Chasing Balzac: Uncovering the Intimate Belle Epoque Hotels of Paris




The hotels offer would-be bons vivants and lovers of 19th-century French literature the kind of lodgings that recall the raconteur-filled salons in the novels of Honore de Balzac.

The library in La Réserve Paris Hotel, one of the city’s small lodgings with belle-epoque charm.CreditCreditLa Réserve Paris Hotel and Spa

In Paris, the most striking hotels are not always the largest. Or the grandest. On my visits to the City of Light, I am drawn to smaller, tucked-away edifices — most of them private mansions, many with ivy-kissed courtyards. These intimate 19th-century lodgings offer belle-epoque charm and top drawer amenities. For me, they evoke the high society of turn -of-the-century Paris and the grandeur of those times.

Though the nattily attired dandies and haughty aristocrats (for the most part) have faded into history, their mansions have survived offering would-be bons vivants and lovers of 19th-century French literature the kind of accommodations that recall the raconteur-filled salons chronicled in the novels of Honoré de Balzac.

Less predictable than the classic luxury hotel, the lack of crowds (most have just a handful of rooms in a townhouse), along with feels-like-home ambience (if you were, say, a duke), invite tourists to feel more honored guest than paying patron.

The location of La Reserve Paris is best described as in the thick of it. The mansion in the style of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the architect celebrated for reimagining modern Paris, is in the stylish 8th arrondissement, on tree-lined Avenue Gabriel overlooking the Grand Palais, Eiffel Tower and Place de la Concorde’s towering obelisk and steps from the boutiques of Avenue Montaigne. Despite the heavily-trafficked area, it manages to feel removed from the fray.

Over cocktails in the jewel-toned salon, reading in the interior courtyard, lounging in your sleek yet sumptuously appointed room, it’s not difficult to conjure the image of the Duke de Morny (Napoléon III’s half brother who owned the mansion from 1854 to 1888) leaning over the wrought iron balconies, gazing at the sunset.

Reimagined as La Reserve in 2015 with interiors by noted designer Jacques Garcia, the 40 large rooms (26 are suites) have kitted out marble bathrooms (heated floors, Toto Japanese toilet) and luxurious accents like Quagliotti linens, separate robes for bathing (fluffy) and lounging (brushed cotton) and a walk-in mini bar area brimming with made-in-Paris chocolates, wines and juices. The hotel also has a pool and small spa.

Rates start at 1,100 euros, or about $1250

A junior bedroom suite at Hotel Splendide Royal in Paris.CreditVincenzo Tambasco

Amid the fashionable shops of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Élysée Palace (residence of the French president), and the bustling gardens rimming Champs-Élysées, Hotel Splendide Royal offers a perk: the ability to forget that you are in the heart of the 8th arrondissement, the city’s main artery. The 12 suites of this newly revamped townhouse (opened as a hotel in 2017) drip bel interieur Parisien with a restrained cream-and white palette, floor-to-ceiling windows and understated furnishings.

The oversize bathroom, generous closets and dressing area — complete with vanity table — are convenient for guests who spend weeks there at a time. Another boon? Snappy service. With few rooms, my morning coffee arrived in under 10 minutes. Downstairs, it’s cozy; a single desk for check-in, an art-filled salon for fireside cocktails or coffee and a door which connects to the hotel’s outstanding Italian restaurant Tosca, where guests can enjoy specialties like turbot mille feuille, langoustine tartare with limoncello pearls and spaghetti al nero di seppia.

Rates start at 890 euros

The opulent L’Hotel in Paris, where guests have included Salvador Dalí, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Mick Jagger.CreditAmy Murrell

Amid the narrow, streets of the Left Bank, close to the Latin Quarter’s jazz clubs and book shops and profiting from the youthful glow of the Sorbonne, L’Hotel exudes the bohemian spirit of Saint Germain-des-Prés. This 20-room hotel, tucked into rue des Beaux Arts, delivers a theatrical brand of opulence along with a juicy history. Erected in 1828 on the palace grounds of Queen Margaret of Valois (first wife of Henry IV), the property began as a boardinghouse (“un hotel de voyageurs”) and evolved into a hotel, first Hotel d’Allemagne in 1868, then Hotel d’Alsace in 1870 which attracted literary types (Oscar Wilde and the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges were both residents).

Once recast as L’Hotel in the 1960s, it became watering hole de choix for glitterati, including the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau, the French poet, dramatist, screenwriter and novelist. It was home to Serge Gainsbourg, the irreverent French singer-songwriter, and the British actress Jane Birkin (the album “Melody Nelson” was written here) and a luxurious Parisian perch for Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison of The Doors who famously attempted to commit suicide by tossing himself from a first floor window only to land on the roof of a parked car.

Fin-de-siècle glamour runs from the top floor Cardinal’s Suite down the leopard carpeted spiral stairway to Le Bar where tufted velvet chairs, vintage barware and an outré vibe attract a nightly crowd of locals. Rooms, with names like Saint-Pétersbourg, Marco Polo and Mata Hari, are flamboyant, furnished to reflect their inspirations. Start or end the day in the candlelit subterranean plunge pool and hammam steam room.

The bar, Le Très Particulier, in Montmartre’s Hotel Particulier.CreditJefferson Lellouche

In Montmartre, on quaint Avenue Junot far from the beret-infested tourist traps surrounding the hilltop church of Sacré Cœur, the former home of the Hermes family was transformed 11 years ago into a tiny and quirky hotel with five suites. Each suite was individually designed by artists handpicked by the owner, interior designer Morgane Rousseau.

As you walk through the wraparound garden, down the cobblestone pathway (where you’ll be greeted by chickens) and through the classic facade, the Moulin Rouge-era appeal of Hotel Particulier is revealed: moody velvet drapes, gilded wallpaper, taxidermy and the animated din of a pétanque game carrying over from the court next door. Rooms are modern with contemporary photography and whimsical touches like a painted set of eyes peering down at the bed. You don’t need to go far for a buzzy cocktail scene. Descend to Le Très Particulier, the hotel’s romantic bar, a 2014 addition, with black-and-white checkered floor, red fringe-trimmed velvet club chairs, potted palm trees and a crowd of champagne-sipping locals.

Rates start at 390 euro

A room at Hotel Providence.CreditBenoit Linero

The 10th arrondissement is the Brooklyn of Paris: youthful, edgy and brimming with chic millennials picnicking along the canal which snakes through the area. Hotel Providence, on rue René Boulanger, sits at the intersection of Haut Marais and Canal Saint-Martin — two of Paris’s most “bobo” (slang for trendy) neighborhoods. Opened in 2015, the hotel draws a fashionable clientele that is a far cry from its original incarnation — a brothel.

Affordable and stylish, its 18 rooms read stylish friend’s pied-à-terre, a lively trifecta of House of Hackney wallpaper, retro seating and a mini cocktail-making kit. Cool kids — and aging ones — lounge in the ground floor salon plotting out the day’s activities (often featuring a visit to Rue Montorgeuil, a charming classic market street chock a block with butcher shops, florists, cheesemongers and Paris’ first bakery, Stohrer).

The hotel has a lovely restaurant and a leafy terrace cafe which offers front row seating to the grungy-glam stage of the 10th arrondissement.

Rates start at 160 euros.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page TR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Uncovering the Belle Époque Hotels of Paris. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



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