Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is the historic heart and soul of Cuba’s capital city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982, Old Havana preserves the charm and character of its colonial past, with its cobbled streets, colorful buildings, and lively plazas. Old Havana is also a cultural hub, where you can enjoy live music, art galleries, museums, and restaurants. Whether you are interested in history, architecture, or entertainment, Old Havana has something for everyone. Here are the top 10 old havana attractions that you should not miss when visiting this fascinating district.
1. Plaza de la Catedral and Catedral de San Cristobal
Plaza de la Catedral is one of the most beautiful squares in Old Havana. Surrounded by elegant 18th-century mansions, the square is dominated by the stunning Catedral de San Cristobal, also known as the Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral is a masterpiece of Cuban Baroque architecture, with its asymmetrical towers, ornate facade, and graceful columns. The interior is equally impressive, with vaulted ceilings, marble floors, and a statue of St. Christopher. The cathedral was built between 1748 and 1777 by the Jesuits and the Franciscans, and it is said that the remains of Christopher Columbus were once housed here.
The plaza is also a great place to relax and enjoy the atmosphere of Old Havana. You can sit at one of the cafes or restaurants along the square and admire the view of the cathedral. You can also visit some of the museums and cultural centers that are located in the former mansions around the plaza, such as the Casa del Conde Lombillo, the Casa del Marques de Arcos, and the Casa de la Obra Pia.
2. Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja is another charming square in Old Havana that has been restored to its former glory. The square dates back to the 16th century and was originally used for markets, bullfights, and public executions. Today, it is a lively spot where you can see a mix of architectural styles, from Cuban Baroque to Art Nouveau. Some of the notable buildings around the square include the Casa del Conde Jaruco, with its colorful stained glass windows; the Casa de los Condes de San Juan de Jaruco, with its intricate carvings; and the Casa del Marques de Aguas Claras, which houses a popular restaurant.
The plaza also features a modern sculpture by Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo, depicting a woman riding a giant rooster. The sculpture is meant to symbolize absurdity and humor in Cuban culture. Another attraction in the plaza is the camera obscura, a device that projects a 360-degree view of Old Havana onto a concave screen. You can access it from the top floor of the Edificio Gomez Vila.
3. Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) is one of the oldest and most impressive fortresses in Havana. It was built between 1558 and 1577 by the Spanish crown to protect Havana from pirate attacks and foreign invasions. The fortress has a square shape with four bastions at each corner and a moat around it. The entrance is marked by a drawbridge and a stone gate with the coat of arms of Spain. On top of one of the bastions stands a bronze weathervane in the shape of a woman holding a crossbow and an olive branch, known as La Giraldilla. She represents Ines de Bobadilla, the wife of Hernando de Soto, who was appointed governor of Cuba in1538 and became the first female governor of the Americas after his death.
The castle is now a museum that displays the history of Havana’s fortifications and maritime heritage. You can see exhibits of maps, models, weapons, and artifacts related to the naval battles and explorations that took place in the Caribbean. You can also climb to the rooftop for a panoramic view of the harbor and the city.
4. Museo de la Revolución
Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) is a must-see for anyone interested in Cuba’s history and politics. The museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace, a grand neoclassical building that was the seat of power for Cuban presidents from 1920 to 1959. The palace was designed by Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and decorated by Tiffany & Co. of New York. It features marble staircases, crystal chandeliers, frescoes, and stained glass windows.
The museum traces the history of Cuba from the colonial times to the present day, with a focus on the Cuban Revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. You can see exhibits of photographs, documents, weapons, uniforms, and memorabilia related to the revolution and its leaders, such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. You can also see bullet holes and graffiti left by the rebels who stormed the palace in 1957.
Outside the museum, you can see a fragment of the Granma yacht that brought Castro and his comrades from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to start the revolution. You can also see a collection of vehicles used by the revolutionaries, such as tanks, trucks, and planes.
5. El Capitolio
El Capitolio (The Capitol) is one of the most iconic landmarks in Havana. It was built between 1926 and 1929 as the seat of the Cuban Congress, inspired by the US Capitol in Washington DC. The building is an impressive example of neoclassical architecture, with a dome that rises 92 meters (302 feet) above the ground. The facade features six columns and statues representing Work, Progress, Guardianship, Virtue, Homeland, and Constitution. The interior is decorated with marble floors, bronze sculptures, and paintings by Cuban artists.
The Capitol was the home of the Cuban Congress until 1959, when it was dissolved after the Cuban Revolution. It then became the headquarters of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library. In 2013, it was announced that the Capitol would be restored and become the seat of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s legislative body.
One of the main attractions of the Capitol is the Salón de los Pasos Perdidos (Hall of Lost Steps), a large hall with a vaulted ceiling and an echo effect. In this hall, you can see a replica of a 24-carat diamond that marks Kilometer Zero of Cuba’s road network. The original diamond was stolen in 1946 and has never been recovered.
6. Gran Teatro de La Habana
Gran Teatro de La Habana (Great Theatre of Havana) is a majestic building that hosts some of the most prestigious cultural events in Havana. The theatre was built in 1915 on the site of the former Teatro Tacón, which was demolished in 1908. The theatre is a beautiful example of eclectic architecture, with a neoclassical facade and a baroque interior. The facade features four sculptures representing Charity, Education, Music, and Theatre. The interior has five auditoriums and a rich decoration of marble, plaster, bronze, and crystal.
The theatre is the home of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, one of the most renowned ballet companies in the world. It also hosts performances of opera, symphony, theatre, and dance. The theatre has welcomed many famous artists and personalities over the years, such as Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, Anna Pavlova, Alicia Alonso, Luciano Pavarotti, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The theatre is located on the Paseo del Prado, a tree-lined boulevard that connects the Malecón with Parque Central. You can admire the exterior of the theatre from the street or book a ticket to see a show inside.
7. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) is a must-see for art lovers. The museum has two buildings: one dedicated to Cuban art and one dedicated to universal art. The Cuban art building showcases the works of Cuban artists from the colonial times to the present day. You can see paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and ceramics that reflect the history and culture of Cuba. Some of the highlights include the portraits by José Nicolás de la Escalera, the landscapes by Esteban Chartrand, the modernist works by Amelia Peláez and Wifredo Lam, and the contemporary works by René Portocarrero and Raúl Martínez.
The universal art building displays artworks from different countries and periods, from ancient Egypt to the 20th century. You can see Egyptian mummies, Greek vases, Roman sculptures, European paintings, Asian ceramics, and African masks. Some of the famous artists represented in this building include Rubens, Goya, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Dalí.
The museum also organizes temporary exhibitions and cultural activities throughout the year. You can visit both buildings with the same ticket or choose to visit only one of them.
8. El Morro Castle
El Morro Castle (Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro) is a fortress that guards the entrance to Havana Bay. It was built between 1589 and 1630 by the Spanish crown to protect Havana from pirate attacks and foreign invasions. The castle has a triangular shape and stands on a rocky promontory that overlooks the sea. The castle features a lighthouse that was added in 1846 and is still in operation today.
The castle is now a museum that displays exhibits related to Cuba’s maritime history and military conflicts. You can see cannons, weapons, uniforms, maps, and models of ships and fortresses. You can also enjoy a spectacular view of Havana and the bay from the castle’s ramparts.
One of the most popular attractions of the castle is the cannon ceremony that takes place every night at 9 pm. The ceremony recreates the tradition of firing a cannon to announce the closing of the city gates during colonial times. The ceremony involves soldiers dressed in 18th-century uniforms who march to the sound of drums and bugles and fire a cannon from the castle’s battery.
9. Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas is the oldest square in Havana and the site of many important historical events. The square was founded in 1520 and was used as a military parade ground, a public market, and a social center. The square is surrounded by some of the most significant buildings in Havana, such as the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the former residence of the governors and presidents of Cuba; the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest fortress in the Americas; the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, the former seat of the Spanish vice-governor; and the Templete, a small neoclassical temple that marks the spot where the first mass and town council were held in Havana.
The square is also a popular place for book lovers, as it hosts a daily book market where you can find old and new books, magazines, posters, and souvenirs. The square is shaded by four large ceiba trees, which are considered sacred by some Cubans. According to legend, if you walk around one of these trees three times and make a wish, it will come true.
10. Calle Obispo
Calle Obispo (Bishop Street) is one of the most famous and lively streets in Old Havana. It runs from Parque Central to Plaza de Armas and is lined with shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, and art galleries. You can find everything from souvenirs and handicrafts to books and cigars on this street. You can also enjoy live music and street performances by local artists.
Calle Obispo is also a street with a lot of history and culture. It was here that Ernest Hemingway used to stay at the Hotel Ambos Mundos and write some of his novels. You can visit his room at the hotel and see his personal belongings and typewriter. You can also visit some of the places where he used to drink and dine, such as El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio.
Calle Obispo is a street that captures the essence of Old Havana: its charm, its vitality, its diversity, and its spirit. It is a street that invites you to explore, to discover, and to enjoy.
Old Havana is a treasure trove of attractions for tourists who want to experience the authentic Cuba. From its historic squares and fortresses to its vibrant streets and cultural venues, Old Havana offers something for everyone. Whether you want to learn about Cuba’s history and politics, admire its architecture and art, or enjoy its music and cuisine, Old Havana will not disappoint you. Old Havana is a place that will enchant you with its beauty, charm you with its people, and inspire you with its soul.