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Luxury travel keeps taking off in new directions in Europe. Just yesterday, the hallmarks of city hotel luxury ranged from sweet suites with Frette bed linens and private butlers to signature spa rituals, top-chef dining, and impeccable service that goes the extra mile. Today’s newest luxe amenity seems to be urban experiences that involve guests in the historical, cultural, and social activities that give a special sense of place to the hotel and its surrounding neighborhood.

This is certainly true at the Baur au Lac, Zurich’s venerable hotel that boasts a history as breathtaking as its lakeside setting. Opened in 1844, the property hosted the world premiere of Wagner’s “Die Walkire” and in whose salons the Nobel Prize was conceived. Today’s guestbook lists a cast of royals, actors, musicians, and recently this writer: an invited guest, who, on her very first visit to Switzerland, hit the hotel jackpot in pitch-perfect, understated elegance and service. Highlights on my short stay included historic Zurich right out the door; five bed pillows plus a pillow menu for other options; and the beehive—tucked along a path in the property’s lushly landscaped private garden—accommodating 80,000 bees in a hive replica of this grand dame hotel. On special request, beekeeper Felix Schier introduces guests to the (endangered) activities of the busy bees, and samples of their labor are for tasting at the honey bar set up at the breakfast buffet.

The arts are central to guest experiences, and during Baur au Lac’s annual Art in the Park event, the garden turns into a grand outdoor gallery displaying the work of major modern painters; it is held the week before Art Basel (this year June 14-17), an hour away from Zurich. For art-loving clients, also consider the hotel’s Marc Chagall package; Chagall was a regular guest and signed the guestbook with a drawing. The package includes 2-night accommodations; a private 1-hour guided tour of the Fraumunster Church with glass and design work by Chagall; fine dining from a 3-course menu at Rive Gauche restaurant; daily breakfast; and complimentary minibar and wireless Internet.

Back home I went looking to see what other luxury hotels in European cities were in the “experiences” business, and found dozens of examples. Here’s a sampling…

In Paris…
‘Twas Audrey Hepburn who famously said: “Paris is always a good idea.” And the hotels of Paris themselves have some new ideas on ways for their guests to experience the City
of Light, in addition, of course, to their long-established offerings of curated wine tastings and top-chef cooking classes. For instance, Le Bristol Paris, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, invites guests aboard a riverboat built for two for a romantic sail along the Seine, complete with champagne, macaroons and a welcome aboard flower bouquet.

In Athens…
Grande Bretagne, a member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, is the grande dame of hotels in Athens. Its guestbook reads like a who’s who in politics and the arts. For today’s guests, the concierge steps back in history during a free Living Museum heritage hotel tour, describing how the city’s and country’s political, economic and social life unfolded in the hotel’s hallowed hall since its founding in 1874. On Fridays (with a tour charge),
guests can then move out into the city on an expert-led Culture Walk to the nearby
treasures of Athens.


In Madrid…
Location, location, location! Hotel Villa Magna of The Leading Hotels of the World family takes advantage of where it sits: in Madrid’s Salamanca neighborhood, great for high-end and alternative-fashion shopping, evening tapas crawls, and, of course, top cultural experiences. An Arts & Culture package invites guests staying at least two nights—in a luxury room with daily breakfast (gourmet in restaurant and continental in-room)—to get acquainted with Madrid during a 2-hour guided tour by chauffeured Mercedes. Visitors visit the Art Triangle Museums: Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza & Reina Sofia, with provided tickets in hand. 

Accommodations at Baur au Lac in Zurich.
Accommodations at Baur au Lac in Zurich.

In London…
The Fairmont-managed Savoy celebrated its 189-year history with a most ambitious restoration that refines luxury for the 21st century. From butlers to concierges to bartenders, every member of the Savoy team is on hand to ensure each guest stay is a treasured memory, and many on the team are the superstars of Events & Masterclasses. This new program invites guests to explore new frontiers in food, wine, and travel know-how by learning new skills and techniques from the team. For instance, a Savoy butler conducts a Suitcase Packing masterclass, followed by a 3-course dinner in Kaspar’s; 3-course dinners also follow the Vintage Cocktails masterclass held in the American Bar. 

The Fairmont Monte Carlo in Monaco.
The Fairmont Monte Carlo in Monaco.

In Monaco…
Fairmont Monte Carlo, an Accor Hotels member, is propped up on pillars over the Mediterranean Sea, offering fabulous views, its own casino, a rooftop pool, and a front row seat to experience (May 24-27) Monaco Formula 1 as it whizzes around the super-thriller Fairmont hairpin bend. At more restful times, guests may join in Fairmont’s Excursions Experiences, designed for discovery of the neighboring French and Italian Rivieras, in the company of a guide and motoring by minibus. Tuesday through Saturday, different destinations are explored: full-day trips go to San Remo and the Italian Rivera or to the French coastal towns of Cannes, Antibes, and Juan Les Pain, while half-day experiences are focused on Eze, Ventimiglia, Menton-Roquebrune or St. Paul-de-Vence.