Plaza de la Catedral & around

The last of the main squares to be laid out during colonial times, Cathedral Plaza is perhaps its most intimate square and definitely one of Old Havana’s most beautiful spots. Originally, it was a swamp area. However, the square was drained and a cistern built in 1587 as the main conduit of the Zanja Real—the city’s first aqueduct, constructed between 1565 and 1592—to supply ship docked along the waterfront (which at the time abutted what is now Calle Tacón. The first rudimentary plaza—named Plazuela de la Ciénaga (Swamp Square) because of its muddy terrain—was laid out.

It gained its modern look in the 18th century, when a paved plaza was laid out. It soon became one of the city’s most important squares as wealthy families moved in and began building mansions embellished with porticoes, per Spanish dictate, to provide shade and shelter from tropical rainstorms. A church—the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús—was completed in 1777 and consecrated as the city’s cathedral in 1793, when the square was renamed Plaza de la Catedral. With its curves and flourishes above doors and windows, the Catedral de La Habana is Havana’s finest example of 18th-century Cuban baroque. Baroque was late to arrive in Cuba, and the porous nature of the locally quarried limestone, which was embedded with coral fossils and seashells, handicapped its ornate style. Even so, Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier described the cathedral as ‘music made into stone’.

In addition to the cathedral, which gives the square its definitive appearance, the other three sides are taken up by the façades of 18th-century aristocratic baroque mansions, all built within a 40-year period and showing a defining architectural harmony.
On the south side of the square, across from the cathedral, is the Casa del Conde de Casa Bayona (1720), or Casa de Don Luís Chacón, the oldest house in the area and today the Museo de Arte Colonial. The mid 18th-century Casa de Lombillo, on the eastern side of the square, is unusual in having three façades: the main one on Empedrado and the other two facing Mercaderes and the square. Today it is being restored. (Restoration work has been hampered by severe subsidence–the square is still very marshy below the surface.) The Casa del Marqués de Arcos (1746) next door is a mansion that became a post office in the mid 19th century (look out for the unusual stone mask postbox in the wall). Note the lifesize bronze statue of Spanish flamenco dancer and socialist Antonio Gades (1936-2004) leaning against a weathered column and looking into the square. Facing the Casa del Marqués de Arcos is the Casa del Marqués de Aguas Claras, now restaurant El Patio. Next door, the commercial Galería Victor Manuel occupies the former Casa de Baños (public bath house), which was built over the square’s cistern in the 19th century.

Off the north-west corner of the square, at San Ignacio and Empedrado, is occupied by the 18th-century Casa de los Condes de Peñalver, which has at different times served as a post office, a bank and a school. Today, it houses the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, one of Havana’s best art galleries. Half a block west up Calle Empedrado is La Bodeguita del Medio, the renowned Hemingway haunt that today is more likely to be full of camera-wielding tourists than gravely writers. A few doors along is the Fundación Alejo Carpentier, which promotes the work of one of Cuba’s most important 20th-century writers. Continue one block more and you’ll arrive at Parque San Juan de Dios, with a marble statue (1906) of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes at its center, shown seated with book in hand beneath shade trees.

One block east of the plaza, on Calle Mercaderes, is the main entrance to Casa del Marqués de Arcos; stand here to admire the striking mural by Cuban artist Andrés Carillo on the opposite wall. Stretching from street level to rooftop, it depicts 67 important artistic, literary and intellectual figures from 19th-century Cuba standing in front of or going into a mirror image of the building. Just 20 meters further south along Mercaderes, on the right-hand side, is a lovely tucked-away public garden, complete with bust of Hans Christian Andersen surrounded by bougainvillea.