Top 10 Historic Hotels

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | Jan 15, 2009
Aerial shot of The Breakers Palm Beach
Aerial shot of The Breakers Palm Beach / Photo courtesy of the property

History buffs rejoice: these 10 historic American hotels offer a lot more than just a place to rest your head. Retrace the steps of storied guests at resorts counting Hollywood celebs, U.S. presidents, and international royalty on their lengthy rosters of legendary one-time lodgers. Or, opt to admire some of the richest architectural ambience and decadent design in the nation, with styles ranging from Art Deco to Mediterranean Revival (and many others in between). Choose from a quintet of history-steeped, sun-drenched gems in Florida and California; celebrated central-city quarters in Boston, Chicago, or N.Y.C.; a preserved piece of the Old South in New Orleans; or a legendary Grand Canyon lodge that helped to forever redefine “roughing it.” Happily, like an aged wine, these hotels of yesteryear have gotten only better with time, with careful preservation efforts ensuring that much of their rich history remains to be written.

The Biltmore

Designated a National Historic Landmark, Coral Gables's grandiose Biltmore is a 1926 Mediterranean Revival dowager steeped in romance, history, and mystery. The impressive estate, which overlooks an 18-hole green, is marked by a 93-foot tower (meant to imitate the Giralda Tower at the Cathedral of Seville), with gorgeous arches, courtyards, and vaulted ceilings further accenting the overall palatial Mediterranean style. Ginger Rogers and Al Capone were guests here; his 13th-floor suite is purportedly haunted. Spooky rumors also include ghostly sightings of wounded soldiers from the days when the property was used as a World War II V.A. hospital. Its famous 23,000-square-foot pool, supposedly the largest in the country, is a beauty indeed, lined by statues, and surrounded by cabanas, chaise lounges, and a bar where the old diving platform used to be. It’s here that Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller swam and Esther Williams starred in her aquatic shows. Its 276 rooms are just as grand and its Sunday Champagne brunch in the courtyard is downright legendary.

The Breakers

This is Palm Beach County's most famous and historic hotel, bar none. Established in 1896, and rebuilt 30 years later to reflect the grand Italian villas of the 15th and 16th centuries, the 540-room Breakers is a jaw-dropper right from the approach – a lengthy main driveway leads to a Florentine fountain, where just inside, a 200-foot-long majestic lobby capped by ornate ceiling frescoes serves to welcomes guests. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Breakers reinvests a whopping $25 million per year just to maintain the integrity of its historic architecture and overall luxury. All rooms have marble bathrooms and beach-cottage hues of coral and teal – but it's really all about the grounds. With its half-mile of private beachfront, access to two private 18-hole golf courses (one seaside), a 20,000-square-foot spa, five swimming pools, and 10 tennis courts, it's as if the Gilded Age never ended.

The Drake

This storied lakefront Chicago property is marvelously elegant, boasting a setting that’s both close to the Magnificent Mile and the beach, and a roster of past guests that have included royalty and celebrities alike. The hotel of choice for the British royal family since 1924, The Drake has hosted such luminaries as Princess Diana, Winston Churchill, and Queen Marie of Romania – by 1981, the property was placed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. Of the 535 guest rooms, the executive rooms and suites offer the sweetest amenities, such as daily continental breakfast in a private lounge (where you can also imbibe free cocktails in the evening), daily newspaper delivery, shoe-polishing valet, and concierge. Lavish services are nothing new to The Drake – in fact, they were the first Chicago hotel to offer color televisions and air conditioning in all of their rooms. 

El Tovar

Opened in 1905 and renovated in 2005, this landmark lodge sits just 20 feet from the south rim of the Grand Canyon and features stone and pine construction with Native American accents. Founded by 19th century entrepreneur Fred Harvey, the National Historic Landmark-designated El Tovar offers today’s National Park guests accommodations in 78 rooms and suites and touts such amenities as concierge services, free parking, and best of all – lodging just steps away from the breathtaking canyon; a few of the premier suites even tout a porch or balcony. The resort’s opening served to dramatically increase tourism to the Grand Canyon (via the Santa Fe Railway), and is attributed with helping the area gain National Park status in 1919. Prominent dignitaries that have rested their heads here include Presidents Bill Clinton, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gerald Ford, as well as Elizabeth Taylor and Albert Einstein.

The Georgian

Built in 1933, Santa Monica’s majestic “Lady,” as she was fondly dubbed by the golden-age Hollywood elite that once flocked here (and to its surreptitious speakeasy), radiates a timeless charm that has been commanding attention for more than seven decades (with just a little help from a two million dollar “facelift” in 2007). It’s no surprise, given the hotel’s prominent palm-lined cliff-top location in Santa Monica, overlooking the Pacific coastline, and its stunning Art Deco façade. The hotel’s ocean-facing veranda is one of its most endearing elements, while the 84 well-appointed guest rooms are serviced by antique elevators. The property’s rich history will be of particular interest to those with a curiosity for Hollywood’s early days, when the seaside hotel lured well-to-do guests like Carole Lombard and Clark Gable – the former speakeasy in the basement, once a stronghold of the Prohibition Era, hosted guests like Bugsy Segal and Fatty Arbuckle.;

Hotel del Coronado

Since 1888, this Victorian landmark has been a haven for presidents and movie stars alike; choose between modern rooms, original quarters (some with ocean-view balconies), or private cottages framing the beach (Marilyn Monroe’s lodging of choice). This historic hotel evokes an Old World grandeur and ambience unlike anywhere else in San Diego: the famous red-roofed resort sits on the Coronado peninsula's oceanfront, its three expansive buildings occupying over 30 landscaped acres. The restored architecture and opulent decor is stunning, with a timeless air and nostalgic nod to decades gone by. Don’t miss the lobby photos of the hotel’s past guests, which conjure images of women toting delicate parasols and men drinking brandy and smoking cigars in a wood-burnished salon.;

Omni Parker House

Established in 1855, this long-time Bostonian staple is in fact the longest continuously operating hotel, not just in the city, but in the United States. A onetime haunt of literary greats like Dickens and Emerson, it also has a huge Kennedy legacy – J.F.K. announced his candidacy for U.S. Congress in the press room and proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in the hotel's Parker's Restaurant, which serves up traditional American fare with a contemporary flair, including Boston Cream Pie (rumor has it this treat was created at this very eatery). Guest rooms, 551 in all, are colored in earth tones and feature custom cherry furnishings, plush bedding with triple sheets and a duvet comforter, and scattered heirloom decorative touches. Rooms with a view over Boston Common are the most coveted – be sure to request one when booking. 

Soniat House

Discreetly hidden behind a tall gate, the Soniat House offers all the Southern elegance that you might imagine of a New Orleans hotel. Built around private gardens with dribbling fountains, the hotel is grand and old-fashioned like a classic Creole home. In fact, the property is indeed comprised of three original Creole town-houses, dating back to the early 19th century and boasting authentic touches like their original spiral stairs, balconies, and patios. The property is made up of 33 distinctly different rooms – 21 standard rooms in the main house and 12 suites across the street. The suites are a bit more splendid, with high ceilings and large bathrooms; most have Jacuzzi tubs. All are filled with antique furnishings, full-size mirrors, Egyptian cottons by Frette, and plush European fabrics. Unique accents like antique books and candelabras add to the Old World charm.

Viceroy Palm Springs

This sophisticated boutique resort helped set the standard for successive Palm Springs refurbishments once Kelly Wearstler (of KWID Designs) set out on its extensive redesign in 2001 – the property now oozes chic Hollywood Regency style, reminiscent of its 1930s glamour era. It’s easy to see why former guests like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, and F.D.R sought out serenity at the hedge-row hidden desert retreat, with manicured grounds that are today comprised of three courtyards, a trio of swimming pools, two Jacuzzis, a spa, fitness room, and trendy restaurant (Citron). Guests can choose between standard rooms, studios, suites, or private villas, many of which have balconies – expect beds outfitted with Italian down, and mod black-and-white furnishings, offset by yellow accents.


Covering a full city block, and under Hilton ownership since 1949, this East Midtown dame swept onto the New York scene in 1931 and has played host to every U.S. president since Hoover, not to mention the Queen of England, and entertainment royalty from Cary Grant to Britney Spears; other milestones have included J.F.K. and Jackie’s wedding night and the penning of some of Cole Porter’s biggest hits; his old piano is still in the bar. Indeed, this Art Deco gem is the quintessence of Manhattan’s old-school high life and is still pretty darn grand over 70 years later, with modern updates like its swank Guerlain Spa, which debuted in September 2008. Overnight accommodations include a whopping 1,245 units (including 197 suites), individually appointed in traditional opulence which borrows from Europe and the Orient, with Deco and modern touches – most come with luxurious marble baths. The Waldorf Towers, an annex of an additional 180 units on floors 28 through 42, offer even higher levels of opulence, with a separate entrance, reception, and elevator banks.;

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