Plaza de Armas

The oldest and most important square in Old Havana and the site where the city was founded, tranquil, palm-shaded and cobbled Plaza de Armas is the perfect place to begin exploring. In colonial days, the square was a military parade ground—hence its name, Arms Square—and the center of political power, as the governor’s palace was here. Geographically it still commands Habana Vieja—although Habana Vieja is laid out in a grid, its most important streets (Obispo, San Ignacio, Mercaderes, Oficios) all connect to the square. And it’s surrounded by some of the city’s most important historic buildings, spanning architecture from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

Stand in the center of the square, by the tree-shaded monument of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Cuban patriot, initiator of the Ten Years War against Spanish colonial rule in 1868 and ‘Father of the Nation’. To your east is El Templete, a 19th-century, Greek-style Neoclassical temple marking the legendary spot where Havana was founded in 1519; and the magnificent 18th-century Casa del Conde de Santovenia, a palatial mansion renovated in 1998 and now serving as the elegantly decorated Hotel Santa Isabel.

To the north stands the 16th-century, Renaissance-style Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the first fortress with triangular bulwarks to be built in the New World. On the west side, and dominating the square, is the 18th-century baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales—the former governor’s palace, fronted by a street laid with wooden tiles instead of cobbles and today housing the splendid Museo de la Ciudad, dedicated to the city’s history. And on the south side, the 20th-century eclectic building that once housed the former US embassy now houses the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural. And the charming section of Calle Obispo between Calles Oficios and Mercaderes is lined with the oldest extant buildings in Havana.

Six days a week (closed Monday and rainy days), the plaza is ringed by a second-hand book fair. Browsing the tatterdermalion books proves fascinating, and you can also find many antiquarian lapel pins, badges, postage stamps, posters, and photo albums for sale.