Vedado, my neighbourhood in Havana, is home to three very famous hotels: the Habana Libre, the Hotel Nacional, and the Capri. All three are state-owned, operational hotels and popular destinations in their own right.
The Habana Libre was built as the Havana Hilton. What the Hilton corporation could not foresee was that in 1959 Fidel Castro would overthrow the US-backed dictator, Batista, and seize control of the government. Castro nationalised many things in the months following the revolution or stole them, depending on your perspective. Either way, the Havana Hilton was renamed Habana Libre after the revolution movement Jose Martí spearheaded 60 years before, and Castro himself set up shop on the Penthouse floor. From there he led the early stages of the rebellion.
The Capri has only recently reopened. It was a haven for gamblers and mafia folks and all manner of unsavoury characters in the heyday of U.S. involvement on the island, the 1930s-1950s. The corruption and mafia violence were a couple of the things Castro promised to root out. I spent a fair amount of time in the Capri lobby during my time in Cuba as they have some of the cheapest Internet cards in town. There were frequently live bands in the lobby playing famous Cuban tunes, but my favourite was when they would play the Godfather theme. Clearly they just do it for the tourists, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.
The Hotel Nacional holds pride of place on a small hill above the Malecón. It’s a stately, Art Deco building modelled after The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. Its lobby is Spanish colonial, and you can enjoy a drink and some sunshine out on the back terrace while a peacock wanders by. If you’re feeling historic, you can see the bunkers that were built around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis or October Crisis in Cuba and a cannon that is clearly much older. Che and Fidel moved their headquarters to the Nacional during the October Crisis due to the hotel’s good views of the Atlantic. Before the revolution, the hotel boasted many luminary guests: Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, among others. It also hosted the Havana Conference, the mob confab made famous in The Godfather II. Jean-Paul Sartre stayed here on his visit in 1960. The hotel offers day rates for their pool, so we visited there a couple of times to enjoy a relaxing dip.
Title quote: Fidel Castro in a speech at the Presidential Palace, January 1959. Source