I’ve always been drawn to Europe’s grand hotels, those whose walls have stories to tell and secrets to keep. To me, they represent permanence, unruffled by the turbulent world outside. Serene and privileged bastions of good living, they are both glamorous and exciting, with famous faces never far away, and at the same time reassuring, historic and full of dignity and a sense of importance.
When I was a young and penniless, they often became havens where I would smarten myself up and while away time in their palm courts, grand cafés and terraces, dreaming that I was an honoured guest with a suite upstairs rather than a backpacker who’d blown her budget on a pot of their tea or a glass of wine. Once, at the Phoenicia in Malta, I dared to ask for a room for the night. When they asked how much I could afford, they didn’t snigger, but whispered with one another and then solemnly offered me an empty maid’s room, which I gratefully accepted. I was in and I was in heaven and the whole hotel and its lovely gardens were mine for the duration of my stay. The Phoenicia is a good example of a grande dame hotel that has, of necessity, changed with the times but retained many of its original features and much of its atmosphere and soul.
All the hotels listed here began as privately owned palaces. Most were built in the 19th century and many, by the mid-20th, required major modernisation. Some have sailed through the decades, their fortunes undimmed; others have had more chequered careers, including war service as hospitals. Today, having been refurbished and restored to the tune of many millions and employing the top designers of our day, they are more lavish and lovely than they have ever been.
The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice
As Somerset Maugham said, there are few greater pleasures than taking a drink on the Gritti’s terrace at sunset, with Salute church opposite bathed in evening light. Before bed, he advised, glance at the portrait of 16th-century Doge Andrea Gritti who, after a tumultuous life, spent his last years here in peace. This Venetian Gothic palace became a hotel in the late 19th century; a 2013 revamp restored its hundreds of precious paintings and artefacts and added an intimate spa. Some rooms are quite small, but for unbeatable romance, book the heavenly Hemingway Suite, with windows on two sides, overlooking the Grand Canal. The author made the Gritti his Venice home in the late Forties. He had good taste.
Belmond Hotel Splendido, Portofino
The style at this monastery-turned-private-residence-turned-hotel (in 1902) is reassuringly traditional. The hotel’s public rooms, furnished with antiques and done out in grey and white marble and a cool, neutral palette, display monochrome photos of guests including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Liza Minelli and Madonna. The setting, in lush gardens on a steep hillside above chic, postcard-pretty Portofino, is memorable, and the bedrooms are cool, white havens of elegance. Lunching on the flower-filled terrace or lazing by the pool is bliss, but if you become restless, this season the hotel launches a Taste of the Lands bike and wine tour of the Ligurian countryside.
Read the full review: Belmond Hotel Splendido
Villa d’Este, Cernobbio
This 16th-century Lake Como palace was later owned by the estranged wife of the future George IV, Princess Caroline, who found happiness here and did much to help the local people. Alfred Hitchcock made his first movie, The Pleasure Garden, here, and when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, the photograph of him and Wallis Simpson that did the rounds of the world was taken here. I love its quiet elegance, its famous floating swimming pool and stately formal gardens, with mock fortifications built by Countess Pino in an attempt to keep her bored husband from returning to the Napoleonic Wars. There is little, these days, to keep me from drifting away, including the memorable buffet breakfast in the glass-enclosed Pavilion restaurant.
Few grande dame hotels are still privately owned. The Hassler, set theatrically above the Spanish Steps, is one. Roberto Wirth considers it his passion, family heritage and home. Born deaf, it is his commitment, dedication and personal touch that has made the Hassler stand out. And while it’s up to date in every respect, he has ensured that the old world elegance remains. Michelin-starred rooftop restaurant Imàgo has just been beautifully refurbished, and the Palm Court, serving food all day, is an oasis of tranquillity. If you are one of the endless parade of celebrities who stay here, you’ll be personally welcomed by the delightful Mr Wirth (and quite probably even if you are not).
Read the full review: The Hassler
Hôtel de Crillon, a Rosewood Hotel, Paris
Paris has more than its share of fabled “palace” hotels, but only the Crillon is truly blue-blooded. Commissioned by Louis XV from Ange-Jacques Gabriel in 1758, it was later home to the Ducs de Crillon. In 1909, the sublime neoclassical building, with its unrivalled location overlooking the fountains and obelisk of the Place de la Concorde, became a hotel that soon attained legendary status. Reopened in 2017 after a four-year renovation, it feels fit for a fairy-tale princess. The salons, courtyard gardens, wildly expensive signature suites (some by Karl Lagerfeld) and bedrooms, spa and pool are delectable, cut through with a bold and imaginative collection of contemporary art that constantly catches the eye and engages the mind.
Le Bristol, Paris
Only ever owned by two families (the German Oetkers since 1978), Le Bristol is distinguished by long-serving front desk charmer Jean-Marie Burlet, humorous, kind and a great judge of character; the loveliest hotel garden in Paris, soon to be made lovelier by Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd; the most relaxing three-Michelin star restaurant, L’Epicure, where chef Eric Fréchon is celebrating 20 years; the rooftop “ocean liner” pool; and the resident Burmese cat, Fa-Raon, whose jewelled bow-tie collar is by Maison Goyard. “Pinch that”, Burlet told me, “and you’ll have enough money to stay here for days”. The newly refurnished rooms are light, elegant and huge for Paris.
Read the full review: Le Bristol
Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Antibes
F Scott Fitzgerald immortalised it as the Hôtel des Etrangers in Tender is the Night; Marc Chagall made sketches in one of its beachside cabanas; the Kennedy family spent the summer here in 1938 when John was 21; Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton conducted an affair and honeymooned here. Other guests included Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, the Windsors, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. The Eden Roc, restored a decade ago by the Oetker family, offers languid, retro glamour in a magical setting: a mid 19th-century mansion secreted in 22 acres of pine groves. It remains, as Fitzgerald wrote, “a summer resort of notable and fashionable people”.
Hôtel de Paris, Monte Carlo
Just to stand in Place du Casino, between the hotel and its famous casino, quickens the pulse. But to be a guest – that’s a real treat, especially since a five-year, multi-million-pound renovation punctuated by two beautiful new rooftop suites, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III. In the lobby stands a bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV. The shiny right knee of the horse is testament to the thousands of hands that have rubbed it for luck at the tables. Alain Ducasse’s three-Michelin-star Le Louis XV, the American Bar and the top-floor Le Grill are all populated by couture-clad guests whose luck is plainly in.
Read the full review: Hôtel de Paris
Hotel Alfonso XIII, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Seville
Built for the 1928 Exhibition of the Americas and inaugurated by King Alfonso, this evocation of a Moorish fantasy has hosted royalty, heads of state and film stars. If you can’t afford a room, have a glass of fino overlooking the wonderful central courtyard. Among the brick arches and columns and riot of ceramic tiles (azulejos), there are modern accents such as brightly coloured chairs in the bar and restaurant and bold headboards in the bedrooms. The pool, surrounded by lush gardens, is an oasis.
Pestana Palace, Lisbon
For its ravishing interiors, painstakingly restored, I am drawn back to this parkland spot near the Tagus River in Lisbon. The bust in the hall of its creator, the Marques de Valle Flor, depicts a kindly man whose spirit lives on in his exquisite, harmonious fin-de-siècle palace. A series of interconnecting salons, full of gilt, stucco and trompe-l’oeil, lead to a balcony overlooking the family chapel. I love the simple gauze curtains fitted in 2001, when this national monument became a modern-day grande dame hotel: they set off the intricacy of the decoration. Service is old school. For a real treat, stay in one of the four main house suites. The other rooms overlook the garden in a modern wing.
Read the full review: Pestana Palace
Belmond Reid’s Palace, Funchal, Madeira
If you are a star looking for a hideaway, come to Reid’s. They don’t tolerate paparazzi, and although they do have a “Golden Book” recording the visits of famous guests, it is kept in a safe. If you have children, there is a fantasy kids’ club. If you play bridge, there is a dedicated room. And if, like me, you want to dance, there are free classes before the famous weekly dinner dance. There’s something for everyone at the clifftop “pink palace”, but it’s the understatement and measured, time-honoured approach, plus the 128-year, well-mannered love affair with the British, that really resonates.
Phoenicia Hotel, Valletta
Malta’s grande dame has an attractively simple layout. Its elegant Palm Court leads through original glass doors to the Phoenix restaurant and its lovely elevated terrace, overlooking lush gardens that stretch to Valletta’s bastion walls. Refurbished in 2017 by Gordon Campbell Gray, the Phoenicia was built in the late Thirties by an aristocratic couple. But the by-then-widowed Margaret, Lady Strickland, only opened it in 1947 – the RAF requisitioned it during the war. The Anglophile Phoenicia has hosted everyone from Churchill and Noël Coward to the Queen and Prince Philip, who often danced in the art deco ballroom in the early Fifties. If I warmed to the Phoenicia all those years ago, I am captivated now.
Read the full review: Phoenicia Hotel
Hotel Grande Bretagne, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Athens
This Athens landmark, known to all as GB, is brilliantly located in Syntagma Square across from the parliament and National Gardens, with the Parthenon hovering thrillingly above. Opened in 1874, the hotel’s original appearance and atmosphere has been carefully preserved, from the Winter Garden with its stained-glass ceiling to the 18th-century tapestry in the Alexander Bar. Etchings, paintings and prints in the corridors take you on a journey through the history of Athens, but the modern facilities include a lovely spa. A free tour of the hotel’s treasures takes place every Thursday at 5pm.
Hotel d’Angleterre, Geneva
Where grande dame meets plush boutique. The hotel opened in 1872 and has just 39 bedrooms and six suites, yet of all Geneva’s luxury hotels, it takes pride of place, not least because of its magnificent lakeside setting, with front-row views of the Jet d’Eau fountain and Mont Blanc beyond. Entirely rebuilt internally in 1995, the hotel became part of the Red Carnation group and displays owner Beatrice Tollman’s penchant for luxurious furnishings, flowing fabrics and frills, as well as immaculate service and impressive attention to detail. In 1903, Princess Louise of Saxe was a guest, and hired a French tutor for her children; they fell in love, and she stayed put. Pourquoi pas?
Read the full review: Hotel d’Angleterre
Baur au Lac, Zurich
Imagine a grand yet intimate private villa, set in its own city centre park with views of the lake and mountains. Inside: the jewel-like colour palette of interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. Six generations of the same family have cared for the hotel and hosted countless celebrities, not least Richard Wagner, who gave the world premiere of the first act of Die Walküre here, singing himself and accompanied by his father-in-law, Franz Liszt. Celebrating 175 years since the hotel opened, this month sees the relaunching of the Baur au Lac Terrasse, the place to be in Zurich, after a facelift by Rochon.
Hotel Sacher, Vienna
A hotel more famous for its torte (the 1832 recipe remains a closely guarded secret) than even for its parade of illustrious guests, including the Queen. If you, like me, love Belle Époque excess, then you will love the Sacher, dripping with velvets, damasks, period antiques and sparkling chandeliers. And if you like characters, you will warm to the eccentric late owner Anna Sacher, never without her French bulldogs and cigars. After her death in 1930, the Gürtler family bought the hotel and still run it today. The bedrooms are richly decorated yet light, and the staff are unfailingly courteous.
Read the full review: Hotel Sacher
InterContinental Amstel, Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s grande dame, which opened in 1867, had lost its sparkle of late but has now been magnificently restored to its former glory and regal appearance. Nothing has been overlooked: even the eight long-vanished lions, which once stood sentinel on the roof, have been expertly carved anew. This landmark building on the River Amstel has never looked better inside or out, with its gracious white marble and stucco lobby, beautiful chandeliers and 79 large, prettily decorated bedrooms – warm reds, cool blues, toile de jouy wallpapers – reached by wide and elegant corridors. Best of all, the hotel has a feeling of homeliness and welcome amid the grandeur.
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, St Petersburg
Italian Carlo Rossi designed the hotel’s grand exterior in 1875, while the dramatic art nouveau interiors arrived in the early 20th century. The Romanovs, Tchaikovsky and Debussy all stayed. Today its stucco work, sculptures and showpiece stained glass windows blend seamlessly with modern elements such as the indulgent caviar bar (and the city’s only vodka sommelier) and L’Europe, one of St Petersburg’s finest restaurants. Its popular Cultural Experience package includes opera or ballet tickets and a guided palace tour. The Hermitage is five minutes away.
Read the full review: Belmond Grand Hotel Europe
Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow is a wonderful evocation of a grand Moscow hotel in the early 20th century. This, the hotel in question, still displays all the art deco splendour of its pre-revolutionary heyday, but preserved, refurbished and underpinned by modern luxuries. Dine in the stunning hall where Sergei Yesenin made a declaration of love to Isadora Duncan, and Galina Vishnevskaya met her future husband, Mstislav Rostropovich.
Read the full review: Metropol
Hotel d’Angleterre, Copenhagen
The 2013 makeover is sleek and contemporary, but it doesn’t detract from the sense of history and occasion when staying at this landmark hotel, established in 1755. Its ballroom hosted Roald Amundsen’s triumphant return from the South Pole in 1912. For my money, this is the most elegant hotel in Copenhagen, with a fine restaurant, Marchal. See the city, as I did, from the hotel’s horse drawn carriage: you’re worth it.