Right in the heart of Habana Vieja at Calle Amagura and San Ingnacio the Raquel stands in what was (and to some extent continues to be) the traditional Jewish quarter of the city. Restored to its romantic elegance, ten years ago by Habaguanex, the corporation gradually restoring the historic areas of Old Havana, this historic hotel continues to capture the Jewish cuisine and tone that it had over the years.
The 25-room hotel was originally built as a bank in 1908 at a time when impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Syria were immigrating to Cuba by the thousands. Today, there are reportedly 1,000 or so in Havana. Congregación Adat Israel, Cuba’s oldest synagogue, is not far away from the hotel.
Along with it’s unique menu capturing some staples of traditional Jewish food and tip of the yarmulke to the culture, and there’s a number of other good reasons to visit the Raquel; one great one is the art nouveau architecture. The hotel really is stunning with its lavish lobby filled with columns, amazing stain glass windows and carved dark woods. The Jewish theme continues throughout the building; the lobby bar is named L’chaim. It’s right next to the Bezalel boutique and gift shop, which sells Judaica, and the Jardin del Eden restaurant, where guests can choose a variety of kosher-style items ranging from matzo ball soup to shashliks and “Jewish style fried fish.” The food gets different reviews from the many who have enjoyed it – best try it for yourself to determine its authenticity.
But there is no question of the Raquel’s beauty. The restoration is superb from the impressive main doorway, through the striking lobby and throughout it’s gorgeous open spaces. The lobby, in particular, is a museum of art nouveau – the front desk captures Paris of the early 20thcentury, as do the striking screens in the dining room.
A friendly doorman whisked me into the beautifully refurbished open cage elevator for a tour. The ride takes you vertically to a magnificent roof garden with a stunning view of the city from a domed lookout.
You can also see the exterior of the enormous stain glass crown that caps the building and creates a powerful statement throughout the interior.
Each floor has a striking mezzanine balcony that recalls an age of grandeur with ornate plasterwork and splendid columns. Again, in keeping with the Jewish ambiance second-floor rooms are named after biblical matriarchs like Sarah, Hannah, Leah, Ruth and Sephora while first-floor rooms have names like David and Solomon.
As a charming place to stay or as a dining experience, the Raquel is unique. Even if you just drop by for a mojito and to admire the Havana of yesteryear, plan to make it part of a walking tour in Old Havana – there’s no place like it.