If you want to experience Havana in all its vibrancy and colour, absorbing all of its historic and cultural riches in the process, then staying at one of its boutique hotels is a definite must, as not only are most of them found inside buildings of great historic importance and cultural value but they also offer a typically Cuban charm for an unmistakably Cuban experience.
Although the term “boutique” is usually associated with high end, exclusive hotels, this is not the case for all of them in Havana, as boutique retreats in the capital city are found in every price range. The exclusivity appeal however, is guaranteed regardless of where you stay. Each of Havana’s boutique hotels (especially the ones in Old Havana, as most of them are concentrated here anyway) is a one-of-a-kind with a unique history and background that make it incomparable with any other, not only in the city, but in the world.
The restoration of the colonial architecture in crumbling Old Havana saw the conversion of former grand mansions and picturesque old houses into boutique hotels that are now charming and authentic retreats, each with its own particular history.
Some are more modest and quaint; others more luxurious and exclusive, yet all have one thing in common – they are all living time pieces with great historical value and a distinctive allure. Discover for yourself some of the best by reading about my personal top picks, grouped according to price range and location.
The quirkiest, smallest and best-value-for-money boutique hideouts
At the lowest end of the scale, in terms of price only (because as I’ve previously mentioned they all score high in artistic and historic value) we have the small inns and hostals that previously were from former private homes of honorary councilmen to grand mansions of wealthy noblemen and traditional Spanish taverns. They all served a specific purpose during colonial times and they all have a unique twist to them.
All of the boutique hotels I will proceed to list and describe here are between two and three stars, yet they all have the same room rate because you can’t put a price to their uniqueness; while they may lack a facility or other here or there, they all excel in offering something different and special.
I’ll start off with one of the smallest and humblest, the recently refurbished Hostal Valencia, which, as its name indicates is more of a hostal than a hotel, due to its size and the limited number of facilities it offers, which are not to be disregarded either as they include La Casa del Tabaco, the best place in the area to enjoy the finest Cuban cigars.
Upon entering you can’t help but notice its spacious and tall central atrium where verdant branches of creeping plants cascade down like curtains, partly shading the light, partly complimenting it. Inspired by the Spanish city after which its named, you will find plenty of Valencian touches here, from authentic memorabilia adorning the walls to furniture, tiling, flooring and original building features that include mahogany beams on the ceilings and terracota elements.
The 15 guest rooms here are spacious with distinctive décor in-keeping with the building’s style and they all feature panoramic balconies offering views of the centric San Francisco de Asis Square on one side and to a narrow corridor that ends in the sea on the other.
Everything about the restoration of this colonial timepiece means the rescue of a grand building down to the very last detail. You’ll love getting into the ambience, breathing the atmosphere and enjoying its breezy, open spaces, be it at the central atrium café or at its restaurant, this hotel is a true work of art.
In honour of its Valencian name this hostal is also home to a Valencian-themed restaurant offering the best paellas in town; they truly are the best in the city, just like you get them in Spain! Classic Spanish fare and tapas are offered and whilst the restaurant is small and cosy, the cuisine is big on flavour and the atmosphere simply wonderful.
But however tiny and quaint the Hostal Valencia might sound, the smallest of them all is actually El Meson de La Flota, with just five guest rooms in total. Beautifully situated at the heart of Old Havana, in the corner of a busy and lively street, perfect for people-watching and absorbing the vibrant atmosphere, this former Spanish tavern is wee in size but big on charm.
With a nautical theme reflecting the location’s proximity to the harbour and Havana’s long history as an important trading port in the Americas, El Meson de la Flota (which can be translated as The Fleet’s Table) is oozing with character. Everything here is themed, from the maritime uniforms of the staff, to the nautical motifs, decoration, model replicas of old vessels, Spanish “taberna” layout and the nightly “tablado” show, performed every evening by talented flamenco dancers.
Only a short walking distance to the bay, this characterful inn might look like a restaurant from the outside (reminding you somewhat of an old cowboy saloon from the wild, wild west) but the lodging it offers is top quality. This is not just another B&B, this is an authentic hideout with plenty of individuality and character to charm you. Even if you don’t stay in one of its spacious and, stopping here for lunch or dinner is more than worth it, with fresh lobster dishes for a very good price, a selection of tasty tapas, generously sized portions and a good variety of reasonably priced cocktails, despite being in the main drag, it offers incredibly good value.
Finally we come to Los Frailes, the largest of all three mentioned here and the one that differentiates the most from the rest because of the nature of its theme and the history of the building it sits next to. Despite what its name and its look might suggest, Los Frailes (translated as The Friars) was never a former monastery, but it did house important ecclesiastical dignitaries of the time, as well as nobility, military authorities in the colony and famous artists.
With a total of 22 rooms, you’re more likely to find availability here than at the other two and the accommodation here is truly unique, you’ll really feel as though you’ve stepped in time and entered a medieval monastery. From the dimly lit rooms to the austere furnishings in dark solid wood, the torch lighting, the ceiling chandeliers, the many candlesticks everywhere, to the antique telephones, old paintings and layout, you’ll wonder at times whether you’re at the heart of a colourful city or inside a remote castle.
Everything from the exterior façade and the copper statue of a monk at the entrance to the monastic look of the lobby and the uniformed staff (in full monk attire) to the ornate works of arts, the antique furnishings, vaulted ceilings and the impressive ecclesiastic alfrescos in the lobby, evoke an atmosphere of sheer serenity and relaxation where you can breathe
Remarkable mid-range boutique gems
After covering the smallest and more modest, nevertheless uniquely attractive, boutique retreats we move on to the mid-range end of boutique hotels in Havana, a bit more upscale, a bit more oomph and glamour and a little higher on the price tag (and I really mean only a little, as the price difference between these hotels and the lower end ones previously described can be as small as 4 Euros depending on season) so it really is all about style and uniqueness of each individual building and its history, and not so much about variety of facilities and amenities.
These mid-range boutique hotels are all four-star hideaways, they are larger in size and variety of facilities they offer than their smaller counterparts, but they still manage to have that allure of the unique and exceptional. Perhaps not quite “quaint” yet they ooze bucket-loads of charm.
We begin with a historic former mansion dating back to the 18th century, also home to one of the most recognisable cigar shops in town, and one of the most prestigious too. Hotel Conde de Villanueva stands out from the surrounding buildings thanks to its bright tiled façade, designed to resemble brickwork, and its dark green doors adding depth to its entire look.
Inside the atmosphere is decidedly soothing and inviting, with breezy open spaces and a plant-invaded inner courtyard with outdoor tables and chairs, ideal for mid-morning reading sessions, relaxing breakfasts or chatty afternoons smoking cigars or drinking your favourite cocktail or hot drink. From the colourful live peacocks roaming the grounds, to the immaculate splendour of the perfectly painted walls, the picturesque French doors and the stained-glass artwork, everything here evokes a past era of simple beauty, bright, vivid colours and contrasts that are harmonically blended for your viewing pleasure.
The former abode of the Count of Villanueva - the man who inhabited it during the early 1800s - this relic of a mansion offers a limited selection of just nine rooms (seven standard and two junior suites), all of which are immensely spacious (more than you probably imagine, considering the size of the hotel) with equally large ensuite bathrooms doors, high ceilings and dark period furniture of the time contrasted by lightly painted walls and tall doors with long glass windows. All rooms are named after tobacco plantations in the island and through the paintings and artwork displayed on the walls you’ll hardly miss the cigar associations running throughout the property.
This is why experience within the experience of staying at this hotel is a visit to La Casa del Habano, where you can rent a private humidor and access the cigar shop’s private reserve. The hotel itself offers you the perfect setting to observe a “torcedor” (an expert cigar roller) at work right from the hotel lobby. He has set up his own small shop on the hotel entrance and loves to introduce guests to the art of tobacco-making. After watching him, you can then proceed to purchase one of his freshly hand-rolled cigars.
Now we move on, to what could be perhaps considered as one of the most unique of boutique hotels in Old Havana. The Hotel Raquel, is a rare 19th century gem that shines brightly on its own thanks to it being home to some rather unique features.
Full of Jewish references (the only one of its kind in this respect to be found in Havana) and standing out from the rest of colonial boutique jewels thanks to its intricate façade with a somewhat gothic appeal, this hotel has a totally different style, in terms of both exterior architecture and interior décor. Whilst the façade is strictly baroque, the interiors are eclectic, with some strong elements of Art Nouveau, a style that has the most presence indoors and which you can admire in endless corners and in the exquisite wrought iron furniture found inside the rooms.
Everything about this hotel is palatial and exudes opulence, from the high-polished marble columns and floors to the plush period furniture everywhere, the ornate chandeliers and the beautiful sculptures. The largest of all boutique hotels mentioned here, the Raquel offers a total of 25 rooms distributed around the central courtyard and spread over three floors. Named after biblical personalities, rooms are split into two categories; standard and junior suites.
Another feature that makes the Raquel greatly stand out among all other hotels in Havana (boutique or not) is its strong Jewish connections, due firstly, to its close proximity to what once was the Jewish neighbourhood of Havana, where you’ll find the oldest Sephardic synagogue in the island, and secondly due to the number of Hebrew memorabilia and art pieces adorning the hotel. Named after the beautiful woman and emblem of Hebrew culture that Raquel was, Jewish elements are found everywhere inside the hotel, from biblical references to unique works of arts and original objects of religious significance – from a stone engraving of the Star of David at the lobby to various mezuzahs attached to some of the doorposts in guest rooms.
This hotel pays permanent homage to the Hebrew culture and its presence in Cuban contemporary art and as such it also offers authentic Jewish cuisine at its onsite restaurant – in fact this is the only place in Havana (at the time of writing this at the very least) where you can enjoy kosher meals.
Another fully restored and converted jewel in Old Havana but with totally different views than the other boutique hideaways mentioned here (which are all centrally located next to the main squares, cathedrals and attractions), the historic building of Hotel Armadores de Santander is found right at the entrance of Old Havana (not at the heart of it) overlooking the bay and the harbour whilst also being in close proximity to other attractions you’ll want to make the most of.
With a privileged setting facing the ocean, this 19th century gem was rescued from oblivion and returned to its former glory to re-tell the tale of years gone by. Proudly standing as the former property of two successful Spanish ship owners from Santander – hence the name, Armadores de Santander, which translates to ‘Shipowners of Santander’ – this hotel has been carefully refurbished to evoke the nautical theme throughout and remain true to its roots.
It might be just a short stroll away from the beautiful San Francisco de Asis Square, and just foot steps away from all the livelihood of the historic centre, but it’s removed enough to enjoy the quiet peace and serenity many visitors seek. A permanent reminder of Havana’s past as a booming port for maritime commerce in the Americas, Armadores the Santander still retains all the connections to that era. From the white and blue colour theme running through many of the standard rooms
Junior suites are truly something special, at least from my perspective, I just love everything about the design and layout. You have a colonial four poster bed, beautifully draped in linen, wooden floors and a sunken Jacuzzi right in the middle of the room, surrounded by the highly-polished wooden platform. Unlike standard rooms, junior suites also offer a balcony or terrace. And yes the price of these rooms might double that of standard ones, but I think that for the experience you get they’re totally worth it, especially if celebrating a special occasion. And if you happen to be on honeymoon then you might get a free upgrade anyway, as subject to availability the hotel’s honeymoon special offers a host of romantic extras including an automatic upgrade to junior suite provided you present proof of your wedding which should have taken place in no longer than six months prior to arrival.
As a bonus the hotel sits right by the Crafts Fair housed inside the next door Almacenes de San Jose, where you’ll find all manner of hand-crafted works of art . It’s also located next to the Russian Orthodox Church and some rooms offer views over its rather whimsical pointy domes.
The upscale retreats – where history and character meet luxury
Now we’ve reached the highest point in the scale, the selection of five-star boutique hotels in Old Havana, of which there are only three at present, although more will no doubt spring up in the future. But for the time being, if you want to stay in the lap of luxury at the heart of the historic centre, these are the ones to choose from.
The room rates for these luxurious boutique hotels are a much bigger step up than from the two and three-star boutique properties (there’s no variation among these) to the four-star retreats. And unlike their two, three and four-star categories counter-parts they also vary in price from one five-star property to the other. While two of them have more modern and edgy interiors, all of them are housed within majestic colonial buildings.
We’ll kick off with the most classic and colonial of them all, inside and out - the beautiful Hotel Santa Isabel, found right on the cobbled Plaza de Armas square, overlooking the cathedral and various colonial buildings that now house museums and restaurants. Many argue that this hotel has the best location in the historic centre, right on the city’s oldest and prettiest cobblestone colonial square and you might easily agree. The setting couldn’t be more picturesque, and inside the hotel doesn’t disappoint either.
Beyond the beautiful façade of this elongated building occupying one quarter of the square, inside, this hotel evokes upscale 19th century living with some original period features, furniture and ornaments.
The blue beams on the ceiling and blue wooden doors and balconies highly contrast against the marble floors and velvety red and green armchairs and sofas furnishing the lobby. The former home of the Count of Santovenia, a distinguished member of Cuba’s nobility during colonial times, the decoration clearly evidences the luxury this class was used to. From the crystal chandeliers to the period decorations and porcelain ornaments, it all fits the simple splendour of a time gone by.
Step further in and you’ll come across the grand atrium with a central fountain and plenty of large potted plants bringing a touch of greenery to the white columns, blue beams and veranda balustrade and the orange terracotta tiles of the patio.
Some beautiful views over the city can be observed from the hotel’s rooftop, decked with chairs and tables that offer the ideal seating space for watching time go by during a lazy afternoon or witnessing a beautiful sunset over the city’s oldest part. But beyond the stunning views, there’s some living history here right on this very rooftop, where in 1830, a flower-filled hot-air balloon was lifted off from here in honour of Princess Maria Isabel Luisa. The Count himself arranged this spectacle and although there have been rumours about re-enacting this show as part of the hotel’s entertainment offer; it looks like this won’t become a tradition anytime soon. At least for now, the amazing vistas will have to do.
Due to the somewhat simple and minimalistic yet elegant period furniture inside the rooms, this hotel might not suit all tastes or pockets, as it is one of the priciest, but it definitely offers plenty of unique features, from its outstanding location to its rich history. After all, it’s no coincidence that celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Sting, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, have all chosen to stay in the hotel’s only suite.
The largest of all boutique hotels in Havana, with a total of 96 rooms (quite close to the limit of 100 to classify as a boutique property) the majestic Saratoga is a pretty sight that takes your breath away from the first glance. Standing tall in a corner where it is easily distinguished among all other surrounding buildings, first for its size and secondly for beautiful green-white façade, the Saratoga leaves no one indifferent.
Its location is equally attractive and although, unlike all the other boutique hotels we’ve already described, it doesn’t sit at the heart of the historic centre, it is placed close to many other attractions of the old part of the city, such as the Gran Teatro and the Capitolio building, both found just across the street. In any case, access to the historic centre is just a short and lively stroll away. Within minutes you’ll be walking the narrow cobblestone streets and listening to the live music groups that take to the streets in this part of the old town.
In terms of interior décor and design the Saratoga is the most modern of all three five-star boutique hotels in Old Havana mentioned here. Its décor has won awards and earned a position on Conde Nast Traveller’s Gold List of hotels in the Americas – the only one in the island to have ever achieved this prestigious recognition.
Stylish and chic, this hotel manages to seamlessly blend 19th century elements with edgier modern touches and an array of superior facilities. Once the site frequented by the first Cuban, all-girl music band from 1930s – Anacaona. Formed by 11 sisters, this septet challenged the male-dominated scene of ‘son’ music, successfully so.
With a more avant-garde look that may somewhat remind you of a cosmopolitan hotel from a big city like New York, inside, this hotel is an explosion of colour and light. Beautiful paintings, large al frescos, check marbled floors, full-length mirrors partially covering walls, modern furniture in a variety of colours and the odd artefact here and there all add to its unique appeal. The rooms are truly beautiful, spacious and modern while another unique feature among all hotels described in this post is that this one offers panoramic rooftop pool.
Last but certainly not least we have one of the newest and latest boutique properties to open at the heart of Old Havana, the recently restored and refurbished Palacio del Marques de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal, yet another stunning colonial property, with exquisite baroque facade and strikingly modern interiors. Beautifully set against the backdrop of the historic city centre and all of its glorious colonial marvels, this former palace that belonged to a member of the Cuban aristocracy from the 18th century evokes the grandeur of a bygone era on the outside and the refinement and sophistication of a 21st century boutique hotel on the inside.
What this hotel does exceptionally well is the seamless blending of two very different eras, with modern furniture, plush facilities, beautiful stained glass artwork yet a total respect for maintaining the integrity of the original layout and architecture. Modern fixtures include exquisitely appointed luxury bathrooms, beautiful bedding and inviting decor.
The Rococo baroque exterior may be slightly deceptive, because this boutique property is an ultra-modern, upscale property, the likes of which fewer hotels in Havana can match. Its location is equally formidable, as it stands facing the pigeon-filled square of San Francisco de Asis and its Basilica, one of Old Havana's most sought-after spots and probably one of the most photographed and frequented as it marks the entrance to the old historic centre.
Outside Old Havana - from the historic to the modern boutique concept
Whilst, as I previously mentioned at the beginning of this post, most boutique hotels in the city are concentrated in Old Havana, due to the sheer abundance of historic buildings that have been fully restored and converted into hotels to give them a new lease of life and help the poor local community develop, there is one boutique hotel that can be found outside the Old Havana radius.
Also developed by Habaguanex as an extension of their project to restore crumbling buildings in the old part of the city, the new El Terral in downtown Havana, facing the beautiful waterfront and long seawalk promenade is the first boutique property to be located outside the old town.
Directly facing the famous Malecon seawall, as you would expect, all 14 rooms at this boutique hotel offer sweeping ocean views. Urban and modern, with a somewhat avant-garde design, you’ll easily spot this hotel from the outside thanks to its glassy exterior, highly contrasting with the old crumbling buildings it sits right next to.
The rooms are spacious, brightly painted, with elegant, minimalistic décor and an evocative nautical theme throughout. They let plenty of natural light in thanks to the large floor-to-ceiling glass doors looking out over the sea and the balcony. Likewise, balconies are spacious, tastefully furnished with stained glass panels separating each balcony from the next, making them totally private.
Habaguanex – leading the way for sustainable development in the community
What all of these hotels mentioned here have in common, despite the fact of being boutique properties is that they all belong to the Habaguanex chain of hotels, an organisation founded by the historian of the city in Havana and whose profits are reinvested in further restoration of the city’s historical centre and the local community.
If you’ve ever been to Havana you’ll know that there’s plenty more work to be done across many more once great buildings that are now in steep decline, so this organisation is never at rest and you can expect many new restored beauties springing up everywhere in the near future.
Such is the case for what will be the topic for my next blog post, about the soon-to-open hotel by Kempinski in Old Havana’s centric Manzana de Gomez. Not only will be the Swiss luxury brand’s first ever hotel in Cuba but this hotel opening will also signify the restoration to glory of one of the city’s most beautiful yet most rapidly decaying buildings from the 20th century. But more about this development on my next post.
The new and emerging private boutique hotels – the evolution of casas particulares
But there’s a new kind of lodging that’s been recently developing and evolving in Havana, and at a much faster pace than you’d think. What were once popularly called “casas particulares” and which where in some ways very similar to the European B&B offering but with the distinction of offering a unique cultural insight into a traditional Cuban family environment. The typical casas particulares were humble rooms rented inside a typical Cuban family home, where extras such as breakfasts and family meals were often offered in a homely atmosphere where the guest was made to feel as an extended family member.
Some more upscale than others, from grand colonial homes renting out as many as five guest rooms (like the one I stayed in recently and which I detail in my previous blog post My private Havana journey - "almendrones", "paladares" and "casas particulares") to small yet charming apartments renting out a room or two, they all offered the candid warmth of Cuban hosts coupled with some extras (which could include anything from meals, beverages, towels, mini fridges and more, depending on the casa).
But now, after the communist island opened up to some new capitalist initiatives in order to move away from the paternalistic style of government and the private sector was encouraged to flourish under new laws, the landscape of “casas particulares” is quickly changing as these rapidly evolve into more high-end boutique properties.
There are some new entrepreneurs looking to take these privately owned properties to new levels, and they make a point for distinguishing themselves from "casas particulares" refusing to be defined under that term and liking the term ‘boutique hotel’ much better, which in fact is more fitting because looking at these some new casas particulares your jaw drops at the level of sophistication of luxuries.
Instead of being inhabited by its host and family members, these new boutique properties are rented out as entire apartments, houses and in some cases even penthouses. The level of luxury to be experienced in these exclusive lodgings not only matches some of the best five-star hotels in the city, but their unique design and city locations make it even more appealing. In terms of prices they vary wildly, with some being very affordable and others costing more than upscale government-owned hotels. And there is something for all tastes too, from classic colonial mansions, to large modern villas with pools and modern city apartments, making up your mind and deciding where to stay when looking at the variety of choice will probably be the hardest part.