Checking into a government-owned national monument isn’t usually on the cards when I travel, but the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was worth making an exception for. Its nuclear bunker, neatly cut into clipped lawns in front of the building, is a reminder of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just a few yards away are antique cannons, and inside there was once a casino created by the Mafia. You couldn’t make it up.
The list of previous guests at the Nacional is embarrassingly vast, with their names and photos covering the walls of the Hall of Fame Bar; Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Simone de Beauvoir and the Backstreet Boys are among those who have walked through the doors. Now it was my turn to follow them.
Location and First Impressions
The striking Art Deco building, in the Vedado district, is part of the city skyline. It sits on top the old Santa Clara Battery, which had defended Havana from invaders since 1797. The Hotel Nacional opened in 1930 and its heyday of American celebrities and Mafia dealings occurred before the revolution took hold in 1959. Even today there are some controversial guests – President Assad isn’t someone I’d like to share a Bucanero beer with.
After checking in and admiring the lobby, I changed over my foreign cash at the front desk. It’s best to bring Euros or Canadian dollars into Cuba, then you’re given back CUC – the tourist currency. You can’t exchange Cuban pesos until you arrive in the country, and you’re advised to change your remaining pesos before you leave to return home. Hotels and banks are the best places to get your CUCs.
Ducking into the ballroom, I spotted a photo exhibition on Hugo Chavez (of course – what else would you put in a ballroom?!). Outside the ballroom, various pieces of communist-friendly art were dotted around to set the tone. It made a change from the typically bland canvases you see on most hotel walls, but being blasted with propaganda on the way to the bar felt a little strange.
I’d booked a double room, which turned out to be on the top floor, overlooking the sea and the edge of the Malecón. It was very traditional but had all the basics on hand (comfy beds, TV, fridge, air conditioning, wardrobe and safe) and, though it showed a bit of wear and tear, the room was clean and airy.
Whilst I didn’t go to the Cabaret Parisien show in the grounds, I could definitely hear it at night, even through ear plugs – not great fun at 2am. Another issue arrived with the rain, which began to drip through the ceiling onto my bed; I phoned down to reception, who sent up a handyman. He looked around, then disappeared to get some tools and never came back, despite another call to reception.
With the language barrier to overcome, I didn’t feel confident enough to carry on complaining, though obviously a wet floor and bed weren’t what I’d expected from a five star break. In contrast to that kind of service, the maid who cleaned the room each day couldn’t have been more helpful and lovely, going out of her way to make sure I was alright. It’s worth remembering the best people in the business aren’t always behind the front desk or mixing with the high-profile guests – they’re working extra hard in the background, and they deserve recognition.
Taking the official group tour was a big part of the whole Nacional experience, complete with a headset-sporting guide who explained the meaning of every little detail, from the floor tiles in the lobby (each symbol represents different trades with Spain) to the purpose of room 272: a 24 hour medical service for important visitors. Of course, we got to explore the nuclear bunker, which was damp, dark and really unnerving to walk through.
She showed us the impressive Mafia suite (211), with a hole from Frank Sinatra’s bathroom next door allowing him easy access to his neighbours. The Mafia, including Meyer Lansky and Al Capone, had long been linked to Cuba, she explained, with “Cuban rum shipped to Florida during Prohibition,”. Other rooms held Walt Disney, Errol Flynn and the world’s tallest man.
Sadly, not every celebrity had the red carpet rolled out for them. Nat King Cole, who stayed in room 218, was appreciated for his singing but not his skin colour, so he was banned from swimming in the pool or meeting the media. Despite this discrimination (which, let’s face it, was widespread in the 1950s), he visited the hotel three times.
Breakfast, Restaurants and Bars
Breakfast was a full-on occasion, with one of the biggest buffets I’ve ever seen, serving everything from fruit and meat to spiced potatoes and fish; an added bonus was the rotating daily menu of cakes and pastries. As seems to be the norm in five star hotels, there was an egg chef to cook eggs any way you wanted.
There were several restaurants in the building, including the expensive Comedor de Aguiar, the more relaxed Rincon del Cine – cheap and cheerful food, mainly Italian, open 24 hours a day – and La Barraca, full of traditional dishes like moros y cristianos (black beans and rice, named after the battles between Moors and Christians) and ropa vieja (finely shredded stewed lamb, named ‘old rope’ due to its texture). The food at La Barraca was cooked in charcoal and served in pots, nicely appealing to the Instagram generation.
The best bar was the famous Churchill, with great value cocktails and flashy service. A good alternative was the Galeria, at the edge of the gardens, whilst the Hall of Fame was worth visiting to see artifacts and memorabilia, like the Wurlitzer, and an authentic trunk left behind by a guest in the 1930s and unopened to this day. A photo montage of Cuban residents aged 100+ was mounted on one wall, their tired centenarian eyes watching as I tried to slurp my way through what was surely the world’s strongest daiquiri. They knew I was a lightweight.
Lounging by the pool isn’t high on my list of priorities when I’m on holiday, as I tend to have the world’s most ambitious itinerary to get through, but good weather and reduced finances (explained here) meant some pool time was in order. Being forced to relax was probably good for me, especially as the pool area had enough space, shade and sun loungers to prevent guests being squeezed in like sardines. The pool bar, with a decent snack menu, also helped.
A visit to the concierge was less successful. I didn’t pop in with any particular trip in mind, just to see what was on offer and if he had any insider recommendations on where to go. However, it quickly became clear he had all the charm of Carol Beer, the Little Britain character with the catchphrase “Computer says no”.
Undeterred, I set out to find other things to do, but some of the hotel amenities listed online were weirdly absent, or at least well hidden – I never found the sauna, and the beauty parlour offered non-existent massages. Still, the pool and the gardens didn’t evaporate into thin air.
This is the Cuban hotel for several reasons – the history, the celebrities and the location – so it’s a very poignant place to stay, albeit not as conventionally luxurious as other five star spots around the world.
Customer service is mixed, but there were more positive experiences than negative ones from my stay. If you don’t decide to check in here, you should at least pop in for the afternoon; a trip to the bar and a hotel tour will give you a good introduction to this unusual landmark.
Visiting Notes: The Hotel Nacional De Cuba can be found at Calle 0 esq. 21, Vedado, Ciudad de La Habana. Double room prices start at 175CUC, including breakfast.
The hotel tour is available at 10am or 3pm Monday-Friday and at 10am on Saturday – meet in the lobby.
My stay included airport transfers, as I’d booked through Virgin Holidays, but anyone who hasn’t organised transfers can take a taxi to and from the airport – typically 25CUC each way.