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Discover the Enduring Allure of These Hotel Bars

The best hotel bars are low key luxurious, well stocked, and provide a quiet refuge from bustling sidewalk bars

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By House & Garden | February 12, 2024 | Travel Leisure

At the end of a very bad day, there are few things more soothing than a visit to one of the really good hotel bars. The drinks are first-class, the atmosphere is generally quiet and civilised, people are nicely dressed, and above all, the service is charming.

To go to a bar in a hotel like the Mount Nelson or the Winchester is to access, for a comparatively small sum of money, a world of luxury and ease that most of us are not able to enjoy on a daily basis.

A classic bar at the Four Season’s Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. Image via Four Seasons.

Indeed, the first and perhaps most pleasurable thing about going to a hotel bar is the service. You usually get the sense that they want to give you a table, even if there isn’t actually one available. Perhaps, they ask, you might like to wait in the lounge for a short while until something opens up? Some people might value exclusivity as one of the essential qualities of a luxurious experience, but it’s the lack of exclusivity here, the fact that the bar is open to everyone who is willing to pay R120 for a drink (rather than anyone who can afford R15000 for a room), that makes the visit so delightful.

Once in, you know you’ll be well looked after by people in smart jackets who know exactly what they are doing. You will never get the feeling that you're being rushed through your drinks, or expected to leave at a certain point, as you might in a trendier venue, and if you’re lucky enough to find a bartender who’s been there a while, there are excellent conversations and stories to be had. Until his departure last year, there were plenty of people who went to Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris to talk to the legendary head bartender there, Colin Field.

Planet Bar at the Belmond Mount Nelson

Hotel bars have a certain global level of civilisation and polish that gives you the sense of being lifted out of ordinary life. If you want to experience any sort of authentic South African life, to take the most familiar example, you should probably go to a wine farm: Babylonstoren, for example, if you wish to immerse yourself in the Cape’s historic winemaking culture or enjoy a very good farm-to-table experience.

But if, on the other hand, you want to be cosseted and held by Cape Town’s world-class hotels, go to the Mount Nelson, a Belmond Hotel where the Planet Bar is an elevated versions of the life of the city.

In the grande dame hotels around the world, the bars can in fact be repositories of history in a unique way. Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle in New York, with its walls covered in murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, the illustrator of the Madeline books, conjures up a lost world of mid-century joie de vivre.

In Sri Lanka, a suggestion of the late 19th century lives on in the faded grandeur of the Galle Face Hotel’s veranda, where you can listen to the waves of the Laccadive Sea crashing against the rocks a hundred feet away. Bar Hemingway will forever echo the story of Ernest Hemingway celebrating the departure of the Nazis from Paris with a formidable tally of martinis.

Gigi’s Rooftop at Gorgeous George

Of course such bars have fewer real denizens of the city in them than other bars, but this is part of the fun. The fact that hotels are filled with travellers makes them places of immense possibility. People-watching in a hotel bar is always fascinating: everybody could be there for practically any reason. A little light eavesdropping while trying to guess what has brought your neighbours there can be an entertaining occupation, in a way that it never could be in your local bar, where you can sum most people up at a glance.

It's worth remembering that a little light eavesdropping is actually a possibility in a hotel bar, where the noise levels are usually hushed and there is no loud soundtrack being pumped out overhead. As a side note, in a world where women often feel uncomfortable going to bars to have a drink by themselves, hotel bars in their anonymity offer a kind of security that other kinds of bars do not.

The Lighthouse Bar at the Oyster Box Hotel

Hotel bars are without a doubt the best places to go if you want a really good cocktail. I don’t mean the kind of cocktail that has twelve different ingredients, most of which you’ve never heard of, and a name that involves some tedious wordplay. Certainly these do appear on the menus of hotel bars, but I’ve never had one that could beat a really good dry martini or a French 75 or a Last Word or a Sazerac, made by an expert.

Hotel bars are places where you can always depend on the bartender knowing how to make your favourite classics. There can be an element of theatre to the presentation (The Connaught’s martini trolley is justifiably famous and a lot of fun to order from) but there doesn’t need to be. As a bonus, there are always little snacks to be had, nuts and olives and curiously moreish crackers, usually in reassuringly weighty silver bowls. Classic cocktails, made well and served in an impeccably civilised environment–what more could a discerning drinker want?

Harvey’s Bar at The Winchester Hotel

While Cape Town has plenty of bars to choose from, this one is still a favourite: Within a historic hotel and intimate, Harvey’s Bar at the Winchester Hotel has an old-fashioned glamour that is hard to resist. Larger and livelier than many of its Sea Point counterparts, the Winchester hotel Bar has a stylish sensibility thanks to the blossoming bougainvillea that line its walls. A brilliant bar to visit with friends, where you can cosy up with world class gin and tonics beneath a bucolic bougainvillea within this exclusive courtyard.

This story was originally inspired by House & Garden UK.