Old Havana, also known as Habana Vieja, is one of the most well-known areas of the capital city of Cuba and no wonder why! In many ways, Old Havana showcases all the stereotypical things that people love about Cuba: beautiful American vintage cars, colorful architecture and cobblestone streets. But, if you look a little closer, you can also truly experience Old Havana’s history and the authentic Cuban culture just by visiting this neighborhood. Before you head out to discover Old Havana, take a couple of minutes to read this article that covers some key facts and suggestions that could make your visit even more enjoyable.
All you need to know about the history of Old Havana
Old Havana’s history dates back to 1519 when the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez founded the city of San Cristóbal de la Habana on the west coast of Cuba. However, due to its strategic location, the city was soon targeted by pirates and other European powers. Finally, in 1555, the Spanish authorities decided to move Havana to its current location on the east coast. Thanks to that decision, the city grew very fast and became one of the most important ports in the Caribbean.
The 17th and 18th centuries are key in the history of Old Havana. During this period, the area grew into a thriving commercial center, with its narrow streets and colorful buildings housing merchants, artisans, and wealthy landowners. Havana’s port also became an important hub for trade with Europe and the Americas. For that reason, many buildings in Old Havana reflect the influence of Spanish, French, and British architecture.
In the 19th century, Cuba became a colony of Spain and Old Havana continued to flourish. However, Old Havana’s history was also marked by significant political and social unrest during this century. The Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) and the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) both had a major impact on the city and its residents.
In 1959, Fidel Castro and the Communist Party came to power in Cuba, and Old Havana, like the rest of the country, underwent significant changes. The government launched a massive restoration program in the 1960s and 1970s, aimed at preserving the city’s historic buildings and landmarks. In the most recent history of Old Havana, the area stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it has become a very popular tourist destination.
Discover Old Havana’s key spots
Even though the area of Old Havana is relatively small, there is a historical gem in almost every corner of this neighborhood. However, if you only have a few hours to discover Old Havana, these are some of the sites you should not miss.
- Havana’s Four Central Plazas. One of our favorite routes to explore the living testament of the history of old Havana is the one that takes you through its four central plazas: Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, and Plaza Vieja. Plaza de Armas is the oldest of the four and is a great example of the architecture in the colonial era. Plaza de la Catedral, located next to Havana’s magnificent cathedral, boasts stunning baroque and neoclassical architecture. Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, named after the San Francisco Church, is home to the iconic Fountain of Lions, a symbol of Havana’s cultural heritage. Your last stop is Plaza Vieja, with its colorful buildings and lively atmosphere, which is a popular gathering place for both locals and tourists.
- El Capitolio, Gran Teatro de La Habana and Calle Obispo. This route starts in El Capitolio, a majestic building constructed during the 1920s that served as the seat of the Cuban government. Very close, you will find Gran Teatro de La Habana, which is still one of the biggest cultural landmarks and hubs for Cuban artists. Finally, discover Old Havana’s most popular street: Calle Obispo is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, with a wide range of shops, restaurants, and bars to explore authentic Cuba.
- Havana City Museum and Bodeguita del Medio. To dive right into the history of Old Havana and learn more about the culture of this marvelous place, you can also visit Havana City Museum. This renowned institution boasts an extensive collection of artifacts and exhibits, ranging from pre-Columbian times to the present day. Then, rest and recover in the famous Bodeguita del Medio, one of the most typical Cuban bars and an excellent place to try authentic Cuban food.
Now that you have a good idea of how to best enjoy Old Havana’s history, it is time to start thinking about organizing your trip. If you need a hand, Espíritu Travel is always there for you. Our team of experts have plenty of ideas and all the right and contacts to make sure your trip to Cuba is a transformative and fun experience.