There are few place where you can truly visit the past like a historic hotel. We can wander through old house museums, drive by private clubs, or stare at politically incorrect statues in public parks, but there is nothing like ordering a martini in the same bar as Ernest Hemingway. These grand luxury lodges have hosted royals, politicians, and celebrities for centuries. They are the standard bearer in how hotels should shine.
Granted, most of these icons are out of our reach for the casual weekend away, but they are worth every penny if you are saving up for a special experience (hello, honeymoon!). Even if you don’t feel like splurging on a night in one of these legendary old piles, the bars, restaurants, and lobbies are open to the public. So book a table where James Dean dined or sip a classic cocktail where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle plotted his next novel.
Here are six of our favorite historic hotels in the world:
New York City
The St. Regis in midtown Manhattan gained iconic status shortly after it opened. Its owner, John Jacob Astor, introduced his opulent hotel in 1904 then, in 1912, took a honeymoon with his new bride to Europe. Their return trip was on the fateful Titanic.
Before his tragic demise, Astor made the St. Regis (named after a French monk known for his hospitality to travelers) the epitome of luxury, importing furniture from France, installing exotic wood paneling, and adding telephones in every room, a rarity in those days.
The lobby is of interest as there really isn’t one. That was done on purpose so people (like you and me) wouldn’t nose around to see what the well-to-do were doing with themselves. The place where everyone is welcome is the King Cole Bar.
A legend in itself, the bar opened in 1934 and was named after the Maxfield Parrish mural of King Cole that covers the entire back wall over the establishment. (If you can guess what everyone in the mural is laughing about, you have done your homework.) This where the Bloody Mary, originally called the Red Snapper, was invented in 1934.
Like most old hotels, it has seen dark days, renovations, and numerous new owners, but luckily The St. Regis is looking better than ever today. Be sure to take time to wander through the library and the Astor Court (a great place for tea) before making your way into the King Cole Bar for drinks. Go on an off hour, like midday, to really experience the magic without the cackle of the happy hour set.
With a history spanning eight centuries, The San Domenico Palace beats all the rest on its for its backstory. Located on a majestic hilltop looking over the Ionian Sea in Sicily’s most visited town, the grand structure was once a monastery. While the hotel opened in 1896, one of the buildings dates to the 15th century and features original monk “cells” that are now converted to luxury rooms. Check your Catholic guilt at the door.
Visiting San Domenico is like, well, staying at a palace, with endless rooms to explore, vast gardens, and a pool looking over the sea. Oh, and Mount Etna is in clear view from the hotel, so if you are lucky, you may see Mother Nature’s fireworks while sipping Champagne on your private balcony. All of this beauty has lured the likes of everyone from Oscar Wilde, Luchino Visconti, Maria Callas, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
Our favorite part of the hotel? During WWII, the sacristy of the monastery was bombed and the owners simply left it derelict, not having the funds to restore it. We peeped through the keyhole and begged the manager to see it. They obliged, granting us a surreal experience stepping over rotting silk vestments and ogling at centuries-old statues lying in state since the 1940s.
There is one thing everyone wants to see when they go to Cairo: the Great Pyramid of Giza. So why not stay in one of the few hotels where you can view it from your room?
Mena House was originally built as a hunting lodge in the mid-1800s and gradually expanded until it was opened as a hotel in 1887. Through the early 1900s, this was the hot spot for everyone from Cecil B. DeMille (while filming the Ten Commandments) to Charlie Chaplin. Agatha Christie would hole up here to write crime novels while her husband was out digging for bones. In 1979, the Mena House Peace Conference welcomed Presidents Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter, as well as Prime Minister Begin.
Situated on 40 acres of landscaped gardens and a much-needed pool to wallow in during the Arab summers, Mena House has grown since its heyday, yet still retains its early charm. Many of the original doors, fixtures, and fireplaces are still in use following several renovations in the 1900s and early-2000s, including its assimilation under the Marriott umbrella. Wake up and watch the sunrise over the pyramid complex then take a horseback ride right around the Great Sphinx before you head into town to tour the museums. In the evening, head to the Sultan’s Lounge in the hotel for a cocktail amidst the gilded splendor and upload all of your envious photos to Instagram.
This estate hosted one of America’s richest men, as well as the first female member of Parliament (originally from Virginia!), and it’s pool was the epicenter for the biggest political scandal in British history. Now if that isn’t reason enough to book a room, what is?
Cliveden is one of England’s famed country houses. Today, it is a lush getaway that recently experienced an elegant little face-lift. There has been a home on the property since 1605, but the current building was constructed in 1851 in the Palladian style. In 1893, William Waldorf Astor (brother of John Jacob of the St. Regis!) bought the estate and installed the lavish 18th-century wood paneling formerly owned by the official mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour.
His son married Nancy Langhorne, a loud and proud Southern gal who became the first lady in British Parliament. She brought a little more pizzazz to the house, and her group of friends, known as “The Cliveden Set,” was well-known in the tabloids of the day. But the papers’ biggest field day was with the Profumo Affair, which happened in the Cliveden pool in 1961 and rocked British politics forever.
Little scandal happens at Cliveden today (that we know of), and the house is much as it was when the Astors resided there. When you visit, you can spend the day at Windsor Castle (a short drive away) then unwind at the spa or take a boat ride down the Thames.
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town is a bustling city to visit, so taking some time away from it all in the vast oasis of The Mount Nelson can be a much-needed experience. Opened in 1899, it was instantly adored by the elite blowing through South Africa. That same year, it became the HQ for the British when planning their military campaign in the Second Boer War. It was at this time a young Winston Churchill rested his head here and declared it a “most excellent and well-appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage”.
In 1925, the Prince of Wales partied in the place (this would be the soon-to-be-abdicating Edward), and later that year, Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, also enjoyed the hotel’s amenities.
Known locally as “The Pink Lady,” it reminds many of a certain pink palace in California: The Beverly Hills Hotel. Like it’s California counterpart, The Mount Nelson is still a beacon for celebrities such a Tiger Woods, Lenny Kravitz, even the Dalai Lama.
If you find yourself in this little oasis under Table Mountain, be sure to wander the over nine acres of lush gardens and pop into the Planet Bar for some fizz after your walk. High tea is a big deal here, so if you are traveling with family, this could be the perfect place to indulge.
Sea Island, Georgia
From the roaring ’20s to political gatherings, this resort on the Golden Isles of Georgia has been an idyllic escape for power players as well as a summer retreat for many Southern families for over 85 years.
Founded in 1928 by Howard Coffin (who was also behind Hudson Motor Company), this “Friendly Little Hotel” welcomed President Calvin Coolidge as one of its initial guests, who planted the first of many live oaks sowed by presidents, royals, and other notable guests. In 1949, Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, was married there, and in 2004, President George W. Bush chose the tiny little island as the location to hold the G-8 Summit.
Besides the cool breezes off the Atlantic Ocean and grand old oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the golf course is one of the most loved in America. Originally designed by Walter Travis in 1927 and updated in 1998 by Rees Jones, today it is home to the PGA TOUR’s RSM Classic, hosted by Davis Love III.
Since the island does have security gates, you can’t roll up to The Cloister for a quick look, but if you book for a week or a weekend, you can lull about in the famous Spanish Lounge, take a morning horseback ride on the beach, or just wander the grounds as the sun sets and listen to the local frogs croak out in chorus as you wind your way to dinner.