On the edge of the old town not far from the waterfront is Havana's oldest square the Plaza de Armas, where in the mid-16th century the city was born. Fine colonial era buildings surround this pleasant tree shaded square which now plays host to a second-hand book market. These include the Placio de los Capitanes Generales once the seat of the Spanish colonial government and now houses a museum, El Templete a scale reconstruction of the Parthenon and the fabulous 16th century Castillo de la Real Fuerza worthy of a visit (admission $1) despite the dull ceramics museum that it now houses.
At the heart of the old town is the Plaza de la Catedral, built at the turn of the 16th century on reclaimed swampland it was originally called Plaza de la Cienaga ("Swamp Square"). In 1788 the diocese of Havana was created and this small church was promoted to cathedral status leading to a major face lift leaving it with its current Baroque exterior and unaccountably uneven twin towers. The tiny interior is strangely quaint compared with the fabulous exterior and proves to be something of a disappointment. Outside in the small square you will usually find Santerian fortunetellers, demonstrating how these two religions easily co-exist.
South of the major attractions of the old town you will find the real Habana Vieja, a twisted cluster of dirty back-streets which house some of the city's poorest people in some of it's finest old colonial buildings. There are a couple of attractions such as Casa Natal de Jose Marti, and a chunk of the old city wall with a brass relief of the old town mounted on it, but this is not the reason for visiting this area. The atmosphere is truly electric as these people go about their daily lives amongst awe-inspiring churches and palaces making this the place to soak up the atmosphere of old Havana.
A massive restoration project is now underway following the decay and neglect of the post soviet era, and while this may rescue many of the crumbling buildings from oblivion it does take-away some of the atmosphere, at the moment there is a happy medium making this the time to pay your visit.
April 14, 2002
From journal Havana Ball