More than any other destination in the Caribbean, the sultry seaside city of Havana has a surprisingly eclectic selection of places to stay, offering different experiences that reflect the Cuban capital’s layer-cake of history. Catering to every budget, there are charming family-run casas tucked inside the Spanish colonial streets of Old Havana, striking landmark hotels once frequented by mobsters and film-stars, and chic five-star boutiques housed in gorgeous heritage buildings.
Tourism has really taken hold in Cuba, and bland state-run hotels are a thing of the past. New hotels are opening all the time, with contracts being awarded to international chains like Melia. Newly-opened flagship hotels from well-known brands such as Iberostar and Kempinski feature the latest in luxury, with views over Havana’s half-millennia-old harbour or Central Park, while iconic pre-revolution properties along the Malecon are currently being modernized and returned to their former glory.
Privately rented "casas particulares" are becoming increasingly popular, and many are family-run boutiques or self-catering studio apartments rather than traditional homestays. In fact, there are now hundreds of "casas" and counting across Havana, as well as high-end hotels that could compete with the best in the world.
On my recent trips to Havana I had a chance to stay in or scout out a whole host of hotels. Here are my five tried and tested spots, each with a charm of their own and suited to different types of traveller.
Sleeping beauties of Havana
American icon on the Malecon – Hotel Iberostar Habana Riviera
This 1950s construction brings a touch of old Miami to the Malecon. Once upon a time it hosted mobsters and film stars, and stories include how Ava Gardner once pulled a bellhop into her bed. Currently undergoing a multi-million dollar revamp, the Habana Riviera fits well with the 1950s Americana that can be found across Havana, and pulling up to its front steps in a classic Chevy is truly like travelling back in time.
Set right next to waterfront promenade the Malecon in the Vedado district, its rooms have the added bonus of panoramic sea views, and its saltwater pool and sun terrace are virtually unchanged since its pre-Revolution heyday.
Little boutique on a heritage street – Hostal Plazuela del Angel
This classic "casa" in old Havana is run by a local family and it’s my favourite place to stay in Havana. I was lucky it was available as they only have three studio apartments. Perched next to a church in the romantic little "Plazuela del Angel", it’s very tastefully furnished like a boutique hotel and offers amazing freshly-prepared breakfasts.
Aside from a pleasant bedroom with en suite bathroom, flat-screen television and shuttered doors opening onto a pretty balcony, the apartment also features a small kitchen, lounge and Wi-Fi access that’s sometimes hard to come by in Havana.
New kid on the block – Iberostar Grand Packard
This high-end hotel is a new addition to the Havana hotel scene, having opened this September 2018. While the building’s original colonnade has been preserved, the rest of it was gutted to create a completely contemporary interior. Iberostar has gone all out with its new Cuban property that’s intended as a more luxurious version of its sister-hotel Iberostar Parque Central and no detail has been spared.
Rooms have silent state-of-the-art air con, free Wi-Fi, huge flatscreen TVs with cable, rain showers and USB charging ports, narrow balconies, and ambient lighting. There’s even a relaxing bespoke fragrance used throughout the hotel and vases of lillies are everywhere. The staff I encountered on breakfast and room service duty were exceptional – both warm and professional.
The location overlooking a park on Havana’s seafront, with clear views of the old fort and harbour are hard to beat, and you can enjoy them from the infinity pool, which also makes a nice place to hang out after dark.
Grand dame of the Caribbean – Hotel Nacional
Possibly the most famous and historic of Havana’s hotels, the attractive and imposing façade of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba has stood watch over the Malecon since 1930. Built on a slight hill in the Vedado area, the eight-storey hotel’s double turrets make it recognisable from all over Havana.
Always the hotel of choice for Cuban generals, rich American mobsters and a long list of vintage film stars, the hotel has a truly fascinating history – it was the site of siege between opposing sides of the Cuban army in 1933, and in 1946 it hosted an infamous mob conference immortalised in the film The Godfather Part II.
Today it still oozes timeless glamour, with glittering chandeliers, marble floors, grand stairways and immaculately groomed grounds. Overlooking the ocean, its terrace bar serves up among the best mojitos in the whole of Havana.
Literary hotspot in Havana’s heart – Ambos Mundos
It’s not the most luxurious of Havana’s hotels, but Ambos Mundos has charm and pedigree that’s hard to match. This was the hotel that American novelist Ernest Hemingway chose as his Havana base for more than 10 years and its right in the heart of the action, on the bustling old thoroughfare of Obispo Boulevard.
Still sporting its original colour palette of darkwood and green, the cool piano bar and lobby, plus every landing in the six-storey hotel, is decorated with tributes to its most famous patron, and Hemingway’s old room 511 has been turned into a mini museum.
If like me you are a fan of Hemingway, this hotel and Finca Vigia, are unmissable places to visit. Also, it’s an atmospheric place to spend the night, and the wide roof terrace with views over the harbour and old town is a great place to stop for a drink or a snack at any time of the day or night.
Pick and mix
As many travellers choose to start and end their Cuba holidays in Havana, experiencing a couple of hotels can be a great way to add different dimensions to your trip. My charming "casa" in the narrow streets of the old town put me right in the heart of the action, for instance, where I was excited to live like a local. Overlooking the Malecon in less-cramped Vedado, the Habana Riviera offered 1950s ambience and a refreshing sea breeze amid the sometimes stuffy and diesel-tinged air of the tropical city. But at the end of a long journey, spreading out in the modern luxury of new five-star hotel the Iberostar Grand Packard with free Wi-Fi (rare for Cuba) and 24-hour room service was just what I needed.