As an American living in Costa Rica, one of the travel opportunities I have been most excited about is the opportunity to visit Cuba. While travel restrictions for Americans were recently loosened, there still are no direct flights to the island nation from the United States. Costa Rica, however, along with Mexico, offers direct flights from San Jose to Havana several times a week.
I recently spent a long weekend in Havana where I soaked up as much history and culture as I could! The most iconic and historic hotel in Cuba’s capital is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Here’s 9 Fun Facts About the Hotel Nacional de Cuba I learned about the hotel on a historical tour!
9 Fun Facts About the Hotel Nacional de Cuba
- History is Hidden in the Details
Opened as the National Hotel of Cuba on December 30, 1930, the hotel was designed by the prestigious architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, which also designed such iconic buildings as Columbia University in New York City and the Boston Public Library.
Today the hotel retains a 1930’s Cuban style. The lobby ceiling is adorned with a hand-painted plaster that looks like wood. The lobby tile is original, featuring symbols from the Catalonia, Granada and Castile and León, the Spanish regions with the most commercial influence in Cuba. Most of the wood workings in the lobby, including original mail slots, were carved from Cuban mohagany, and the large hall contains four clocks that date back from 1897.
- The Hotel Grounds Were Once a Forbidden Forest
Christopher Columbus reached the island of Cuba on his first voyage to the New World in 1492 and Spanish settlements sprung up beginning in 1511.
Due to its strategic location in the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba was Spain’s most important colony. The hotel sits in a neighborhood called Vedado, which means “prohibited.” During the Spanish rule this area was a forest, and it was prohibited for anything to be constructed here in fear that it would make the land more susceptible to pirates.
- Celebrity Guests Flock to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Throughout the years, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba has hosted a long list of famous guests including Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, Danny Glover, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Keaton. Paris Hilton was one of the most recent celebrities to stay here. A list of the rooms famous guests stayed in is available at the front desk and several rooms are even named after their most recognized occupants.
- The Hotel Frequently Serves as a World Stage
The hotel has also served as a world stage, hosting a wealth of diplomats and world leaders. This list includes Vladmir Putin, President of Russia, Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former President of Iran, and Xi Jinping, President of China. Former President Jimmy Carter also stayed here and US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit in August 2015 during his trip to reopen the Embassy in Havana.
- The Hotel Has Made A Big Screen Debut
While gambling was outlawed during the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Havana was once a hotspot for such activities and deemed “the original Las Vegas.” The Mafia also had a huge presence in Cuba. The former casino onsite served as the setting for the Havana Conference, a meeting between the American and Sicilian Mafia in 1946. This meeting is mentioned in the film The Godfather Part II, however the actual scenes were filmed in the Dominican Republic.
- The Hotel is Haunted By Ghosts
There’s a legend that the hotel is haunted by ghosts that frequent the hotel lobby and move the hands that indicate the elevator’s floor level. Spoiler alert: the hands are actually operated by a hidden, old-fashioned mechanical system. However, drink a few mojitos at one of the hotel’s bars and you may see ghosts yourself.
- The Hotel has Hidden Chess Pieces
While not all guests are able to see the hotel’s ghosts, look closely enough and you’ll be able to see hidden chess pieces with ease. The exterior roof is lined with pawns, rooks and even a king and queen. These are placed here in honor of José Raúl Capablanca, one of Cuba’s greatest heroes, world chess champion between 1921 and 1927.
Chess remains a popular game in Cuba and the floor of the second story of the hotel is decorated in green tiles to mirror a chess board and pay tribute to this national pastime.
- The Hotel Offers Stunning Havana Views
There’s no disputing the hotel offers some of the most stunning views of Havana. From the hotel’s gardens visitors can look out at the Malecón, a five-mile stretch of highway that lines the Gulf of Mexico. Classic cars often zoom by on this bright, sunlit street. The gardens also offer views of la Habana Vieja, the city’s historic center.
- The Best Mojitos are Timeless
Of the many bars onsite, Bar Vista Golfo boasts the best mojitos. This is because the mojitos here are made using a recipe from the 1950’s that was a favorite of many Mafia members who frequented the hotel. It just goes to show – mojitos, like the city of Havana itself – are timeless!
To learn more about the hotel’s history during your visit to Havana, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba offers guided historical tours Monday to Saturday. To book your stay, visit the hotel’s website.