Old Havana or Habana Vieja is the Old quarter of Havana, founded by the Spanish in 1519 and constructed around the natural harbor of the Bay of Havana. A major mooring point for the treasure laden Spanish Galleons that crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean between the New World and the Old World. In the 17th century it was one of the main shipbuilding centers of the new world hosting a massive shipyard to both build new and repair old vessels from the Spanish fleets.
In 1982, La Habana Vieja was inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List, primarily for its well preserved colonial architecture and historic significance. Since that time Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler and his team at OHC (Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana) have tirelessly renovated Old Havana building by building to bring it back to its past splendor.
A perfect view of Old Havana is gleaned from Castillo del Morro. The “Morro” as it is known locally is a picturesque fortress protecting the entrance to Havana bay. The structure of the castle Los Tres Reyes del Morro is built in such a way de to the step along the harbor mount in Havana. Commissioned by the king of Spain the big stone slabs used were known locally as El Morro stone, from which the name was derived. Military man Juan de Texeda was sent by the king of Spain accompanied by the military engineer Battista Antonelli, both arrived in Havana in 1587 and began the task of building the Castillo del Morro.
Currently under renovation is the Habana Malecón, the avenue that runs along the seawall at the northern shore of Havana, from Habana Vieja to the Almendares River. This picturesque boardwalk, the scene of many movies new and old, is the latest task for the city’s historian.
Construction of the Habana Malecón began in 1901 at the time Cuba was under temporary U.S. military rule. The primary reason for building the Malecón was to protect Havana from the seawater and the sometimes volatile weather systems Havana has notoriously been subjected to. In the end however the wall and promenade wound up serving more for nighttime strolls by Habaneros, for lovers, photographers and artists. Fishermen are frequently seen fishing from atop the seawall.
San Francisco de la Habana Basilica, Habana Vieja, the setting for the church and convent of San Francisco de Asis, built in 1608, and reconstructed in 1737. The church was used by the English during the year in which they ruled Havana. Upon return to Spanish rule, they decided not to use it as a church anymore. Today it is used for numerous concerts held in the city. Attached to the Basilica is a bell tower 42 meters high (138-ft). Originally a statue of St. Francis of Assisi stood on the top of the bell tower but it was destroyed by a cyclone in 1846. Today a statue of Fray Junipero Serra with Juaneño, an Indian boy stands next to the basilica and is popular tourist attraction in Old Havana
Next to the convent is the Plaza de San Francisco or San Francisco Square which took its name from the convent next to it, this square was built in 1628, with the objective of supplying water to the ships and facilitating trade within Havana City. For several decades it also served to stockpile the goods and merchandize arriving from the Havana harbor. Archives of the time say that the square had a prosperous commercial life and was a big asset to the then fledgling Havana City. The people, in humble carts or afoot, sold and bought a variety of goods from sea merchants displaying their imported goods. It’s also an important historical fact to that similar to Ellis Island in the United States, Spanish immigrants were logged and registered after their arrival in Cuba at this square. The Plaza de San Francisco square is now popular with tourists, featuring numerous Havana restaurants and café bars. It stands in front of the Lonja de Comercio and the Havana Cruise port.
These days the Plaza de Armas is the main touristic square of Havana. The origin of its name is derived from its previous military use, since from the end of the 16th century most military ceremonies and the events took place at the square.
National Capitol Building in Havana, designed to emulate the structure of the Panthéon in Paris France, and an almost copy of the U.S. Capitol (the one in Cuba is 2 inches taller). Its interior was the headquarters of Cuba’s government until the overthrow of Batista. The Capitolio Havana has just received extensive refurbishment with a plan to reuse the buildings as the Cuban governments’ senate building.
Catedral de San Cristóbal is by far the most prominent building on the Plaza de la Catedral. The Cathedral was built over the chapel after 1748 under instructions from the bishop of Salamanca Spain, Jose Felipe de Trespalacios. Considered by many as one of the most beautiful and sober churches of the American baroque period.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza, The fortress or also know as a “lit” Castle of the Royal Army is favorite tourist attraction and big monument that closes the Plaza de las Armas. It was the first large fortification of the city, initiated in 1558 on the ruins of an ancient fortress. In the same year, the Crown sent to Cuba an engineer called Bartolomé Sanchez, supervised by 14 crown officials and main stonemasons in order to reconstruct the castle, which had been ruined by a blaze and completely destroyed by the French corsair Jacques de Sores.
San Salvador de la Punta Fortress was constructed in 1590 and in 1629 on the shore opposite to the Castle of El Morro and at the beginning of the curve of El Malecon right at the harbor entrance. At night a thick chain was held between San Salvador de la Punta Fortress and the El Morro fortress to prevent the incursion of enemy ships into the Havana harbor.
La Cabaña fortress is located on the east side of the Havana Bay near the harbor mouth. Center point of the Spanish colonies dominance was La Cabaña a mighty structure built to dissuade pirates. Imposing with its 18th century walls, it was built at the same time as El Morro. Even today, nightly at 9 p.m., soldiers dressed in suits of the epoch shoot from her the “el cañonazo de las nueve”, (gunshot at nine). This is popular tourist attraction for visitors to Havana who can watch the precession and act of firing the cannons. Historically this signaled to residents of the citadel the closing of the gates of the wall that surrounded the city, leaving residents to fend for themselves if not back in time.