Foreign visitors to Europe are often fascinated by the concept of the “old town.” While Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans might have their own cities that are hundreds of years old, as well as indigenous cultures that date back thousands of years, it’s remarkable to visit a city that has been a city for so many centuries. The old town is usually a central part of the city, and is the village from where the modern metropolis grew. Spain and Portugal has a number of beautiful old towns, as does Germany. Of course, many German cities were damaged during WW2, so a number of German old towns are in fact recreations of what used to be there. In our humble and yet well-informed opinion, the most breathtakingly beautiful old town in the world can be found in Havana, Cuba. It’s the spiritual and cultural heart of the city, and when you visit the city, you will spend many happy days strolling its streets and alleyways. The old town can be slightly daunting in that there’s just so much to see. So what are the Old Havana attractions that really need to be on your list?
All the Colors of the Plaza Vieja
It was a public square, then a military training ground, then a public square, then a carpark, and now, fortunately it’s a square again. First built in the 1500’s (much like the rest of the Old Havana attractions), the Plaza Vieja is not the largest of the city’s plazas, and yet is perhaps the most relaxing. Sure, there will be crowds, but the blue sky shining down on the brightly painted art deco buildings is just so calming. The blue and yellow buildings are bold and yet complement each other perfectly. Why do so many cities just have boring concrete and mirror glass buildings?
The Inviting Plaza de Armas
Another plaza where you’ll want to spend some time is the sumptuous Plaza de Armas. The name translates as Square of the Arms (meaning weaponry), and this was the permanent military marching ground for many years. Many cities in Latin America have squares with the same name. The military no longer struts its stuff through the square, and now you’ll find a succession of cool shady alleyways that lead off the square, as well as the restaurants that occupy a prime position on the plaza itself. These places will not be the cheapest option for a meal or drink in Havana, but the location makes it well worth the price.
Beware of Pirates: The Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Poor city planning is not such a modern invention, as one of the greatest Old Havana attractions clearly demonstrates. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza was built to protect the fledgling settlement of Havana from attacks from the sea- namely pirates. It was actually built too far away from the harbour to be effective for this purpose, but was still the designated “fall back” point in the event of an attack. Citizens could shelter here, and its design made it efficient to defend… once the pirates got off their boats. It’s on the Plaza de Armas.
A Stroll Along Calle Obispo
When it’s time to leave the Plaza de Armas, you can soak up a lot of Old Havana attractions with a stroll along Calle Obispo. This long and winding road starts on the plaza (or ends there, depending on your direction of travel) and continues to Havana’s Central Park. The street is crammed with galleries, boutiques, as well as cafes and restaurants. Allow plenty of time to walk along Calle Obispo, since you won’t want to hurry. Once you get close to the Central Park, you’ll see a true Havana institution – a bar known as El Floridita. This was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite watering holes in the city, a fact that the bar is happy to celebrate… there’s a life sized statue of Hemingway standing at the bar.
The Best of the Old Havana Attractions? The Malecón
It’s off to the side of most of the Old Havana attractions, and yet the Malecón is perhaps the loveliest spot in the area. Its official name is the Avenida de Maceo, and it’s a 5 mile stretch of walkway that starts in Old Havana and ends in the district of Vedado. You should pace yourself if you intend to walk its entire length, and there are many distractions along the way. You can look back at the rest of the Old Town, while enjoying a gentle ocean breeze and watching the many Cubans who just come here to chill out. It’s usually busiest in the evenings, but you might want to come here to enjoy a cold drink when the day is at its hottest, before diving back into the beauty of Old Havana.
Check out our Old Havana Walking Tour today!