Off Duty Travel: Escape to a Grand Hotel… for USD10 (Tip Included)

Want to soak up Wes Anderson-style ambiance? While away an hour in the lobby with a pot of tea (or a couple of pricier Proseccos). Here, an expert sipper and people-watcher shares her tips.


A LINGERING TASTE The writer with her bottomless cup of Assam tea at Margaux in New York’s Marlton Hotel. F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal

By guest author Tara Isabella Burton from the Wall Street Journal.

I’VE ALWAYS had a weakness for elegant, old-world hotels. Maybe I’ve read too much Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist who set his work (like his 1927 novella, “Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman”) in such lavish places. Or perhaps I’ve viewed “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson’s 2014 confectionery pastiche, too many times. Noting the ornate trappings of these architectural wonders vastly improves my travel experiences: a concierge’s jauntily colored livery; a portrait of a long-dead king in a hallway; the tasseled room keys (never keycards!); or a suite named after an obscure writer who stayed for one night in 1883.

Rarely, though, have I slumbered in one of these old-world gems.

As a young travel writer, my accommodations tended toward the spartan variety. But I didn’t mind. Any cash left over for decadence I spent on my own ritual: I would make a beeline to my destination’s most extravagantly nostalgic grand hotel, and spend an hour or two lingering, reading or writing, over a single—often surprisingly affordable—drink. Most of the time, I sipped tea.

Hotel bars proved the ideal combination of luxury and frugality, ideally suited for a languid afternoon visit.

Through my lean years, hotel bars, whether in the lobby or adjacent to the restaurant, proved the ideal combination of luxury and frugality, ideally suited for languid visits. Waitstaff came by at discreet interludes; many who were accustomed to the demands of the well-heeled seemed relieved to have a customer who wanted nothing more than tea and solitude.

And, while the hotels’ ornate menus pushed bespoke cocktails or “high tea” extravaganzas at prices too elevated for me, they all offered more-modest tea options that cost only slightly more than a fancy espresso at a coffee bar. Sipped slowly, a single elegant pot—holding two or three cups—might last me two hours. Even factoring in the requisite generous tip, my gratitude for an afternoon well-spent, I could manage to spend less than USD 10.

In Paris, I spent afternoons working on drafts of a novel at L’Hotel, a phantasmagoria of art nouveau, purple draperies and emerald velvet that is said to be the last place Oscar Wilde lived. In Jerusalem, I walked from my efficient pilgrims’ hostel in the Old City to the American Colony Hotel, where a room costs around USD 400 but fresh mint tea in the courtyard exacts less than USD 5. In Vienna, I settled into the lapidary Blue Bar of the Hotel Sacher and ordered its refreshing Sacher-blend tinged with jasmine. In Oxford, I dallied in the Randolph Hotel’s wood-paneled Morse Bar, savoring its bracing English Breakfast brew.

Sometimes, the people-watching took precedence. I furtively studied dowagers with incorrigible small dogs, well-heeled couples on stilted first dates and families who were busy burying simmering tension under too many rounds of Champagne. When such scenes proved too distracting, tea quieted my nerves and kept me focused on my work.

In Jerusalem, the American Colony Hotel is a lovely spot for a cup of fresh mint tea.

Not all my hotel visits demanded quite so much sobriety. In Italy, I’d spring for an aperitivo—prosecco, or a Venetian-style spritz bianco, a blend of white wine, sparkling water and often a single olive. Complimentary snacks accompany these sippers: savory biscuits, say, or potato chips, whose fat and salt content is said to enhance the drinks’ flavor.

My favorite Italian hotel bars—Florence’s Grand Hotel Baglioni or the Eitch Boromini in Rome—occupy quiet rooftops, open to the public yet rarely advertised, places I could read or write while watching the city turn pink at sunset.

In Venice, I once got lost while searching for Harry’s Bar and wound up in the Baglioni Hotel Luna in a 12th-century palazzo overlooking the moonlit Grand Canal. The gregarious barman offered to give me a tour of the upstairs rooms, many decorated by students of the artist Gianbattista Tiepolo, a member of the Venetian School in the 18th century.

As I’ve gotten older, and my budget has expanded to absorb a few more luxuries, I’ve never lost my fondness for the hotel-bar tea. Even in my own New York City, I enjoy parking myself at familiar haunts. How better to spend a free weekday afternoon than over a pot of tea at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel or a piping hot brew at the Marlton Hotel in the heart of Greenwich Village, once home to the comic Lenny Bruce? The lobby now bustles with remote workers who have the same M.O. as I do. Sure, a beverage might cost a dollar or two more than the equivalent drink at a Blank Street Coffee. But compared to a night’s stay, it’s a bargain.