Formal fine dining restaurant with dishes inspired by famous past guests
Large outdoor pool with adjacent bar, plus smaller rectangular pool
24-hour Gallery Bar, plus Rosa Nautica in the gardens (try the piña colada)
Clean rooms with traditional style and minibars
Wi-Fi available in business center and rooms
Free daily tours for guests
Rooms can smell a bit musty
Historic property with occasional plumbing and AC issues
Lots of tourists milling about the lobby and grounds
Not walking distance to Old Havana
The upscale, 457-room Hotel Nacional de Cuba is the country's grande dame, with fascinating history, from a major mafia meeting in the '40s that took place on-site to tunnels in the gardens used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The common spaces, including the lobby and the ocean-view gardens, are gorgeous, and the food impresses. Rooms are charmingly traditional if a bit dated for some tastes (and occasionally musty), but they're still among the nicest in Havana. Just note that Old Havana isn't within walking distance, and that the common spaces are often milling with tourists. Those willing to sacrifice the historic ambience here in favor of a modern look should consider the nearby NH Capri La Habana.
Cuba's most famous hotel, with beautiful common spaces and interesting history
Hotel Nacional de Cuba hardly needs an introduction. Anyone with only a passing knowledge of Havana's history has likely heard the name; before the Cuban Revolution, the hotel -- opened in 1930 -- was a hub for American pleasure seekers, offering gambling (now illegal in Cuba), fine dining, fine drinking (not available in the U.S. during the Prohibition years), and some of the poshest accommodations in the city (it still does). A major mafia meeting took place here in 1946, during which the assassination of Bugsy Siegel was planned, and other famous guests to pass through the halls include Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill (for whom one of the bars is named), and in more recent years, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The hotel makes a suitably grand first impression, and the building itself is reminiscent of the iconic Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. The lobby still retains its original tile floors, original wood banisters above the reception desk (note that the painted words are in English, not Spanish, as the hotel was originally for and staffed by Americans), chandeliers, grandfather clocks, elevators, and mail chute. Today, the hotel still draws many Americans, as part of tour groups -- quite an impressive feat given the travel restrictions -- as well as guests from Germany, the U.K., and Spain, among other countries. Most guests tend to be on the older side, though families are welcome. The staff here are all Cuban, and the hotel is entirely government-run, as opposed to some Havana hotels that bring in foreign management.
One of the possible downsides is that because the hotel is a national monument, and because tours are offered every day for both guests and non-guests, there are often a lot of tourists milling about. This isn't just a hotel, it's a tourist attraction. Still, it's easy enough to find peace and quiet in the beautiful gardens, which have views of the sea and roaming peacocks; the Rosa Nautica bar here serves the best piña colada we've ever tasted. There are two historic canons here dating to the mid 18th century, when this was a fortress, and there are also tunnels on the premises that were used during the Cuban Revolution (well worth a visit).
In Vedado, a block from the Malecon and a five-minute taxi ride to Old Havana
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is positioned right on the water, with beautiful sea views and a location that's walking distance to the Malecon, the famed seaside promenade that has earned the nickname "the sofa of the world." It's not walking distance to Old Havana, but there are plenty of classic American taxis out front to transport guests. This neighborhood is called Vedado, and it's in between Old Havana and Miramar, the modern part of the city where many embassies are located.
Three-minute walk to the Malecon
Five-minute drive to Old Havana
Eight-minute drive to La Cabaña, a large 18th-century fortress
15-minute drive to Miramar
30-minute drive to José Martí International Airport
Traditional rooms with plenty of charm but occasional mustiness; about half have sea views
The rooms here are among the nicest in Havana -- which isn't to say they're on par with international luxury standards. But those who can appreciate their old-fashioned charm should be satisfied. Expect gold comforters, dark wood furniture, and plush blue carpets in most rooms, as well as bathrooms with shower/tub combos (and, some guests complain, occasional plumbing issues). The old ACs, carpeting, and windows that don't open contribute to occasional mustiness in some rooms, though the carpets are slowly being removed and the original tile restored (the historic second floor is tiled). Rooms still have their original white wooden plantation-style louver doors. Amenities include minibars with items such as soft drinks, juice, chocolate, and whiskey, flat-screen TVs with 42 channels (including CNN in English and HBO), air-conditioning, safes, and hairdryers.
There are multiple room categories, ranging from the Single Room to the 1,000 CUC per night Presidential Suite, in which both Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Campbell have stayed. There are two-bedroom Senior Suites and Special Suites with different decor styles; suites also include slippers, robes, and bathrooms with separate showers and tubs. Standard Rooms come either two twin beds separate or pushed together. About half of the rooms have sea views, the best being from the eight floor (the top), and half face the city. Plenty of smoking rooms are available.
Rooms on the sixth floor get access to the Executive Lounge, where a private breakfast is serviced Wi-Fi is available.
A great fine dining restaurant, a fun Creole eatery, multiple bars, a nightly cabaret show, and two pools
Hotel Nacional has several restaurants that impress. Namely, the incredibly elegant Comedor de Aguiar, which serves dishes such as filet with mushroom sauce and lobster with almond sauce, and the open-air La Baracca, a Creole restaurant facing the sea with live music at lunch and local dishes cooked on charcoal (a whole pig was being roasted when we ate there, and the meal was one of the best we had in Havana). Expect dishes such as ropa vieja (stewed beef), rice and beans, chicken, pork, and fritters in clay pots.
The Gallery -- the outdoor terrace facing the gardens -- serves drinks at all hours, as does the downstairs cafeteria (room service comes from here). The buffet restaurant La Veranda serves breakfast and dinner and has show cooking stations; all rates include breakfast and it's possible to book rates that include dinner as well. The Bay View Bar has a hall of fame of famous past guests, and the Churchill Bar (attached to Comedor de Aguiar) is clubby and swanky.
There are two pools: a larger freeform option with an adjacent snack bar, foam cushioned loungers, and ocean views, and a rectangular pool (under renovation during our visit) that was original to the hotel -- Olympian Johnny Weissmuller is rumored to have jumped into this pool from the second story in the 1930s. There's a gym facing the freeform pool with a good number of weight and cardio machines, all in good shape, and TV on the wall. There's also access to the sauna near the pool (fees apply, except for guests in the suites). A tennis court is on the premises.
There's a Parisian cabaret show every evening, and a Buena Vista Social Club music performance two nights a week.
There's a souvenir shop in the lobby where postcards and stamps are for sale, as well as a cigar shop.
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