This self-guided walk through Habana Vieja includes art, history and some questionable (chocolate, rum) museums; four plazas, two cathedrals, buildings in various architectural styles including Art Deco, Colonial and Cuban; two hotels, three bars (created April, 2015), two restaurants. With a lunch break and some drink stops. Note the image above is view of Havana Vieja’s east coast as seen across the bay, from Christ statue in Havana Este (with Che Guevara’s house on the right, click here on how to ge there)
This is the route many tourist groups take. While it’s easy, it can get ridiculously crowded after 10 am. Before you set off, pack a permanent marker to sign on the famous wall of La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s favorite bar.
Begin the walking tour at Parque Central (Central Park) where Prado, Zulueta, Neptuno and San Jose streets intersect. Facing west you will see the Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro, the Grand Theater of Havana, which was closed at time of writing and renamed for the over 90 year old grand dame of Cuban ballet.
The heavily ornamented baroque building, launched in 1839, re-opened January 2016 after three years of reconstruction and hosts performances by the Cuban National Ballet and the Spanish Ballet of Cuba on weekends and runs weekday tours. The Capitolio Nacional, to the left of the theater, was built (ironically) to resemble Washington’s Capital and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and was last used by the pre-revolution government’s House and Senate in 1959.
The small, narrow park is home to the first of Cuba’s many statues to its National Hero José Martí (the revolutionary leader, philosopher, poet, publisher, journalist and translator was a renowned intellectual as well). He’s not depicted on horseback not because he couldn’t ride, but as he did not die in battle. The statue has his back to the elegant white Inglaterra Hotel (illustrious past guests include Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and French actress Sarah Bernhardt) which is home to artists, writers and musicians.
Head east and north away from the park, along Agromonte Street, and you’ll pass Cuba’s first fire station, now a museum, the Cuartel de Bomberos at #257.
Carry on and you’ll pass the famous Sloppy Joe’s restaurant and the lovely white fosted cake-like facade of the Hotel Sevilla on your left. Keep your eyes open for local sights as this is also an old residential area – you will pass by a tiny Fire Station with Chinese-made firetrucks and keep your eyes open for charming glimpses of Habaneros on their balconies.
Make a right at Trocadero and you’ll get to the surprisingly elegant-modern gray stone facade of the Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes, the National Fine Arts Museum.
Definitely spend two to three hours here as its two buildings feature the best of Cuban art dating from the 17th century as well as an international art collection. The Cuban collection is provides a fascinating perspective on the country’s history.
In the colonial era, the Spanish aristocracy commissioned paintings from the working class, therefore artists were not held in high regard. The antipathy went both ways – 17th century representations of Spanish nobility are elegant but harsh, reflecting the oppression and suffering it inflicted, slavery, forced farm labor and the violation of Mulatto women included. A less bleak body of work – landscape painting – emerged to document the early towns and country life. Mid-20th century satirical art blossomed after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 to comment on political and social ills. Fearful of the social and economic upheaval where private property was appropriated by the state, some artists fled Cuba to continue painting.
Of special note in the collection: Wilfredo Lam’s mystifying and abstract depictions of Santería religion in the early 1900s; Eduardo Abela’s mural-like 1965 Guajiros; Victor Manuel Garcia’s Gaugin-like “Cuban Mona Lisa,” and the jewel-like mixed media paintings of René Portocarrero, a spontaneous and self-taught artist.
Exiting the Museum of Fine Arts, you’ll see the origami-like roof and glass-sides of the Museum of the Revolution’s Granma Memorial, the resting place for “Granma”, the yacht Fidel Castro sailed returning to Cuba and the war against the Batista dictatorship in 1956. The Museum, the massive building across Trocadero street, exhibits artifacts from crucial events in Cuban history. Revolutionary memorablia includes the self-propelling gun Fidel used against invaders during the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1961.
Head to the left when exiting the Museum of Revolution, take the first right and you’ll be heading south on Avenida Bélgica. Walking two blocks brings you to Havana’s once-tallest and one of its most gorgeous Art Deco buildings – the Bacardi Building (Edificio Bacardi). The red and tan granite structure, abandoned by the company after the revolution, is occupied by local and foreign offices. Crane you neck waaaay back and you’ll see the iconic bat sitting up top.
Continue south along Avenida Bélgica for two blocks to the junction of Obispo.
You’ll see the pink facade of El Floridita, the restaurant bar where Hemingway downed his daiquiris, which you have to try if you’ve trekked this far. The novelist was picky with his mixers and went to La Media del Bodeguito nearby for his mojitos. Personally I found it cheesy and a bit drab but El Floridita is beloved by tourists for live music and its extensive drinks and food menu. Only 11 am, and already the vultures – er, tourists – are circling, sometimes the line extending round the block. I guess the big draw is to get a photo with the dead author–well, his bronze statue anyways. Critics scoff at the overpriced drinks, for me it’s ironic that these bars are the most frequented attraction for the author – wonder how many of his novels visitors have read?
Exiting the bar, turn left to head east along Obispo. Walk for four and a half blocks (you’ll pass the José Martí primary school, of historical note but not much else since you won’t be able to enter) to the charming but pointless Droguería Johnson, the famous American pharmacy which was closed during the Revolution, where pretty but empty containers line wall-length shelves.
Walk a block further to Hotel Florida for a short coffee break or aperitif at its gorgeous courtyard. Soak in the elegance of a Gatsby-ish bygone era, at the elegant structure complete with stone staircase and delicate ironwork. Great place for a selfie with your Panama ha and a cocktail.
Or take a left, head north along Cuba street for two blocks then make a right at Empedrado. Half a block down, you’ll hear, long before you see, La Bodeguita del Medio where Hemingway famously downed his mojitos while writing his masterpieces. The live salsa is loud and the tourists (crammed like canned sardines) dance very happily and badly. It’s one of the top tourist attractions, with old photos, posters and signatures of countless famous visitors from Nat King Cole and Hemingway to Gabriel García Marquez. The outside walls are coated with tourist signatures, to which you can add yours. If you manage to reserve then get a table – the food and drinks are passable, and you’ll have to suffer crowds of tours passing through. All the walking tours stop by here so be prepared to come early (opening hours 10:30 am – midnight).
Continue eastward along Empedrado, and you’ll arrive at the junction of San Ignacio and the Plaza de La Catedral, Cathedral Plaza. It’s the loveliest historical square in Havana, lined with elegant and baroque buildings.
The Havana Cathedral (or Catedral de la San Cristóbal after the patron saint) – Legend has it that the remains of Christopher Columbus were brought here from Hispaniola and kept for a hundred years before before they were interred back to Spain. Entry to the cathedral is free but you can climb up the bell tower for 5 CUC. Catholic mass is still held but the published hours – 8 pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 10:30 am Sunday – change without warning.
Originally Jesuit, the Havana Cathedral still holds Catholic masses
The Colonial Art Museum with its striking blue shutters is an example of 18th century Cuban architecture. Furnishings from the 17th to 19th centuries – glassware, textiles, paintings and gold and silverware – are exhibited here. The El Patio restaurant is located on the ground floor of another pretty colonial building at Cathedral Square, with tables facing the plaza on the ground floor for al fresco dining. But the food at this government-run restaurant doesn’t live up to its location. My friend had the ropa vieja while I ordered grilled fish but both were bland and pricey at 45 CUCs for two, but it’s a convenient place to have a drink before setting off on the second part of the walking tour.
Head away from the Cathedral and go south along San Ignacio for two blocks then turn left on Obispo and continue walking. Bristling with shops, cafes, bars and money changers, plus two Infotour offices, selling ballet tickets, maps and providing accurate tourist info. This area is notoriously crowded with tourists.
As you walk along Obispo eastward on your way to Plaza de Armas, look left for the Museo 28 de Septiembre, a totally unappealing structure and display of the revolution – I didn’t bother to go as it’s got a terrible reputation but if you’re interested, opening hours are 9am to 5pm daily for 2 CUC per head. A few steps further on, also to the left, is the Museo Numismatico or Coin Museum contains Greek, Roman, Spanish and Republic-era Cuban coins and notes. Open- Daily, 9.45am-5.45pm and Sun 9.30am-5pm for 1 CUC.
A few yards away , look the right and upward for the neoclassical, flashy facade and soaring pillars of the Ministerio de Finances y Precios, the country’s Treasury and seat of power deciding budgets. This section of Obispo street was the Wall Street of Havana as its main banks were active here before the revolution ended their doctor evil capitalistic practices.
At Plaza de Armas, also the Main Square of Havana and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Several stalls are set up under the trees, selling an eclectic bunch of used books – and of course anything and everything written about or by Fidel Castro – along with vinyl albums, coins and stamps from all over the world. The vendor just outside the Museum speaks English well, is pretty laid back, and pleasant to chat with or ask questions regarding history or culture. But beware the many jineteros (hustlers) who crowd this corner of the city. The Museum of the City is located here, between Obispo and O’Reilly along Tacon Street, with exhibits of artifacts from the colonial period.
Across the plaza, nearer to the shore, is the odd Greek temple lookalike El Templete, built to commemorate the founding of Habana Vieja. It doesn’t fit in with the Colonial, Baroque, Neo-Classic or Art Deco architecture. Once a year, on November 16, people come here to circle the cotton tree in front of the structure, making a wish, then make a short pilgrimage to Havana Cathedral for prayer.
Backtrack along Obispo, heading back westward. At the intersection with Mercadares you’ll see the the salmon-colored facade of Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived from 1932-39, and began work on the novel For Whom the Bells Toll. This was also his first dwelling in Havana. Fans can check out room #511 (for $2 from Monday to Saturday, 10 am-5 pm) where the author’s furniture, books, Remington typewriter, magazines and notes are preserved under glass. The small museum with scheduled tours, and two walls of framed photos and preserved artefacts in rm 511 might be also be your Hemingway catnip.
Keep heading south until you get to Museo Armería 9 de Abril, a former gun store now a museum displaying antique guns and weaponry (including two used by Ché Guevara). Revolutionaries of Fidel Castro’s 26th July Movement stormed this on April 9, 1958, to seize weapons for their cause and failed.
It’s poorly curated with little information on the guns except or a small template below Fidel’s own Carabina M2. But deserves a visit for its completely nutty displays and charm. Row upon row of well-kept rifles and carbines sit in behind glass cases below an assortment of stuffed animal heads. Lovingly oiled and maintained, the weapons look ready for use in another war. Opening hours: 9 am-4:45 pm Tuesday-Saturday; 9 am-12:30 pm Sundays
The Museo del Chocolate is a block further down the same street at the Armagura intersection. Okay, it’s a shop rather than a museum. There’s nothing remotely educational here other than a working industrial-sized mixing machine, posters of an old Belgian chocolate brand, and a small display case of old metal moulds. It’s a thin veneer for another government-run enterprise but my cup of hot chocolate was rich and thick, and the fresh made confections and truffles were truly delicious, made of excellent Cuban grown cocoa. I couldn’t resist buying a huge bag (choose individual candies or buy by the box) of mixed goodies. Exiting the store, I caught sight of an elderly woman with her daughter eying the display longingly and it felt really good to share some fondant-filled love with them.
Turn right onto Amargura as you exit the shop and take another right at Oficios – you’re now in my favorite spot – Plaza de San Francisco where the defunct Lonja del Comercio de la Havana (Stock Exchange), now a commercial and office building (below), the former Convent San Francisco de Asís, now the Museum of Sacred Art and concert hall, and the striking white marble Fountain of the Lions are located. Not only a pretty and less crowded area – there’s lot of fun people watching including strolling musicians and fashion photo shoots. Below left, defunct Stock Exchange and right refurbishing a statue
The pretty plaza is a contrast of elegant sandstone cathedral and brightly colored tropical casas. You’ll run into what I thought were people pretending to be statues but were the real thing – one of Chopin on a bench and another of a vagrant, “The man of Paris.”
If all the plaza-hopping has made you thirsty, as it did my walking tour group, continue on and hop into La Marina bar and restaurant further down Oficios to the Tiente Rey intersection. They serve Guarapo, a delicious fresh-pressed sugar cane drink with a shot of rum (locals say adding the alcohol isn’t traditional but whatever). There’s a fresh but limited menu which I didn’t try.P
By continuing south on Oficios and turning left at Sol you’ll see the Museo del Ron Havana Club (the Rum Museum). I’d give this glorified shop a miss – but you might want to check it out since you’re nearby. For opening hours see the website. The building itself does have some historical cachet; a former colonial residence built in the 17th century (1772- 1780), it was designated a cultural site by UNESCO in 1982.
But the exhibit rooms were so crowded my small group of three couldn’t squeeze in and we managed to catch glimpses of a wooden barrel workshop, a miniature railway and factory and paintings of sugarcane harvest. After hanging around the fringes, and deciding there wasn’t much to miss, I gave up and headed for the liquer shop, which is where they wanted to herd all of us into all along. The bored-looking staff were not even bothered to talk to me about which rum to choose. This frustrating visit made me wary of the paid attractions in Habana. There is a commercially cynical and transparent pattern of tourist-trapping that has an insultingly slight bearing on hitory, culture or community.
Last stop is ironically namesPlaza Vieja – Old Square. It’s remarkably clean compared to the rest of Havana, almost Disney looking, refurbished with nice stone paving and fresh paint on the Spanish nobles’ colonial residences ringing the square.
It’s got upscale cafes with balconies overlooking the plaza restaurants (El Bohemio and Bilbao) and a camera obscura museum. Yet nothing reflects its colorful past of executions, bullfight or fiestas viewed, from the same balconies you can sip your lattes on. Even the current fountain is a reconstruction of the original marble one, demolished when an underground parking lot was built here (since removed). This upgrade is obviously aimed at servicing upmarket tourists and I shudder if it’s the trend.
Oh Havana! – by all means entice more tourist spending, improve housing, public ares and make a better world for future generations, but please don’t lose you unique soul. Refurbished Plaza Vieja is pretty and clean but ….. zzzzz
Last stop is Plaza Vieja – Old Square.
The whole plaza is remarkably clean compared to the rest of Habana. It’s been refurbished with nice stone paving and the colonial buildings have been painted and updated, with some upscale cafes and restaurants (El Bohemio and Bilbao).
But it feels sterile and is obviously aimed at servicing upmarket tourists. While cheering for Cubans to entice more tourism, make money off us and enjoy a better lifestyle, one might as well be in Spain or even the USA.
There’s also a bronze statue of a prostitute riding a rooster. My guide told me it’s in honor of the sacrifices these women make for their children and families.. Maybe money would’ve better spent setting gip a support system?
Next – Hop into a taxi for stunning view of Havana Vieja across the bay from the high vantage point of the Statue of Christ in Habana Este (East Havana) and see the home of Che Guevara – click here for tour and photos.