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.
In recent years, the Cuban government has started to reach for that higher level of quality. The two principal Cuban government-agencies that operate hotels are Cubanacan and Habaguanex, the latter focused on hotels in Old Havana. Habaguanex is the primary driver of the newer luxury category hotels, mainly the Hotel Saratoga and the Marqués San Felipe.
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
This 96-room hotel is situated on one of the most vibrant squares in Havana. From its rooftop pool and terrace, guests have a birds-eye view of the Cuba’s Capitolo, a virtual replica of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and you can see the Partagás Cigar Factory façade too from the rooftop pool and terrace. It has a pleasing colonial-style décor, and its overall level of luxury has earned it a mention among the Prestige Collection of hotels around the world.
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 place
Hotel 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.
Hotel Ambos Mundos
Calle Obispo 153, esquina Mercaderes, La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-9530
E-mail: See website
This brightly painted, salmon-colored hotel can’t be ignored as you walk through Old Havana. The corner is marred by a big modern building, although, ironically, just across the street is the Palacio de Captaines Generales, which currently houses the Museum of the City of Havana. Calle Mercaderes is one of my favorites in Old Havana with many restaurants, bars and small shops to meander around. It is close to Plaza de Armas and it’s a quick walk to the Plaza Cathedral and
La Bodeguita del Medio. The 52 rooms are standard fare, but the lobby bar is vibrant and almost always filled with people having a good time.
Hotel Parque Central
Neptuno entre Prado y Zulueta, La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-6627
E-mail: see Website
Just down the street from the Capitol building, the Parque Central is a big, modern hotel in an old colonial building. It is also just across the street from the National Theater, and the Prado, a great tree-lined street running down to the Malecón, runs along one side. It has half a dozen meeting rooms and 427 guest rooms including a presidential suite that matches any in Havana. It has a wonderful rooftop swimming pool with views of the Capitol, and the small Parque Central, which is a classic tree-lined square found in most Latin cities.
Hotel Santa Isabel
Calle Baratillo 9, entre Obispo y Narciso Lopez, La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-8201
This hotel could easily be one of the top five in our rankings. It is a bright and spacious hotel, on a beautiful tree-lined square, the Plaza de Armas, one of the prettiest squares in the city. It faces the wonderful Museum of the City of Havana, and is diagonal from the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.
The rooms are big, with high ceilings, and 10 standard rooms on the top floor share the hotel’s top floor terrace with views to the east. It is ranked among the country’s five-star establishments, but we found it just a little starker compared to several other top hotels. However, this hotel will make you feel like you are in Havana, and its location on the edge of Old Havana makes it easy to get in and out.
Prado 408, esquina Neptuno, La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 861-1010
This is one of Habaguanex hotels in Old Havana that is virtually indistinguishable from the others. But each has something unique, either in location or décor. The Telégrafo is near the Parque Central on Prado. It has a great atrium bar with exposed-brick walls and large palm trees, and a circular staircase heading up to the room floors. There are 63 rooms. The décor is standard Habaguanex with simple furnishings and brightly colored walls, and a modern bathroom.
Calle Amargura 103, esquina San Ignacio
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-8280
The history of this hotel includes references to Cuba’s Jewish traditions, including a stone engraving of the Star of David in the reception area. Art Nouveau décor sets this hotel apart from the other Old Havana establishments, and as you enter, you get a true feeling of a turn-of-the-century grandeur. There are 25 rooms, with amenities including wireless Internet in the lobby, room safes and satellite TV service.
Hotel Park View
Calle Colón, esquina Morro
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 861-3293
This is a value hotel. I mention this hotel because it is clean and simple, and well-situated. If you are truly on a budget, the approximately $60-a-night rooms can’t be beat. It’s near the Fine Arts museum and the Museum of the Revolution, and it’s just steps from the Paseo de Prado. There are 55 rooms, and they have all the usual amenities of the other Habaguanex hotels in Old Havana. But it doesn’t have the charm or location of some of the other hotels, just a great price for a simple room.
These hotels are west of the city along the ocean front, or in the Miramar section and Vedado, which lies between Miramar and Old Havana.
Av. 3 y Calle 84, Playa, Ciudad de La Habana
Tel: (537) 204-5551
This hotel is undergoing some renovation. Good thing—it is a bit faded around the edges. But this remains one of the most interesting hotels in Havana because of its winding pool area and the bungalows that line the meandering pool. The rooms are Spartan but comfortable, and for anyone who frequented Havana in the mid-1990s, there will be a lot of fond memories.
Av. 5, entre 76 y 80
Tel: (537) 214-1470
This is a new hotel managed by the Barcélo hotel group from Spain. It is a luxurious high-rise overlooking Quinta Avenida, one of the prettiest avenues in the Miramar district of Havana. There is no beach, but the pool is large. The rooms are mostly Eurochic, sleek furniture, bright colors and efficient layouts. It, however, could be a resort almost anywhere in the world. Not a bad choice if you’re looking for a quieter, more out-of-the-way outpost in Havana.
Hotel Occidental Miramar
Av. 5, entre 72 y 76
Tel: (537) 204-3584
This is the former Novotel. The Occidental hotel group of Spain took over operation of the property about five years ago. Next door to the new Barcélo in Miramar, this hotel also boasts an international standard of quality, with a beautiful pool area.
Hotel Habana Libre
Calle L entre 23 y 25, Vedado
Tel: (537) 834-6100
This is one of the older Havana high-rise hotels and had the misfortune of opening in the year before the Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro even once had his offices there. There are 569 rooms, and while Sol Meliá has managed it since 1997, when the group did an extensive renovation, it is in the midst of another.
It will be several years before the work is complete. There is one of the newest and largest Casas del Habanos in the city here, and its does boast a central location to get to Habana Vieja and out to Miramar.