The Hotels of Havana
The best places to stay in Cuba’s capital city
From the Print Edition:
Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011
Sitting on a bluff above a slight inward curve in Havana’s seaside promenade, the Malecón, the twin cupola towers of the Hotel Nacional stand like two sentinels. Built by the New York City firm of McKim, Mead and White and opened to the public on December 30, 1930, this hotel has served as an iconic image of Havana as much as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York City or Big Ben in London.
The grand old dame of hotels in Cuba is more than a hotel. It is a must-see destination, a living museum of a past long gone. Nostalgic? Absolutely. The soaring, grand stucco-walled foyers, tile-floor hallways and stone arcades overlooking the gardens are wonderful places to wile away an afternoon or late evening, enjoying the parade of package-tour visitors, some staying there but most just sightseeing. The hotel remains a throwback to the revolution’s early days, locked in its own time warp when it served as lodging for diplomats and foreign dignitaries, and as much a palace for that revolution, not
Havana’s storied past.
Contrast the Nacional with the newly opened Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal, down near the docks in Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. Enter its sleek reception area with deep mahogany woods, and bright tropical-hued walls and you might think you were in South Beach or Milan. The suites are post-modern chic, with large bathrooms and Jacuzzis, and the latest in sleek wood cabinets and metal and glass furniture.
The hotel sits on the Plaza San Francisco, an ancient colonial square with stone paving, flanked by an old sixteenth century church and some colonial buildings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The streets around the hotel in Old Havana are almost completely restored, the stucco exteriors smooth and painted, and the interiors modernized. The narrow pedestrian walkways wind between two- and three-story buildings that house restaurants, museums, government offices, even residences. The area bursts with charm and life, from early in the morning until late at night.
Those two establishments represent two ends of the hotel spectrum in Havana for foreign tourists. There are many hotels, managed by the government, which are very similar to the Nacional; clean, Spartan and reasonably efficient but not necessarily for every traveler. There also are a group of hotels built and managed by foreign hotel chains, principally the Sol Melia, Barcélo and Iberostar groups from Spain; they almost all fall in Cuba’s five-star hotel category, although most foreigners would not give them that high an accolade based on standard international benchmarks. But they are among the best hotels in Cuba.
Room prices don’t vary that much. There are often three categories for the rate: low, high and very high season, corresponding to summertime, late fall and winter and the latter being applied for some holiday weeks.
For the standard Habaguanex hotels, the rates range from $90 to $125 for a single occupancy, $140 to $205 for double occupancy, $195 to $315 for suites with double occupancy. The Saratoga and the Marqués San Felipe are more expensive, with suites at the latter running up to $450 a night. Most room rates include breakfast, a standard buffet of fruits, eggs, breakfast meats and breads of various types, all accompanied by the hearty Cuban coffee; one tip, I usually order espresso or regular Cuban coffee instead of the weaker café Americano. Finally, we’ve included websites and phone numbers for all the hotels; rates change rapidly and there are often special deals posted on the websites, especially in the off-season months, so it’s worth checking in on the rates being offered.
There are some quirky things about Havana hotels, and in a nutshell, it means that any experienced foreign traveler needs to lower his or her expectations. If you do, everything will be fine. For instance, there seems to be one type of mattress supplied to hotels in Cuba—it is firm, almost hard, but since I’m a fan of a solid mattress, it has always been fine for me. For those who like a softer mattress, don’t expect it there.
Internet service is spotty. Nearly every hotel now sells Internet service cards to provide access to their wireless services in the lobby. If you have in-room service, sometimes wired, sometimes wireless, there is a separate username/password card that is provided, usually with an extra charge. For instance, the Hotel Nacional sells in-room access for 20 cuc a day. In general, be prepared for very slow Internet service, especially at peak load times in the morning and late afternoon. I once waited 20 minutes for my company web mail site to load at a cyber café outpost, the only terminal that worked at the Hotel Marqués San Felipe.
The list of hotels is organized by our preferences. We stayed in three different hotels this trip, and every hotel mentioned here was visited during our stay, unless otherwise noted.
(In order of preference for the top five hotels)
Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal
Calle Oficios 152, esquina Amargura
Plaza de San Francisco
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 864-9191
This is one of the newest hotels in Havana. It opened in late 2010. There are 27 rooms including three large suites with living room, separate sleeping area, a Jacuzzi and large bathroom, with windows that overlook the Plaza San Francisco. Some inner rooms don’t have nice views. This hotel approaches European levels of luxury.
The inner atrium has a bar and a dining area with large marble columns, and has diffused light from a skylight. Waiters serve breakfast instead of the standard buffet. There is a great rooftop terrace with views of the city. A suite in high season is the city’s most expensive room at nearly $450 per night. There is one caveat here: the Internet service was not functioning during our stay and guests were relegated to a single terminal off the hotel lobby; hotel management assured it would be fixed soon and would deliver Internet to each room and provide a wireless connection in the lobby.
If there’s another negative, it is that you don’t really feel like you are in Cuba.
Paseo del Prado 603, esquina Dragons
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 868-1000
The Anacona restaurant serves a buffet breakfast and lunch and dinner. The Mezzanine Bar is open 24 hours a day, and has good wireless service with the ubiquitous password cards sold by the hour (here, it’s 8 cuc). Great place to have a smoke, a glass of rum and catch up on e-mails. The rooftop pool/terrace area is spectacular with one of the best views of the city. The daiquiris here are good too. I found the hotel a little noisy if you have windows on the square or overlooking any of the side streets. But the trade-off is the view of the Capitol building.
And, the same caveat applies here as to the San Felipe; this hotel could be anywhere.
Calle 21 y O
Vedado, Plaza, Ciudad de la Habana
Tel: (537) 836-3564
This is the grand old dame of Havana’s hotels. The 457 rooms either have views of the Malecón or Vedado, the part of the city between Old Havana and the Miramar section. The lobby has soaring ceilings with large arches, and it runs from the dining room at one end to the Cabaret Parisien at the other end. The two-story portico has a drive-thru, and you walk up the stairs into that spectacular vista. The rooms are comfortable, but Spartan and a little threadbare in places, even on the executive floor, which charges a 20 to 25 percent premium over the regular rooms.
The executive floor is recommended at least in part because of the Internet service both in the room and in the floor’s private reception area, which is a welcome way to avoid lines when you are checking in. The arcade on the side opposite the entrance surrounds the garden, which leads out to a view over the Malecón; it’s a fantastic place to sit in the large, comfortable chairs with a cigar and a glass of Santiago rum. There is a good Casa del Habano in the basement.
One of the amusing things to do is ask the front desk which famous celebrity of yesteryear has stayed in the room you have for the night: You might get the room favored by Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper or ol’ blue-eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Av. Paseo, entre 1 y 3
Vedado, Cuidad de la Habana
Tel: (537) 833-3636
Every city needs a top-notch business hotel. In Havana, it is without a doubt the Meliá Cohiba. The high-rise hotel with 462 rooms towers high above the Malecón, and if you squint just a little, you might imagine you are in a hotel in Madrid or Atlanta. There is a great pool, nice restaurants (some say La Piazza produces excellent Italian food) and a well-
appointed Casa del Habano on the second floor.
There is no Internet service in the rooms, but the business center has half a dozen computer terminals, and the wireless Internet in the lobby, accessed through a prepaid card with passwords, is functional, if not always reliable. The Spanish hotel company Sol Meliá, operates the hotel, and it caters to a well-heeled business crowd.
Prices are somewhat higher than the standard government hotel, with double occupancy rooms running about $150 in the off-season and over $200 during the winter months. There is a pool and a gym, and the highly regarded Havana Café nightclub is in the same building, down about 20 yards from the main entrance.
Tie, for 5th placeHotel Conde de Villanueva
Mercaderes 1202, esquina Lamparilla
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 862-9293
This is a personal favorite, and will be on my must-stay list next time in Havana. The term boutique hotel would best describe it: there are only nine rooms, all opening out onto an interior courtyard, which is open to the sky. It was an old colonial mansion, so the rooms are spacious, and the marble staircases up to the second floor speak of a grander time.
There is a quaint but extremely well-appointed Casa del Habano on the mezzanine, and you often have to navigate around the peacock to get up the narrow staircase to the shop. The rooms are shabby-chic, but well-appointed, and reminiscent of your grandmother’s old house. The rest of the hotel is well-equipped, and the people here are friendly. It was one of the first refurbished Habaguanex hotels in Old Havana, which dates it to around 1999. It may be in for an update soon, but the hotel won’t lose any of its charm or historical allure.
Hotel Meliá Habana
Av. 3, entre 76 y 80
Tel: (537) 204-8500
It would be wrong to leave out the hotels along the ocean in the Miramar section of Havana just because we love the historic nature of the hotels in Old Havana. Not everyone wants to be surrounded by stucco and paving stones. There was a time when the Hotel Comodoro fit the bill of a great beach hotel, but today, the spot that earns the best of Havana’s beachfront hostelries nod is the Meliá Habana.
It is a modern high-rise with a beautiful pool; there actually is no beach at the hotel, just a rocky ledge, but you can see the ocean from more than 80 percent of the 397 rooms. The executive floors, known as Servicio Real, are well-appointed by Cuban standards and worth the extra fee to stay there. I have no specific recommendations on the restaurants, but the local cognoscenti don’t mention any as the place to dine, unless you just don’t want to leave the hotel. The hotel also has an excellent Casa del Habano, with a friendly staff and a great cigar selection.
There are 10 other hotels in Havana that warrant consideration for any stay. The following in Old Havana are listed in order of preference with specific notes about what makes them special. I’ve left out a couple, including the Hotel Florida and the Hotel Ingleterra, partly because they seem to have been part of that first wave of hotel renovation 10 to 15 years ago, and seem a little more rundown than some of the other places on the list, but they would be acceptable for most visitors.
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