Plaza Vieja & around

The 16th-century Plaza Vieja, bordered by Teniente Rey, Muralla, San Ignacio and Mercaderes, was the last and the largest of the four main colonial plazas to be laid out. It has always been a residential rather than a military, religious or administrative space, and is surrounded by elegant colonial residences, combined with a few striking early 20th-century art nouveau buildings. Almost completely restored during the past decade, it is today an absolutely beautiful art-filled space—a remarkable metamorphosis for what two decades ago was a sad place of ghastly deterioration and dereliction.

This was the first planned attempt to expand the city in response to Havana’s early growth. It is said that Franciscan monks requested that a new square be constructed where local vendors could carry out their business activities away from the Plaza de San Francisco, where they were hindering the celebration of masses. The new square was completed in 1559, approximately one hundred meters to the southwest of the Franciscan convent. It was christened precisely Plaza Nueva (New Square) and gained in popularity right away.

For two centuries, Plaza Vieja hosted an open-air market, bullfight arena, and a place for public floggings and executions. It was successively renamed Plaza Real, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Fernando VII, Parque Juan Bruno Zayas and Parque Julián Grimau, until it finally received the name of Plaza Vieja (literally, Old Square).

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the area was developed with residential buildings that included some fine mansions, including the majestic Palacio de los Condes de Jaruco. The late 19th and early 20th century saw the addition of taller commercial buildings, which fortunately maintained an architectural coherence. Curiously enough, no religious or military constructions were ever built around the square.

In 1908 the old market was demolished to make room for a park, which was regrettably transformed into an outrageously misjudged underground parking garage in 1952. By then, many buildings were already in poor condition. Following the Revolution, they sank into grim desuetude. In the 1980s, when Old Havana was listed by UNESCO as a Cultural Heritage site, architects and restorers began to work to save Plaza Vieja. The underground parking garage was torn down, the cobbled relaid, and a replica of the original 18th-century Carrara fountain —by Italian sculptor Giorgio Massari—was placed in the center of the newly revived square. The buildings surrounding the square were renovated, too, one by one in a two-decade-long process that is now virtually complete.

Many of the restored buildings now house fashion boutiques, small museums, photo galleries, cafés, and even a popular brewpub—Factoria Plaza Vieja, on the southwest corner. And avant-garde sculptures grace the plaza, which teems with life.