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The (hi)story of the grand hotel

The (hi)story of the grand hotel

grand hotel

Few institutions are as magical as the grand hotel. A brainchild of European culture, the mother of all hotels came into being in the mid 19th century, housing everything travellers needed to feel comfortable. But where was the first grand hotel located? How did it look like? And does it hold a place in the future of hospitality? You’ll find the answers below.

The great advantage of a hotel is that it’s a refuge from home life

George Bernard Shaw

The birth of the grand hotel

The grand hotel is a tale of magic and memories. Coming into being in the mid 19th century, this type of hotel quickly became sought after due to its high level of comfort and different services under one roof. While it mostly appealed to wealthy travellers to begin with, it soon evolved into being a very democratic institution where people of all ages, cultures and religions would stay side by side. Even in 2023, this description of the grand hotel seems very befitting.

In 1774, David Low opened the world’s first ‘Grand Hotel’ (as it was called) in London, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the railway some hundred years later that the actual grand hotel saw the light of day. Suddenly, with an influx of railway travellers throughout all major cities in Europe, the need for grand hotels had been created. Every larger city with respect for itself needed such an institution.

The grand hotel as a concept was birthed and refined in Europe where traditions for service were already present. The first grand property opened in Vienna in 1870 and it had 300 similar rooms, not to forget a steam elevator serving the upper floors. Many other grand hotels followed – some of these are still in operation today – but the most important thing that had happened in 1870 was the launch of the luxury hotel. Such a hotel had the power to:

  • Accommodate all travellers into equal rooms
  • Actively serve guests rather than just accepting them
  • Offer a “home away from home”

With the grand hotel (or luxury hotel, if you will), the traditional innkeeper became a hotelier, and his finest task was to cater to the needs and well-being of his guests.

The concept of grandeur

A grand hotel can house 50 rooms or 500. Size doesn’t matter, but grandeur does. If a property was elegant, luxurious, impressive… it was grand. Naturally, a high level of service had to be present as well – and that’s still the case today.

In Europe, the grand hotel interior reflected that of a European nobleman, but in Africa and Asia, the interiors were more meant to satisfy the needs of colonial travellers. Around this time, the term ‘home away from home’ was coined. And a grand hotel truly was – for those who could afford it.

There was a practicality to all the grandeur; rooms weren’t only rented out on a daily basis but also long-term, which meant that certain guests would stay there permanently. For them, the grand hotel was actually a permanent home. Just think of Coco Chanel who stayed at Ritz Paris until her death, and Salvadore Dali who moved in at the equally iconic Paris location, Le Meurice.

Le Meurice in Paris

Curious to know about Europe’s oldest grand hotels? Take a look below.

  • Brenner’s Park (Baden-Baden, Germany) from 1834
  • Le Meurice (Paris, France) from 1835
  • Hotel Ritz Paris (Paris, France) from 1898
  • Grand Hotel du Lac (Vevey, Switzerland) from 1868
  • Hotel Sacher (Vienna, Austria) from 1876
  • Grand Hotel du Louvre (Paris, France) from 1855
  • Grand Hotel Wien (Vienna, Austria) from 1870
  • Claridge’s (London, England) from 1856
  • Brown’s Hotel (London, England) from 1837
  • The Langham (London, England) from 1865
  • Hotel d’Angleterre (Copenhagen, Denmark) from 1755/1875
  • Hotel Bellevue des Alpes (Switzerland) from 1840
  • Corinthia Hotel Budapest (Budapest, Hungary) from 1896
Brown’s Hotel in London

First come first served

The grand hotel was always first in line when it came to amenities and inventions. While today’s average luxury hotel room includes a flatscreen, an iPad and other technological wonders, there were other luxuries some 130 years ago. The en-suite bathroom, for example. Prior to the grand luxury hotel, hotel guests had to share one bathroom on the corridor – and only from the 1880s, hot running water was made available for guests! Ironically enough, not everyone was pleased with the latter.

Oscar Wilde said; “What a nonsense! If I want hot water, I’ll ring for it!”
Luxury hotels were also among the first in a city to receive a telephone line, and they were large consumers of electricity when that was made available. As sustainability continues to grow, the large energy consumption of grand hotels is a highly debated topic amongst hoteliers and industry professionals. New times demand new (and better) solutions.

The demise and the resurrection

A lot has changed in the world since the opening of the first grand hotel in the mid-19th century. These hotels had their glory days between 1850 and 1920 – a golden age where travel was still quite new and reserved for the wealthy. With the increase of global tourism and introduction to other kinds of accommodation (budget, boutique etc.), many of these grand old dames have fallen into neglect. Be it due to political or economical issues, many of these beautiful old hotels are now closed, but a trend is emerging; a genuine interest amongst global travellers to experience true hospitality and a high level of service like in “the good old days”. I personally believe that the grand hotel will never demise, merely change its appearance a bit and follow modern trends and demands in order to survive.

The skating waiters of Grand Hotel, St. Moritz in Switzerland (1932)

Let me give you an example; The Grand Hotel in Vienna (the first grand hotel in Europe!) was sadly turned into an office building after WWII. In 1994, it re-opened as a luxury hotel and it’s still going strong today. The iconic Adler Hotel in Berlin had to wait half a century to be re-built after being completely destroyed in 1945. It opened as a Kempinski hotel in 1997 and is now again one of the finest addresses in the capital.

Grandeur is, in its very essence, a quality of great beauty – and that will never go out of style. Inevitably linked to luxury, grandeur is a concept as old as time. Its real force is its durability and flexibility. Thus, the grand hotel is entering a new era led by passionate hoteliers from all over the globe.

I’m excited to see what the future holds. Aren’t you?

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