A Walk Around Old Havana: Plaza de San Francisco

On the way to Plaza de San Francisco, you’ll notice such diverse architecture styles but it all seems to work together adding to the charm of Old Havana. One of the neat hotels we saw along the way was Hotel Los Frailes. The staff were dressed as monks! Too bad I didn’t get at least one of them in that second photo below.





Plaza de San Francisco

There were a lot of people on the day we went to Old Havana. It was hard to get a decent shot as you can see in the photo below. Plaza de San Francisco’s most prominent building is the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis which was built in the 16th century. But it was only used as a church under the English rule in Havana, then as offices under the Spanish rule. Today, it is a concert hall for classical, chamber and choral music and a museum. The climb up the bell tower might be worth it for some fantastic views of the city.



See the photo below? Take a close look at the back of the altar. The wall doesn’t extend, but it’s a tromp l’oeil effect. Neat, huh?


This life size statue called El Caballero de Paris. It’s located on the sidewalk just in front of the entrance. You’ll notice that the statue’s beard and finger shines! It’s constantly polished from people touching it because they believe it will bring them luck. Embarrassed when I noticed where the finger is pointing; I didn’t have another photo! I took the photo so quickly just to take advantage of the rare time that it wasn’t surrounded by throngs of people!


United Buddy Bears

We had a special treat when we were in Havana in February 2015. The United Buddy Bears were on display in the square! I had never heard of the United Buddy Bears before this. It originated in Berlin in 2001. The United Buddy Bears promote “living together in peace and harmony“. Their motto is:

“We have to get to know each other better …
… it makes us understand one another better,
trust each other more, and live together more peacefully.”

There is a bear representing each of the 140 countries on display. “The international artists’ different styles are joined together in one work of art, spreading zest for life. … The Message: The Buddy Bears stand together “hand in hand”, symbolising the future vision of a peaceful world. Each bear stands for the people of the different countries and their culture, yet not for political systems.” Click here to read more about the Buddy Bears and when it might be coming to your city!

Now, if you take a look at the next few photos below, you can see the bears surrounding the square.


Of course, aside from the bears, are the beautiful buildings. The Terminal Sierra Maestra building will most likely be the one that will catch your eye as soon as you enter the square. With its pale coloured facade, it is a contrast to all the other buildings in this square.



We had to search for Canada’s bear and here it is! So, I didn’t quite get the pixels but here’s the artist, Trevor Good’s explanation on the design and you can click here for the site:  “The motifs are based on classic Canadian paintings and reflect what I believe to be an essential part of being Canadian: The physical magnitude of the land that is Canada creates a distinctive feeling of modesty. I the relationship between the pixels and the image is just like the project of the bears: many individual objects coming together to present a feeling of empowerment and also recognition that this world needs cooperation and respect; we all need to be humbled by something in our world, and in my own personal way I find this in art and nature.” If your country has a bear, you can find out about the artist’s interpretation for yourself here.


Across the basilica is the Chamber of Commerce which was built in 1909. It served as Cuba’s stock exchange until the revolution. Kinda reminds me of some of the Renaissance style architecture in Italy. The second photo below from Wikipedia shows the entire building.


Chamber of Commerce (Lonja de Comercio)


As you exit the square from the other side of the basilica, you will come across this building. What I noted from the building is the clock at the top. Not sure if you can see it but the number 4 is shown as Roman numeral “IIII” instead of “IX”. This caught my eye because we had bought a clock for our house that also had the Roman numeral “IIII”. I did a little search and there really isn’t a clear answer. But what I was given as an explanation at the time was that the use of “IIII” creates a visual symmetry. Other explanations provided is that it is the old Roman numeral way to depict the number 4.


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A Walk Around Old Havana: The Old Square

It’s hard to believe we’re now in the middle of July. Been busy travelling during the first half of this year and towards the quarter end of last year. Didn’t plan it that way but that’s how it worked out which really sucks because that means no more holidays for the rest of the year. Hoping we’ll be able to take advantage of a couple of long weekend trips but that’s about it. On the other hand, I will have more time for my blog which has been neglected. On top of the travelling, I’ve also been catching up on my reading. Since reading goes hand in hand with travel, I am including a list of notable books I’ve read so far this year at the end of this post. So, let’s pick up where I left off on my last post. Let’s go back to Old Havana and take a walk around.

Old Havana (Habana Vieja) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. This designation initiated a major restoration of the buildings in Old Havana. Today, you’ll see among other things, beautifully restored Spanish colonial buildings and Baroque churches. Enjoy leisurely walks through its plazas. You don’t have to worry about vehicles because no cars are allowed.

As we started walking around, one of the first things I noticed were these beautiful tiled street signs. Coming from Toronto where all the street signs are your typical rectangular sign on a pole, the street signs in Old Havana are charming.


As you walk along the streets of Old Havana, you’ll notice these wonderful inner courtyards.


Plaza Vieja or The Old Square

Plaza Vieja or the Old Square is one of the most beautiful squares in Old Havana. It might even be my favourite of all the plazas that we visited. I was attracted to the vibrant colours and the mixture of architectural styles from the 17th to 19th centuries, mostly colonial residences. They have done such a great job preserving these historical buildings.

The Old Square hasn’t always been called that. It has had many names – New Square (Plaza Nueva) when it was first built in 1559, then Market Square (Plaza del Mercado) in the 18th century and to its current name dating back to 1814. This plaza has witnessed major events such as executions, fiestas and bullfights. But these days, it’s a place to hangout. There was this sculpture of a bald naked woman holding a fork riding a giant rooster (I kid you not!). I wasn’t able to get a photo because of the number of people surrounding it. But I did find this article. In the middle of the square was a marble fountain but was demolished in the 1930’s when they built an underground parking lot. Seriously, right? A replica of the fountain was re-built which is surrounded by fencing.



This row is stunning with the beautiful stained glass windows!




And don’t miss this view of the Capitol Building! The Old Square is a nice place to just hang and relax. They have musicians serenading their guests at this outdoor patio.


As promised, here’s a list of some notable books I’ve read since the beginning of this year. I’ve provided links to each of the books for more info. If you look at the list, some of you will probably think, “She just read that this year?!”. “I know! I know!” I’m catching up. My top three from the list below are as follows: Still Alice, The Glass Castle and Me Before You. Enjoy!


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Capitolio Nacional Cuba

Last week, I finally made it to Havana – a dream come true! It didn’t disappoint. What a vibrant city! If you ever get a chance, it’s a must see. Over the next few posts, we will visit Old Havana or in Spanish La Habana Vieja. We took one of those day trips from Varadero. This short little day trip left me wanting to explore it more.

Capitolio Nacional

Our first stop was the Capitol Building. Architecture look familiar? The inspiration for the building was the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. and the Pantheon in Paris. It was completed in 1929. Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, it was the home of the Cuban government.


The Capitolio Nacional Cuba contains the third largest indoor sculpture in the world (after the Buddha sculpture in the temple complex of Nara Japan and the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial). The Statue of the Republic (Estatua de la Republica) is an idealized representation of Cuban nationalism modeled after a beautiful Cuban female model, Lily Valty. Cast in bronze and covered in 22-carat gold leaf, the statue dominates the main hall of the Capitolio Nacional.” Click on the link above to read more about El Capitolio on the mycubavisit.com site. Found this photo of the Statue of the Republic.

"Larepublica" by Angelo Zanelli - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Larepublica.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Larepublica.jpg

“Larepublica” by Angelo Zanelli – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Larepublica.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Larepublica.jpg

Parque Central

Other sites around the Capitol Building is Central Park (aka Parque José Martí). That’s the statue of José Martí in the middle. José Martí was a poet and a Cuban National Hero. He died in 1895 fighting for Cuba’s independence.



IMG_9001Gran Teatro de la Habana

This beautiful building beside the Capitol is home to Cuba’s national ballet and opera – the Gran Teatro de la Habana. “A theater since 1838, the building contains the grandiose Teatro García Lorca, along with two smaller concert halls: the Sala Alejo Carpentier and the Sala Ernesto Lecuono – where art films are sometimes shown.” (via Lonely Planet)


Check out the details on the facade!

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Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana

Across the street on the other side of Parque Central is the National Museum of Fine Arts established in 1927.


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Stay tuned for more on Havana, Cuba.

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Sightseeing in San Francisco

San Francisco is a walkable city but some may find the steep streets a bit of a challenge. When we were there a couple of years ago with our parents, we didn’t do as much walking as we did when it was just me and the hubby. The last sites I’ve chosen for this post are the Palace of Fine Arts, the Painted Ladies and that very crooked street, Lombard Street.

Palace of Fine Arts

I always get a little obsessed with the Palace of Fine Arts. I love just sitting in front of the lagoon and admiring the view and of course, taking a ton of photos of such a beautiful subject. It’s easy to see the influence of Greek and Roman architecture. There’s a lot of detail to take in from the weeping women atop the colonnades to the rotunda itself and all the sculptural frieze. I never tire of it.

The Palace of Fine Arts is located in the Marina District. It was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in the Beaux-Arts style. But this is not the same structure from 1915. The original palace was actually not built well, so it was demolished and re-built in the 1960’s and renovated in 2009. It used to host art exhibits, theatre and was the home of the Exploratorium museum up until last year.

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As you walk around the lagoon, try to see if you can find the wildlife that live there like this bird. Some are well disguised so look hard.




Panoramic view of the Palace of Fine Arts from 1919 (via Wikipedia).





The Painted Ladies

You’ll find “Painted Ladies” all over San Francisco – they refer to the Edwardian and Victorian houses that are painted in multiple colors to enhance the architectural details. The ones below are located near Alamo Square. It was very foggy during our visit and quite cool and windy so we couldn’t appreciate the view or enjoy the park. But I managed to take this photo of the Painted Ladies which are often seen in postcards.


Here’s an ideal view from Alamo Square Park on a bright sunny day courtesy of Wikipedia.


Check out the angle of this street! But this not even the steepest street in San Francisco.


Lombard Street

I’m sure you’ve heard of Lombard Street. It’s usually listed as one of the must-see sites of San Francisco. It is a very steep street with eight very tight turns. The traffic sign at the top states a speed of 5 miles per hour but you don’t have to drive down, there’s a sidewalk if you choose to walk. In the summer, it is filled with flowers; the photo below was taken in January, so no flowers. You can take the Powell-Hyde cable car from Ghirardelli Square or Union Square to the top of Lombard Street so it’ll be easier to walk down. The best spot to take a photo is at the bottom from Leavenworth Street. Just be mindful of the traffic. I can’t even imagine how the people that live on this street put up with all the tourists that visit. But maybe it’s worth it for that view.


The view from the top of Lombard Street looking east towards Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower. Pretty awesome view, isn’t it?


Here’s a close up view from the top of Lombard street; you can see the Coit Tower and the church steeples of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church.


To get a better idea of how tight those turns are, here’s a view of Lombard Street from Coit Tower via Wikipedia.


And there you go – a few sites you could visit for free in San Francisco. There are lots of ways to get around the city but you may want to consider driving – who knows, you may find it fun (or scary) to drive up and down those steep streets.  If you do decide to drive, try this route and start at the Palace of Fine Arts, then to Lombard Street (take a detour to Filbert Street which is just a couple of blocks east), next to San Francisco City Hall and then Alamo Square. Enjoy!

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An Afternoon in Napa Valley

We stopped in Napa Valley on our way to San Francisco from Yosemite National Park. The view from that drive reminded me one of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World“. I think it was the colour of the landscape. Tell me if I’m stretching…

This is Christina’s World (image via Wikipedia):


and this is the view from that drive…

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It’s the colour right? And the rolling hills? But no house on top of the hill like in the painting.  Christina’s World, by the way, is part of the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The MoMA has an amazing collection that’s not to be missed.

Napa Valley

I tend to take photos from the car and hope that they’ll turn out okay which some of them did. Aside from photos of vineyards, I thought this was an interesting photo. I see a face from the facade of the building – can you see it?


If you don’t know where to start, visit the Napa Valley Welcome Center located at 600 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559. They were very helpful. They also provided a map of all the wineries in the area.


Beringer Vineyards

So many wineries to choose from and we decided to visit Beringer Vineyards located at 2000 Main Street, St. Helena. Beringer, founded in 1875, is one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley. The estate was designated a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Rhine House is the main house, which dates back to the 19th century, is now a shop. It is worth a visit to see some of the architectural details like the stained glass windows.  Here’s an excerpt from the Beringer site: “Completed in 1884 by architect Albert Schroepfer, Frederick Beringer’s former residence is now the centerpiece of the expansive Beringer property. Exhibiting the fine, detailed craftsmanship of the period, the Rhine House has beautiful exterior stonework, stained-glass windows and interior wood paneling. When building his 17-room mansion, Frederick wanted to mimic the Beringer family’s impressive German home at Mainz-on-the-Rhine. Built at a cost of about $28,000 (with the 40 panels of stained glass accounting for $6,000) the Rhine House is a classic example of ornate Victorian architecture with its many gables, turrets and ornaments.”


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See that big tree stump in the garden? That tree was alive at the time of the signing of the Constitution, as stated on a plaque found beside it.

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We caught the half hour Introductory Tour which started through these double doors…


We were taken through the old winery and its wine-aging tunnels. It was very dark in those tunnels. “Rare among Napa Valley wineries, the aging tunnels of Beringer were dug into the hillside of Spring Mountain from the late 1870s to the early 1880s. Chinese immigrant workers completed the tedious and strenuous task of hand-chiseling the 1,200 linear feet of tunnel. The hillside rock acts as a natural insulator and keeps the temperature in the tunnels at an ideal 58-60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round with a humidity—perfect conditions for storing wine.” (via Beringer site)


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If you are looking for something to do for a day outside of San Francisco, I think Napa Valley is a terrific option. We found the weather to be very comfortable in Napa; warm but not uncomfortable, with little humidity. Not sure if it’s always like that but it was perfect on that day when we were there.

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Before the Golden Gate Bridge, there was Hyde Street Pier

Didn’t realize how much time had lapsed since my last post. I thought we could go back to California and finish off our tour of the piers in San Francisco.

If you keep walking towards the Hyde Street cable car stop, on the other side of the street from the cable car stop is Hyde Street Pier. Before the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge were erected, this is where you would catch the ferry boat to Sausalito.  Today, the pier is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park where you’ll find some historical ships. You can even see Alcatraz clearly from the end of the pier. It looks like it’s much closer as well.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park





The ferry boat on the right, behind the sign “Hyde St. Pier” is the Eureka built in 1890. It used to be the commuter ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito until 1941 when the ferries were cancelled. At the time, the Eureka could carry up to 2,300 passengers and 120 automobiles. I didn’t think it was that big but then I have a poor judgement of space. Some interesting facts about the Eureka from the NPS site:

  • Overall length 299.5 feet
  • Extreme Width 78 feet
  • Gross Tonnage 2420
  • Horsepower 1500
  • Passengers 2300
  • Automobiles 120
  • Eureka is a wooden-hulled, sidewheel paddle steamboat.
  • From the passenger deck up, she is nearly identical fore and aft.
  • Her “double-end” design made disembarking quicker and easier.
  • Eureka’s large “walking beam” steam engine remains intact.




This is Hercules, a steam tugboat built in 1907 and went out of service in 1962.


Hercules with Alcatraz in background to its right.



I really don’t know much about ships but the Balclutha, also known as Star of Alaska, Pacific Queen, or Sailing Ship Balclutha, caught my eye and wondered how many people it takes to maintain a ship like this in the water. It looks like a lot of work with all those rigging. Here are some facts on this ship from the NPS site:

  • Overall length 301 feet
  • Length of Deck 256.5 feet
  • Beam 38.6 feet
  • Depth 22.7 feet
  • Gross Tonnage 1689
  • Height of Mainmast 145 feet
  • Balclutha is a three-masted, steel-hulled, square-rigged ship built to carry a variety of cargo all over the world.
  • Launched in 1886 by the Charles Connell and Company shipyard near Glasgow, Scotland, the ship carried goods around Cape Horn (tip of South America) 17 times.
  • It took a crew of about 26 men to handle the ship at sea with her complex rigging and 25 sails.

Did you know that it took about 6 months to sail from Cardiff, Wales to San Francisco back in 1887. That’s a long time to be out on the water. (I wonder if it would still take that long today.) This ship has had quite the career from being a British Deepwaterman, Salmon Packet and a movie star! Yup, it was in the film Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clark Gable. Read up on the voyages of the Balclutha here. It’s fascinating and also glad that such a ship has been restored for the rest of us to appreciate.



(via National Park Service)


There are many more ships in the area. Go ahead and explore. If you’ve brought swimming trunks, feel free to jump in the water. I noticed an entrance into a small beach just behind the Park Store.

See what I mean? Alcatraz looks so close…


What else is around the area? There’s the Cannery, Ghirardelli Square and of course, the cable car stop!




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A Stroll Around Pier 39 in San Francisco

San Francisco is known for its piers so, just like other visitors to this beautiful city, that’s where we headed on a clear day in August of 2012. You’ll find shops and restaurants and even a merry-go-round or is it a carousel?! From Pier 39, you have stunning views of Coit Tower and Alcatraz. I used to remember seeing sea lions around the pier but I don’t remember seeing any when we were there. Notice what the people in the photo below are wearing (more on this later).


Here’s a view of the Coit Tower from Pier 39. Coit Tower is in the neighbourhood of Telegraph Hill. I was there many years ago but we didn’t go there on this visit. Notice the art deco style of the tower? It was completed in 1933. The Golden Gate Bridge was completed a few years later in 1937. You can go up to the observation deck for a fee for a view of the city.



Remember I mentioned that we visited in August of 2012 in the middle of summer and yet look at the photo below. Look at what the people are wearing – pants, jackets, sweatshirts or fleece. And for those that are wearing shorts and t-shirt, let me tell you, they end up running into one of the stores for a fleece jacket. My one piece of advice when visiting San Francisco is to always pack a light jacket or a fleece because you never know what kind of weather you’ll get. Even the residents had busted out their leather jackets. It’s always cooler by the water. We saw the temperature steadily decrease driving from Yosemite where it was the high 30’s or even low 40’s degrees Celsius to the mid-teens by the time we reached Sausalito and San Francisco. Another word of advice, if you’re driving to the pier, do not park at the parking garage across Pier 39. They charged $40 for all day parking two years ago. I can only imagine what they are charging now. There are more reasonable parking around the area. But we got stuck in the queue with no way to back out.


Here’s that two-tiered merry-go-round or is it a carousel? I’m not exactly sure but it’s quite pretty.


And there’s Alcatraz. If you want to visit Alcatraz, I would recommend to book your ticket at least 2 weeks in advance. They sell out very quickly.


Another must see is Fisherman’s Wharf and if you’re hungry, it’s the perfect place to stop for a bite. Choose from one of the many restaurants around. You may want to try the Dungeness crab and the clam chowder served in sourdough bread.




Here’s a photo of those Dungeness crab courtesy of Wikipedia:


Musée Mécanique 

The Musée Mécanique is one of the neatest places to visit. It’s located just behind the “Fishermans Wharf” sign and admission is free. You can walk around and see the antique music boxes and arcade machines. They even have arcade machines from your childhood – like the Pong video game! I’m not joking and you can actually play with all the machines. It’s quite awesome. So, don’t miss it!




Cable Cars

If riding the cable cars of San Francisco is on your list of things to do, well, pack a lot patience because the line-up and wait time is long. Catch them at Powell & Market streets. If you’d rather keep exploring, from here, you can head on to Hyde St. Pier which is located just at the bottom of this street, but that’s for another post.



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