Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana
I have always been fascinated with cultural heritage and tradition in our nation and others. The specificity of a country is what makes a particular destination a top priority to visit. Quite expectantly, Cuba was at the top of my list from early childhood. But today, I will start the story of this country with an incredible and turbulent past in a highly unusual way – by telling you about a unique hotel in Havana, a witness to many important events in Cuba’s history.
Once upon a time, Havana was the cosmopolitan capital that the world’s most famous and influential people visited. Fantastic music and beautiful women were just reasons for its popularity among the world elite. And all of them: actors, athletes, musicians, and politicians, stayed in the same hotel: Nacional de Cuba.
Cubans habitually say that Hotel Nacional de Cuba symbolizes history and identity. The impressive building was proclaimed a national monument.
It is in an extraordinary location in the center of Havana, at Taganana Hill, just a few meters from the sea and the Malecon promenade. Eclectic style, Art Deco, with features of Spanish architecture, make this hotel unique in the Caribbean. The hotel was opened on December 30, 1930, and was designed by the renowned architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. Their projects include Pen Station in New York, Columbia University, and Boston Public Library. The hotel was primarily intended for American tourists, and the Cubans were forbidden to stay there. By the beginning of the 1950s, Cuba had already established itself as a destination known for its glamor and good pastime. When the US government declared gambling illegal, the mafia relocated its business from America to this paradise island. With the great help of then-President Batista, it took little time for Cuba to fall into the hands of American mafia families. Luxury hotels and casinos began to sprout, through which illegally made money was laundered.
It was Nacional de Cuba that nursed close ties to the mafia and was the place where its members gathered and stayed.
The hotel hosted a prominent summit of mafia bosses in 1946, organized by the legendary Lucky Luciano and Mayer Lenski. Among the participants were Santos Trafficante, Vito Genovese, and Amadeo Barletta. This summit is immortalized in Coppola’s movie The Godfather II.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro and “Che” Guevara moved their headquarters to Nacional. From there, they planned the defense against air attacks. Castro shut down the hotel two years after he overthrew Batista. Years after that, the hotel was neglected and served exclusively for the reception and stay of foreign diplomats. It was renovated and became a tourist attraction again in the 90s.
Inside the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana
At the entrance to the hotel, you will be welcomed and greeted by a doorman in uniform. When you enter the hotel lobby, you will feel like you have returned to an ancient, more beautiful past. Nacional, at first glance, abounds with elegance and authenticity. The lobby contains original tiles from 1930, with symbols from different regions of Spain. Wooden works are mostly made of Cuban mahogany wood, and there are also four clocks from 1897 in the hall.
The entire Nacional is history! It is difficult to remain indifferent to the fact that some of the most influential people of today and the last century stayed in it.
When Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir visited Cuba to learn more about the Cuban Revolution and its national heroes, they moved to Nacional. On that occasion, they interviewed Guevara. One of the rooms in Nacional is named after Sartre.
But a few more rooms have been declared as historical riches. There are still photographs, objects, and biographies of those who stayed in them. The list is impressive: Nat King Kol, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Fred Aster, Johnny Weissmuller, Gary Cooper, Rita Heights, Erol Flin, Capablanca, Alexander Fleming, Tennessee Williams, Walt Disney, Yuri Gagarin, Winston Churchill, and many others.
State officials, presidents, Hollywood stars, scientists, writers, musicians – almost no one has visited Cuba without staying overnight at Nacional. Interestingly, the US administration of the hotel did not allow Joseph Baker and Nat King Cole to stay in it when they performed in Havana. The reason was the color of their skin. However, the mistake was corrected the following year, and today there is a statue of Nat King Cole and a jukebox placed there in his honor. For over a decade now, you can visit the rooms every day (except Sunday) as part of a free historical tour. Tours start at 10.00 and 16.00.
However, the interior of the hotel is one of many fascinating things. A vast courtyard is an ideal spot, especially at dusk. One part of the yard looks directly at the Malecon promenade, which comes alive at night. The Cubans gather where they often spend their time singing, dancing, and socializing with their family and friends. In front of the hotel are two cannons from the famous Battle of Santa Clara.
Swimming in the hotel pool had a unique charm. It was the same pool where legendary Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, jumped from the windows of his room on the hotel’s second floor.
The hotel terrace is yet another place that is ideal for afternoon relaxation. While sitting on the porch and sipping a drink, the peacocks walk alongside you! Speaking of drinks – National specialties are cocktails, mojitos, and pina colada. Mojito was a favorite cocktail of mafia members. Even today, it is still prepared according to the original recipe from the fifties.
On the porch, you can enjoy live music every night, while at the Parisien Night Club, you can see a show similar to the one in the world-famous Tropicana.
The urban legend says that sometimes ghosts can be seen in the hotel. I imagine that they are all those who spent the most beautiful days of their lives in Nacional and still do not want to leave. I left it, knowing that I would be returning one day.
That’s all for now. Hope you will enjoy Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. To read more about Cuba, click HERE.