London must vie with Rome as one of the most historic capitals in the word. And with much of our history living, it makes strolling the streets a joy to anyone with even an inkling of historic appreciation. The medieval streets of Soho, still purveying much of the same trade that made them infamous for centuries, churches that date back to the crusades, and modern history by the bucket-load, with London sitting at both the centre of a vast empire and the seat of the industrial revolution. And so it’s no surprise that visitors should want to stay in places that mirror this rich history. So here are some of London’s historic-est hotels.
The Petersham occupies a grand Victorian mansion, purpose built as a hotel in 1865 with a grand ballroom, many suites, modern WCs and a grand total of two bathrooms the view was then, as now, the big draw for guests, with sweeping views down to the Thames as it flows into Richmond. It’s the same view that wow-ed some of the nation’s greatest painters and the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds and JMW Turner have both set up their easels and painted the exact same view enjoyed by today’s guests.
Where: The Petersham Hotel, Nightingale Lane, Richmond, TW10 6UZ
Nearest station: Richmond (0.8 miles)
The Stafford is a magical hotel, and never more so than in the American Bar. It may have been revamped and corporate’d of late, keeping it in step with the times, but it’s the past where the The Stafford excels. The Americans bar buzzed with intrigue and spies during the Second World War, arguably it still does. Among the most famous was the so-called White Mouse, the code name of Nancy Wake, famously a Stafford guest and The Gestapo’s most wanted spy. The heroine spy, one of the most decorated servicewomen in British history, has been immortalised in the form of a signature cocktail at the bar.
Where: 16-18 St James's Place, Mayfair, London, SW1A 1NJ, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Green Park (0.2 miles)
The imposing collonade and majestic position opposite the Houses of Parliament mark the Marriott County Hall as an obvious contender for a place in history. The hotel was previously County Hall, the home of the Greater London Council. Led in the 1980s by firebrand left-winger Ken Livingstone, now better known as a former London Mayor and ageing anti-Semite, back then he sorted a moustache and along with the GLC were a constant thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher’s government. So much so that she eventually abolished the GLC altogether. And lucky for us she did, as it means the glorious building has been put to many uses, including housing the London Marriot County Hall. The meeting room is even set in Livingstone’s old office!
It was one of the biggest scandals of the Cold War, when the Cambridge Five spy ring collapsed revealing some of Britain’s top spooks were, in fact, Russian agents. And The Langham is one of the places that Russian double-agent Guy Burgess made history. While he was feeding official secrets to the Soviets, he’d often stay over the way from the BBC, at the Langham. Indeed, according to a BBC internal memo he once attempted to break down his hotel room door with a fire extinguisher. Of course, it’s not just high-profile traitors who’ve stayed at the hotel; the likes of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, royalty and high society, in fact pretty much anyone who’s anyone.
Where: 1c Portland Place, Regent Street, London, W1B 1JA, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Oxford Circus (0.3 miles)
The Queen may have been born on Bruton Street, approximately where Hakkasan now stands, but growing up she lived on Piccadilly. The terraced house (don’t get me wrong, this was no Coronation Street scenario: think Mayfair/Belgravia style terraces) stood in a row of identical houses, with the future monarch’s nursery right at the top in the eaves. However, the house was destroyed in the Blitz and was instead replaced by the InterContinental London Park Lane, an elegant and extensive hotel designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd and opened by the Duke of Wellington in 1975.
Where: One Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London, W1J 7QY, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Hyde Park Corner (0.2 miles)
Anyone who’s anyone seems to have lived at Flemings. The hotel’s most famous resident nowadays is Ormer, Shaun Rankin’s incredible restaurant, but it’s played host to more than a smattering of literary greats. Pre-hotel days, James Boswell, off of the dictionary, lived there, Wilfred Owen and Henry James. But perhaps the biggest claim to fame for this hotel is that it was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel (there is actually a half-chance that it could have been Brown’s, but let’s not talk of that).
Where: Flemings Mayfair Hotel, Half Moon Street, London, W1J 7BH, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Green Park (0.2 miles)
The Savoy has more historical claims to fame than perhaps any other hotel in London. Where else can say that both Claude Monet and Charlie Chaplin stayed there? Harry Truman and Edward VII? The list is endless. Perhaps my favourite historical titbit is the (relatively) little-known fact that the back of the hotel, down on Savoy Steps, was the backdrop for one of the most iconic music videos ever. Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, the one where he holds up cue-cards in time with the music, was filmed in the back street while Dylan was staying there.
You’ve probably used your phone half a dozen times today already. But back in the day it was Brown’s Hotel that witnessed London’s very first phone call when inventor Alexander Graham Bell used the hotel’s reception to demonstrate his invention. It was also where Teddy Roosevelt came to get ready for his wedding day.
Where: Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London, W1S 4BP, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Green Park (0.2 miles)
The Lanesborough may now be one of London’s most exclusive, and expensive, hotels; famously extravagant and simultaneously beautiful. So it’s strange to think that relatively recently it was still a central London teaching hospital. Founded in 1733, St George’s Hospital stood on the corner of Hyde Park Corner until 1980 when it relocated to the far larger site in Tooting where it remains to this day. Then a use was needed for the vast, and iconic, building that had been left. The Duke of Westminster exercised his option to buy the building for just £6,000 (it’s value of the site when it was built in the nineteenth century), before turning it over to hoteliers Rosewood then Starwood to create something truly luxurious.
In sleepy St James’s there’s always a suggestion of spies. And the St Ermin’s Hotel was the epicentre of the British intelligence world for the decades around the middle of the twentieth century. Because it was close to the then-headquarters of MI6, this is where potential recruits would be interviewed, where plans were hatched and where notorious Cambridge Five (yes, them again) worked. The top two floors of the hotel were the official headquarters of MI6 during the second world war, and infamous double agents such as Kim Philby had their offices. After the war the hotel continued to be used as a regular spooky haunt and given its position so close to power, it seems unlikely that spies aren’t still quietly buzzing around its precincts.
Hotel Café Royal have been at the centre of London’s creative scene for ever. It’s where David Bowie cavorted with Mick Jagger and put his Ziggy Stardust character to death, it’s where Aubrey Beardsley debated with Whistler and where The Beatles and Elizabeth Taylor danced the night away. So much so that the new bar at the hotel is named Ziggy’s, paying homage to one of Bowie’s greatest creations. But it was another androgynous hero who really put Hotel Café Royal on the map: Oscar Wilde. The poet fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas in what used to be called the Grill Room. His romance with Bosie (his nickname for Douglas) was famously tempestuous but they remained together and not together until Wilde’s death in 1900.