Animated and chock-a-bloc with visitors, Plaza Vieja, at the southern end of Mercaderes, more than any of the other old town squares, hums with the energy not just of a tourist attraction but as somewhere to come for a drink, a meal or to while away some time, for Cubans as well as foreign tourists, though certainly there are more of the latter. To a lesser but significant extent the square still reflects its original purpose as a focus for the community, with some of the buildings around its colourful borders still home to local residents and others occupied by educational and cultural institutions. This has been one of the most redeveloped spots in Habana Vieja over the last decade, distinguished with a central fountain, a museum, a planetarium, a photography gallery, an arts centre and primary school, a rooftop camera obscura and some decent shops, restaurants and several excellent cafés. The only significant edifice yet to be restored is the Art Nouveau Palacio Cueto in the southeastern corner. Built between 1906 and 1908, it became a stunning hotel in the 1920s and is set to be one again if the renovations ever finish, having started over a decade ago.
Despite its name this is not the oldest square in Havana, having been established at the end of the sixteenth century after the creation of the Plaza de Armas. It became the “Old Square” when the nearby Plaza del Cristo was built around 1640, by which time Plaza Vieja had firmly established itself as a centre for urban activity, variously used as a marketplace and festival site. Most of its beautifully restored, porticoed buildings, however, were built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, long after its foundation.