The world’s oldest luxury hotels still in operation not only offer many indulgences for guests, but they also leave residents amazed with their rich history and architecture. Over the centuries, these hotels have managed to perfectly balance old-world charm with modernity. So, while the structure and many of its elements will take you back in time, you will also be able to enjoy the comforts of this age. Many of these hotels have the advantage of being located in the city centres, which are easily accessible for visitors. By Manas Sen Gupta
Take a look at some of the world’s oldest luxury hotels.
Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, Japan
Founded in 705 by Fujiwara Mahito, the Japanese resort is recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest continuously running hotel. Keiunkan is located near Mount Fuji in the Kai region of Yamanashi Prefecture. Its ownership has been with the same family since its beginning and is currently in the hands of the 52nd generation.
Keiunkan is a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn with a communal bath. It was a favourite of many illustrious samurai, shoguns and other high-ranking officials through the centuries. One of its most renowned patrons was Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
The hotel is today a mix of modern and ancient. Its main attraction, the bath known as Mochitani no Yu, is still fed by water flowing directly from the nearby hot springs, which you can drink directly from. There are 37 rooms in the hotel — all designed in traditional Japanese style. Since it is in a mountainous region, you can see the ravines from any of the rooms. The price of packages starts at around USD 470 (INR 35,290) per night.
Address: Nishiyama Hot Spring, Hayakawa-cho, Minamikoma-gun, Yamanashi Prefecture 409-2702, Japan
Maids Head Hotel, Norwich, England
Maids Head Hotel’s documented history goes back to 1287 when it was first mentioned in the court records of the city. But there is evidence to suggest that the establishment is older and Maids Head claims that it was established sometime in the 1090s. The oldest parts of what stands today at the site are from the 15th century, including the Wine Press Restaurant and the outstanding wood-panelled Oak Room. The bar in the hotel was added in the 16th century.
The hotel counts historical figures such as Edward the Black Prince, the eldest son of King Edward III who visited in 1359, and Queen Catherine of Aragon, who stayed here in 1520, as its guests. When Queen Elizabeth I was touring Norwich in 1578, the hotel named a bedroom in her honour though she never actually stayed there.
There are 84 en-suite bedrooms including luxurious suites. Among the larger suites are the Queen Elizabeth suite, whose wallpaper is based on the queen’s love for chess, and Catherine of Aragon suite, whose furnishings are in rich colours and the bedroom has beautiful hand-drawn, printed linen. Among several smaller suites are Surlingham Junior Suite and Erpingham Gate Junior Suite. The design and style of the former are inspired by the Thetford Forest while the latter is named after the Cathedral’s beautiful Erpingham gate entrance. All rooms come fitted with luxurious modern-day facilities.
Address: Tombland, Norwich, NR3 1LB
Contact: 01603 209955 / [email protected]
Zum Roten Bären, Freiburg, Germany
Situated between the Schwabentor (Swabian gate) and the cathedral, Zum Roten Bären is the oldest hotel in Germany. The hotel’s name translates to ‘the red bear’ and was founded in 1120 in the city of Freiburg.
Though it has undergone several renovations, the floor plan has remained almost unchanged since its founding. There is also a deep cellar in the establishment whose architecture follows the styles of the early medieval period. The hotel has changed ownership more than 50 times over the centuries and has survived the onslaught of climatic events in European and world history such as the Black Plague, conquests and the two World Wars.
There are 25 rooms to choose from, including three suites. Each suite costs USD 190 (approximately INR 14,270) per night. Located on the second floor of the building, they overlook the Oberlinden square. The bathroom is made of granite and the suites are fitted with walk-in closets.
Address: Hotel & Restaurant GmbH, Oberlinden 12, 79098 Freiburg, Germany
Contact: +49 761/3 87 87-0 / [email protected]
The Old Bell, Wiltshire, England
The hotel began as a guest and carriage house in 1135 in Malmesbury. At the time, it served as a resting place for pilgrims who came from faraway places on the way to the St. Benedict abbey next to it. But not just commoners, even royals stayed here and their departure to the priory was announced by ringing the bell that can be still seen at the hotel.
In modern times, The Old Bell was witness to meetings between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. Do take a peep into the tunnel that runs from the hotel to the priory — it was here that a plot to overthrow James II was hatched in the 17th century.
The renovated hotel has 34 exquisitely furnished bedrooms, including two master suites. One of the suites is named after Abbot Loring, the founder of the Benedictine abbey. The other is named after King Athelstan, the first King of the English who reigned from 927 to 939. The building, whose architecture is principally Edwardian, is Grade I listed, which means that it is a building of the highest significance in England.
Address: Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0BW
Contact: 01666 822344 / [email protected]
Orso Grigio, Innichen, Italy
Italy’s oldest hotel is located in the centre of one of the most picturesque municipalities of Europe — Innichen (or San Candido), which is renowned for the Dolomites and as a ski resort.
The hotel got its name from a Bavarian legend that the Bishop of Freising, St. Corbinian, tamed the bear that attacked him on his way to Rome. Founded in 1303, it survived numerous political and humanitarian disasters through the centuries. During World War I, the hotel was converted into a military hospital for the forces of the Astro-Hungarian empire and thus its then owner, Hedwig Hellenstainer, was awarded the silver medal of merit by the Emperor of Austria.
Ownership kept changing till 1745, when the ancestors of the current owner bought the property. It is today run by Franz Ladinser and his daughter Verena, the 9th and 10th generation of the family.
The boutique and gourmet hotel has 28 elegant rooms. The Baranci mountain range and Mount Elmo are visible from all the rooms. The hotel has a system of grading its rooms according to “bears”, an equivalent of stars. The four-bear rooms symbolise the highest possible comfort the hotel can provide. This category offers three different types of rooms — antique, classical and modern, with furnishings reflecting the eponymous styles.
One of the best facilities of the hotel is its roof-top wellness area. You can unwind in the Finnish sauna or the Turkish bath while admiring the breathtaking panorama around you, including the Mount San Candido. And while at it, you’d also be served high-quality teas and fruit juices to make your experience all the more wholesome. Orso Grigio is also renowned for its wines; there are around 300 labels in its cellar or red, white and sparkling varieties. Owner Franz Ladinser himself hosts a weekly wine-tasting event in cellar.
Address: Via Regole, 12 38010 Ronzone (TN), Italy
Contact: +39 0463880559 / [email protected]
Pilgrim Haus, Soest, Germany
Construction of Pilgrim Haus began in 1294 and it was opened as a hospice in 1304. Located in Soest, it was built as a resting place for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint James the Great in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, which is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Renovated over the centuries, the hotel is now itself an attraction in the North Rhine-Westphalia state. Its exterior appearance is like that picture-perfect house from German folktales and the interiors are decked with historical items collected by generations of its owners. The walls of the building are a metre thick and made of stone.
The hotel has single, double, three-bed and four-bedrooms, the last of which costs USD 221 (INR 16,595) per night. You cannot bring pets and all rooms are non-smoking. While every room is luxurious, you can have an even more comfortable sleep by requesting allergic repulsive bedclothes. The hotel also has an annexe and apartments near the main building. The apartments are housed in a 200 years old building which is the oldest completely restored farmhouse in Soest and is a “monument listed” property. The luxe rooms contain elements such as an oaken framework that highlights the heritage of the building.
Of course, don’t forget to treat yourself to the classical Westphalian dishes served at the hotel.
Address: Jakobistraße 75, 59494 Soest, Germany
Contact: +49 2921 1828
Hotel Interlaken, Interlaken, Switzerland
The first documented mention of the hotel comes from 1323 when it was a cloister guest house for travellers in Interlaken. Monks and nuns used to take care of the guests, and there was no other hotel in the city at the time. The conference rooms of the hotel, which are on the first floor, once served as the courtroom where sentences were handed to offenders. This is because the hotel served as an administrative building of the Bernese Oberland area.
The guest house underwent a major renovation in 1491, which is when it acquired its Gothic coat of arms. You can see the protected relief on the south façade of the hotel. If you enter the Kloster bar or the Taverne Restaurant of the hotel, you will see parts of the well-preserved original wall.
The hotel has 61 four-star rooms, including a junior suite which has amenities such as a minibar and tea or coffee making facilities among others. The fifth floor of the hotel was renovated as recently as 2020 and caters to tourists on a tight budget.
Two rooms in Hotel Interlaken are named after English poet Lord Byron and German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, who have been among the famous guests here. There are several ‘function’ rooms where banquets, meetings or receptions for 18 to 100 people can be held.
The menu is quintessentially Swiss. The four-course of the main menu offers delights such as egg, beluga lentils, parmesan foam, beet root-orange soup, steak of pork, pepper sauce roast potatoes, and garlic green beans with bacon and pineapple chutney. There are numerous starters, sides and main dishes to choose from besides soups and desserts. Don’t forget to try the fondue — it is Switzerland’s national dish after all.
Address: Höheweg 74, 3800 Interlaken, Switzerland
Contact: +41 33 826 68 68 / [email protected]
Hotel Elch, Nuremberg, Germany
Located in Nuremberg, the hotel was first mentioned as an inn in 1342. It is a small, family-run place but offers rooms that define the highest levels of comfort. Each room has a minimalist design that blends perfectly with the 14th-century walls of the half-timbered building.
Every room is equipped with the most modern technology. For instance, the comfortable double-bed room has a turnable TV stand which makes it possible to watch television from anywhere in the room. For those seeking ultimate leisure, pick any of the two pet-friendly Hotel Elch Living Apartments located in the idyllic quarter of Nuremberg’s castle opposite the hotel. Each is spacious, has a kitchen, tiled bathrooms complete with all necessary equipment, and modernist furnishings. The apartments can be booked for a day, a week or even a month — the last of which would cost USD 2,636 (INR 1,97,926).
Staying in Hotel Elch means that the iconic St. Sebaldus Church is just a few steps away. The church was built in 1215, destroyed during World War II, and then reconstructed in 1957. You can also visit the historic Nuremberg Castle, the Nuremberg Toy Museum, Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt and the Albrecht Dürer House — all of which are located close by.
Address: Irrerstrasse 11, 90403 Nuremberg, Germany
Contact: +49.(0)911.249 298 0 / [email protected]
Blaue Gans, Salzburg, Austria
The hotel was founded in Salzburg in 1350. It sits in the museum district of the city best known as the birthplace of Mozart. The renowned composer was also a visitor here.
Blaue Gans identifies itself as an art hotel, which means that it houses over 100 original works of contemporary art displayed in the halls and lobby. While the old vaulted ceilings of the building speak of a time different from now, the rooms are cosy and provide all modern comfort.
Among the rooms are two different suites. The one known as City Flat has exquisitely attractive Wittmann furniture, baroque doors, an anteroom with a cloakroom, and a fully equipped kitchenette with Stillsegler tableware among other luxurious facilities. The second, the Maisonette Suite, has two floors, with the bedroom on the second. When you sleep in it, you will get to see the historic timber roof design of the building. Salzburg interior design shop Werkschau have supplied the furnishings whose design elements add dimension to the overall charm of the suite.
The vaulted dining area is the hotel’s centrepiece. You can enjoy your delicious plate of Salzburg cuisine under original panelling and mural paintings. Don’t forget to try the wines from the cellar, which has centuries-old vaults. If eating indoors is not your thing, sit with a drink in the guest garden created to give a Mediterranean feel with palms, figs and olive trees.
You can also go shopping at Getreidegasse and visit the Festival Hall near the hotel or any of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Salzburg.
Address: Getreidegasse 41-43, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Contact: +43 (0)662 842491 / [email protected]
Al Cappello Rosso, Bologna, Italy
First documented in 1375, the hotel began as a tavern located outside the then walls of Bologna and warranted by law to provide shelter to Jews passing through the city. Jews, who faced religious persecution at the time, were allowed to stay for a maximum of three days and only at this establishment. This continued till around the 17th century. In the 14th century, Cardinal Albornoz gave the hotel its signature logo — the cardinal’s hat. This symbol meant that the hotel could serve as a lodging for the architects and artists working on the Basilica di San Petronio, which was left unfinished in the 15th century. Over the centuries, the hotel has undergone many renovations including a major one in 1770 when it expanded in size.
But besides its glorious history, the pet-friendly hotel stands out from its other ‘oldest’ cousins because of the artistic appeal of its 33 bedrooms. Al Cappello Rosso has ‘themed rooms,’ which are dedicated to icons — both humans and objects — and decorated by modern artists such as set designer Mauro Tinti and various organisations.
For instance, the Amadori room is dedicated to the 20th-century artist and musician Eugenio Amadori. Amidst the dominating red hue, the room showcases some of Amadori’s caricatures of illustrious personalities from the world of music. The American Icon Superior is dedicated to US President John F. Kennedy and the walls of the room are painted in the red-and-blue colours of the American flag. Designed in collaboration with Biografilm Festival, the room pays homage to Kennedy’s life and career with objects such as a sailing boat model and the Kennedy rocking chair.
If you like your room to exude fashion from every corner, you will like Shock in Pink Room, which is dedicated to Elsa Schiaparelli — one of the greatest fashion designers of the mid-20th century. The name is inspired by Schiaparelli’s autobiography Shocking Life and, paying homage to the icon, the warm pink-hued room has wardrobes with trompe-l’oeil clothing as well as inscriptions that can be read with a mirror.
Other themed rooms include Lettera 305 Typewriting Room dedicated to the typewriter and BilBOlbul rooms, which bear illustrations given to the hotel by artists who participated in the various editions of the International Comics Festival BilBOlbul.
There are six rooms reserved only for female guests. Special rooms categorised as ‘Classic’ and ‘Superior’ have French door-style windows from where you can either see the city’s skyline, the details of the nearby basilica or the hotel’s inner courtyard with raised garden. The windows can be opened by remote control. Two of these rooms are equipped with a soaking-size whirlpool bathtub.
If you are looking for an ultra-luxurious star, you can opt for any of the eight apartments that are a stone’s throw away from the hotel. Each has a different look and feel but all symbolise the most perfect marriage of antique and modern. Spacious, well-lit, elegantly decorated, equipped with kitchens and every single luxury a family can dream of, the suites look like the true definition of comfort living.
The hotels’ restaurant Osteria del Cappello has been in operation for as long as the hotel and offers hand-made bakery foods besides other delectable Bolognese dishes like tortellini and tagliatelle with Bolognese ragù sauce.
Address: Via de’ Fusari, 9 I- 40123 Bologna, Italy
Contact: +39 051 261891 / [email protected]
Though not dating back as long as the hotels mentioned above, these are some of the oldest luxury hotels in other Asian countries.
Jing’s Residence, Ping Yao, China
Jing’s Residence is located in the centre of the historic city of Ping Yao. The entire walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. When you visit the city, you will feel as if you have been transported to medieval China. This is because of the well-preserved buildings from the Ming and Qing periods. The hotel building, likewise, resembles those that you may have seen in the Wuxia films. It was constructed more than 260 years ago by a Qing dynasty silk merchant as his mansion. The building and its immediate surroundings were used as an important commercial venture since then.
The rooms of the hotel are set within its courtyards and include master suites from which you can see the city skyline. Interiors are furnished and decorated to give a medieval feel, but the amenities are modern. Even at the time of renovation, great attention was paid to maintain the hotel’s original look and feel. You will note the rice paper ceilings supported by timber structural elements while bamboo flooring and clay panels connect with the ancient carved wooden window frames. The heads of the beds have been made from lacquer or silk. Though modern in comfort, the design is gloriously medieval. There are antique Chinese wash-basin stands in the modern bathrooms. Its master suite, the only one in the residence, has a handmade bath at its centre. You can also stay in any of the five courtyard suites, each different in design from the other but offering the same level of comfort.
You can enjoy western food at the hotel but the real joy would be trying the delectable local Shanxi cuisine, especially any of the 260 varieties of noodles that the province is known for. You can also enjoy a traditional Chinese hot pot or fondue in the courtyard and then learn paper cutting or noodle making part of the guest activities. One of the other highlights is a guided tour of the ancient city with a professor from Ping Yao University.
Address: 16 East Street, Ping Yao Shan Xi, Province, PRC (031100)
Contact: +86-0354-584 1000 / [email protected]
Galle Face Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka
The original building of the hotel came up right next to the Galle Face Green, a beautiful seaside promenade stretching a kilometre, in 1864. At the time, it was a colonial villa. But exactly 30 years later, it was converted to a two-storey luxury hotel with help of architect Edward Skinner. Within two decades, it expanded in size and has since remained the same. The current chairman and owner, Sanjeev Gardiner, is the great-grandson of Victor Vicarosso, one of the hotel’s shareholders from 1911.
The hotel has undergone refurbishments over the decades. Its South Wing was closed for 40 years before reopening in 2006 along with modern facilities such as a spa. Yet the architecture of the hotel adequately reflects the colonial charm along with its original balustrades and tiny lift shafts. The hotel has a museum that also houses the 1935 Standard Nine vintage car which the late Prince Philip bought in 1940 for GBP 12 (INR 1,250) when he was stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during World War II. The hotel counts icons such as Mahatma Gandhi, Vivian Leigh, Roger Moore and Harrison Ford among its guests.
Rooms start from the Superior category. There are around 40 Junior suites, some of which come with balconies from where you can have an uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean.
There are seven suites in the Heritage section, including the Presidential suite, Commonwealth suite and Ceylon suite. These are the largest and provide the best of all the amenities in the hotel. According to the hotel, the 140-metre square Empress suite, which is one of the seven, is possibly the largest in all of Sri Lanka. It has three stately bedrooms and a balcony not only offering the best view of the Galle Face Green but also large enough for a dinner party. It was named after Empress Eugenie, the wife of French emperor Napoleon III, who stayed in this suite during her visit in the early 1900s.
There are multiple places to dine at the hotel. You can opt for the historic verandah for a table overlooking the picturesque vista of the sea while tasting crab curry. Grab a drink at the Chequerboard, so named because of the chessboard design of the floor. It is in the open and offers a great view of the blue sea and perhaps is the best location for Instagram lovers. Other options include the Cuban-influenced King of the Mambo, Traveller’s Bar for a cocktail or In…on the Green for a pub-like atmosphere.
Address: 2 Galle Road, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka
Contact: +94 11 254 1010 / [email protected]
Raffles Hotel, Singapore
Named after Singapore’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles, the hotel is a national monument of the country. The hotel started as a beach house in the 1830s and was for a very short while known as Emmerson’s Hotel. It was in 1887 that the Armenian Sarkies brothers, who were known for their hotel businesses, leased the building from its then owner and named it Raffles Hotel.
When Singapore was occupied briefly by Japanese forces during World War II, the Japanese renamed the hotel Syonan Ryokan (Light of the South Hotel) and also moved the main entrance towards the east. Following the Japanese surrender, the hotel returned to its former glory under the British colonial administration. It underwent a major restoration lasting two years from 1989-91, during which several original features from the early 20th century such as cast-iron portico and the large timber staircase were reinstalled. Decorative plasterwork was repaired and new additions such as an in-house museum were made.
One of the attractive features of the hotel is the lush tropical gardens around it. The green cover stretches for over a fourth of the entire estate.
There are 115 rooms in the hotel and all of them are suites. There are two Presidential suites, named after the Sarkies brothers and Stamford Raffles. Some of the other suites, classed as Personality suites, are named after the distinguished guests who stayed at the hotel since its opening, including Rudyard Kipling, Charlie Chaplin, William Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, John Wayne and Pablo Neruda. Other prominent guests include Michael Jackson, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Queen Elizabeth II and Indonesian president Suharto.
One of the hotel’s most well-known stories is from 1902 when the last tiger of Singapore, which had escaped from a zoo, was found and killed under the Bar & Billiard Room of the hotel. One of the many places to dine in the hotel, it has been reinvented under acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse who turned it into his first Mediterranean sharing and grill restaurant and bar in Southeast Asia.
The hotel is also famous as the birthplace of the world-famous Singapore Sling. Ngiam Tong Boon, the bartender of the hotel, created the gin-based pink cocktail in 1915 for women because they could not openly drink in public. It is today regarded as the national drink of the country and you sip on it at the hotel’s historic Long Bar.
Address: 1 Beach Road, 189673 Singapore, Singapore
Contact: +65 6337 1886 / [email protected]
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