India is home to some of the world’s most incredible heritage hotels—places that were formerly palaces or extravagant homes before being converted into hotels. Most are over a hundred years old, and house precious artefacts ranging from historical photos and antiques to rare artworks, the finest carpets and lots more. From ancient rambling forts in the hills of Rajasthan to quaint homes of former wealthy colonisers in the South, these 12 heritage Indian hotels have fascinating backstories.
I. Nadesar Palace, Varanasi
Varanasi is one of the oldest, constantly inhabited cities in the world. Even the celebrated author Mark Twain once said, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” It is perhaps fitting that the only property under the Taj’s banner in this city is the 19th-century Nadesar Palace, which was built in 1835 by James Prinsep for the British resident at the time the palace eventually became home to the Benaras royal family and is named after Goddess Nadesari, the consort of Lord Shiva. As a result, the structure holds a mere ten rooms, making it an exclusive retreat. And while the hotel has been refurbished, it does nothing to dim its historic, regal glow. Old-world charm still inhabits every nook and corner thanks to antique furniture and artworks from the maharaja’s collection.
II. Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
The giant sandstone edifice of Umaid Bhawan, perched high on Chittar Hill, rises above the Rajasthani landscape. Part-private residence (the sixth-largest in the world) and part luxury palace hotel, it’s set in 26 acres of lush gardens inhabited by dancing peacocks. Considering its mammoth size, the property has only 64 hotel rooms (the rest being private), and is constructed in the art-deco style and is named after Maharaja Umaid Singh. The palace took 15 years to build and was completed in 1943. It joined the roster of Taj Hotels in 1972 and has been one of its most popular properties since. It was even recently voted the world’s best hotel by TripAdvisor users.
III. Chapslee, Shimla
Formerly the summer residence of the late Raja Charanjit Singh of Kapurthala, Chapslee is now a small, exclusive hotel in Shimla. It was built in 1835 and acquired by Lord Auckland, the then Governor General of the East India Company. Singh later bought it and made it his summer residence. After his death, his grandson Kanwar Ratanjit Singh converted it into a hotel in 1976. Its décor consists of family heirlooms and antiques, rare textiles, chandeliers, Peshwa vases Persian carpets and various Indian objets d’art.
Taj Savoy is a part of The Taj Hotels Palaces & Resorts’ Gateway Hotels venture and is located high up in the emerald hills of Ooty, spread out over two and a half hectares of manicured lawns and rolling hills. Built in the colonial style between 1834 and 1865, this property is steeped in history—the main hotel building was destined to be a school in 1829. Not many know that the property is as old as Ooty’s famous St. Stephen’s Church, which was being built at the same time, and both have a common intrinsic architectural element: the massive timber beams, used in both constructions came from Tipu Sultan’s palace on the island of Srirangapatna and were dragged all the way by elephants. The hotel has had many avatars during its time: it used to also be Dawson’s Hotel and Sylk’s Hotel. And in a special program called Snooty Ooty, the BBC featured the 19th-century hotel for its architectural and historic value. Today, this hotel features 40 independent cottages surrounded by carefully cultivated flowerbeds and modern amenities including a spa.
V. The Gateway Hotel Church Road, Coonoor
The Gateway Hotel Church Road Coonoor is a 158-year-old heritage hotel in the Nilgiris and the earliest record of it dates back to 1857. Built by a Briton, the hotel’s colonial-style architecture ensures that there are plenty of elements pointing back at its 19th-century history, such as the well-preserved fireplaces.
VI. Maison Perumal, Puducherry
Maison Perumal was built over 100 years ago as a home for a wealthy French family in the traditional style of their home country. After being abandoned for a few years, it was later reborn as Maison Perumal, a contemporary 10-room hotel. While it might not be as ‘heritage’ as a few of the heavyweights on this list, it nevertheless deserves a mention for its effortless blend of traditional and modern, and the way it perfectly marries Tamilian and French culture.
VII. Samode Palace, Jaipur
Samode Palace is a sprawling, 475-year-old palace built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Approximately 42 km from Jaipur, this stunning property is located in the Aravalis. The family that owns it converted it from a palace into a luxury hotel. Today, the property has 43 guestrooms (including 18 suites) and two stunning swimming pools. The interiors hold antiques, beautiful mosaics and rich artworks, and all rooms have vintage four-poster beds.
VIII. The Imperial, New Delhi
The Imperial was built in 1931, and was designed by the British architect D.J. Blomfield, a contemporary of Edward Lutyens, in a mix of styles: Victorian, Colonial and Art Deco. As far as New Delhi hotels go, The Imperial is probably the most iconic. Not only has it hosted stars, celebrities and heads of state during its illustrious history, it is also home to the largest collection of colonial and post-colonial art and artefacts in the city. The hotel was formally opened in 1936 by Lord Willingdon, and his wife Lady Willingdon gave it its name as well as its lion insignia.
IX. Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur is undoubtedly one of the brand’s most recognisable properties. Sitting in the middle of Lake Pichola, this gleaming white-marbled structure was built as a palace in 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II of the Mewar dynasty. The palace-hotel sits on a four-acre island and is built edge-to-edge in such a way that it appears to be floating on the lake. Within, the palace-hotel has beautiful landscaped courtyards and 66 rooms and 17 suites for its guests. Fun pop-culture fact: the hotel was featured in the James Bond film Octopussy as Octopussy’s floating lair.
X. Rambagh Palace, Jaipur
Ramagh Palace was built in 1835 and was actually built as a home for the queen’s favourite handmaiden. Later, it became a hunting lodge and then the residence of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II and his wife Maharani Gayatri Devi until the Taj group took it over in 1972. Today, the 78-guestroom hotel is as resplendent as it always was, with hand carved latticework, sandstone balustrades, green landscaped Mughal-style gardens and courtyards, and elaborate cupolas, chhatris and cenotaphs.
XI. Neemrana Fort-Palace, Delhi-Jaipur Highway, Rajasthan
Neemrana Fort-Palace is a gorgeous oasis along the dusty Delhi-Jaipur highway. Dating back to the 15th century, the structure consists of seven wings built over 14 layers across a hillside. It was in 1464 that this fort palace became the third capital of Prithviraj Chauhan III’s descendants. Today, the six-acre fort palace has well-appointed rooms, two swimming pools and even its own zip line for adventure seekers.
XII. Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai
The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai, which opened in 1903, is the Taj Group’s flagship property and is world famous for its stellar service and hospitality. And though it sounds a bit anachronistic, it opened even before the Gateway of India—that didn’t open till 21 years later. Its architecture is a combination of Moorish, Oriental and Florentine styles and its interiors are decorated with antique furniture and paintings. Interestingly, during World War II, the hotel was converted into a 600-bed hospital.