Barcelona Photoblog: Step Back in Time at Barcelona's Historic Hotel El Palace

August 08, 2023

Step Back in Time at Barcelona's Historic Hotel El Palace


Step into the Gilded Age of Travel at Barcelona's Hotel El Palace

Tucked away on a tree-lined boulevard in the heart of Barcelona lies a timeless grande dame that transports guests back to the glamorous era of early 20th century travel. Hotel El Palace Barcelona, originally opened in 1919 as an outpost of César Ritz's famed luxury hotel chain, oozes old world charm and elegance. From its ornate façade guarded by liveried doormen to the antique furnishings within, El Palace brings to life a bygone time when travel was still an exclusive pursuit of royalty and the cultural elite.

The Remarkable Rise of César Ritz

The storied history of El Palace Barcelona begins with legendary hotelier César Ritz, the pioneering founder of the international Ritz brand. Born in 1850 in the small Swiss village of Niederwald, Ritz was the thirteenth child in a family of farmers. His mother noticed young César’s intellect and insisted he receive an education, sending him to a Jesuit boarding school. There he learned German, French, and English—skills that would prove invaluable.

At 15, Ritz became an apprentice waiter at a hotel in Brig, Switzerland. But he was dismissed after a few months, deemed to lack faculties for hospitality. After a period of uncertainty, ambitious Ritz left for Paris in 1867 to seek his fortune. The bustling city was hosting the Universal Exposition, creating many hospitality jobs. Though starting as a waiter apprentice again, Ritz quickly moved up, honing his skills at top restaurants like Voisin.

Ritz exhibited exceptional talent for remembering guests’ names and preferences. His amiable personality also attracted important contacts like the Prince of Wales. But Ritz’s budding career was interrupted by the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. When Voisin closed due to scarce supplies, Ritz returned to Switzerland. In 1873 he went to Vienna for another Universal Exposition and met European royalty while working at a fine restaurant there.

For the next decade, Ritz spent winters serving elite clientele on the French Riviera and summers in the Swiss Alps. In 1889, the Savoy Hotel in London recruited Ritz and chef Auguste Escoffier to manage their new luxury property. During his decade at the Savoy, Ritz pioneered innovations like in-room bathrooms and introduced standards of service and cuisine never before seen in hotels.

But Ritz dreamed of launching his own luxury hotel. In 1898, he opened the esteemed Hôtel Ritz Paris. Its elegantly appointed rooms and refined dining attracted royalty, business magnates, and creatives. The terms “ritzy” and “puttin’ on the Ritz” stem from this gilded era.

After conquering Paris, London and Madrid, Ritz, who at the beginning was reluctant to build in Barcelona, was advised by Francesc Cambó, a local politician and intellectual, on the need of building yet another magnificent first-class hotel, this time in Barcelona considering pending events like the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. No expense was spared to create Ritz's vision of a palatial urban oasis. When Hotel Ritz Barcelona opened in 1919, it immediately became the city's premier luxury destination.

Although Ritz managed to expand his holdings globally he finally had to pass his empire to his heirs and retire to Switzerland due to declining health. When he died in 1918, César Ritz was remembered as the founder of modern luxury hospitality.

A Storied Past Through War and Peace

In its early years, El Palace cemented its status as the place to see and be seen in Barcelona. Well-heeled travelers arriving on luxurious cruise ships docked nearby eagerly made their way to the hotel's elegant spaces. Over the decades, famous guests have ranged from Spanish royalty like King Alfonso XIII to luminaries like Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dalí.

The sprawling Ritz also became a cultural hub for Barcelona's high society. In the 1920s, its ballrooms hosted splendid masquerade galas, concert performances and art shows that attracted the city's creatives and socialites. The hotel's bar served as a lively spot where intellectual figures like Federico García Lorca and José Ortega y Gasset convened for cultural lectures, organized by the prominent women Isabel Llorach and Francesc Cambó.

But after the boom of the 1920s, troubling times loomed with the Spanish Civil War's outbreak in 1936. During the conflict, El Palace became a refuge for prominent families seeking shelter. Despite the war's chaos, the hotel maintained an aura of civility and calm. The tireless staff provided any comfort or service required, even sleeping onsite overnight when commuting was dangerous.

When war erupted, the hotel transformed into a worker-run cafeteria under the CNT and UGT unions, providing vital meals for Barcelona's hungry population. After the war, the grande dame emerged physically unscathed. But isolation under Franco's regime affected its glittering clientele. However, the hotel continued operating with world-class service and dignity.

Entrance Hotel El Palace 1919 Old Ritz

The Grande Dame Regains Her Luster

By the 1950s, Barcelona had begun opening up to the world again. With major events at the city's expo grounds, El Palace found itself welcoming international guests once more. A renaissance during the 1960s-70s won the hotel global acclaim and designation as a Leading Hotel of the World for its refined amenities.

In 2019, extensive renovations prepared El Palace for its next 100 years by sensitively restoring original details while incorporating modern comforts and conveniences. From its elegant facade to the restored interior design, the hotel brings Barcelona's gilded early 20th century era back to life. The César Ritz spirit continues through the staff's genuinely warm hospitality.

Famous Guests Over the Decades

El Palace’s premier location and accommodations have attracted many celebrity guests. Salvador Dalí repeatedly stayed in his favorite luxury suite during sojourns in Catalonia, once famously bringing up a taxidermy horse as a gift for his wife Gala, to the astonishment of hotel staff.

Retired bandleader Xavier Cugat, who popularized mambo music in 1940s Hollywood, spent his later years living at El Palace, filling its ballrooms with lively tunes in the 1970s and 80s. In 1987, Freddie Mercury met opera singer Montserrat Caballé at the hotel's bar, catalyzing their creative collaboration on the song "Barcelona" for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Many other luminaries have repeatedly made El Palace their home away from home when visiting Barcelona over the decades, including a diverse array of Hollywood actors, opera singers, rock stars, bullfighters, famous painters, directors, fashion designers, irreplaceable writers, distinguished members of high society from nobility to heads of state, from illustrious politicians to Arab sheiks, from Masons to Nazis, from Republicans to Franco's troops. The list is so extensive that it makes no sense trying to include them all here.

To celebrate the hotel's 2019 centennial, El Palace unveiled a photo exhibition with images of its glamorous past events and famous faces. The hotel's prestigious history and restored elegant spaces continue to transport guests back to Barcelona's golden era of luxury travel today.

Barcelona's Leading Luxury Destination Through the Years

In many ways, the history of El Palace mirrors that of Barcelona itself. The hotel was the city's premier luxury destination from the moment its doors opened in 1919, attracting affluent travelers and hosting high society events. In the carefree 1920s, its ballrooms and restaurants were the epicenter of Barcelona's buzzing cultural scene. El Palace was witness to pivotal historic moments like the 1929 World's Fair and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

During the economically depressed postwar years, the hotel weathered challenges but continued as an oasis of refinement. By the 1960s, a rebirth of Barcelona's cosmopolitan spirit coincided with El Palace's renewed golden era. The city became an international travel hotspot once again, and the hotel its glittering social hub. The 1992 Summer Olympics spotlighted Barcelona on the world stage, drawing renewed interest in its Belle Epoque splendor.

Today, extensive restoration work ensures El Palace remains Barcelona's most illustrious luxury hotel. Its timeless elegance comes alive in the ornate facade, the crystal chandeliers glittering in palatial event spaces, the frescoed ceilings and marble floors.

For over a century, Hotel El Palace Barcelona has maintained its stature as the crown jewel of Catalan hospitality. It continues César Ritz's legacy as the pinnacle of discreet luxury experiences, attracting discerning travelers today as it did Barcelona's elite in its 1920s heyday. A fascinating living link to the city's past remains vibrantly alive within El Palace's historic walls.

Restaurant-AMAR-by-Rafa-Zafra-michelin-star-at-Hotel-El-Palace-Barcelona-old Ritz
Web Analytics