Everyone Loves a Boutique Hotel. But What Exactly Is One?

We asked the experts to break it down by size, vibe, and appeal—and to share their favorite boutique hotels.

A guest room at the Ham Yard Hotel, with a bright red patterned headboard and colorful curtains.

The Ham Yard Hotel in London’s Soho neighborhood was designed by Kit Kemp.

Courtesy of Ham Yard Hotel

Most of us feel we know a boutique hotel when we see one: It’s defined by its character, quirk, and cachet and tends to be small and independently owned. The term began to appear in the 1980s, with hoteliers like Anouska Hempel, Steve Rubell, and Ian Schrager using it to describe their smaller, uniquely designed, nonchain hotels. But in recent years, as more properties have begun to use the label, the definition has gotten a bit blurry.

“The term ‘boutique’ is meant to evoke stylish design, intimate settings, personalized service, and sometimes less expensive nightly rates,” explains Vikram Seshadri, a San Francisco–based luxury travel advisor with Global Travel Collection. “But the concept has been adopted by some . . . to excuse bad service, expensive nightly room rates, and interiors past their prime.”

So, what does define this now-ubiquitous travel term? We turned to the experts for some guidance—and asked them for their favorite boutique hotel stays.

What is a boutique hotel?

Most experts agree a boutique hotel should project personality as opposed to feeling cookie-cutter. That individuality of a hotel is often tied to the specific destination or setting, and “evokes a sense of place, personalized service . . . an overall feeling that when you visit that hotel, you are in essence an extension of the community and neighborhood you’re in,” explains Seshadri. “It is a way [for a guest] to belong, even if just for a few days.”

In other words, a boutique hotel should make you feel more like a local than an out-of-place tourist. After all, homegrown hoteliers with fewer rooms to operate often have the connections and bandwidth to create more immersive stays, according to Kenan Simmons, SVP Americas of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, a collection of more than 550 independently owned and operated properties. “We look for luxury properties with a soul, with character, and who deliver special experiences to the guest,” he says. “We like to say, ‘we are anti-chain, anti-same.’ It’s not about what is boutique or not; it’s more about what is the essence of the hotel.”

A lobby with a green velvet sofa, two lamps, small tables, and wall of bookshelves at Hôtel Barrière Fouquet's New York

The living room–style public spaces have plenty of nooks for tête-à-têtes at Hôtel Barrière Fouquet’s New York

Courtesy of Hôtel Barrière Fouquet’s New York

What to expect from a boutique hotel

Independent ownership and fewer rooms shouldn’t mean bare-bones service or limited amenities. “Many properties claim that they are ‘boutique,’ but . . . it’s just a way to nicely say that they are not full service,” says Cory Hagopian, SVP of sales and partnerships at luxury travel company Virtuoso. “This does a great disservice to the concept of a boutique hotel [which] should be about individuality, charm, and, of course, size.”

Still, boutique hotels may not always meet the needs of globe-trotters across the board. Choosing a certain type of accommodation over another might depend on the goal of a particular trip: There can be upsides to large five-star hotels connected to familiar brands, which can offer a level of consistency from property to property, and perhaps even multiple onsite restaurants and large spas.

Smaller independent hotels have their own advantages. “To me, boutique hotels—the truest kinds—are the best way to experience the soul and life of the place one is visiting,” says Seshadri. “I recommend them as much as possible, but also realize they aren’t for everyone. I reserve boutique hotels for clients who prefer local experiences and [feel that] the unexpected is what can make a trip.”

Size matters—to an extent

While not all small hotels are boutique, all boutique properties are small. The industry standard is under 100 rooms. But the designation is less about monitoring the number of accommodations and more about attention to detail and opportunities for privacy—and even quiet—at hotels where management’s focus isn’t spread thin. “It’s not about the number of rooms,” agrees Simmons, who confirms that SLH properties have an average of 56. “It’s about how the hotel feels: Does it feel intimate? Do they offer secluded, discreet options with the highest standard of guest well-being?”

Smaller guest counts and fewer rooms optimize the chances of creating special moments and being able to cater to individual needs and desires. But for companies like Virtuoso and SLH and advisors like Seshadri, any hotel would need to be evaluated separately to make sure it lives up to the boutique standard and do the term justice.

A Junior Suite  bedroom at Hotel de la Ville in Rome , with hardwood floors, floor-to-ceiling curtains and windows, and a mustard-hued couch.

A Junior Suite bedroom at Hotel de la Ville in Rome.

Courtesy of Hotel de la Ville

At SLH, as with other true boutique hotel options, it’s all about character. According to Simmons, all SLH hotels must adhere to a high level of service and comfort while embodying an attention to detail, but no two properties are alike—and that’s a big part of the draw. They may look wildly different aesthetically and offer varied experiences, set in locations or structures that are worlds apart. Guests delight in historic mansions like the Francis in Portland, Maine, in woodland tree houses like the Green O in Montana, or at alpine chalets like the Crans Ambassador in Crans Montana, Switzerland.

So, when defining a boutique hotel, Hagopian asks the following questions: “Is the service individualized or does it seem more prescribed? Are there personal touches throughout the property (perhaps artwork from the owner’s collection)? Do I feel like I am connected to the property?”

The world’s best boutique hotels

The experts themselves have their own favorite boutique hotels that reflect their individual tastes. Hagopian adores Passalacqua on Lake Como in Italy, among the 15 of AFAR’s Best New Hotels 2023. “It is the definition of individualized service: Eat whatever you want, wherever you want,” she says. “The whole hotel is like your private home. The hotel’s owner, Valentina de Santis, is always there to provide ideas about how to spend your day or explain the history of the building. And, most importantly, the entire staff has been empowered to make decisions to ensure your stay is perfect.”

Aerial view of the manicured grounds at Passalacqua, with Lake Como in background

Passalacqua is on Lake Como, Italy.

Courtesy of Passalacqua

For Simmons, a standout is Rio Perdido Hotel & Thermal River in Bagaces, Costa Rica, part of SLH’s Considerate Collection due to its extraordinary sustainability efforts. “Thirty forest bungalows are surrounded by a dwarf forest, across a beautiful 1,500-acre reserve,” he says. “This wellness retreat really stands out because of the mile-long stretch of ‘lost river’ that’s fed by natural hot springs—and hotel staff can arrange a variety of thermal healing . . . experiences. It’s special, intimate offerings like this which contribute to a truly boutique experience.”

As a travel advisor, Seshardi has discovered boutique gems in most well-visited cities and resort destinations. In Paris, he sends clients who like a more intimate experience to Pavillon de la Reine on the Right Bank and Relais Christine on the Left Bank. In London, he directs them to Soho’s eclectic and colorful Ham Yard Hotel. In New York, he loves the bright and airy Crosby Street Hotel and the new French pied-à-terre-style Hôtel Barrière Fouquet’s. When in Rome? His go-tos are the 14-suite mansion hotel Portrait Roma or the newly restored Hotel de la Ville. “All of them offer a true sense of place,” he says, “and a feeling like you’re truly . . . part of the community.”

Nora Zelevansky is a travel and lifestyle journalist whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, Travel & Leisure ,and Vanity Fair, among others. She is the author of novels Competitive Grieving, Will You Won’t You Want Me?, and Semi-Charmed Life and coauthor of nonfiction book, Roll Red Roll: Rape, Power, and Football in the American Heartland. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two kids, and enormous cat, Waldo.
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