Some cities around the world are lucky enough to have an old town – the village from where the city grew. Newer cities, such as those in the US or Australia don’t generally have a clearly designated old town, but there are certainly some lovely older parts of those respective cities. But for many cities in Europe and Latin America, the old town is mark of pride. Prague in the Czech Republic and Warsaw in Poland have particularly lovely old towns, and the old town of Bruges in Belgium would have you believe that you’ve stepped through a time portal – particularly on a foggy evening when you’ve had too much of that lovely Belgian beer. For aesthetic value and when it comes to things to see, the best old town in the world has to be in Havana, the glorious capital of Cuba. When you visit Havana you will undoubtedly spend many a happy hour strolling the streets and alleyways of the old town… and after the first day you’ll probably be ready to move there. When exploring this beautiful part of a beautiful city, there are so many things to see and do that it could take up your entire holiday. Fortunately, we’ve narrowed down the list for you… So what do you need to see in Havana’s old town?
Birthplace of a City
The Plaza de Armas (Arms Square) is an attraction in itself, but when you visit Havana you should head to the edge of the square, where El Templete is located. This monument celebrates the founding of the city in 1519, and it’s the geographical centre from where Havan grew. Back then, Havana was known as San Cristóbal de la Habana. Saint Christopher is the saint of Havana, and Habana is believed to be a nod to Habaguanex, the name of an indigenous chief who ruled the area prior to the arrival of the Spanish. El Templete is also the site where the first council of Havana took place, and it was probably a more lively affair than most modern day city council meetings.
The Seat of Power
Also on the Plaza de Armas is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. This baroque style palace was built using slave labour and was designed to be the home and offices of the Spanish governors of the island. First mooted in 1773, it wasn’t completed until 1792. It served its original purpose until 1898 when Cuba gained independence from Spain. It was then used as Cuba’s presidential palace until 1920, and is now the City Museum, showing artifacts and exhibitions about the founding and development of Havana. This fascinating museum really is a must see when you visit Havana. The building has been painstakingly restored and the upper floors (where the governors lived) has been made to look exactly like it did hundreds of years ago.
Visit Havana and Take a Stroll Under the Trees
The Paseo del Prado bears a striking resemblance to boulevards in Europe, particularly Las Ramblas in Barcelona. There are far less annoying tourist traps along Havana’s Paseo del Prado, which stretches for a kilometre and is a beautiful leafy boulevard that divides Old Havana with Central Havana. It’s a lovely and easy walk, although its beauty is a fairly recent development. Once one of the most pretty parts of the city, the boulevard fell into disrepair and was downright shabby. Extensive restoration work in the early 2000s has returned the boulevard to its former glory.
Are We in Washington… Or Possibly Paris?
When you visit Havana, you’ll catch many glimpses of El Capitolio before you even get close to the building. It’s 92 metres in height and looks rather a lot like the Capitol Building in Washington DC, as well as the Pantheon in Paris (which was the inspiration for both buildings). Construction started in 1926 and was completed three years later. The building truly is a sight to behold, even if you don’t go inside. It was designed to house the Cuban House of Congress, although they all found themselves out of a job after the Cuban revolution. It now hosts various government ministries and certain parts are open to the public. This might not last forever, since the government is considering using the building for its original purpose, and Cuba’s National Assembly (the successor to the House of Congress) might be moving back inside. The building is visible from many parts of Havana’s Old Town, making it rather handy for navigation.
Goodbye God, Hello Music
There’s no shortage of beautiful churches and cathedrals in the city, as you will see when you visit Havana. Many of these buildings were not used so much directly after the revolution when religious worship was discouraged (who needs God when you’ve got the state to look after you?). One of these achingly lovely churches had been out of action for several centuries before Castro came along, and this is Old Havana’s Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis (Basilica and the Monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi). Havana was briefly captured by the British in 1762, although they held it for less than a year. They used the Basilica as their primary place of worship, but this stopped when the city was returned to Spanish rule. It has not been used as a church since the 1760s, but is still a place for the community. It houses a variety of concerts, and it’s a delight to experience music in such unique surroundings. Check the signs near the church for upcoming events.