Visiting Cuba often feels like entering a portal for a trip back in time, and this sensation is especially strong when stepping into Havana’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Situated in the center of Havana and a stone’s throw from the sea and the Malecón, the hotel is an important symbol of history, culture and Cuban identity.
Hotel Nacional stands atop a hill known as Loma de Taganana, named after a cave that lies beneath the hotel's foundations. Opened in 1930, Art Deco mixes with a variety of styles that capture the essence of old-world elegance in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The hotel was built by Purdy & Henderson Company and designed by McKim, Mead & White—a distinguished American architectural firm at the turn of the twentieth century with a prolific legacy (a resume that includes a renovation of the West and East Wings of the White House in 1902, for example). The two companies completed the planning and construction of the eight-floor building with 8,000 workers in only 14 months. It’s said that although the Cuban government was officially responsible for the $7 million project, much of the funding came via the mob’s Prohibition-era cash.
Marketed as a tropical paradise, the casino attracted people from around the world. Some of its illustrious guests include Errol Flynn, Jack Dempsey, Winston Churchill, Betty Grable, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway, Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Alexander Flemming, Marlon Brando, Mickey Mantle, Jean Paul Sartre, Gabriel García Márquez and President Jimmy Carter. This list is nowhere near complete. The hotel was wildly popular with celebrities and, over the years, has hosted many interesting meetings, concerts, summits and conferences, including the Havana Conference, a large Mafia gathering in 1946 that was attended by delegations of crime families from the United States (an event Francis Ford Coppola paid homage to in “The Godfather II”). An exhibition of photographs in The Nacional’s Vista al Golfo bar provides a panorama of the storied guests who have stayed at or visited the hotel from 1930 to the present day.
Havana was the largest port in the region during the 16th century, and by the 18 th century the city had developed the most complete dockyard in the New World, both of which required protection from privateers and pirates. An extensive network of defense was developed, and Hotel Nacional is built on the site of the Santa Clara Battery, which dates back to 1797. Two coastal guns remain (the Krupp and the Ordóñez, the latter was the world's largest in its day) and are displayed in the hotel's garden. In 1982, UNESCO placed Old Havana and its fortifications on its list of World Heritage Sites.
The parties at Hotel Nacional came to an abrupt end in 1959 with the triumph of Castro's revolution. The hotel was nationalized, its walls hung with pro-communist banners and its rooms used as a dress-making school for peasant women. Later, during the Missile Crisis, antiaircraft positions were built on the hill, and walled trenches were excavated below the gardens. International tourism didn’t begin again until 1974.
In 1990, the hotel closed for restoration, opening two years later to as a flagship of the Cuban hotel industry of the Gran Caribe hotel group in 1994. In 1998, the National Monuments Commission declared Hotel Nacional a national monument based on its architectural and historic value, celebrity guest list and years of hosting international events.
The Hotel Nacional’s long history is palpable, and its many attractive verandas offer beautiful spaces to linger and absorb many decades of rich Cuban history.
Text by Lise Waring
Photo by Robin Thom