Last updated on January 20th, 2017
Old Havana, also called Centro Habana or La Habana Vieja, has a long and storied past involving Spanish galleons, pirates, and fortresses built to protect the vulnerable harbor. While the fortresses are the only visible reminder of that past, the Old Havana of today is just as unique and interesting – from the crumbling 16th century buildings to the many plazas and the broken and narrow streets that lead through town. We found that a walking tour is a fantastic way to visit the top sights to see in Old Havana.
If you’re an American wanting to travel to Cuba, check out our comprehensive guide to Americans traveling in Cuba for all the information you’ll need to travel there legally and safely. See the bottom of this post for recommendations on where to stay in Havana.
As we’d already scouted out where to find the best food and drinks in Old Havana, we decided to spend a day checking out the sights. Havana is changing every day. It’s beginning to develop more services for tourists so it can keep up with demand once the travel restrictions have been fully lifted. But it’s still very much a work in progress. Not being able to travel to Cuba easily as Americans, we couldn’t see the changes for ourselves, but check out this post by Jet-Settera on how things have changed in the last 10 years.
The old part of the city is actually quite small and very walkable. We wanted to see the sights of the city with a local who could tell us the history and share his stories with us as we walked the streets, so we set up a private walking tour with Havana Journeys (also highly recommended! We also took a tour to the countryside in the Valle of Vinales with them and had a fantastic day).
Our knowledgeable tour guide led us through the streets to see some of the most popular sights in the city, starting with near Parque Central, one of the busiest parts of town. In Parque Central, you can have a seat on the benches and listen to live music or watch locals dancing. If you’re staying in one of the few high-class hotels in the city, like Hotel Inglaterra or the Iberostar Parque Central, this is where you’ll find them. Take note that this spot (facing the hotel) is where you catch the bus to Playa de Estes, where you’ll probably want to hang out on the beach later!
Right next to the Hotel Inglaterra is the Great Theater of Havana. Built in 1838, this beautiful ornate building now houses the Cuban National Ballet.
If you’re doing a self-guided walking tour, now would be a great time to stop off for an iconic daiquiri at El Floridita, a super popular bar and restaurant that’s been open for more than 100 years in the same location. You can miss it, it’s the pink building directly across from the Museum of Fine Arts. Just note that if you arrive there at the wrong time, you might wait a really long time for a table. It’s incredibly popular with tourists.
If you walk straight down Muralla street, you’ll run into Plaza Vieja. The city has four unique plazas, all serving a slightly different purpose. Plaza Vieja used to be the main public gathering place. It has also served as a location for military exercises, a busy marketplace and also, sadly, as an underground carpark. Fortunately, Plaza Vieja has now been restored and as you walk around you’ll see photos of the old crumbling facades along with the new, to see the progress that has taken place here.
If you’re ready for another drink stop (and who isn’t, really?) you should stop at Factoria Plaza Vieja, a bar and micro-brewery that brews its own beer on sight. Also check out the Camera Obscura in the plaza before moving on.
Up next is the Plaza de San Francisco. The former stock exchange building is here. In front of it is a fascinating sculpture. It was made by French artist Etienne, and donated to the city in September 2012. It’s called La Conversacion.
Nearby, you’ll also find the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, a remake of the original, destroyed building that housed the Franciscan order in Havana. It’s impossible to miss, due to its tall bell tower. It’s no longer used as a church, but for concerts.
On the sidewalk in front of the Basilica is a life-sized statue of a former well-known Havana resident by the name of Jose Villa Soberon, who apparently lost his mind while in prison and then returned to walk the streets of Havana. If you look closely, you’ll see that his finger and foot have been well worn. That is because legend has it if you touch his beard, his finger and step on his foot at the same time, he will grant your wish.
Next on the walking tour is Ambos Mundos, which is one of the stops on our food tour. It’s just a small boutique hotel that you can easily find by walking directly down San Ignacio street and right on Obispo. The hotel is there on the corner. You will need to take the elevator up to the terrace, and it is there that you will be rewarded with a fantastic view, a great place to hang out, cheap drinks and, sometimes, even live music.
One more street past Ambos Mundos is the Plaza de Armas. To get there you have to pass the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which is the former residence of the governors of Havana. Now it is the Museum of the City of Havana, and a stunning piece of architecture!
Plaza de Armas is the oldest square in the city. It’s a pretty great place in the city to hang out – lined with beautiful palm trees and a large grassy area, where you’ll find the statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who played a major roll in Cuba’s independence in 1868. There is a daily book market that sets up along the street outside the plaza.
Just outside the plaza is a curious-looking building called El Templete. It’s one of the smallest architecturally significant buildings I’ve seen. It’s basically a monument to Christopher Columbus for founding the city. It’s definitely worth stopping at for a look.
Also in this plaza is the Royal Force Castle, a 16th century fort and museum. We didn’t stop in, as we were on a mission to walk the city!
Heading onward on San Ignacio, the next plaza you’ll come upon is Plaza de la Catedral. Take note that you will pass by one of the best restaurants in the city – highly recommended – Paladar Dona Eutemia. Make a reservation there – you won’t be disappointed.
In Plaza de la Catedral is exactly what you might expect – a Cathedral. Specifically it is the a baroque 1770s Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception – one of a handful of Roman Catholic cathedrals in Cuba.
If you stand looking at the cathedral and turn to your left, you’ll see a sign for one of the most popular bars in Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway is said to have hung out. I can’t vouch for its worthiness.
Finally, you absolutely must take the time to walk along the Malecon. It is the sidewalk that follows the seawall around the city. At night, especially in certain spots along the way, the locals can be found hanging out along the wall, talking and laughing. During the day, it’s quieter, but it’s a lovely walk. You can see all of the fishing boats and across the water to the fortress and giant statue of Christ (Cristo de Habana).
If you get the opportunity to visit Cuba, you absolutely should. With U.S. airlines re-establishing flights to Cuba and the eventual easing of travel restrictions for Americans, Cuba will surely begin to slowly change. If you want to see it how it is now – an homage to the past – you should plan to get there in the next few years, before it’s gone. You won’t want to miss seeing all of these top sights to see in Havana, Cuba, before things are very different there.
To get a little more familiar with the culture before you go, you may also be interested in reading this post on seeing Cuba through the eyes of a local.
Want to know where to stay in Havana?
It’s a little difficult for Americans to pre-book hotels in Cuba, due to the restrictions that are still in place. You can find a few sites that will allow you to book with a credit card. We also suggest checking into AirBnB or reserving a casa particulares. Reading reviews for Havana hotels on Trip Advisor will help narrow down your choices.