Listing London’s best historic and iconic hotels is simple – it’s keeping it to just ten that’s the challenge. The seventeenth-century George Inn is the city’s last remaining galleried coaching inn, but is now run as a pub, so we start instead as Regency London becomes Victorian: with nineteenth-century temples to opulent leisure and grand railway hotels.
London also has a growing number of period reconstructions, the best of which can catch the atmosphere of an era as brilliantly as a costume drama. And then there are high points in the history of modern London hotels: pioneers, plus a landmark property in another sense entirely. Enjoy our very personal selection of the best historic and iconic hotels in London.
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In 1830 a hack writer moved into a Georgian lodging house at 6 Frith Street, where he died in poverty: William Hazlitt was the greatest essayist of the Romantic era. The site of his home was given a diligent, atmospheric period reconstruction, creating an idiosyncratic hotel of wood panelled walls, portraits and antique furniture, where you’ll feel like you’re sleeping in Regency London – albeit with proper plumbing and 24-hour room service.
Opened in 1837 – the very dawn of Victorian London – by a manservant and a former maid to Lord Byron’s sister, Brown’s was destined to become one of London’s grandest hotels. It’s something of a Zelig, popping up at key moments of history – to host Britain’s first phone call in 1876, the Roosevelt’s honeymoon, Haile Selassie and even the Dutch declaration of war on Japan in WWII.
If you’re after a hotel to represent the great era of railway hotels, that period when rail companies sought to bolster their reputations by providing grandiloquent station accommodation, you’d choose the Midland Grand (now the St Pancras Renaissance), right? Wrong: the St Pancras is a sensational building, yes, but – as a hotel, we prefer the more adventurous rebirth of its older (1854) and curvier King’s Cross rival.
You wanted history and Claridge's has it in spades. Originally known as Mivart's, when it was founded in 1812 by the father of biologist St George Jackson Mivart, the hotel was sold to the Claridge family in 1854. Since then it's played host to Queen Victoria, Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Winston Churchill, and Crown Prince Alexander II of Yugoslavia was actually born in suite 212. A Golden Age glamour runs throughout, with a lobby designed by art deco pioneer Oswald Milne.
You can keep the Ritz – it’s just a knock-off of the Paris original. Nope, of the London hotels whose name everybody knows, the Savoy’s our pick. Opened by Richard D’Oyly Carte in 1889 as an adjunct to his theatre, he not only grabbed César Ritz as manager but Escoffier as chef. The Savoy has the cocktailing pedigree of the American Bar, too, and suites from which Monet painted the Thames.
This is an art deco dream, a vision of the 1920s made real in exquisite detail by London’s most relentlessly brilliant restaurateurs, Corbin and King. The Beaumont is, in fact, an authentically grand 1926 building (a palatial garage for the motorcars of Selfridges’ wealthy shoppers) remade into an interwar luxury hotel – complete with backstory about its wealthy expat founder, ‘Jimmy’ Beaumont, fleeing Prohibition. A bit silly, and just wonderful.
Blakes makes a strong case for having been the world’s first boutique hotel – that buzzword category of small, individualist, design-led places that started to pop up across the globe from the early 1980s. Anouska Hempel’s pioneering property certainly fits the definition, leading the way with its cosmopolitan, orientalist vibe and rooms designed with individual character, rather than to fit a convenient template.
It seems so obvious now – apply airline pricing (earliest booking gets the cheapest rates) to a stylish hotel – but the Hoxton got there first. It now has a wonderful sister hotel (Hoxton Holborn) and leads a growing field of no frills or cheap chic places, among which the Citizen Ms stand out. But the Hoxton deserves its place in history (and our hearts) for bringing quality hotel accommodation into every traveller’s budget.
We’d argue that Kit Kemp’s Firmdale hotels are the most influential this millennium, with her trademark oversized headboards and bold, clashing colours, the all-round artiness of her interiors and her top-class facilities (an in-house cinema here, a bowling alley there) now echoed across the luxury sector. But with Firmdale you never feel your comfort is being compromised by design dictates, especially at our apparently ageless fave: the Covent Garden Hotel.
And finally, the modern London icon about which the word ‘iconic’ gets bandied more than any other: the hotel occupying floors 34-52 of The Shard. What could be more ego-boosting than staying somewhere you can see from pretty much everywhere in London, and from which you can see pretty much everything in London. At the top, the Gong cocktail bar is good fun; swimming in the skinny infinity pool even more so.
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