Best hotel bars: With a few exceptions, bars in hotels are terrible

Hollywood his lied to me on a number of occasions. It has grossly misrepresented the effects of radiation exposure (the vast majority of people don't, in fact, turn into superheroes). It has persuaded me that the safest way to escape an explosion is to walk calmly away from it. It has convinced me that no one actually says "goodbye" before they hang up the phone.

And, it has set up hopelessly unfair expectations of hotel bars.

You know, instinctively, that this is true. Watch a few Hollywood movies and you would think the bar at your hotel would be the ultimate place to hang out and meet interesting, beautiful people, a place with a fun crowd and a classy atmosphere.

Picture Lost in Translation, where a sad, lonely Bill Murray gets to hang out with a restless Scarlett Johansson (and, to a lesser extent, a restless Scarlett Johansson gets to hang out with a sad, lonely Bill Murray). Consider Up in the Air, where a ruggedly handsome George Clooney gets chatting to beautiful Vera Farmiga as they stop for a drink in the bar of the Dallas Hilton.

This is a Hollywood trope almost as old as Hollywood itself: the chance meeting in the hotel bar, the coming together of two beautiful strangers who go on to adventures exciting and strange, the idea that the bar at your accommodation is a reasonable place to hang out by yourself and drink nice drinks and just wait for something interesting to happen.

I have to tell you, that's not true. Hollywood has lied.

I think about this often, every time I make the mistake of ordering an overpriced cocktail in a lobby bar and then sit there either by myself or surrounded by conference bros in suits and wonder where all the chance encounters have gone. I think about Lost in Translation and Up in the Air. I think I've been tricked.

To be fair, I came to the hotel bar experience with unrealistic expectations, even without the Hollywood influence. My first brushes with bars at accommodation providers was at backpacker hostels, and they really are the sorts of places you would want to hang out, where chance encounters do happen, where much fun can be had.

I've had some wild nights at hostel bars in Thailand, in Argentina, in London. If you know, you know.


And so there was this idea that grown-up hotels would offer a more grown-up experience of that, with lobby bars or rooftop establishments that are classy and fun and filled with interesting wanderers of the world getting together to swap stories and meet characters.

Friends, it isn't true. Hotel bars are the worst. They're miserable, lonely places where people seem to just stare into their drinks and ponder their bad decisions (like coming to this bar). These establishments have either had not enough work put into them or far too much, a feeling that everything has been designed rather than evolved, with staff that are either entirely uninterested or are overtrained mixologists itching to shake up something ridiculous for people who couldn't care less.

You sit there feeling like you're drinking in a hotel lobby, and that you should probably down your beverage and get out there into the city proper as soon as possible. I usually do. Get out. Anywhere. Have a real experience.

There are exceptions to this rule. The Palace Hotel Tokyo is this spectacular five-star hotel near Ginza. In a dark alcove near the lobby you'll find the Royal Bar, a classy joint that opened in the 1960s, with dark wood surfaces and leather chairs. You actually feel good in there, that you shouldn't be somewhere else – which, in Tokyo, is saying something.

Most W hotels tend to put a fair bit of thought and skill into their drinking establishments, though DJs and pumping dance tunes don't exactly float this traveller's boat. The SkyBar at the Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur is pretty cool, with its booth seats overlooking Petronas Towers, and mixed crowd of travellers and locals. Hotels in Dubai tend to attract a pretty decent mix too, given the lack of other drinking options in the city.

And any hotel with a captured crowd – say, at a ski resort, or a wilderness lodge – will tend to have a good atmosphere.

But the Dallas Hilton? Or any other run-of-the-mill hotel boozer? These are not the kinds of places you want to be spending your precious time when you're travelling. In my experience at least, you don't meet interesting people. You don't feel energised by a charismatic crowd of world travellers far from home.

You feel like you should probably order a taxi. And have a word to those Hollywood directors.

Do you go to hotel bars when you travel? What are they like? Have you found any good ones? What are your favourites?




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