Island Overnights

Hotel options are ever-expanding in Cuba, offering a mix of old-world charm and new-world conveniences
| By Gordon Mott | From Welcome to Cuba, May/June 2015
Island Overnights

You can find an oldish-looking couch in the soaring lobby of the Hotel Raquel or the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Habana Vieja, order a rum on the rocks, and sit back to watch the parade of tourists shuffle their sneakers across the marble floors. They might ignore the Beaux Arts columns and period art on the walls as they slip by the dark-wood reception desks toward the funky steel-cage elevators. But if you can squint a little to block out the tourists, it is easy to imagine being on a Caribbean vacation at the turn of the twentieth century, when steamer trunks and valets were a part of high-end travel.

Yet only four miles away, you can slip into a blocky, modern, upholstered chair in the sleek lobby bar of the Meliá Cohiba, a 21-story, high-rise hotel overlooking the Malecón, Havana's seawall promenade, and find the city's version of the present day. The piano player will offer covers of current pop hits, and a table of businessmen or an airline crew will just as likely be sitting next to you as tourists. Laptops will be out on the tables. Cell phones will be ringing. You can easily think you are in Miami, Barcelona or some other relatively balmy, modern urban setting.

While the former experience may seem a romantic proposition, keep in mind that some of the historical grand dames are fading beauties. The storied Hotel Nacional, its twin stucco towers rising like beacons over the Malecón, and marking the boundary of the city's central neighborhood known as Vedado, is not to be ignored. But it's also become one of those great places to visit at which you mightn't want to stay. Its charms are well-known: the patio bar under a portico, the garden stretching to a view of the sea, the Rat Pack atmosphere. But the hotel is a magnet for huge groups of tourists, and the accommodations and amenities are worn to the point that we give it our least recommendation. Another example of how quickly things may change in Havana is the Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal. When we last rated Havana hotels (2011), it was brand-new and our top pick. Now, it's among our least recommended.

In the end, however, any visitor to Cuba's capital city must accept the reality that none of the hotels in the city attain five-star quality. The long list of government run hotels, operated by Habaguanex (mostly in Habana Vieja) or the Gaviota group (mostly at the country's beaches) are simple straightforward establishments with the same mattresses, pillows and towels, and a minimum of other modern amenities. Wi-Fi, if it is offered, is usually limited to the lobbies, and requires the purchase of a Wi-Fi card, which generally costs about 8 cuc (or about $9) an hour. That said, for some travelers, there is no other place to stay in Cuba than Habana Vieja. All the government-run hotels (the only ones worth staying at in the area) are virtually identical in price and amenities. Again, Wi-Fi (if it exists) is usually limited. The rooms are almost always Spartan, but clean. We strongly suggest staying away from at least one of them: La Inglaterra—it simply hasn't been maintained.

Foreign hotel companies comprise the other category, and while these hotels are joint ventures, the foreign firms run and operate the establishments. The largest is the Spanish group known as Sol Meliá. They now have three hotels in Havana: the Meliá Cohiba, the Meliá Habana and the TRYP Habana Libre. The Habana Libre, which we don't review, is the former Hilton and the least desirable of the three because of ongoing, and slow, renovations. Two other Spanish companies, NH and Iberostar, also have single properties in Havana today: the NH Capri, which reopened in May 2014, and the Iberostar Parque Central, a large, well-appointed hotel just off the main square in front of the Capitol building. These hotels are better maintained. For instance, the Meliá executive floors, known as The Level, have private dining areas that are especially good for breakfast and typically have in-room Wi-Fi.

One new development is worth noting—the arrival of the Kempinski Hotel group from Europe. The company is renovating the Manzana de Gómez building just across the street from the Hotel Parque Central and in front of the main park. The building was a former European-style shopping arcade that occupied an entire city block, and like all buildings in Old Havana was quietly falling into disrepair. This is a down-to-the-studs (or old beams) renovation that will add 220 rooms to the hotel scene in Havana. Completion is scheduled for 2016, so keep it on your radar in the years ahead. It promises a new level of luxury in Havana.

In the end, our recommendations offer a mix of old and new, of government-owned-and-operated hotels or those run by foreign companies. Our reviews follow in order of top-rated to lowest. For those of you who have relied on our 2011 issue, you'll notice some additions, and some deletions, and some critical observations about old favorites. Just be sure to keep your expectations in check, and hope for hot water every morning.

On the other hand, sometimes you need a cold shower in Havana.

Editors' Picks

Hotel Saratoga
Paseo del Prado 603, esquina Dragones, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 868-1000
While this hotel is now run by Habaguanex, it remains the nicest, most modern hotel on the edge of Old Havana. There are 96 rooms here, and prices are higher than some of the other government hotels. My personal preference is to ask for a patio room, because the sound-proofing on the street-side rooms is inadequate. What you give up is a spectacular view of the Capitol building (a replica of the U.S. Capitol), but for now, that grand edifice is covered by scaffolding during a long renovation of the building's exterior. The Mezzanine Bar is one of Havana's classiest places to have a cocktail and a cigar. The palm trees and tropical décor are very soothing, and it is a respite from the outside world. The rooftop pool provides one of the best views of the city, and is a wonderful place to hang out for an afternoon. Beware, it is one of the most sought-after hotels in Havana, and reservations are precious here.

Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Avenida Paseo, entre 1 y 3, Vedado, Ciudad de la Habana
Tel: (537) 833-3636

After several abortive and less than satisfactory hotel stays in Old Havana, we have come to appreciate the Meliá Cohiba's professional service, the maintenance of the rooms and the in-room Wi-Fi service on The Level, the executive floors with 57 rooms. The hotel includes a Casa del Habano on its mezzanine, and one of the nicest, biggest hotel pools in the city. Given the explosion of new restaurants around the city, we wouldn't necessarily recommend any of the ones here, but in a pinch check out the Med, a white-tablecloth establishment. Amenities include a gym. The views of the Malecón from the upper floors are spectacular. Prices are higher than in government hotels, with rooms during the peak season now exceeding $300. The hotel has a total of 462 rooms. Those on The Level, with its enhanced services, have higher room rates.

Hotel NH Capri
Calle 21 Entre N y O, Vedado, Tel: (537) 839-7200

This is Havana's newest luxury hotel—opened in May 2014. Located in the heart of Vedado, it is within sight of the Hotel Nacional. It feels like a 1950s revival, with a late art deco influence in the lobby and tips of the hat to the Rat Pack world. With 220 rooms, you can choose city or sea views. La Florentina, the 19th-floor restaurant, is getting some good reviews from locals, and the nighttime views of Havana are breathtaking. The rooftop pool is also a special setting, with panoramic views of the Malecón and downtown Havana. The "Blue Bar," which in its 1950s heyday had windows looking out into the pool, is now just a cool place to have a drink and a cigar out on the small terrace overlooking the city.

Hotel Meliá Habana
Ave. 3, entre 76 y 80, Playa, Tel: (537) 204-8500

Another well-maintained Meliá hotel, it is situated in the Miramar section of the city. While your stay will feel like you could be in any hotel anywhere in the world, sometimes that is more comforting than being on an adventure in an older hotel in Habana Vieja. It also has one of our favorite Casas del Habano in Havana, with a great selection of cigars, a friendly staff and a small smoking lounge. Nearly all of the hotel's 397 rooms offer ocean views, and while it does not have a beach by any definition of the word, it does have an excellent pool and a beautiful series of soaring atriums. The executive floors here, also known as The Level, are the best rooms in the hotel, and count the same services as the other Meliás—Wi-Fi in the rooms, a private dining room and a separate concierge desk. Once again, given the quality of the private restaurants in Havana, the hotel's offerings would not be a first choice for us, but as a respite, La Scala and Bella Cubana are good substitutes.


Very Good

Hotel Conde de Villanueva
Mercaderes 1202, esquina Lamparilla, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 862-9293
Of all the Habaguanex hotels in Habana Vieja, this one exudes the most charm. It's front door opens onto Mercaderes street, which is one of the most completely renovated areas in the historic section of the city. The nine-rooms won't impress anyone, but the feeling of a boutique hotel fashioned out of an old colonial mansion remains intact. Each room opens onto a center courtyard, which is filled with tropical plants and peacocks that strut around like they own the place. The hotel has one of the oldest Casas del Habano in Havana. You have to duck to get through front door, and you truly have the sensation of being in a tobacco shop of another era. There is a small smoking lounge, and the selection is always pretty extensive. There is still talk of a renovation (it was one of the first refurbished Habaguanex hotels in old town around 1999) but for now, its shabby-chic décor is its charm.

Hotel Raquel
Calle Amargura 103, esquina San Ignacio, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-8280

This hotel's history is simply unavoidable. There is a stone engraving of a Star of David, a nod to the city's Jewish history (the name is Hebrew for "innocent"). The Art Nouveau décor has been lovingly preserved, and separates it style-wise from the other hotels in Old Havana. The façade is Baroque. Light through a stained-glass dome illuminates the lobby. Its 25 rooms are spread over three floors and entered through the central atrium. The Jewish theme continues to the many pieces of Biblical paintings made by contemporary Cuban artists and a restaurant that serves Jewish cuisine. The location is central to the old city, and the service is friendly.

Hotel Ambos Mundos
Calle Obispo 153, esquina Mercaderes, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-9530

Even though it's not at the top of our list, this is one of our favorite old town hotels. The salmon exterior recalls another time and place, suggestive of the tropics. Maybe it is just knowing the hotel's Ernest Hemingway history that attracts us. He did at least some of his writing while drinking at the bar and staying here, and a room is set up as a Hemingway museum. The 52 rooms are definitely standard Habaguanex fare, but the lobby bar remains a lively place, often with live music and a stream of people filtering off of Mercaderes. It is also close to the Plaza de Armas, and, for those really wanting to relive Papa Hemingway's days and nights, the bar Bodeguita del Medio is just steps away.

Hotel Santa Isabel
Calle Baratillo 9, entre Obispo y Narciso Lopez, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-8201

As in our last guide to Havana in 2011, this hotel lurks just on the edge of qualifying as one of our best hotels in the city. But in the end, the drab Habaguanex décor overcomes the big rooms and views from the top floor's standard suites, which have terraces looking out to the east over the harbor. It is directly on the Plaza de Armas, with the huge old colonial buildings, and the historic fort, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, that lends a kind of Gabriel García Márquez feel to the square. The square is filled with vendors at small stalls, and people mill around its edges. The museum of the City of Havana on the opposite side of the square is worth a long afternoon exploring the city's history. At the very least, the hotel's location is a great starting point to explore Old Havana, and just perhaps, get a sense of what the city was like 500 years ago.


Hotel Terral
Malecón, esquina Lealtad, Centro Habano
Tel: (537) 860-2100
This is something of a category of one. The two-year-old Hotel Terral is directly on the Malecón, in a part of the city known as Central Havana. We will make an unusual recommendation here. There are only 14 rooms, and the only ones we would recommend without reservation are the ones on the fourth floor, all junior suites with big, private balconies. While every bedroom on the lower floor also has an unobstructed view of the Havana waterfront, the top floor king-size beds face the ocean. They are also high enough up that the noise from the traffic on the Malecón is not disturbing (frankly, traffic in Havana is never heavy enough to disrupt anyone's sleep). And, other than the big high-rises closer to Miramar, this is the only hotel that faces the Malecón in its most historic stretch of buildings, which are slowly being painted and renovated. Definitely an unusual choice. But the joy of waking up looking out at the ocean can't be beat. It has a good breakfast restaurant, and the staff, maybe because of the hotel's size, is some of the most friendly in Havana.

Hotel Telégrafo
Prado 408, esquina Neptuno, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 861-1010

This is another indistinguishable Habaguanex hotel on the outer edge of Habana Vieja. Since its location on the Prado puts it facing the city's busiest street, you might revert to this hotel only in a pinch. But it is clean. The rooms are straight-forward. It has a bar in the atrium with a lot of character, so you can enjoy your drink there. There are 63 rooms, and the hotel overlooks the Parque Central, so it is centrally located without being blocked out by the tight streets in the inner sections of Old Havana.

Hotel Parque Central
Neptuno entre Pardo y Zulueta, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-6627

We admit this is probably an unfair position, at the bottom of the Havana hotels. It is run by Iberostar, the Spanish hotel company. It has a lot of new rooms in a modern tower. It is, by all accounts, a well-run hotel with modern amenities. The lobby bar is impressive, and a nice place to have a drink. But to our mind, it just lacks character and soul. And, each time we've stayed, the service has been perfunctory. The hotel has 427 rooms. It is right in front of the Central Park, and on the edge of Old Havana. It also is almost always packed with large tour groups and airline crews. If you can get a reservation, its one saving grace may be its rooftop bar and pool, which have wonderful views of the park, the Capitol building and Habana Vieja.


Hotel Nacional
Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Plaza, Ciudad de la Habana
Tel: (537) 836-3564
We already told you about its drawbacks and its charms. It is a magnet for big tour groups. Each time we went in the hotel for this report, there were mountains of luggage waiting to be moved to the rooms. And, the local travel experts say that the hotel is more rundown than ever, with spotty Internet and terrible food. But we understand that it's like seeing Big Ben in London, or going up the Eiffel Tower every time you are in Paris. This is the iconic Havana, and a hotel filled with the history of its heyday before the Cuban Revolution in 1959. So, go if you must. The room prices are high, and unlike most hotels with its occupancy rates, it hasn't been updated in years. Despite the deluge of tourists, the hotel does have its charms: the patio bar, with couches and chairs under the high portico; the garden stretching down to a view of the sea; and the list of rooms named for celebrities—mostly pre-1960s types like Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Walt Disney, Tyrone Power, Rita Heyworth, Johnny Weissmuller, Nat King Cole and one dubbed "Mafia."

Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal
Calle Oficios 152, esquina Amargura, Plaza de San Francisco
Habana Vieja, Tel: (537) 864-9191

How the mighty have fallen. We rated this hotel our No. 1 choice in 2011. The hotel was new then. The rooms were a wonderful juxtaposition of modern Italian design, with the overlay of Old Havana. And we forgave a few sins then—such as no Internet in the rooms, and some less-than-outstanding construction. Guess what. The rooms still have no Internet, despite almost monthly assurances that it would be added. One recent guest went two days without hot water. Whatever the promise was that this hotel would set the new standard of luxury in Old Havana, it has been long ago forgotten. It remains one of the most expensive hotels in Havana, while others have more charm at lower prices. But its location on the Plaza San Francisco is without peer, and the building itself is a wonderful restoration of Old Spanish colonial architecture. Now that the old Port building across the street has been stripped of its commercial shipping activities and is being renovated, there may be a new era beginning down on the harbor.

Hotel del Tejadillo
Tejadillo No. 12, esquina San Ignacio, Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 863-7283

We like to give one value option for our readers; in the last Havana issue it was the Park View. This time, we visited the Hotel del Tejadillo, a hotel in the middle of Old Havana that is operated by Habaguanex. You can get a single room starting at $69 at certain times of the year. The rooms are clean, but minimally modern. The ones we visited were dark. Given its location and its price, it is worth considering if you are trying to save some money.

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