Plaza De Armas, Havana

If you're looking for the center of cultural life in Havana Vieja, you've found it—this bustling public square is a meeting place for Cubans from all walks of life, and home to what is far and away the country's best second-hand book market six days a week. But if you're not planning to do some reading, don't worry—many of Havana's greatest cultural and historic sites surround the square, waiting to be explored.

The public space that is now called the Plaza de Armas is supposedly where Havana was founded way back in 1519—when it comes to Europeans in the Americas, this is about as old as it gets! It was originally called the Plaza de Iglesia, or the Church Plaza, after a building that disappeared a long, long time ago.

It wasn’t until towards the end of that century that the square became known by the name that now sticks — the Plaza de Armas. Roughly meaning the “parade grounds,” the name was adopted due to the fact that soldiers based out of the nearby Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) began using it for practicing military manoeuvres. Though this practice has long since ended, the name remains.

The Plaza de Armas was home to Cuba’s seat of colonial and independent governments all the way until the early 20th century, when it was finally moved to the Palacio Presidencial.

The Modern Square

Nowadays the Plaza de Armas continues buzzing, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Beneath the square’s iconic palms and around its marble statue of independence hero Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Cubans and tourists of all stripes gather to enjoy occasional cultural events and activities or just to relax.

The Plaza de Armas is now most famous for its daily second-hand book market. Perhaps inspired by the nearby Cuban Book Institute housed in the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, row upon row of vendors show up to hawk all sorts of literature six days a week — they take a well-deserved break when Sunday rolls around.

But that’s not to say that the weekends on the square are quiet! Frequently, Sundays on the Plaza de Armas are defined by live music, sometimes even full orchestras. But even when this isn’t the case, the tunes pouring out of a neighbouring bar or restaurant and the families with children at play will certainly provide a festive air regardless.

Nearby Cultural Spots

Many of the historic colonial buildings surround the Plaza de Armas are home to museums or other cultural attractions of interest to tourists. Aside from the aforementioned Palacio del Segundo Cabo, one can also find the Museo de la Ciudad — the City Museum. Housed in the sprawling Palacio de los Capitanes Generales on the square’s western side, this museum telling the story of Havana’s tumultuous history is one of the city’s best.

Among other spots of interest surrounding the Plaza de Armas are the Cuban Museum of Natural History and the Palacio de los Condes de Santovenia, now home to a stunning five-star hotel — the Santa Isabel. But this is just the tip of the iceberg — while you’re here, make it a point to do some exploring of your own.

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Basilica De San Francisco De Asis

Basilica de San Francisco De Asis

Visitors to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Old Havana, Cuba will be delighted by the history, artwork, and acoustics of the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis, which is home to the Museo de Arte Religioso and Camerata Romeu (an exclusive female orchestra). Catch one of the amazing musical performances or tour the convent to see memorials of notable people of the past and truly appreciate the grand columns and stone flooring in this Catholic Franciscan place of worship.

Cafetal La Isabelica

Cafetal La Isabelica

At the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and at the end of a short hike from Gran Piedra (Santiago de Cuba), Cafetal La Isabelica is an open air museum dedicated to Cuba's important coffee production. Learn how French farmers fleeting Haiti turned Cuba's south-eastern provinces into the main coffee growing region of the island.

Castillo De La Real Fuerza

Castillo de la Real Fuerza

The mystery hidden within its walls, secrets left untold until modern times, and its title as one of the oldest star forts in the Americas make Castillo de la Real Fuerza a must-see stop on your tour of Havana, Cuba. You'll love making your way through the paths to the centre of the fortress, which was originally built for keeping watch for invaders. At more than 400 years old, you'll have plenty to talk about when you return home after visiting this astonishing site and its impressive layout.

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