10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
In Old Havana, a UNESCO world heritage site, the past is palpable. Rumba riffs roll through quaint cobbled squares; vintage cars ply the streets; and historic forts, museums, and beautifully restored architectural gems share the stories that shaped this grand city. For a sensory feast, Old Havana is best explored on foot. Meander along the narrow lanes, chat to the locals, climb the Spanish-built fortresses, feel the pulse of the music, and savor a coffee at one of the charming plazas where Cuban Baroque meets Art Nouveau.
See also: Where to Stay in Old Havana
1 Catedral de San Cristobal
Attracting the gaze of every tourist in the Plaza de la Catedral is its elegant namesake, Catedral de San Cristobal. Also known as the Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, this striking example of Cuban Baroque architecture was completed in 1777 by the Franciscans, after the Jesuits began building it 29 years earlier. Two large bell towers flank the façade, which is adorned with inlaid columns. While here, visitors should wander inside to admire the vaulted ceilings and statue of St Christopher. It is said that the relics of Christopher Columbus were housed here from 1796 to 1898, however this has never been proven. After a visit to the cathedral, visitors can relax at one of the cafés along the square and gaze at its magnificent façade.
Address: Calle Empedrado 156
2 Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas has been a social hub in the city for more than five centuries. Cafés and restaurants beckon from its perimeter, and the shady gardens lure locals and tourists alike who come here to escape the tropical heat. Presiding over the plaza are a bevy of Baroque beauties including the magnificent Palacio de los Capitanes, which has hosted more than 60 Spanish generals over the years. Today, it's home to the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum), a must-see for history buffs, and many musical concerts are staged in its lush courtyard. Also on the Plaza de Armas, the mid-16th-century colonial fort, Castillo de la Real Fuerza is another major landmark. In the center of the square, look for the statue of the Cuban patriot, Cespedes near the fountain.
3 La Bodeguita del Medio
At legendary La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway fans can follow in the famous scribe's footsteps. Founded in 1942, this Havana restaurant has been visited by practically every celebrity to set foot in Cuba including Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nat King Cole, and of course, Ernest Hemingway. Tourists flock here to sip cool drinks, feast on succulent seafood, and listen to live Cuban music while immersed in a rich ambiance of nostalgia. Every square inch of the walls wears the signatures and memorabilia from some of the famous and not-so-famous former patrons.
4 Castillo de la Real Fuerza
A few steps from the Museo de la Ciudad, the 16th-century fortress, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, was built to fend off attacks from pirates. Unfortunately, it was never used for this purpose, since it was positioned too far inside the bay. Instead, the fort functioned as a storehouse for valuables and a residence for members of the military and gentry. Designed and built by Francisco de Calona, Castillo de la Real Fuerza is an engineering marvel with a deep moat, a drawbridge, and walls that are 6 meters thick and 10 meters high. Today, visitors can explore Havana's seafaring history at the maritime museum here with displays such as model sailing boats, weapons, and treasure retrieved from sunken ships.
5 Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum)
Housed in the spectacular Cuban Baroque Palacio de los Capitanes, the Museo de la Ciudad unveils Havana's fascinating history. Visitors can explore the Hall of Heroic Cuba for an impressive display of objects from the revolution. Art history buffs will want to visit the Espada Cemetery Room to view the tomb of famous French artist Vermay. In the Throne Room, stands a sumptuous chair that was built for the visit of a Spanish monarch, and never used. But perhaps the highlight of the museum is the Salon de los Esperjos. Adorned with beautiful 19th-century mirrors, this room was where the official end of Spanish rule was proclaimed in 1899.
Other items of interest in the museum are the Cenotaph from the Parroquial Mayor Church; La Giraldilla, the oldest bronze statue in Cuba; and the busts in the gallery overlooking the leafy courtyard. A working knowledge of the local language is a bonus here, since the tours and displays are in Spanish.
Address: Calle Tacón, Plaza de Armas
6 Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja has experienced many incarnations, but is now one of Havana's most vibrant gathering spots. Originally laid out in the mid 16th century, the square was once used for military exercises and was also a popular marketplace. Sadly, in the 1950s, construction engulfed the plaza and transformed it into an underground car park. Thanks to the citizens of Havana and government support, the Plaza Vieja has been restored and is now one of the most popular squares in Old Havana. An eclectic mix of restored buildings - from Art Nouveau to Cuban Baroque - preside at its edges and a small 18th-century fountain bubbles at its center.
An architectural highlight, the 18th-century Casa del Conde Jaruco, displays some of the city's most beautiful stained glass windows. After admiring the scene, visitors can climb the 35-meter tower of the camera obscura for fantastic city views, explore the small museum dedicated to the history of card playing, or relax at one of the many cafés.
7 Plaza de San Francisco
Cooled by sea breezes, Plaza de San Francisco faces the harbor at the entrance to Old Havana. The carefully-restored buildings impart a well-loved feel to this cobbled square. Plaza de San Francisco is blessed with two famous buildings, the Lonja del Comercio, with its stunning central dome, and the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis featuring a tower that provides stunning views over Havana and the sea. Reputed to have the best acoustics in all of Cuba, the basilica is used primarily for musical concerts; check in with the attendant for current events. Also in the square, is the Fuente de los Leones, a white marble fountain. Once a freshwater supply to passing ships, this "fountain of the lions," was carved by Giuseppe Gaggini who donated it to the country in 1836.
8 Calle Obispo
Rich in history, architecture, and entertainment, Calle Obispo is famous Cuba-wide. This narrow roadway connecting Central Park with Plaza de Armas buzzes with life in the evening. Travelers come here to enjoy the restaurants, including the famous El Floridita; soak up the lively ambiance, and admire the architecture, which is predominantly Cuban Baroque and Art Nouveau. Other things to see along this stretch are the Hotel Ambos Mundos, home to Ernest Hemingway for seven years, and Taquechel Pharmacy Museum, which has been dispensing herbal remedies for more than a century.
9 Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta
A pleasant place for a seaside stroll with beautiful harbor views, the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta is rich in history and has played a key role in the maritime defense of Havana. It was designed by three men; Giovanni Battista Antonelli, Juan de Tejeda, and Cristobal de Roda and built over a 21 year span from 1589-1610.
Strategically located on the western edge of Havana's harbor, the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta was linked with another of Havana's four fortresses, Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, via a brass and wood chain during times of uncertainty. In the case of an attack, this link was tightened and enemy ships were prevented from entering the harbor. Of all the interesting monuments here, the most important is the equestrian statue of General Maximo Gomez.
10 Hotel Inglaterra
Opened in 1895, Hotel Inglaterra is Cuba's oldest hotel and boasts an illustrious guest list. Back in its heyday, the hotel ensconced the likes of Anna Pavlova, José Martí, and Winston Churchill among others. Although it has a neo-classical appearance, the hotel displays a strong Mudéjar influence; visitors may also notice the beautiful Andalusian mosaics. In the years prior to Cuba's separation from Spain, this venerable hotel was a central gathering spot for liberal-minded activists, and General Antonio Maceo established his headquarters here to plan out the framework for the Cuban wars of independence. Today, tourists that come here for the cheap lodging and rich ambiance. The guest rooms are modest, but the sumptuous lobby is steeped in an air of nostalgia. History buffs may want to sink into a leather armchair here or perch at the alfresco café with a cool drink and ponder the hotel's role as a stage for change.
Address: Paseo del Prado, No 416, Havana
Where to Stay in Old Havana for Sightseeing
Anywhere you stay in Old Havana will be within walking distance of its top sites. The main connecting street, Calle Obispo, is home to many of the old town's most popular restaurants, galleries, and entertainment venues, however bear in mind that rooms fronting this street will be noisier than most. Breakfast is included in the rates at all these hotels, but note that accommodation tends to be pricier and the quality is generally lower in Havana than many other cities. Here are some highly-rated hotels in and near Old Havana:
- Luxury Hotels: Only a short stroll to Old Havana's top tourist attractions, Iberostar Parque Central is handy to El Capitolio and the Museum of the Revolution. It has a lovely rooftop pool, as does Hotel Saratoga, across the street from El Capitolio. In a beautiful old building right on bustling Calle Obispo, in the heart of the old town, the more affordable Hotel Florida exudes an authentic Old Havana feel.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Ernest Hemingway once lived at the nostalgic Hotel Ambos Mundos right on busy Calle Obispo in the heart of Old Havana. The room where he stayed is still in its original condition. At the Baroque and Art Nouveau-style Hotel Raquel, a few blocks away, the lobby has a beautiful stained glass dome, and you can relax in the rooftop garden. Right on Parque Central, the historic former press favorite Hotel Telegrafo is steps away from all the action on Calle Obispo.
- Budget Hotels: A national monument, the colonial-style Hotel Inglaterra is Cuba's oldest hotel. It lies in a great location opposite Parque Central near Old Havana's main attractions. Also in a great location, on a pedestrian-only side street of Old Havana, Hotel Los Frailes has a monastery theme, with waiters dressed up as monks and somber rooms.