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Arches and Amans: Luxury Hotels in the Heart of History

By: Alex Swanson

For those of you like myself, sometimes a coconut with a straw just doesn’t quite cut it. History always has and always will be the central part of many of my vacations, and, where possible, I like to be as close as possible to the—albeit long-dead—action. Whether it’s a hotel taking over a 12th-Century chapel or one that offers special access to a UNESCO World Heritage site, I present to you my personal list of favorite historical hangouts—all of them providing modern-day comforts as well as direct connections to the past. See them all in our Historical Hideaways collection.

Hotel Brunelleschi, Florence

With the Duomo, San Lorenzo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Orsanmichele all within walking distance of one another, history is at the doorstep of any centrally located Florentine hotel. However, at the Hotel Brunelleschi, history isn’t just outside. The centerpiece is a sixth-century Byzantine tower that houses an intimate 24-seat restaurant and is crowned by the city’s most romantic suite on its top two floors. Here, the conical shape of the tower, meticulously restored brick, wrought-iron spiral staircase and a circular bed create a scene straight out of Rapunzel. Guests also have the satisfaction of staying in a structure that was owned by Brunelleschi, the architect of the Duomo; was used as a prison for nuns (eat your heart out, Boccaccio); and was once part of Byzantine defense walls. Outside, the quiet bustle of Via del Corso flows past, with the Duomo only two minutes away.

Aman Summer Palace, Beijing

Never mind the 260-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site sitting right next door: Aman Summer Palace is fit for an emperor. 35 minutes outside central Beijing, the hotel spans a series of pavilions—some of them are original Qing Dynasty structures once used as anterooms for the dowager empress—with exposed roof beams, bamboo blinds, indigenous carvings and zitan furniture. But the real knock-out is just out the back door—they open onto the Summer Palace grounds at dawn and dusk, allowing guests after-hours access to the stunning gardens, trio of lakes as well as lesser-known treasures like the marble-clad, 17-Arch Bridge and forested Nanhu Island—well after the crowds have gone home.

Palazzo Manfredi, Rome

“While stands the Colosseum,” Lord Byron once proclaimed, “Rome shall stand.” And so, apparently, shall the hordes of tourists waiting to get into the world-famous amphitheater. Still, the amphitheater, built by Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, must be seen. However, we reckon it’s much better observed quietly from your adjacent hotel room, accompanying your cornetti and cappuccino in the low morning light—in other words from the Palazzo Manfredi, a 16-room boutique hotel that’s a literal stone’s throw away. Snazzy lighting by Ingo Maurer, an comfortable, autumnal aesthetic and all-marble bathrooms, and its ideal location for Rome’s classical sites (did we mention it sits atop the old gladiator school, the Ludus Magnus?), make this palazzo a must-stay for any luxe-minded history geek.

Hotel Charleston, Cartagena

The first Spanish colony in mainland America, Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, and its annals are action-packed with pirate raids, sacks (most notably by Sir Francis Drake), colonial battles and the Inquisition. This real-life history book also happens to be visually stunning: vibrant colors and colonial architecture, 500-year-old coral-stone walls and close-packed streets. Right in the heart of the scene is the Hotel Charleston, nestled inside a 17th-century convent with guest rooms overlooking either the sparkling Caribbean or the bougainvillea-bedecked Old Town. Sunny façades outside and patinated soft tones inside, the hotel blends perfectly with Cartagena’s palette, and the rooftop pool offers the best views in town.

Parador de Granada, Granada

The Alhambra is Andalusia’s crown jewel. It was the palace and fortress of the Nasrid sultans until 1492, when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella finally drove them out and ended 700 years of Moorish rule in Spain. Inside, mind-puzzling geometric tile designs and ornate craftsmanship—particularly the stucco work of the muqarnas ceilings—are fascinating, as are the fortresses’ intense layers of fortification and the splendid color of the palace’s Generalife gardens. Also within the complex: the Parador de Granada, a luxurious hotel occupying what was the first burial place of Ferdinand and Isabella. In addition to the hybrid Moorish-Christian-Spanish architecture and historical details like the Franciscan bell tower, guests can enjoy exclusive after-hours views of the palace from their rooms, the hotel’s terrace and its bar—and assurance that they’ll be treated more hospitably than the Moors.

Museum Hotel, Cappadocia

Cappadocia is Turkey’s little-known historical oddity. The rock spires of its Martian landscape outmatch Monument Valley and its sweeping hills and valleys look like they've been imported from the sea floor—historically, it’s just as interesting as it looks: homebase of the Bronze Age Hittite Empire, a key player in the Persian, Alexandrian, Roman and Byzantine times, and perhaps most famously, a point of shelter for early Roman Christians fleeing persecution. Ancient caves and subterranean cities dot its landscape, while rock-cut churches make the Sagrada Familia look plain conformist. The only luxury stay in the area, the Museum Hotel is on par with the region’s impressive landscape and history. It’s set over a clutch of centuries-old ruins and caves that have been meticulously reshaped into 30 individually shaped and styled rooms. Equally unique is the collection of priceless antiques ranging from Hittite to Ottoman eras that transform the hotel into a museum of Cappadocia's history. If you like your caves with a 400-year-old Anatolian rug or two, this is the place for you.

Hôtel de Crillon, Paris

Paris has long been at the forefront of cultural transformation, from Clovis I to Louis XVI to cafe-side modernist gatherings, but perhaps it’s most famous as the seat of the French Revolution, and it is in this era that the Hôtel de Crillon shines out most prominently. The hotel takes over an 18th-Century palatial monument that was commissioned by Louis XV to be a governmental building before being acquired by the Duke of Crillon as his personal residence, before finally opening its doors as a hotel in 1909. During its lifetime, it was the venue in 1778 for the signing of the first treaty between France and the United States, hosting none other than Benjamin Franklin as a signatory and, most significantly, it was the last thing Louis XVI saw before being guillotined right outside its walls in 1793. A five-year renovation completed in 2017 catapulted its historic halls back to the top of Paris’ luxury hotel scene. Its colored marble gleams as brightly as its high-karat gilding and crystal chandeliers and walking through the property feel more like a tour of Versailles than a stroll to the lobby. A stay here is a delightful trip through time; nothing like truffled eggs and french-pressed coffee in its old rusticated courtyard to put you in the mood for sightseeing!