The World’s Most Fascinating Historic Hotels

Travel Lists hotels
The World’s Most Fascinating Historic Hotels

I enjoy a brand-spankin’-new resort as much as the next guy, but nothing heightens the thrill of travel for me, a former history teacher, like a storied old hotel. Historic hotels—be it a castle protected by UNESCO or a rustic inn infused with local lore and legend—connect you with the spirit of a locale in a way impossible with, say, a Courtyard Marriott or IHG. Granted, the convenience and familiarity of corporate hotels make sense for business trips, but when I travel for pleasure, lodge me somewhere that fires my wanderlust and teaches me about the destination. The type of hotel where the dramas, scandals, and romances of the past whisper from the rafters; where the ghost stories give me pause before turning the lights off; where I feel stirred to stand back, raise a glass, and exclaim, Oh, if only these walls could speak! 

From European auberges that have lodged kings, poets, and philosophers, to Art Deco jewels in the Midwest and seaside sanctuaries on the Mediterranean, we have rounded up a list of 10 wonderful historic hotels. And even if you’re not a history nerd, these hotels promise culinary cachet and luxury accommodations to match historical appeal.

Hotel Palacio del Retiro – Madrid, Spain

Hotel Palacio del Retiro

From the moment you step into the lobby of Hotel Palacio del Retiro, a marble foyer crowned with a masterpiece by painter Joan Miró, you know you’re in for an aesthetic tour-de-force. From the stained glass windows illuminating the staircases to the marble sculptures in the central courtyard, Hotel Palacio del Retiro’s furnishings are, indeed, worthy of a palace. Constructed in 1904 as a private home for an aristocratic Madrileño family, the neo-classical belle is across the street from El Parque Retiro, one of the Spanish capital’s most stately public parks. As appealing to honeymooners as historians, rooms boast jacuzzi baths and views overlooking El Parque del Retiro.

Grab an espresso or glass of kava at The Suite Bar, the hotel’s restaurant, before heading out to the nearby Museo Nacional del Prado, an art collection in the same echelon as the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a mid-afternoon siesta, stroll the elegant public gardens of El Parque Retiro, a people-watching enclave par excellence. The cuisine at Hotel Palacio del Retiro matches the architectural majesty, and The Suite Bar offers one of Madrid’s most impressive wine selections—libations paired with boards of jamón Ibérico, manchego, and anchovies. Save some energy for the evening because, as Hemingway noted, “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have thoroughly killed the night.” For a truly memorable noche Madrileña, book a dinner and a show at El Tablao del Carmen, Madrid’s oldest flamenco venue.

The Fairmont Palliser – Calgary, Canada

Fairmont Palliser

Calgary is one of North America’s most underrated cities—a prairie metropolis with a flair for creative gastronomy, street art, and rootin-tootin rodeo revelry. Like many settlements in the West, Calgary burgeoned in the early 20th century as a railroad hub, and the Fairmont Palliser opened in 1914 to serve the growing influx of train-borne visitors, many keen to explore the wonders of nearby Banff and Jasper National Parks. Architect Lawrence Gotch, leveraging new developments in engineering and reinforced steel, designed the hotel in the Chicago Commercial Style but borrowed visual motifs from the grain towers and farmhouses he saw in Alberta’s grasslands. 

Spend a morning meandering through Calgary’s exceptional museums—Studio Bell and the Glenbow Museum are standouts—before returning to the Fairmont Palliser to unwind with a craft cocktail at The Hawthorn. To pair with a spicy Caesar, Alberta’s emblematic cocktail, indulge in high prairie delicacies like Alberta beef tartar or buttermilk fried chicken. 

Madonna Inn – San Luis Obispo, California

Madonna Inn

Drink your fill of Old Hollywood glamour, perhaps chased with a bright pink martini, at Madonna Inn, a Highway 1 landmark in Central California. Opened in 1958, the gloriously kitschy guesthouse has been a favorite retreat for silver-screen giants ranging from Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman to Kathy Ireland and Sam Elliot. Festooned with more pink decor than the set of Barbie, the Madonna Inn is a delightful throwback to the joyful excess of a California long since faded into the past. 

Guest accommodations at the Madonna Inn are themed—the jungle room, Hawaiian room, and Love Nest are favorites—with each decked out in riotous decor. Join the ghosts of Humphry Bogart and Paul Newman at the lobby bar for tiki-themed cocktails, and if you get peckish, snag a hulking slice of the hotel’s famous pink cake. Save time to explore the lively streets, wine bars, and cafes of San Luis Obispo, one of the West Coast’s most charming college towns. 

Dornoch Castle – Dornoch, Scotland

Dornoch Castle

Ball out like a feudal baron at Dornoch Castle, a 16th-century fortress in the coastal Scottish village of Dornoch. While the earliest mentions of Dornoch Castle, from an English earl, are unflattering—“within a country of wild, unbridled, untamed and savage Scots”—modern guests can expect civilized refinements like private whiskey tastings and a world-class golf course. Enjoy hearty Scottish fare—plates of venison, lamb, and salmon—paired with the finest Highland barley nectar at the hotel’s restaurant, The Vault. 

After waking up to views from the castle towers, spend the morning strolling the beaches and winding streets of Dornach, a storybook village with a history stretching more than 1000 years. Whiskey connoisseurs can spend blissful hours sampling the hotel’s encyclopedic collection or drive into the Highlands to tour some of Scotland’s most acclaimed distilleries. At Glendronach Distillery, two and a half hours by car from Dornoch, thirsty pilgrims learn about the magic that renders water, grains, and peat into that smokey, amber-colored ambrosia beloved the world over. With a dram of Glendronach in hand and the views of the Scottish Highlands, a man could feel inspired enough to belt out colorful Robert Burns verses.

Domes Miramare – Corfu, Greece

Domes Miramare

If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood of living in Corfu.” As the poet George Durrell alludes, magic infuses Corfu, a Greek island on the Adriatic. Long an entrepot of the Hellenic Greeks, Romans, and Venetians, Corfu’s Old Town is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In addition to a rich, multi-layered history, Corfu is one of Europe’s most sumptuous pleasure islands. 

Relish the Mediterranean dolce vita to the fullest at the Domes Miramare, a seaside hotel within walking distance of Corfu’s Old Town. When the dawn extends her fingertips of rose over the Adriatic, pull an espresso in your suite, and then head out to meander along the island’s sea cliffs and narrow streets, tracing the footsteps of Goethe, Henry Miller, Durrell, and countless other literary lions who once sojourned on Corfu. Later in the evening, wander back to the Domes Miramare to dine on fresh anchovies, branzino, and golden-hued wines at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant.

The Netherland Plaza – Cincinnati, Ohio

Hilton Netherland

Despite the great sin of desecrating chili with cinnamon and cocoa powder, Cincinnati is one helluva great town—southern charm blended with midwestern sensibilities and an abiding passion for baseball and bourbon. Cinci boasts commendable dining, whiskey, and beer scenes, and jokes aside, the iconic Skyline chili is pretty darn tasty. 

Fueled by the Ohio River’s booming commerce in the 19th century, Cincinnati is studded with architectural gems. A masterpiece of Art Deco, the Netherland Plaza Downtown Cincinnati has been on the registry of National Historic Landmarks for nearly a century. From walls paneled with rare hardwoods to mosaics and murals embellishing the elevator wells, the hotel promises endless awe for design and architectural enthusiasts. In step with the hotel’s Jazz Age flair, The 1931, the hotel restaurant, serves flashy steakhouse fare like lobsters, aged steaks, and expertly crafted pre-Prohibition cocktails. 

Raffles London at the OWO – London, England

Raffles OWO

From the ancient history of King Arthur, the Romans, and the Normans to the more recent stories of punk rock and glam metal bands, London promises an endless banquet for history lovers. As with Paris and Corfu, two other cities on this list, the depth of London’s history is humbling, and opportunities for historical exploration are inexhaustible.

Raffles London at the OWO, an abbreviation for Old War Office, was Winston Churchill’s headquarters during the darkest days in 20th-century British history, World War II and the Blitzkrieg. In later decades, the hotel became a writing retreat for Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. Raise a glass to the British Bulldog and the troubadour of lusty spies at the Raffles’ bar—a posh watering hole that would make Bond himself raise his Vesper Martini in admiration.

Hotel Maestoso – Lipica, Slovenia

Hotel Maestoso

Wedged between the Slavic, Germanic, and Latin worlds, Slovenia is a fascinating cultural melting pot. An hour by car from Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, takes you to the sleepy village of Lipica. The hamlet’s lush hills have ranked among Europe’s most coveted equestrian country since the Renaissance. Today, UNESCO recognizes Slovenian horse breeding traditions as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. 

Hotel Maestoso is attached to Slovenia’s oldest stud farm, home to the fabled Lipizzner horses long favored by knights and monarchs. Spend the day marveling at the regal steeds or book a horseback ride through the hills around Lipica, a landscape as verdant and luxuriant as Ireland. Later in the evening, sit down at the hotel’s restaurant for a hearty Slovenian feast—plates of schnitzel, boards laden with prosciutto, and the country’s prized golden wines. For a deeper dive into the dazzling world of Slovenian gastronomy, drive an hour from Hotel Maestoso, through miles of hillocks terraced with vines, to Klinec Plesivo, a restaurant celebrating all the hearty delights of swine and wine. 

Hôtel Lutetia – Paris, France

Historic Hotels - Hotel Lutetia

Paris’ history is so rich as to feel overwhelming—a lifetime, let alone a single trip, is insufficient to exhaust even the wonders of the Louvre, Les Halles Market, Notre Dame, or other iconic sights. While fully seeing Paris is impossible in a single trip, you can acquaint yourself with an individual neighborhood even within a few days. And of all of Paris’ hoary nooks and crannies, none make my inner history buff sing like Saint Germaine, long a cradle of literary lights, poets, and artists.

Constructed in 1910, Hotel Lutetia is a magnificent Art Nouveau masterpiece and a building emblematic of Saint Germaine. Throughout its illustrious history, luminaries from Pablo Picasso to Charles de Gaule and James Joyce have graced the stately hotel. The views of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine from the rooms and penthouse are romantic almost to the point of agony. Brasserie Lutetia could be the Platonic Ideal of a buzzy Parisian restaurant—waiters clad in white tuxedos, fish deboned tableside, and pours of only the choicest vintages from France’s many appellations.

Hotel Bastion – Zadar, Croatia

Hotel Bastion

I like to think of Croatia as the Florida of Roman emperors and aristocrats—an Elysian coast ideal for kicking back, lounging in the sunshine, and pouring drinks. Although Croatia’s vacationland fame stretches back to Diocletian and his court, Game of Thrones, filmed largely in Dubrovnik, has fueled an unprecedented tourism boom in the Balkan nation. Fortunately, you can skip the crowds and inflated prices of Dubrovnik by staying in Zadar, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia. Like Dubrovnik and Split, the old city of Zadar lies behind massive stone fortifications, a necessity in eras past to repel marauding Ottoman and Venetian pirates. The Adriatic port town, brimming with nightlife and snug restaurants, is famous for exquisite sunsets—the most beautiful in the world according to Alfred Hitchcock. 

Built atop the remnants of a 13th-century Venetian fortification, Hotel Bastion is a boutique auberge within walking distance of Zadar’s central plaza, the famous Sea Organ, and ferries that shuttle visitors to placid islands like Dugi Otok and Pag. Restaurant Kastel, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, treats patrons to flawless seafood and a selection of Croatia’s finest wines—joys of the palette accompanied by superb views of the Adriatic. For nightlife or bar recommendations in Zadar, inquire with Martina, a lovely young waitress at Restaurant Kastel. 

Johnny Motley has written for The Daily Beast, Matador Network, Cool Material, and more. He’s on Twitter @johnnymotley and Instagram @motjohnny.

Photo credits:

Domes Miramare photo by Ethan Pflumm

Dornoch Castle photo by Julian Paren, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

Other photos courtesy of the hotel or by Johnny Motley

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