Plaza de San Francisco and Around
Immediately inland of Havana harbor, Plaza de San Francisco (on Avenida del Puerto at Amargura) is one of the four leading plazas laid out in the 17th century. The spacious cobbled square, which was fully restored in the 1990s, takes its current name from the Franciscan convent built there.
Formerly a small inlet opening directly to the bay, the plaza was first laid out beginning in 1575 when the land was drained. From the start it was a place where galleons were serviced and slaves unloaded; one of the terminals of the Zanja Real (the first aqueduct in Havana) supplied water supply to the square to victual ships tied up at the wharves. It served as a marketplace and during the early colonial period a fair took place here every October with cock fights. In the late 17th-century and 18th centuries, many wealthy nobles built their homes on the cobbled plaza. The market and cockfight ring were then moved to Plaza Vieja after complaints from the wealthy resident and the convent’s monks.
In1730, the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís was initiated. Today the basilica dominates the spacious square to the south side, while to the north is the Neoclassical Lonja del Comercio (Commercial Exchange), dating from 1907 and topped by a bronze image of a winged Mercury. The harborfront is now hidden from view by the 1914 Spanish-Renaissance Aduana (Customs House), the northern section of which has been restored as the Terminal Sierra Maestra cruise ship terminal.
More modern additions include a luxurious boutique hotel, plus restaurants, the Agencia de Viajes San Cristóbal which specialises in cultural tourism in Old Havana, and some notable art pieces, including bronze figures of Polish composer Chopin and a famous Havana tramp—El Caballero de Paris—of the pre-Revolutionary decades. To the square’s southeast corner, the Carrara marble Fuente de los Leones was sculpted in 1836 by Italian artist Giuseppe Gaggini. Tucked beneath shade trees in a small garden to the east side of the basilica is a lovely garden dedicated to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and containing, incongruously, a small Greek Orthodox church.
Horse-drawn carriages are available here for tours of Habana Vieja. And the square is frequently used for girls’ fiestas de quince (15th birthday celebrations), so you’re likely to see bevies of be-crinolined beauties self-consciously feeding the pigeons for photo opportunities.
The streets immediately off the plaza are replete with fascinating sites, ranging from the Aquarium, displaying tropical fishes, to exposed sections of the Zanja Real—the early colonial aqueduct.