La Habana Vieja is a small diamond, partly polished and partly rough. The renovated part of the neighborhood has a European capital feel to it, but around a corner, you’ll suddenly find a maze of small, crowded, and run-down streets. It’s just as full of contradictions as Cuba itself!
💡 Planning Your Trip to Cuba 💡
🇨🇺 Visa: Before you depart, be sure to apply for your tourist card (which is your visa for Cuba). You can easily order your tourist card online through CubaVisa.
🛏️ Accommodations: To book your accommodations in Cuba, the Captain recommends Expedia. In Havana, he especially recommend 3 casas particulares/B&Bs (Casa Colonial Pedro y Mary, Casa Miriam Hostal Colonial, and Hostal Habana Tu & Yo) and 3 hotels (El Candil Boutique Hotel, Vapor 156 Boutique Hotel and Paseo 206 Boutique Hotel).
📸 Free Guided Tour: Why not explore Havana with a local guide? The Captain highly recommends this free tour of the city. You can choose how much to tip your guide at the end of the tour.
La Habana Vieja in a nutshell
Since 1982, La Habana Vieja has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its unique blend of baroque and neoclassical architecture. As the oldest neighborhood in the capital, it covers approximately 5 km² on the west bank of Havana Bay.
Along the charming cobblestone streets of La Habana Vieja, you’ll find churches, convents, forts, and palaces of all kinds, some of which date back 500 years. Beware of the jinteros, the touts who try to lure in unsuspecting tourists. They’re not too pushy, though, and will leave you alone if you decline politely.
While most tourists stick to the renovated squares and streets, exploring the winding, worn-out alleys is the best way to experience the real pulse of La Habana Vieja and discover the daily life of its inhabitants.
A brief history of La Habana Vieja
In 1519, Spanish colonizers founded the city of Havana, which provided a strategic entry point to the Americas and quickly became a bustling hub for commerce. At this time, Plaza de Armas was constructed, along with some of the oldest buildings in La Habana Vieja.
Frequent pirate attacks, including the capture of the city by French pirate Jacques de Sores, led the Spanish to expand their defenses of Havana. As a result, Castillo de La Real Fuerza and Fort El Morro were built in the late 16th century to protect the bay.
Over time, the city continued to grow around this historic center, and today, La Habana Vieja is one of the fifteen municipalities of Havana.
What to see and do in La Habana Vieja?
👉 To fully experience the historic quarter of Havana, consider taking a free guided tour of La Habana Vieja (with a tip at your discretion). For more information, click here.
The historic squares of La Habana Vieja
La Habana Vieja is brimming with charming, fully restored, and paved squares that are each more delightful than the last.
Plaza de la Catedral
In the Captain’s opinion, Plaza de la Catedral is one of the most beautiful squares, located in the northern part of the district. The square boasts limestone baroque buildings and is dominated by the grand Cathedral of Havana. Its uniform structure and architecture lend it an air reminiscent of an old-town square in a European city, a departure from the colorful extravagance that’s typical of Cuba.
Plaza de Armas
Located to the east, Plaza de Armas is Cuba’s oldest square, although most of the buildings surrounding it were (re)constructed in the 18th century. The square is shaded by numerous royal palm trees, providing a refreshing oasis in the midst of the bustling La Habana Vieja. A used book market is held here every day except Sundays.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
Dating back to the 16th century, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis is a colonial square that was completely restored in the 1990s. Today, the square is adorned with three statues: the 19th-century marble fountain Fuente de los Leones, El Caballero de París from the 1950s, and La Conversación, added in 2012.
Plaza Vieja is the most colorful and eclectic of La Habana Vieja’s squares. Despite its name, it is not Havana’s oldest square and was originally called Plaza Nueva. The square boasts numerous bars and restaurants, making it a great spot to take a break and grab a bite before continuing to explore the neighborhood.
The lively streets of La Habana Vieja
Translated as “Merchants Street,” Calle Mercaderes is a fully restored pedestrian street that closely replicates its 19th-century appearance. It’s brimming with shops and restaurants, and visitors shouldn’t miss the Armería 9 de Abril, which was taken over by revolutionaries during the 1958 revolution.
Dating back to the 16th century, Calle Obispo is the most bustling street (comparatively speaking) in La Habana Vieja. It’s home to a wide variety of galleries, bars, and restaurants. However, some feel that it’s too touristy and doesn’t truly represent the authentic face of Havana. As an interesting tidbit, Ernest Hemingway lived at the corner of Obispo and Mercaderes during his stay in Cuba.
Churches, Cathedrals & Convents
Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana
Located on Plaza de la Catedral, Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana, also known as Catedral de la Habana, is a baroque cathedral from the second half of the 18th century. While the exterior is ornate, the interior of the cathedral is characterized by a more austere neo-classical style. It is here that the remains of Christopher Columbus rested from 1795 to 1898, before being repatriated to Seville.
Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced
Construction of Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced began in the 17th century, but it took over two centuries to complete. The baroque-style church is one of the most famous and visited in the capital city. While it has no bell tower, the interior is richly decorated with frescoes, gilding, and paintings. The church is famous for its opulent and sumptuous interior decoration. An adjacent cloister invites visitors to take a break from the heat and bustle of La Habana Vieja.
Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís
Located on San Francisco de Asís square in La Habana Vieja, Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís was originally built by Franciscans in the 17th century. After violent storms, it was rebuilt in the baroque style in the 18th century, and a beautiful cloister was added to the building.
Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís has not been a consecrated place since the 19th century. After serving as a warehouse and offices, the building now houses a museum of sacred art and a concert hall.
L’Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de Belén
The Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de Belén is the largest religious complex still standing in Habana Vieja, although like San Francisco de Asís, it is no longer consecrated. The church and convent were built in the early 18th century by the “Orden de Belén,” the Order of Bethlehem, a religious order created in the 17th century in Guatemala. Over time, the Baroque building passed into the hands of the Jesuits and then became the seat of the Academy of Sciences. It now houses a community center funded by the government.
L’Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula
With its beautiful dome and colorful stained-glass windows, the Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula is one of the most charming churches in Habana Vieja. It was originally built in the 17th century and included a hospital for women. Destroyed by a hurricane in the 18th century, the church was rebuilt in a Baroque style heavily inspired by Spanish architecture. Fully renovated in 2000, the church now hosts concerts and exhibitions of Cuban artists.
The museums and monuments of Habana Vieja
The Edificio Bacardí
Located on Avenida de Bélgica, the Edificio Bacardí is a magnificent Art Deco building dating from 1929. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest building in Cuba. Its bell tower overlooks the entire neighborhood and offers a panoramic view of the capital (expect to pay 1 CUC to climb to the top). Restored in the 1990s, the Edificio Bacardí is mainly used as office space, but there is also a bar inside.
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Facing the sea on the Plaza de Armas, the imposing Castillo de la Real Fuerza was built in the 16th century. Pirates posed a heavy threat to the Caribbean at the time, plundering and sacking all the cities that made their fortune from trade between Europe and the Americas. To defend themselves, the Spanish built a system of gigantic fortifications in Havana.
The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is also located on the beautiful Plaza de Armas. Built in the second half of the 18th century, it is one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in Cuba. The palace originally served as the residence of the governor of Cuba before being converted into the presidential palace in 1902 and then the city hall in 1920. Today, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales houses the Museo de la ciudad, which portrays the rich and tumultuous history of the city through a beautiful collection of historical objects, including period furniture, uniforms, and photographs.
The Museo del Ron
The Museo del Ron, owned by the famous Havana Club rum brand, is located just a few steps from the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. This museum showcases the different stages of rum production, from barrel making to fermentation. Admission and guided tours (available in French) cost 7 CUC. Not surprisingly, there is also a bar and a shop on site.
The Casa natal de José Marti
At the end of Calle Léonor Perez, you’ll find the Casa natal de José Marti. This small house, where the famous Cuban independence fighter was born in 1853, now houses a small museum that retraces Marti’s life and struggle, complete with letters and various souvenirs.
The Museo “28 de Septiembre” de los CDR
To understand the impact that the Castro regime has on the daily lives of Cubans, Captain Ulysses recommends visiting the Museo “28 de Septiembre” de los CDR (2 CUC). Though subjective (as always in Cuba), this small museum explains the fundamental role that the CDRs, or “committees for the defense of the revolution,” play in Cuban society even today. It’s anecdotal but interesting.
👉 For more tips and recommendations, be sure to check out the Captain’s full Guide to Havana, Cuba.