There is no better way to experience the grandeur and history of Old Havana than walking through the many plazas and exploring the interiors of the many cathedrals and museums.
Havana, or what is considered Old Havana today, was founded in 1519 by the Spanish. By the 17th century, it had become one of the Caribbean’s main centers for ship-building.
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The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Old Havana a World Heritage Site in 1982.
Within the boundaries of Old Havana and its fortifications are located all the elements necessary to express what UNESCO considers Outstanding Universal Value, including Old Havana’s urban layout with its five large plazas and its harmonious ensemble of architectural monuments and traditional-style popular buildings from different periods in its history – and its extensive network of fortifications.
Old Havana and its fortifications do not suffer from adverse effects of development, though much of Old Havana’s structures are in disrepair due to decay, chronic neglect and the effects from natural elements.
Although it is today a sprawling metropolis of more than 2 million people, its old center retains an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a homogeneous collection of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards.
The historic fortunes of Havana were a product of the exceptional function of its bay as an obligatory stop on the maritime route to the New World, which made military protection a priority. The extensive network of defensive installations created between the 16th and 19th centuries includes some of the oldest and largest extant stone fortifications in the Americas, among them La Cabaña fortress on the east side of the narrow entrance canal to Havana Bay, Real Fuerza Castle on the west side, and Morro castle and La Punta castle guarding the entrance to the canal.
Old Havana, which is defined by the extent of the former city walls, has maintained the pattern of the early urban setting with its five large plazas, each with its own architectural character: Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza del Cristo and Plaza de la Catedral. Around these plazas are many outstanding buildings, including the Iglesia Catedral de La Habana, Antiguo Convento de San Francisco de Asís, Palacio del Segundo Cabo and Palacio de los Capitanes Generales.
Interspersed with this mix of baroque and neoclassical style monuments is a homogeneous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards –many of them evocatively time-worn. The complex system of fortifications that protected Havana, its port and its dockyard is comprised of the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña – one of the largest colonial fortresses in the Americas – on the east side of the narrow entrance canal to Havana Bay; Castillo de la Real Fuerza –one of the oldest colonial fortresses in the Americas (begun in 1558)– on the west side of the canal; and Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro guarding the entrance to the canal; as well as the Castillo de Santa Dorotea de Luna de la Chorrera, Torreón de San Lázaro, Reducto de Cojímar, Baluarte del Ángel, Lienzo de la Muralla y Puerta de la Tenaza, Restos de Lienzo de la Muralla, Garita de la Maestranza, Cuerpo de Guardia de la Puerta Nueva, Restos del Baluarte de Paula, Polvorín de San Antonio, Hornabeque de San Diego, Fuerte No. 4, Castillo de Santo Domingo de Atarés, Castillo del Príncipe andFuerte No. 1.
Source: World Heritage Center, UNESCO
Old Havana is easy to navigate during the day, but it is not well-lit at night. During the summer, walkers may want to avoid the heat of the day by exploring in the morning and late afternoon. Check out the Doors of Old Havana to see another interesting aspect of the island nation’s capital city.
Here is a selection of what you will find on a walking tour of Old Havana: