My name is Baz and I am a micromanager. The word “delegate” is anathema to me. Yet still I did the impossible, on my first trip to Europe since the pandemic: I relinquished control and trusted a hotel group to select my stays for me.
To be fair, though, Design Hotels is not your typical hotel chain. It’s not even a chain—even if, technically, it was recently acquired by Starwood Resorts. It’s a curated hospitality experience and collection of boutique properties that have been vetted for their fabulous style, local charm, ideal location, architectural splendor and overall je ne sais quoi. And whoever does that vetting is my new best friend, because their selections made my journey through four European cities this Fall utterly flawless: Mission Un-micromanage accomplished! Here’s why.
THE GUESTHOUSE, VIENNA
VIBE The name says it all. In Austrian culture, a guesthouse is your regular haunt—your home-away-from-home, that place filled with what they call Gemütlichkeit where everybody knows your name. The 39-room property, a former student dorm, thus strikes a perfect tone between cozy and elegant, classic and chic yet still playfully funky. Décor is awash in local designers, from the 30s-style cantilever chairs by Friedrich Kiesler in the majestic rooms, to the avant-garde photographs of modern-day Vienna by Wolfgang Zac adorning the walls.
’HOOD Talk about central. The Guesthouse is poised in the historic center of Vienna, between the State Opera and St. Stephan’s Cathedral, adjacent to the magnificent Albertina museum. Since my room had magnificent views of them, I perched myself in the cushy window nook and luxuriated in being in the heart of it all.
EATS This must be the trendiest breakfast scene in Vienna, I thought as I pulled up to the hotel’s bustling Brasserie & Bakery upon arrival. Happily joining the fray, I understood why: the place serves up stunningly seasonal local delights courtesy of Chef Markus Leitner. By morning this means truffle eggs, pumpkin seed-oil toast (it’s a Viennese thing) and—inevitably—Vienna sausage with horseradish. By night the space has an 18th-century, old-world feel, with a wood-fired oven and a menu specifying exactly where in Austria every delectable thing on your plate originates from: chanterelle tartare, chilled cucumber and wasabi soup, wiener schnitzel, monkfish with lentil and mango and octopus salad with yuzu cream.
SPECIAL TOUCHES These are the Design Hotels hallmarks—the things that make your stay inimitable. At The Guesthouse, this means four complimentary bottles per day of local wine accompanying your room—yes, I said four bottles per day. A Viennese coffee-grinding espresso machine producing the perfect morning brew. Books by Austrian writers, well placed in my room and scattered throughout the hotel. And locally made Lederhaas beauty products, a true feast for the senses.
HOTEL JOSEF, PRAGUE
VIBE Consider it a contradiction: In the heart of a surreally ornate city, famous for looking like it walked right out of five centuries ago, sits a sleek, minimalist hotel constructed from glass and steel by one of the Czech Republic’s most feted architects. It’s an impeccable contradiction, though: the hotel quietly welcomes as an opening act of sorts, then lets the city—in all its over-the-top gothic glory—be the main event. As Prague should be.
’HOOD All the famous architectural landmarks of the old city are at your doorstep, from the Astrological Clock Tower to the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle (not to mention more quality beer halls than you can count). Or, walk five minutes in the other direction and you’re in modern-day Prague, complete with chic wine bars and designer shops.
EATS Included in your stay is a divine breakfast spread boasting local cheeses and fresh-baked bread, along with menu items like egg royal with salmon and Hollandaise sauce, peanut-butter cheesecake waffles and a seasonal special that had me hooked: eggs with truffle butter and local mushrooms. Other meals can be had at the delectable Brasserie Maximillion next door, inside Hotel Josef’s sister property: salmon trout with fennel confit, grenaille and parsley velouté, or Duck breast from Vilímovský farm with Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage and nuts.
SPECIAL TOUCHES The sylist in me loved the pops of color throughout, from the bright-orange blanket and pillow on my bed to the plush pink chairs in the welcoming lobby. And 13 of the hotel’s rooms come with what proved a glorious gift: a small balcony hanging above the city, adorned by the gothic spires in the distance and serenaded by the chimes of ancient clocks. It was my dream writing nook.
MEMMO PRINCIPE REAL, LISBON
VIBE This is one stunningly sexy hotel. A portrait of a prince greets you on entrance. Sage green velvet seating in the lobby plays off blonde oak and black steel, creating a vintage effect that still feels very much modern-day seductive. Opened in 2017, the 41-room Memmo Principe Real is the third Memmo property in the city, and given its endearing modish luxury, I’ll wager it won’t be the last.
‘HOOD It’s basically the trendiest, hippest ‘hood in Lisbon—a city whose middle name is “uber-cool enclaves.” You’re high above it all and in walking distance from just about everything, and there are boutique shops and fabulous restaurants on every corner. Case in point: The Decadente, a funky little eatery set within The Independente Hostel & Suites, where all of the wine and spirits are local and Chef David Vieira blew me away with his ridiculously divine fusion of traditional Portuguese dishes accented by hints of Asian and Moroccan flavors. Chef Vieira also served me, literally, the best desert of my life: it’s called Rabanada, it’s made from a traditional bread from Madeira and it’s a lemony-sweet bread with smoked vanilla cream soaked in some absurdly aromatic lemon-infused deliciousness.
EATS The menu is lovely, but alas, it can barely complete with the breathtaking setting. Because Memmo Principe Real is perched high above the city, its restaurant terrace beckons with views to die for (not to mention a sexy little lap pool). Savor your delicious breakfast there, and be sure to make room for the Pasteis de Nata that the waiter personally escorts to every table, each morning. Lunch and dinner menus feature a seamless blend of local specialties like cuttlefish tempura and fusion dishes like salted shrimp in beer and lemon sauce.
SPECIAL TOUCHES I was welcomed by a small bottle of Port wine accompanied by four chocolates, perfectly placed on Portuguese tile. After that, there was more on my desk: a tonic to blend with another bottle of port wine, on a wooden cutting board with a knife and a lime. Each night I was sent to bed with little notes on my pillow, telling me about Lisbon’s many-chaptered history and not-to-be-missed sites. Free walking tours come with your stay—and did I mention free local chocolate, too? And because this neighborhood is the neighborhood, there were cool random happenings on the glorious terrace, like a local DJ set with a happy hour.
VIBE Imagine a hotel that walked right off the runway of Milan Fashion Week. Down to its futuristic-sounding name, STRAFhotel is it: a 64-room property fit for a European fashion capitol. Architect Vincenzo de Cotiis combines materials and textures to dramatic effect: bare cement with brass, oxidized copper and black slate, gauze suspended between sheets of glass, industrial iron panels and mirrors that play magnificently with sense of space. The result is a hotel that’s not just a place to lay your head—it’s performance art.
‘HOOD Outside your door, literally, is the ultimate icon of Milan: the famous Duomo cathedral. At all hours it’s bustling with activity: musicians playing Verdi, tourists ogling the magnificent spires of the iconic structure, locals sipping Aperol Spritzes in the many cafes and bars populating the area. STRAFhotel is also within walking distance of Milan’s varied neighborhoods, from the high-end trattorias of upscale Brera to the funky bars of Porto Romano.
EATS I vote StrafBar and StrafRestaurant your trendiest pick for an aperitivo or bite in the Duomo area. Take a seat on the comfy couches and enjoy breakfast service—pastries, breads and coffees—or an un-fussy lunch menu: club sandwiches, tandoori chicken bites with basmati rice, Caesar salads with chicken or salmon.
SPECIAL TOUCHES This November the hotel’s basement level is transformed into a stylishly minimalist wellness center, complete with sauna, Turkish bath, relaxation area and swimming pool featuring counter-current and whirlpool technology. You won’t believe you’re in the heart of a cosmopolitan Italian city.
VIBE Old greets new with vivacious Italian flair: a 19th-century steel-and-brick building featuring a magnificent spiral staircase and gloriously high ceilings, transformed to a hipster-friendly haunt, never too chic to be playful. My room’s décor featured a giant moon, a glass astronaut and other celestially-themed adornments. Contemporary pieces by Italian street artists like Alice Pasquini keep things local and modish.
’HOOD The Regola neighborhood, once one of the most robust Jewish ghettos in the world, is now a hipster haunt chock-a-block with boutique shops. It’s also still home to a bustling street of delectable Jewish eateries serving up the unofficial national dish of Rome, aka one of my favorite foods in the world: fried artichoke, Jewish style. And it’s literally within 15 minutes walking from almost every major Roman landmark you’ll want to pay respects to, from the Tivoli Fountain to Piazza Navona and Trastevere.
EATS By day the lobby’s Dal Market is remote-work heaven: laptop space galore, streetside views, a friendly clientele and an 80s-rock soundtrack. The menu is smart enough to not even attempt to compete with the feted dining scene you came to Rome for, which means that on that day you find yourself—gasp!—just a wee bit overdosed on Italian deliciousness, stop in for deliciously un-local foods: Thai or kale salad and, by night, Mexican specialties like tacos, empanadas and mezcal cocktails.
SPECIAL TOUCHES During the warmer months you can enjoy a margarita and a sunset on the hotel’s fabulous rooftop, which becomes Hey Guey restaurant. Higher room categories feature a stylish in-room bar complete with cocktail guide, impressive blending selections and—yes, they thought of this—wellness shots for the morning after.