The iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Official website is HERE. You can also click HERE to take a panoramic 3-D tour of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This is the country’s premier hotel, typically where foreign heads of state and dignitaries stay. The hotel has a 24-hour bar and restaurant, and the property is on a bluff overlooking the Malecon – the famous seawall that spans the entire city of Havana. If you ask the front desk, they can tell you which famous movie stars, or infamous gangsters stayed in your room!
The Hotel Nacional sits on a bluff known in the early centuries of the colonial time as Monte Vedado (vedado – prohibited) because of a Spanish government decree banning the creation of paths to the beach in that area. The constant attacks by privateers and pirates, followed by the capture of Havana by the English, prompted the construction of various fortifications, including the Santa Clara cannon battery which is now the hotel gardens. Together with Old Havana, the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
The decision to build a luxury hotel was made in the late 1920s. The American firms McKim, Mead & White and Purdy & Henderson Co., tasked with the planning and construction, completed the palatial edifice in 14 months. The hotel exhibits an eclectic architectural style, reflecting Art Deco, Arabic references, features of Hispano-Moorish architecture, and both neo-classical and neo-colonial elements. There are even details from the centuries-old Californian style. The resulting unique example of so many schools of architecture is the most unusual and interesting hotel in the Caribbean region. The Hotel Nacional was first opened on the night of Dec. 30, 1930. A grand ball was held that night to celebrate, and it was attended by a variety of famous guests.
1930s: The hotel was bombarded following the stationing of officers of the army elite of the deposed president Gerardo Machado, in a revolt by lower-raking officers – Batista among them – in protest at the privileges of high office. Guests of the hotel in this decade included: Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan), Edward VIII (prince of Wales), Jack Dempsey, Tom Mix, Buster Keaton, Errol Flynn, and the mobsters Santos Traficante (father) and Meyer Lansky. Mr. Lansky secured the future of the casino business with Batista during meetings at the hotel.
1940s: In 1945, the hotel was host to the international air transport conference, attended by delegates from the world’s airlines, which founded IATA, the International Air Transport Association. In February 1946, Sir Winston Churchill visited Cuba, staying in the hotel’s Republica Suite, and was accorded diplomatic privileges by the Cuban government. In December 1946, the hotel was the venue for a major gathering of the Mafia, closing its doors to the public while accommodating the heads of the most notorious (American) Cosa Nostra families. For over 12 years, the hotel was home to steel magnate Barón Thyssen Bornemicza. The avalanche of celebrities continued unabated: George Raft, Betty Grable, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Carol II of Rumania, Tyrone Power, Lucky Luciano, Rita Hayworth, Ernest Hemingway, Fred Astaire, the Los Panchos trio, César Romero and Gary Cooper.
1950s: These were the halcyon days of tourism for the hotel. Its American management refused accommodation to both Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole, on racist grounds, but in 1957 relented in the case of the latter, who gave some unforgettable performances during his stay. Other guests and visitors during this period included: Nelson Rockefeller, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gadner, Sir Alexander Fleming, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Leopold and Baudouin of Belgium, and Walt Disney.
In 1956, Eartha Kitt inaugurated the hotel’s Cabaret Parisien, where the famous voices that charmed the guests included those of Vic Damone, Nat King Cole, and, more recently, Compay Segundo and Alberto Herrero, among so many who have enlivened nights at the Hotel Nacional.
The hotel was the setting for the formation of the ’26th July Movement’ (M-26-7) revolutionary group led by Fidel Castro. On the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1st 1959, the representatives of the American company that operated the hotel departed, and the hotel staff took over the management. October 1962 was the month of the Missile Crisis. Antiaircraft emplacements were installed on the hotel’s bluff, and walled trenches were excavated below the gardens – a large scale engineering feat. The world’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, stayed at the hotel. Other guests during this period included Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Josephine Baker and, appearing in cabaret, Bola de Nieve, Esther Borja, among others.
1970s: A revival of international tourism began in 1974. In December 1979, the hotel hosted the first Latin American New-Film Festival, and has remained as the festival’s venue ever since.
1980s and ’90s: The hotel was architecturally and historically restored, achieving the status of flagship of the Cuban hotel industry. It was reopened in 1992. Visitors included Geraldine Chaplin, Danielle Mitterrand, Harry Belafonte, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Michel Legrand, Robert de Niro, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Diego Armando Maradona, Alicia Alonso, Ana Belén, Francis Ford Coppola, Muhammad Ali, Henry Aaron, and Danny Glover. In 1994, the hotel attained recognition as the flagship of the Gran Caribe hotel group. In 1998, the first historic rooms were inaugurated, namely those that had been occupied by Maria Felix, Ava Gardner, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), and Jorge Negrete. The year’s guests included Alejandro Vargas, son of the famed singer Pedro Vargas, top models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. The hotel hosted the 1999 ninth Latin American summit.
21st century: Guests recently have included many important figures (heads of state, heads of government, other political and social leaders, distinguished filmmakers, Nobel laureates, scientists, artists and athletes).