advertisement

Any tour of La Habana Vieja will be oriented around the several colonial plazas or squares, and the Parque Central (Central Park). Although relatively close together, each is almost a world of its own. The principal attractions of each are described in greater detail below, but here's a general overview.

The smallest, Plaza de la Catedral, is probably the most visited. Named for the cathedral that defines its northern boundary, this compact cobblestone square is surrounded by a series of stunning, colonial-era buildings and former palaces. With the cathedral's bell towers lit up each night, this is a great plaza to visit after dark. Within a 1-block radius in any direction, you will find La Bodeguita del Medio, the Centro Wifredo Lam, and the Museo de Arte Colonial.

The Plaza de Armas probably has the densest concentration of historic buildings and attractions. Surrounding the shady urban park that now takes up the plaza, you'll find the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales and Museo de la Ciudad, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, El Templete, and the Hotel Santa Isabel, housed in the former palace of the Count of Santovenia. Most days, the square is lined with stands set up by scores of used-book sellers.

The oldest plaza, Plaza Vieja, was first laid out in 1599 and was dubbed "Plaza Nueva" (New Square). It soon lost prominence to the better located Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Catedral. In fact, for most of the last half of the 20th century, it served simply as a parking lot. However, it has recently been meticulously restored. At the center of the broad open square is a replica of an 18th-century fountain. Surrounding it are historic buildings representing 4 centuries of construction.

Near the waterfront, you'll find the Plaza de San Francisco. Asymmetrical in shape, this is the most open and uncluttered plaza in La Habana Vieja. Facing the Sierra Maestra ship terminal, it is anchored by the Fuente de los Leones (Lion's Fountain), which was carved in 1836 by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gaggini, modeled after a sister fountain in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The area's former importance as a business center is quickly noted in the imposing facades of the Lonja de Comercio (Stock Exchange) and a couple of large banks and money exchange houses that dominate the northern side of the plaza. The southern edge is defined by the lovely, 16th-century Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís. Be sure to climb the bell tower here, the tallest church tower in Havana, for a wonderful view of La Habana Vieja and its harbor.

Parque Central marks the western boundary of La Habana Vieja. This is a popular local gathering spot, particularly known for its heated conversations about baseball. It is bordered on the west by the Paseo de Martí, or Prado, featuring El Capitolio and the Gran Teatro de la Habana. On the eastern edge, you'll find the Palacio del Centro Asturiano, which now holds the international collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Classic hotels that ring the park include the Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Plaza, and the Hotel Telégrafo, as well as the modern Hotel Parque Central. A short stroll down the Prado will soon bring you to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo de la Revolución, and the Memorial Granma; while just 1 block in the other direction, heading toward La Habana Vieja on Calle Obispo, you'll hit El Floridita.

Imagine -- Beatles fans will want to stop by the little Parque Lennon (Lennon Park) at Calles 17 and 6 in Vedado, where you'll find a life-size statue of John Lennon seated on a park bench. The "smart Beatle" is quite revered here, and there is an annual open-air concert in this park every December 8, featuring a wide range of prominent Cuban musicians, singing his songs and commemorating his assassination on that day.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.