Every time I check into a hotel in Paris I experience a little frisson, the French word for a thrill.
Whether the hotel is small and modest, hidden down a cobblestone lane where I have to bump along my luggage, or grand and palatial, with a phalanx of porters to take my things, the level of nervous anticipation is the same.
Whatever happens, I know I'm going to have a memorable experience.
At the high end, Paris hotels can be palaces where you're swept into a state of temporary aristocracy, as if in a dream. On the other hand, if you find yourself in a truly terrible little hotel room over a noisy market street, where the concierge is disinterested in anything including fixing the plumbing, you can put it down to experience and shrug it off as being "so French". It makes for a good story.
The much-discussed Parisian rudeness is in fact quite rare. An ingrained formality that even those grouchy clerks in two-star hotels practise can be mistaken for rudeness. No "hi there" here – it's "madame" or "mademoiselle" (they always discretely err on the side of youth for those of us past the first flush of it). This formality makes me feel special the moment I walk through the doors, simply because it's so outside my everyday experience at home.
Sometimes, of course, the staff can come across as snooty, disinterested. Push back – be snootier. It's a game. French concierges will respect you more if you expect high standards from them.
In 2017, Paris had 1999 hotels of two stars or above. The star rating doesn't always indicate the style of the hotel. Some of lowest rated may not have room service or hairdryers, but they might have oodles of charm – rickety but beautiful old furniture, impractical but lovely casement windows, creaking floorboards.
The Parisians both love and disdain old furniture and fabrics, and then mix them artlessly with contemporary items in a style the rest of the world tries to copy, often unsuccessfully. What's mere discomfort when the aesthetic is so lovely?
French design history isn't limited to the Louis periods either – there's the Belle Epoque or the swinging '60s of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin, for instance. There are hotels in the style of 1970s nightclubs and 19th-century bordellos. The boutique hotel was literally invented by the French, and they're so good at creating small hotels with quirky character.
In the luxury category, the grand Parisian hotels, some of them designated palaces, are superbly, sometimes absurdly, opulent. If I'm lucky enough to find myself in one of these, I usually spend my entire stay with my jaw agape at the exquisite details - maids in their crisp aprons and caps, extravagant floral arrangements at every turn, monogrammed pats of butter at breakfast. The last time I stayed in one such hotel, they'd embroidered my initials on the bed linen.
Service can be a mixed bag in Parisian hotels. They're not always as good at it as they think they are. A few years ago, staying in one of the most lauded hotels, I was charged €40 for a limp salad and had to call room service twice before they finally, grudgingly, delivered it. Sometimes I wish the Parisians were more like the Italians and Brits, who are better at providing service with warmth, in my experience. But a Paris hotel wouldn't be a Paris hotel without these nuances.
Probably the most artful thing about Parisian hotels is that they're in Paris. They're housed in buildings with glorious histories, whether it's a 15th-century house with low ceilings and beams, an elegant Haussmann apartment block, or an actual palace in which someone royal once lived. Open your window and you're looking at tiled rooftops, parks, cobbled courtyards, a grand boulevard, the Seine or the Place Vendome.
It's an unfair advantage. Here are 10 hotels with true Parisian flair.
LE NARCISSE BLANC
Le Narcisse Blanc.
This small hotel in a bourgeois neighbourhood near the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides is infused with French style. It takes its name from Cleo de Merode, an actress, dancer and artist of the early 1900s who inspired Degas, Klimt and Proust, and who was known as the "pretty little Narcissus". Very secluded, and facing a courtyard garden, it feels like a private home. It's also feminine and youthful, with elegant cream and grey decor punctuated by black velvets and tweeds, and narcissus flowers captured in the handles of balustrades. There's a light-filled tea room and restaurant overlooking the garden, a spa and a 13-metre pool in the basement. Rooms from $509 a night. See slh.com
Fauchon L'Hotel. Photo: Gilles Trillard
This dazzling pink, black and gold hotel is the first foray into the hospitality business by Fauchon, the renowned French gourmet food company, and it's a macaron-toss across Place de Madeleine and Fauchon's flagship store. The hotel's philosophy is devised around decadence and delicious food, and it's evident from the first plate of macarons presented on check-in that this is not just a hotel stay but a feast. Plush pink-toned rooms feature full-sized gourmet bars stocked with a complimentary array of Fauchon goodies, which are restocked when you work your way through them. Breakfast coffee comes with the madeleine of the day, and waiters in the terrace cafe constantly tempt you with sweet treats. The hotel is supremely Instagrammable and a unique experience, especially if you love the idea of staying in a beautifully-presented Fauchon chocolate box. Rooms from from $464 a night. See lhw.com
HOTEL BEL AMI
The swinging, clear Perspex egg chair in the white and midnight blue lobby of this small St Germain hotel gives it a Parisian '60s feel but the hotel's history goes back to the 19th century, when it was a printing works. Guy de Maupassant's famous novel Bel Ami was printed here in 1885, hence the hotel's name. The public spaces are filled with deep armchairs perfect for reading and shelves piled with art books, continuing the literary theme. There's a cosy bar and the street-facing restaurant, The Mots Passant, is a popular brunch spot. Rooms vary in size, some look over the narrow street, others over Place Saint Germain-des-Pres. What's best is its brilliant location, around the corner from the great cafes of Saint-Germain and the best of the Left Bank, including all the fascinating little boutiques running off the boulevard. Rooms from $409 a night. See hotelbelami-paris.com
This imposing Art Nouveau hotel is unique in that it's the only five-star grand hotel on the Rive Gauche, yet it retains the bohemian feel of the neighbourhood. The 1910 building has had some dark days, having been the headquarters of the German Abwehr (counter intelligence) during world War II , but an exacting and costly renovation sees it emerge as a true beauty. Heritage details such beautiful murals, stained glass and elaborate tiled floors have been recovered and restored, and the dingy interiors have been opened up by creating a glass-roofed central courtyard. There's a gorgeous subterranean spa and pool, a just-opened brasserie and a bar with high ceilings and large windows over Boulevard Raspail. The plush guest rooms are art deco-inspired, with Italian marble bathrooms; some have balconies. The midnight blue hallways are an eccentric touch that make finding your door at night an adventure. Rooms from $963 a night. See lhw.com
Some hotels are close to the nightclub district – this one is in a nightclub. It was once a very famous Paris club – Les Bains Douches, which opened in 1978 in an old 19th-century bathhouse and soon became the gathering place for the boldfaced names of the 1980s, from Yves Saint Laurent to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The club has been converted to a 39-room hotel with a smaller club in the basement, with swimming pool – although, be warned, the many music and fashion functions in the original Philippe Starck-designed club space do tend to spill into the hotel. Choose a room on a higher floor if you don't want to be engulfed in it – but if you do want to be engulfed, this hotel is one long party. Public rooms are clubby and dark, and the dining room and bar area cavernous, with burgundy-lacquered pillars and ceilings. Despite all the luxe it still feels gloriously seedy. Rooms from $483 a night. See designhotels.com
LE ROCH HOTEL & SPA
This little gem is situated off the Faubourg Saint-Honore, the epicentre of Right Bank shopping heaven, and a short walk from both the Tuileries gardens and the Opera house. Decorator Sarah Levoine, who has a homewares boutique on the same street, created the interiors of the 37-room hotel in fashionable mid-century style, featuring rich jewel colours and plush fabrics – both comfortable and sexy. (The French manage this feat very well.) The lobby is like the relaxed lounge of a private home, with a fireplace, stocked bookshelves and plenty of comfy sofas. This flows through to a gastronomic restaurant under a circular skylight, a bar serving shared plates, and a garden terrace sandwiched between buildings. The light-filled rooms come in five categories, from "cosy" to "deluxe indulgence with hammam" and five different colour schemes. It's a class act all round. Rooms from $539 a night. See mrandmrssmith.com
LA RESERVE PARIS HOTEL & SPA
Honoured as the world's best hotel by Conde Nast in 2017, this former home of the Duke of Morny and, later, couturier Pierre Cardin, has been lavishly refurbished by renowned designer Jacques Garcia, who transformed the neglected mansion near the Grand Palais into a 40-key hotel that feels like a sumptuous residence. There's no reception – instead, guests are shown into an opulent salon filled with velvet sofas and curtains and flickering scented candles. There's a bar with a terrace on Avenue Gabriel, a smoking parlour, and a wonderful library stocked with rare volumes, many from owner Michel Reybier's private collection. The opulent, two Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Gabriel, faces a courtyard garden. Each extravagantly beautiful room or suite has a dedicated butler (they're truly attentive) and many have terraces with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Those looking for understated chicgo elsewhere – this is full-on belle epoque splendour. Rooms from $1749 a night. See lhw.com
HOTEL DE CRILLON
There is no shortage of palace hotels in Paris and the stately Hotel Crillon on Place de la Concorde has always been one of the most formidable for its superb position and grandeur. While this hasn't changed, the hotel has been brought into the 21st century by the Rosewood hotel group. The famous Les Ambassadeurs restaurant has gone, replaced by a bar of the same name in what is the most gorgeous rococo space in Paris, enlivened with contemporary pieces. The lobby has been opened up and given a more residential feel, encouraging social interaction. (It was bit frosty before.) Suites have been expensively zhuzhed, and the late Karl Lagerfeld was charged with designing two new grand apartments, one named for his cat Choupette. The details are amazing, including the extravagant gold-flecked ceramic walls surrounding the indoor pool. Now, the hotel buzzes with fashionable young guests carrying Birkin bags and sipping detox juice in the Jardin d'Hiver. Rooms from $1336 a night. See rosewoodhotels.com
Although the four-star Hotel Daniel is only a block or two away from the Champs-Elysees, you might be in a pretty country auberge. This romantic Relais & Chateau hotel and restaurant seems a thousand miles away from the bustle, with its chinoiserie-inspired Toile de Jouy-covered walls, boudoir-like tea room, and guest rooms that feel like they might have been the location for one of Madame Bovary's trysts. All the rooms are different, inspired by 18th century French Orientalism, containing collections of objects from around the world, and bathrooms featuring Moroccan zellige tiles or Italian marble. The most picturesque are those tucked under the Mansard roof. Guests are welcomed like family friends, extending the country house feel. But shh – it's our secret. Rooms from $446 a night. See relaischateaux.com
Built in 1889 as a private townhouse, the Lancaster became a luxury hotel in the 1920s. Original owner Emile Wolf scoured auction houses for paintings and antiques, which remain in the hotel. Marlene Dietrich stayed for three years in room 401, now the Marlene Dietrich Suite, with a collection of her memorabilia still in situ, including the piano where Noel Coward serenaded her. If you'd like a hotel that feels like an elegant 8th arrondissement apartment, this is it. In classic Parisian style, rooms have parquetry floors, chandeliers, rare clocks, fireplaces and an eclectic mix of sketches, portraits and oil paintings on the walls. The restaurant, Monsieur, is named for one of Dietrich's friends. Le Marlene is the bar and tea room, opening on to the patio. Like the Hollywood movie star, the hotel is glamorous but very private. Rooms from $460 a night. See lhw.com
Lee Tulloch was a guest of the above hotels.