation’s best Ballet performances. A visit to the National Museum of Fine Arts is ideal for art lovers – with an array of contemporary works in Cuban modernism, abstract art, painting, and photography.
5. Touring its iconic neighbourhoods
The Historic Core is dotted with unique and enthralling neighborhoods. Take a stroll through the atmospheric Old Square, or explore the markets and iconic buildings in Harbour Square, where picturesque cobblestones and British and French-style buildings create a serene atmosphere. Then, make your way through the streets of El Vedado, where 1950s buggies line the avenues and the brilliantly colored homes give an insight into Cuba’s past.
6. Capturing the Moment
To truly make the most of your visit to Havana’s Historic Centre, take the time to capture these mesmerizing moments on camera and film. With its spectacular sunsets, pastel-hued streets, and centuries-old landmarks, your photos will speak to time immemorial. Whether you’re a visitor or a resident, these photos are sure to bring a smile to your face and stay with you forever. This exploration of the charming historic core of Havana has been just the start of a wonderful journey filled with captivating stories of centuries gone by. Allow yourself to experience this incredible city by wandering its cobblestone streets for yourself and joining in with the rhythmic pulse of its vibrant culture, full of lively music and delightful culinary delights. ¡Hasta luego!