Back to 1953: Exploring Havana’s Old City Center and the Four Plazas

cuba - Havana
Behind me stood the National Capitol, and it was a real picture without photoshop – although it looks like a very old picture in the 50s.

Back to 1953… The next day. After a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport, I settled down at the hotel, Mercure Sevilla La Habana.

6The room was not so bad – it is a spacious room on the 7th floor with vintage décor, new aluminum window frames, and a stunning night view of the city and the dome of the Capitol. I turned on the TV, switched to CNN, freshened up and I went to the rooftop restaurant in the hotel for a quick dinner (my first meal in Cuba!). The restaurant was at the roof of the hotel and the steak tasted great with some Cuban music. Then, I got a call from the tour company about my city tour tomorrow morning; it was the same day Obama announced the conversation with Cuba and the guide was excited about that. Looking forward to it.

The next day in the morning I was supposed to meet the tour guide at the Hotel Telegrafo – the building is right at the corner of the main street Paseo de Marti, I was there 10 minutes earlier, yet I didn’t see any big group standing outside the hotel. Ten minutes later, I was approached by a young lady who told me she was supposed to be my tour guide of the day! I didn’t expect it as a “private tour”, and we had a lot of interactions for the day.

The walking tour in Old Havana

The streets in Old Havana.

Quickly we walked through the small Central Park on the opposite side of the hotel and entered the shopping walking the street of Cuba – Bishop Street (Calle Obispo). The road connects to the Plaza de Armas, one of the four main plazas in the Havana old town, on the other end. It is the main tourist area and the city’s vein where restaurants, cafés, exchange stores, galleries, markets, bars, and shops were lining up on both sides of the street. It was still early in the morning, but it gets a lot more crowded at night.

The mission for the morning is to visit the four plazas in the Old Havana, a Unesco World Heritage Site that contains the core of the original city. Havana is the largest city and major port of the country established by the Spanish in the 16th century. Apart from the heritage spots within the area, Havana is also filled with stories and antidotes about the legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Havana for 20 years and completed his Nobel Prize-winning novel “The Old Man and the Sea”, and bars and restaurants where he had been to and loved.

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was a frequent customer of both El Floridita and La Bodeguita, and El Floridita was the first place we saw entering the street. It is a historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar with eye-catching pink-painted walls and an old-fashioned light sign at the front door. The restaurant is still in operation. Inside, there were lots of photos hanging at the back of the bar, and a life-sized bronze statue of Hemingway was on display. Walking along Bishop Street, my new tour guide friend has shared stories of their daily lives, with no surprise, slightly different from what it seemed like as a tourist. We walked past the Johnson drug store, a pharmacy that opened in the 18th century, while it’s still in operation today, it has become a tourist spot more than actually selling medication to the local community from the beautifully polished old porcelain apothecary jars.

Ernest Hemingway is deeply connected with Cuba and you probably hear his name frequently pops up within the talk about the country’s history, especially in Havana. In 1928, the writer stopped by Havana on his way to Spain due to a storm, and then he fell in love with the city. He visited Havana in the next ten years and eventually moved to Havana from Key West in 1939. While he was in Cuba, he wrote a number of novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Islands in the Stream, and the Nobel Prize-winning The Old Man and Sea. Before moving back to the US for medical care, he had lived in Havana for twenty years. Therefore, you will always see or hear places that Hemingway visited – and in fact, he is a frequent customer for a number of bars, restaurants, and shops. For tourists, the city has a “Hemingway Trail”, and lots of tourists have come here as a pilgrimage to this famous writer’s past.

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Designed by Italian architect Francesco Borromini, the cathedral was called “music set in stone” by Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier.

Plaza de la Cathedral

The Plaza takes the name from the landmark – Havana Cathedral, or the “Catedral de San Cristóbal” in the center of the old town. It wasn’t a grand European cathedral, but it has the historical value of once being a Spanish settlement. Designed by Italian architect Francesco Borromini, the cathedral was called “music set in stone” by Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier. The church was built in Baroque style, and the façade of the cathedral has a unique asymmetrical feature – the two bell towers are not the same size. Apparently, the right tower is obviously bigger and taller than the left one. It was said that the remains of Columbus were once settled here in 1898 before finally moving to the Seville cathedral in Spain.

The cathedral got its name because it worships San Cristobal; the locals believe that the holy statues can grant their wishes, and a giant mass will be held on November 16th. Legend has it, that worshippers should not talk or make a sound for the entire mass or their wish won’t come true.

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Antonio Gades

The plaza is surrounded by manors, outdoor cafes, bars vendors, and gift shops that is a popular spot for tourists. Take a tour and look around: visit the Palacio de Marqueses de Aguas Claras, Casa de Lombillo, and Colonial Art Museum. Another interesting thing in the square was a life-size brass statue leaning against one of the many pillars on the Palacio del Conde Lombillo on the right side of the square – it was Antonio Gades, a famous flamenco dancer from Spain!

Here, check out the below virtual Old Havana Walking Tour: 

Plaza de Armas

The Plaza de Armas was at the riverfront, the end of Bishop where all the shops, hawkers, and tourists were. The plaza was built in 1519 and is the oldest amongst the four. It is the political center and the place of gathering of the locals. Lots of events are held in this place.

A walkway was paved with wood instead of stone because it was once used for horses.

The plaza was damaged by a big explosion, and it was repaired in the 18th century. The area gradually became an upscale residential area; but the most exciting for me, it’s the flea market. It was early in the morning, and they are already set up for the day. It was an exciting market that I would be returning to by the end of the day. Besides, restaurants and cafés were on all sides of the square, and it has been a social hub in the city for more than five centuries. Outside the Palacio de Los Capitanes, a walkway was paved by wood instead of stone because it was once used for horses, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza is another landmark of the area. It is an eye-catching, star-shaped colonial fort built in the mid-16th century.

National Museum of Natural History, Palacio del Segundo Cabo, City Museum, and Castillo Real de la Fuerza are found in the area.

Museo de la Ciudad, or the City Museum, is a majestic building, and one of the most beautiful Baroque buildings in Havana. It was built in 1972, designed by Felipe Fondesviela.

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Plaza de San Francisco

To me, the Plaza de San Francisco looks more “modern” because the buildings around the square were carefully restored with one side opened to the riverfront, and so the sunlight came in the plaza and the shine on the well-paved cobbled stone floor. The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis (and so that’s how the square was named) features a tower that offers breathtaking views of the city of Havana and the sea beyond.

The plaza was built in the 16th century, and it was originally a market. The market was eventually moved to Plaza Vieja, yet it was once a vibrant location since this is where the Sierra Maestra pier is located, and most of the cruise passengers get off here. Check out the eye-catching fountain in the plaza, it was designed by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gaggini. It was not just for the visual, but also for supplying freshwater to the ships at the pier.

The San Francisco Cathedral is the main building of the plaza. Outside the cathedral stood an old man’s statue, and I was told the believers could shake his hand, and make a wish putting up the number of fingers that means the number of children you wish for, and you have his blessings. I saw everyone sticking up 5 or even ten fingers…. maybe just in case if they were under-promised.

The cathedral was established in 1608, and it was repaired in 1739 after being struck by a hurricane. Today’s it’s not exactly functioned as a church, but a music theatre because it was beautifully designed for wonderful sounding.

Besides, there were some ladies dressed up in native costumes, playing some traditional instruments, and handing out flowers. Beware not to take photos of them without asking as they might approach and ask you for money.

Plaza Vieja

“Vieja” in Spanish means “old”, but the plaza did not look old, better yet it was very much living with Cuban Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture peculiarly next to each other, surrounding the area, with outdoor cafés and shops filling up the open space. The place was built in 1559, actually much younger than the other two plazas in Havana, and it was called the “New Plaza” (Plaza Nueva). In the old times, the plaza was originally used for military exercises. Today, the key function of the plaza was not for military, religious, or political reasons, it’s a space that is dedicated to the citizens, it is an open-air marketplace and an exercise yard for students from the nearby Angela Landa primary school!

Across the plaza stands the Castillo Real de la Fuerza, the citadel was built in 1558 with a moat, and it’s one of the oldest citadels in the Americas. Besides, check out the Museum of Photography, Museum of Cards, Camera Oscura, or Gran Teatro de la Havana in the area.

After that, we have headed out to a local “Tripadvisor” recommended rooftop restaurant for lunch and the vintage car ride into the modern part of Havana – Check out Back to 1953: Driving in Havana’s Miramar and Walking along Malecón

45 comments

  1. An interesting place to visit. A lot of beautiful and excited activities to do. I will surely enjoy that place. Your shots are amazing!

    1. It was a wonderful and special experience and I think you will enjoy it too! Glad that you like the photos!

    1. Yes, while it was a bit behind in the mordern technology it was so unique compared to the other parts of the world.

    1. It’s definitely unique and the people are really friendly there. Have you been to Havana before and what was it like for you?

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