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Where To Stay: Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Where To Stay: Hotel Nacional de Cuba

There’s a lot to be said about a hotel that was once the basecamp for the US Mafia, saw the likes of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway walk through its doors, and is still a mainstay of one of the world’s most iconic cities, ninety-two years after it first opened. Although it’s now more heritage site than hotel, Hotel Nacional de Cuba still has a certain charm, which quickly gets a hold on you. It’s sort of like you’re transported through time. You can’t help but feel as if you’re an important part of this place’s history. If it’s good enough for Old Blue Eyes…

Step into the Hotel Nacional Habanos lounge

Opened in 1930 and still sitting pretty on top of Taganana Hill overlooking the Malecón in Vedado, Hotel Nacional is an official National Monument, meaning that a week-long stay was a necessity for our trip to Havana. Designed by McKim, Mead & White of New York, the hotel itself is quite a mishmash of varying styles from different decades, with a personality that is equally hard to decipher. Whilst perfectly operational, and heaving with guests even in the off-season, you can’t help but feel as if everything sort of froze in time after the 1960s. Several times during the stay, after heading down from my 7th floor room and into the foyer, I felt like I was an extra in the Godfather II. For good reason, too, might I add.

Hotel Nacional played host to the infamous Havana Conference—a meeting of the US Mafia and Cosa Nostra bosses—in 1946, which was depicted in Coppola's sequel. The hotel was the stomping ground for a lot of Mafia bosses and the like, looking to stay under the radar of the U.S. government. The conference was held by Lucky Luciano and then part-owner, Meyer Lansky, to discuss mafia activity—particularly in New York—the vision of a new, Casino-fuelled Havana, mafioso movements and a reinstallation of the capo di tutti capi following Luciano’s time away from the US, having been deported to Italy following the end of World War II. It was said that the official cover story of the Havana Conference was that the mob bosses were attending a gala with Frank Sinatra.

The terrace of the Hotel Nacional

It wasn’t until 1960, following Castro’s nationalisation of all the island’s hotel-casinos, where the Hotel Nacional shut down their casino as gambling became outlawed. This in-turn essentially wiped out the majority of revenue and income for Luciano and Lanksy amongst others. The latter apparently lost the equivalent to $48million in today’s money, though it is not known for certain just how much money Lanksy earned and lost during his time. The room that held the casino remains vacant to this day, occasionally used as an events space.

It was later in 1960, when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir met Che Guevara, that the couple were staying at Hotel Nacional—the room 539 is now named after Sartre. And that’s not all, should you visit, you could be put up in a number of infamous rooms: 211 is dedicated to Mafia; 225 to Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra; a few doors up at 228 for Fred Astaire; 235 if you’re a fan of Errol Flynn; Nat King Cole in 218 or even Rita Hayworth in room 246.

The view from the 7th, overlooking the Malecón

I’d be remiss however, not to mention the fact that you can enjoy any one of Cuba’s rum-based specialty cocktails for 150 Cuban Pesos—the equivalent to £1.50—at their stunning terrace. And downstairs at Hotel Nacional de Cuba Habanos lounge, one can find a host of incredible smokes that can be enjoyed there, as well as the terrace itself. While it’s perhaps not as brimming with state of the art amenities like some of the newer hotels propped up around the city, there’s an undeniable appeal that Hotel Nacional retains. Here, you live inside the heartbeat of the island. You get to look out at the Malecón in a way not many places can rival. You become part of the story. You experience Cuba in the same way some of the greatest names in humankind have.

The entrance of the hotel's cigar lounge

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