Just how a large city grew from a small village to its current hectic self can often be difficult to imagine for a first-time visitor. Berlin has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that the contemporary city can be a little confusing to navigate. Bangkok has grown and grown as more Thai citizens moved to the capital, meaning the city is a beautiful sprawl with no definitive downtown. Havana, the achingly beautiful capital city of Cuba can be a little overwhelming when you first begin to walk its cobbled streets, but the birth and growth of the city is actually quite easy to trace. To explore this magnificent city, you should start where the city itself started. Welcome to Plaza de Armas, Havana.
The Birthplace of Modern Havana
The city of Havana was founded in August 1514 by the Spanish Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, and the first Spanish settlers constructed their homes in what is now the UNESCO World Heritage listed Old Havana. It was decided that the fledgling community needed a grand square to match the citizen’s grand aspirations for their new city. The Plaza de Armas Havana was conceived and laid out in 1519, making it almost as old as the city itself. It was from the plaza that the city grew, and it truly is the historical heart of Havana.
Plaza de Armas Havana: The Best of All
There are a number of public squares known as the Plaza de Armas dotted across the world, and it literally translates as the Square of Arms (meaning weaponry), as this was where the military paraded in these respective cities. Residents of Lima, Peru; Santiago, Chile; or Seville, Spain might argue that their Plaza de Armas is the best in the world, but once you’ve seen the beauty of Plaza de Armas Havana, you’ll believe that there is no competition.
A Safe Place
The location of Plaza de Armas Havana was not random, and it was designed to be the true centre of the city, and a safe place where residents could congregate in the event of an attack from outside forces. It was a defensible position, and this style of urban planning is common in cities built during the Roman Empire – the founders of Havana simply used the idea.
Where the Elite Meet
While it’s now a public square for citizens and visitors alike, Plaza de Armas Havana was once quite an elitist place. During the late 18th century, it was a place for the wealthy aristocratic residents of Havana to dress up and take a stroll. The square slowly fell into a state of disrepair and was actually quite shabby during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Extensive restoration work began in 1935, restoring the square to its former beauty, and the Plaza de Armas has been lovingly maintained since then.
Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
Plaza de Armas Havana is justifiably a must-see on your Cuba trip, and is the best spot in the city to simply watch the world go by. While the military processions once common in the square are a distant memory, the square retains a regal feeling. This is in part due to the massive and beautiful Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the Captain Generals), which dominates the east side of the square. It was previously the official residence for the Spanish Governors of Cuba, but is now home to the Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City), an excellent museum showcasing Havana’s rich history.
Plaza de… Arts?
The square can sometimes feel like a giant art show where local artists sell their wares. It’s an ideal place to pick up a one of a kind souvenir from your time in Havana, although the art on offer varies significantly. There are artists who will draw your caricature on the spot (and will often start without asking you), as well as artists who have created a sublime interpretation of Havana that will look stunning on your living room wall.
Enjoy from Above
Since the square is the focal point of Havana and is visited by locals and tourists alike (around a million people pass through each year), it can be overcrowded during the peak seasons. If the crowds should become too much, you can still enjoy Plaza de Armas Havana without actually being in the thick of things. Head to the Hotel Ambos Mundos, just off the square, and go to their rooftop bar. You can enjoy a panoramic view of the square (and much of Old Havana) without fighting the crowds. Order a mojito, sit back, and reflect on this magnificent square and its significance as the birthplace of Havana.