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Review: Havana’s Iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba

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TO THE POINT: Hotel Nacional makes for a memorable stay whether it’s your first or fifth trip to Havana. The pros: great location overlooking the malecon seawalk, cinematic history and beautiful grounds. The cons: dated rooms, strange blue carpeting and expensive Wi-Fi.

Note: Each Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, referred to in the review below, is equivalent to 1 US dollar.

Opened in 1930, Hotel Nacional de Cuba is perched high on a hill, towering over Havana‘s scenic malecon seawall. It’s home to Art Deco, Mozarb (Spanish-Christian), Hispano-Moresque, neoclassical and neocolonial architecture, making it one of the most eclectic hotels in all of Cuba. In 1946, the hotel served as the venue for a major Mafia gathering, which was later depicted in The Godfather Part II. Nat King Cole, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra and Eva Gardner all stayed here while more recently, the hotel has been visited by stars like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Backstreet Boys, Jodie Foster and Paris Hilton.

Hoping to see what all the fuss is about? Visitors and guests of the hotel can tour the historic lobby and grounds Monday through Friday at 10:00am and 3:00pm, or Saturday at 10:00am.

Booking

I was able to book my stay ahead of time using the Spain-based website, Destinia.es. My grand total, including taxes and daily breakfast, came to $203.34, which I thought was extremely reasonable, especially since I’d made my reservation just three weeks before the trip.

After paying, I received an email confirmation with the voucher I needed to print out and show upon arrival — it basically serves as your proof of payment and the hotel will ask to see it. Because of the lack of Wi-Fi and printing options in Cuba, I would highly recommend you have this voucher printed and ready before you get there, just in case.

My voucher from Destinia.

Since I am based in Spain, I had no problem booking through this website with a US-based credit card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which lets you earn 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants and 1x point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide. If you’re using an IP address based outside the US, you should be able to book via this website (or through another non-US OTA) with a US-based credit card. If you choose not to pre-pay your stay, note that the hotel does not accept US-based cards upon arrival — the property does accept credit cards from other countries, but you’ll be charged 3% extra for using a foreign card.

Check-In

The lobby is massive and is more like a very long hallway than a square space. Upon entering, you get the feeling you’ve stepped back in time, with wooden ceilings and imposing chandeliers on display around you. There are several desks where you can check in, as well as some areas with chairs for guests to sit and relax while they wait. The reception and payment windows have wooden bars, which seems a bit off-putting at first but it’s actually kind of cool.

The lobby is more of a long hallway.

I found it exciting that the elevators, which were decked out in deep wood and gold, were actually the original elevator facades used back in the 1930s. The box in the middle is the original letterbox, with its tube reaching up to all the floors so guests could simply drop their letters in it to be mailed — you know, back when people actually wrote to each other.

The original elevators still work (well, assuming the mechanical insides have since been upgraded).

The check-in process was fairly simple, although our room wasn’t ready until 4:00pm on the dot, check-in time. The friendly desk clerk spoke English and told us our room would soon be ready (we’d arrived at 3:15pm) and that we could walk around or hang out at the pool in the meantime. I asked if it was possible to score a room upgrade to an ocean view room, which resulted in a wink and an “I’ll see what I can do.”

When we returned at 4:00pm, the room was ready and we received the keys. The hotel policies are quite strict and you’ll be required to show the passports for both guests staying in the room as well as the aforementioned voucher proving that you paid before you’re allowed to check in.

The Room

The room is probably the least exciting thing about this hotel, although we could spot the edge of the ocean from one of our windows, which was nice. I had heard the rooms were dated so I was really interested to see if that was true — mine was definitely a bit stuffy and the decor wasn’t really my style. A flat-screen TV was pretty much the only modern aspect of the room, though we never used it.

The room, which was a bit dated.

The furniture was stiff and formal, not welcoming or comforting, and the deep blue carpeting seemed a little weird.

The beds

The same dark blue carpeting could be found in the hallways, which were a bit dark and boring despite the artwork on the walls.

It's always interesting to drag a suitcase over carpeted hallways.

The drapes seemed heavy and old, as did the bedding. The bed itself consisted of two twin beds pushed together, and I found the rocking chairs to be interesting, but not practical.

An old rocking chair.

The room was pretty spacious and not uncomfortable, but definitely not as cool as the rest of the hotel. Everything looked dated but not dingy. The lighting was rather annoying, with no ceiling lights, but just a few lamps sporting large shades placed around the room. The desk featured a small ottoman, making it an inconvenient workspace and quite the opposite of an ergonomic desk chair.

Working at this desk would cause some serious back pain.

The bathroom was slightly more modern, offering a sink, tub and shower, but fairly nondescript with basic white decor. However, as it’s difficult to obtain bathroom fixtures in Cuba — towel racks, doorknobs and toilet paper holders are often broken or banged up at many Cuban hotels — I was pleased to see the bathroom was outfitted with everything you’d need nowadays.

The basic bathroom.

There was plenty of light thanks to a large window in the bathroom, as well as modern-day amenities, like a blowdryer hooked up to the wall.

A basket held several bath amenities — the bottles were cool, sporting the name of the hotel, though the actual soaps and shower gels weren’t anything special.

Toiletries

The closet was spacious and offered plenty of storage, but there was no iron. Instead, if you wanted to iron something, you’d have to send your clothes out to the hotel laundry facility, which was rather annoying, especially since we were in a rush for our evening plans and there was no time.

Note that the use of the in-room safe isn’t included in your rate and if you’d like access to it, you’ll need to pay 2 CUC ($2) per day — I figured that was worth not getting my identity stolen, so I decided to pay a little extra.

The closet and safe.

You’ll also need to notify the staff if you’d like the mini-bar in your room to be unlocked. Since my room was already pre-paid, I wasn’t asked to leave a credit card number for incidentals at check-in, even though I hadn’t yet paid for access to the safe.

I will say that despite the buttoned up furnishings, it all seemed appropriate. I really felt like I had stepped back in time and the room reflected that. For a one-night stay, it was a neat experience, though I’m not sure the room would be quite as fun for a longer stay.

Food and Beverage

The breakfast buffet is included in the price of your stay and is quite expansive.

The breakfast buffet had a lot of offerings.

The food itself is tasty, but the coffee just average — since it was included in the room rate, we really couldn’t complain. There was an omelette station, as well as several pastries and even some lunch items. The fresh fruit was particularly delicious, especially the mango, papaya and guava.

Fresh tropical fruits.

We also ordered room service and were surprised to discover the menu was very American, which I found a bit strange — there were virtually no Cuban dishes on the menu, so we gave up and ordered a burger and some chicken. I found the room service prices to be fairly reasonable, again considering we were staying in what was supposedly one of the best hotels in Havana. We paid about 25 CUC ($25) for a large burger and fries, Creole chicken with fries and a few bottles of water. However, eating the food was a bit complicated, since one of us had to sit on the ottoman and the other in a rocking chair.

Our "American" eats in Cuba. Would have much preferred some Ropa Vieja, but it wasn't on the menu!

Amenities

Of all the places I stayed on this trip, Hotel Nacional de Cuba charged the most for Wi-Fi access. The hotel doesn’t use the ETESCA Wi-Fi system like many other hotels, which allows you to purchase a card and use the Wi-Fi on property and in nearby parks. Instead, you have to pay for its own special Wi-Fi service, which was pretty pricey.

Internet prices at the Nacional.

The hotel does have a business center where you can pay for computer access. In general, I’d say this hotel isn’t ideal if you have a lot of work to get done, thanks to the lack of a proper desk and chair in room, as well as expensive Wi-Fi — it’s a great option if you’re looking to take an digital detox vacation and just relax though.

A room in the business center.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba also features a large outdoor swimming pool and a fitness center, which was fairly well-equipped with weights and machines.

The fitness center was pretty big and seemed to go unused.

The pool was crowded during the early afternoon, though we didn’t have a problem getting two lounge chairs. Not spending the night? You can still pay 20 CUC ($20) per day to use the pool and gym as a non-hotel guest.

We managed to snap the pool fairly empty, just before it closed for the day.

The other side of the pool area offers views of the side of the hotel, which made the simple experience of lounging at the pool a special one. Whereas this wasn’t the most striking or luxurious pool experience I had in Cuba, I found the juxtaposition of the elegant and regal building hovering over the palm trees and modern-style pool to be gorgeous.

Poolside enjoying the lovely architecture of the hotel.

The prices for poolside food and drinks were quite reasonable, with lemonade and smoothies starting at just 2 CUC ($2) and mojitos around 5.50 CUC ($5.50).

Poolside food and drinks menu

There were a number of cool terraces and bars throughout the hotel where you could order drinks — all were reasonably priced, with daiquiris and mojitos hovering around the 4-6 CUC ($4-$6) mark.

One of the many outdoor patios for enjoying a cocktail.

Visitors not staying in the hotel can enjoy drinks at the many bars located in and around the hotel grounds.

Why not enjoy a drink or two.
Image courtesy of the author.

The hotel also offers a small art gallery and a movie room.

Some artwork in the hotel.

You’ll also find a beauty parlor, wine shop, souvenir shop and a bank onsite.

The movie room at the hotel.

One special feature that really helps to capture the essence of Hotel Nacional’s past is The History Room, sort of a Hall of Fame that honors famous former guests of the hotel. There’s even a bar nearby where you can sip your favorite cocktail as you admire the iconic hotel guests and vintage artifacts on display.

The bar in the Hall of Fame.

It’s a lot of fun to have a look around and read about all the famous guests who have stayed here over the years.

The many guests that have spent the night at the Nacional.

Havana’s famous Parisién Cabaret show, which TPG Senior Editor Kaeli Conforti attended during her historic Cuba cruise, is also located at the Hotel Nacional. We paid 30 CUC ($30) per person to see the performance, which included a free drink — you won’t get to choose though, since the staff members bring everyone something blue and sugary.

The performance was fun and dynamic — being inside the vintage theater was also a special experience. The show features a blend of Indo-American, Hispanic and African culture fused with funky Cuban rhythms, and includes plenty of fabulous dance sequences that’ll inspire you to head to the nearest salsa club once the show ends.

The Parisen Cabaret.

It is possible to dine at the Parisién Cabaret, but I had been advised by friends to skip the meal, and after seeing others eating during the show, I’m sure I made the right decision — my room service burger, though not the least bit Cuban, was delicious.

Dancers at the Parisien Cabaret show.

The grounds of the hotel were captivating to stroll around, with different artwork and historical references strewn throughout the property. In fact, the interior was a bit maze-like, and you never knew what you’d stumble upon next.

Wandering around the grounds and hotel is cool as you'll discover upon some neat artwork, statues and history.

Checking Out

Check out here was interesting. First, you have to proceed to the cashier, where you’ll pay for any charges. I was able to pay for my room safe and room service on my Spanish credit card, which cost me an extra 3% since it was a foreign card. Next, you’re given a small card proving that you’ve paid, which you then show to the clerk at the check-out desk when you return your room keys.

On the right is the card I was given upon checking out.

In order to leave the hotel, you must show your check-out receipt card (pictured below) to the bellhop as proof that you’ve paid your bill.

My checkout receipt, confirming that I paid my room charges.

Without this card, you won’t be allowed outside to the taxi area. After the bellhop checks it, you’re free to go.

Show your card to the bellhop upon leaving or you will be denied exit.

Overall Impression

While the rooms definitely aren’t the most modern or comfortable, staying at this hotel is special because it has so much incredible history. The grounds and hotel itself are wonderful to wander through and I would suggest staying here for one or two nights. However, if you have a long stay in Havana planned, you may want something a bit more updated. If you can’t manage to stay here, definitely consider stopping in for a drink or to use the pool, take a tour, see the Parisién Cabaret show or even to just take a stroll around the grounds.

The ground of the Hotel Nacional.

If you have a lot of work to do during your trip, you may want to consider a hotel more geared toward business travelers. Hotel Nacional de Cuba is perfect for couples, families, groups of friends and solo travelers who want a real piece of history and a relaxing, short break. It’s truly a part of Cuba’s heart and soul, and no trip to Havana is complete without a visit here.

Have you ever stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba? Tell us about your experience, below.

Featured image and all other photos by Darrel Hunter unless otherwise specified.

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