Old Havana is the core of the original city of San Cristobal de la Habana, one of the oldest cities founded by Europeans in the western hemisphere. The Spanish established the city in 1519. By the 17th century, it had become one of the Caribbean's main centres for ship-building. Although it is today a sprawling metropolis of 2 million inhabitants, its old centre retains an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a homogeneous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards.
Its history spans three principal periods, each of which is clearly reflected in the urban landscape: the Spanish colonial (1519 to 1898), the American neocolonial (1898 to 1959), and the revolutionary (1960 to present). The colonial period, lasting nearly 400 years, gave Havana much of the Spanish colonial architecture that distinguishes it and led the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate the colonial core of the city, Old Havana, as a World Heritage Site in 1982.
The city's first settlement was constructed on the western edge of Havana Bay. The channel into Havana Bay is flanked by four imposing colonial forts constructed of coral-limestone. Two of these sit at the entrance to the channel: on the north the Castillo del Morro, which now houses a maritime museum, and on the south the Castillo de la Punta, which contains the Museum of Fortifications and Armaments and is also the site of the nightly canon-firing ceremony. Two other forts are sited on the channel: the massive Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña on the north side, which now houses a museum of ceramic arts, and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza on the south side, which recieved restoration work in the late 1990s.
The original city focused on the central plaza, the Plaza de Armas. This was a typical pattern of settlement of Spanish colonial cities, with important military, political, and religious buildings constructed within close proximity. The imposing colonial fort, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, lies adjacent to the plaza on the north, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which served as the home of the colony's governors, then later as the presidential palace, the seat of the city's municipal government, and the city museum. The Palacio de Segundo Cabo, originally constructed as a colonial post office in 1772, also sits on the Plaza de Armas.
The Plaza del Catedral just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas is another important places in Old Havana. Havana's cathedral, known as the Catedral de la Habana or the Catedral de la Concepción Inmaculada, dominates the plaza with its unusual mismatched belfry towers.
The Plaza Vieja, established in 1584, is another major historic landmark of Old Havana. However, in contrast to the other plazas, public and religious architecture are absent. Instead the palatial homes and mansions of the city's colonial elite flank its sides. The Casa de los Condes de Jaruco, has been fully restored and stands as an excellent example of a late colonial mansion.
Like many colonial cities in coastal areas, the Spanish walled the city to protect it from attacks by pirates and foreign powers. Havana's walls were built from 1674 to 1797 and enclosed an area of about 3 sq km (about 1 sq mi). This area defined the extent of Old Havana. The city's walls were torn down in 1863 to accommodate the growing city. The positions of the original Havana city walls are the current boundaries of Old Havana.
Principal attractions in Old Havana:
Explore Old Havana, discover unique colonial architecture and walk around the squares and narrow streets. There is countless restaurants & cafes in Old Havana. The best coffee is serve in "Cafe Escorial" at Plaza Vieja. Discover Camera Obscura - located in Old Havana at the corner of Plaza Vieja on the roof. Visit Museum of Fine Arts at Trocadero street corner of Zulueta & Monserrate. Every evening at 9:00pm "Cañonazo" a canon shot, at the "El Morro" fortress across Havana Bay.
Since 1982 Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the name also refers to one of the municipalities of the city of Havana, Cuba, with the latter's boundaries extending to the south and west beyond the original city.