Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get news about destinations opening and closing, inspiration for future adventures, plus the latest in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.
Hotels offer us the chance to check out of our daily lives into something more glamorous and exhilarating, to wrap ourselves in the drama and allure of past guests and events.
While many hotels have rich and varied stories behind every door, there are a few around the world that stand out for the momentous, scandalous or even tragic scenes which once unfolded there, but have now become a key part of their appeal.
Here are 13 of our favorites.
Hotel Chelsea, New York
Manhattan’s legendary Hotel Chelsea reopened earlier this year after a major refurb that’s revived the 134-year-old grande dame while losing none of its bohemian spirit.
With the opening of its first ever Lobby Bar – the vibes are vintage chandeliers, original mosaic floors and wood-paneled walls – anyone can now swing by to soak up the atmosphere of this legendary spot whose long-stay residents have included Mark Twain, Jackson Pollock, Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan and Madonna.
Morbid pilgrimages to Room 100 – where punk scenester Nancy Spungen was stabbed, with her boyfriend Sid Vicious later charged with murder – are curtailed by the room being demolished. Trysts, such as Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen enjoyed on the fourth floor (inspiring one of Cohen’s most poignant songs) are fine, though.
The Hotel Chelsea, 222 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011
Cliveden House & Spa, Berkshire, England
Cliveden House will change your mind about airport hotels
This award-winning five-star stately home hotel sits on 376 acres of British National Trust grounds and declares proudly on its website that “our story is one of over 350 years of powerful personalities, iconic parties and scandalous affairs.”
The most famous of these is the Profumo Affair of the Swinging ’60s, when a prominent British politician embarked on a liaison with a 19-year-old model, rumored to have connections with a Russian spy, after meeting by the Cliveden pool.
The hotel is more decorous these days, but still attracts the most elite of guests: Meghan Markle spent the night here in 2018 before her marriage to Prince Harry. Read more about Cliveden’s colorful history in our CNN Travel feature.
Cliveden House & Spa, Taplow, Berkshire, England SL6 0JF
Watergate Hotel, Washington DC
The Watergate Hotel’s Room 214 – now named the Scandal Room – is where in June 1972 the orchestrators of the infamous Watergate break-in kept in touch by radio with the burglars at the Democratic National Committee headquarters across the way.
The room was made over in 2017 by “Scandal” costume designer Lyn Paolo and is now a stylish homage to the 1970s and America’s greatest political upset. Would-be spies can enjoy the Scandal Suite’s binoculars, manual typewriter, reel-to-reel tape recorder and curated book collection, or simply indulge in the regular amenities like plush robes, 300-thread count sheets and the spa-like bathroom.
The Watergate Hotel, 2650 Virginia Ave NW, Washington, DC 20037
Casa Malca, Tulum, Mexico
Casa Malca is a chic boutique hotel in the ever-popular Caribbean coastal town of Tulum, filled with contemporary artworks from art dealer owner Lio Malca’s personal collection.
The mansion is believed to have been previously owned by a very different kind of dealer, a man you may be familiar with from the TV show “Narcos.” Yes, this is reputed to have been drug lord Pablo Escobar’s seaside hideaway, abandoned after his death in 1993. Reinforced bullet-proof walls and escape tunnels are out; Persian rugs, tree bark-covered walls and meditation spaces are in.
There is an eclectic mix of 71 suites and beach rooms to choose from.
Casa Malca, Km 9.5 Hotel Zone Tulum-Boca Paila, 77780 Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Ritz Paris, France
Princess Diana ate her last meal here in the Imperial Suite. Writer Marcel Proust wrote sections of his epic work “Remembrance of Things Past.” King Edward VII is said to have got wedged in a too-small bathtub with his lover. And when Paris was occupied by Germans during World War II, this most eminent of hotels was – like many other desirable locales – taken over by high-ranking members of the Nazi party, including Hitler’s second-in-command Hermann Goering.
Fashion designer Coco Chanel lived at the hotel for 34 years, with her residency beginning in the pre-war times of 1937. She became cozy with the occupying Germans and is alleged to have worked as a Nazi informant.
Legend has it that in 1944, the American writer Ernest Hemingway, a long-standing fan of the Ritz, took it upon himself to “liberate” the bar from the Germans, invading the bar and freeing plenty of dry martinis – although the Nazis by that time had already vacated the premises.
Ritz Paris, 15 Place Vendôme, 75001 Paris, France
Cadogan, A Belmond Hotel, London
Irish playwright Oscar Wilde is said to have decried the “harsh and ugly light” of the new-fangled electrics at the Ritz Paris, but London hotels featured among his favored haunts. He frequented the Hotel Cafe Royal on Piccadilly – which today has an elegant lounge named in his honor, serving afternoon tea – and the privacy of its hotel rooms were ideal for clandestine assignations with the capital’s male sex workers.
However, it was at the Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge where the celebrated wit was arrested on charges of sodomy and gross indecency, leading later to his trial and imprisonment. His final address, in exile, was at the now chic boutique L’Hôtel (formerly L’Hôtel d’Alsace) in the Paris neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Pres; an oft-told story has it that he declared himself at the end as “dying above his means.”
Cadogan, A Belmond Hotel, London, 75 Sloane Street, Chelsea, London SW1X 9SF
Europa Hotel, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast’s Europa Hotel celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021 and it had more to celebrate than most: This plucky survivor is known as the world’s most bombed hotel. It opened at the height of the 30-year conflict known as The Troubles, during which many of Northern Ireland’s hotels were bombed or forced to close, and was targeted 33 times between 1970 and 1994.
Then-US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary chose the Europa as their base on their 1990s visits to encourage the peace process and the suite they used is now named after them.
In modern, peaceful Northern Ireland, the Europa’s turbulent past is thankfully long behind it: It’s now a polished four-star stay offering guests a warm welcome in one of this friendly city’s best locations.
Europa Hotel, Great Victoria St, Belfast, Northern Ireland BT2 7AP
Hôtel des Mille Collines, Kigali, Rwanda
The name Hôtel des Mille Collines might not ring a bell but “Hotel Rwanda” – the 2004 film it inspired starring Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo – probably does. During the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi people during the Rwandan Civil War, this luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital became a shelter for around 2,000 people.
The fast-growing tourism destination of Rwanda is known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills” – or “Milles Collines” in French – and the poolside rooms at this four-star hotel offer impressive views of that celebrated rolling countryside.
Hôtel des Mille Collines, 2 KN 6 Avenue, Kigali, Rwanda
Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles, California
Billed on its website as “always a safe haven,” the near-century-old Chateau Marmont’s reputation was built as being where Hollywood high-rollers went for hush-hush high jinks. Jean Harlow, the original “blonde bombshell,” took up residence in 1933. “Psycho” actor Anthony Perkins and his boyfriend Tab Hunter were able to enjoy the freedom of a discreet affair. But the spotlight swung on the Marmont in 1982 when the comedian John Belushi died there of a drug overdose.
These days things are a little calmer – although Lindsay Lohan did still check in after her arrest for drunk driving in 2007. Rooms are pure Golden Era Hollywood, although online reviews suggest some visitors are less impressed by a little tarnish around some of the hotel’s gilded edges.
Chateau Marmont, 8221 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046
The Villa Casa Casuarina, Miami Beach, Florida
This luxury $1,000-plus-a-night boutique hotel on Ocean Drive was, until 1997, the home of fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was shot dead on the front steps by spree killer Andrew Cunanan.
Guests can now sleep in Gianni’s former bedroom, or the bedroom that belonged to his sister Donatella. And then there’s the suite Madonna used when she came to visit. Or, for a lower budget way to enjoy that trademark Versace opulence, have a drink in the Onyx Bar – once Versace’s kitchen – or sit down for a meal at Gianni’s restaurant.
The Villa Casa Casuarina ,1116 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, Florida 33139
El Cortez Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is a byword around the world for lurid excess and high living and, at Sin City’s longest continually running hotel and casino and the only casino listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, there’s been more than 80 years of romping.
Once owned by mobster Bugsy Siegel, El Cortez recently underwent a $28 million renovation, including updating its 47 original hotel rooms to their mid-century glory. If you win big on the tables, the suite to stay at is the $1,500-a-night Jackie Gaughan Suite. Casino magnate Gaughan lived there in the 1980s and today it’s 2,700 square feet of pastel pink upholstery, brass fittings and oversized velvet and shag pillows.
El Cortez Hotel & Casino, 600 East Fremont St, Las Vegas, Nevada 89101
Hotel Majapahit Surabaya – MGallery, Surabaya, Indonesia
Founded in 1910 as Hotel Oranje, when Indonesia was under Dutch rule, it was renamed Hotel Yamato during the World War II Japanese occupation of Indonesia and used as the headquarters of the Japanese forces.
It then stepped into history with the “Hotel Yamato incident” of 1945 when pro-independence revolutionaries are said to have torn away the blue stripe of the Dutch flag above the hotel to create Indonesia’s red and white standard. The next month, the Battle of Surabaya would be a key moment in Indonesia’s ultimately successful War of Independence.
Hotel Majapahit Surabaya – MGallery, Tunjungan St No.65, Genteng, Surabaya City, East Java 60275, Indonesia
Saint Georges Hotel & Resort, Beirut, Lebanon
While it might seem surprising today, back in the 1950s and ’60s Beirut was a playground for the international jet set. The Saint George was the first beach club to open on the coast of Beirut in the 1930s and Brigitte Bardot, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif were among the superstar names who hung out at this Middle Eastern hotspot. Read more here in our CNN Travel story from 2015.
Sadly the hotel was ravaged during the 1975-1990 civil war and a long-running legal dispute with government-backed development and construction giant Solidere has stalled reconstruction efforts, perhaps permanently.
The Saint Georges is located in Ain el Mreisse, at the end of Zeitouna Bay complex, Beirut, Lebanon