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Europe's Best Small Hotels

These top newcomers show bigger isn’t necessarily better.

By Shane Mitchell

The English call them bolt-holes: informal, personalized spaces to escape the madding crowd. A place to put your feet up and feel at home, plan the next foray to galleries and greenswards, or merely contemplate the approach of cocktail hour.

Of course, Europeans have always had a way with infusing small-scale hotels with quirky charm. But now there is a new generation of independent hoteliers who moonlight in the art world. They’re creating intimate boutiques where the creative vibe is inspiring and the rooms are curated by artists whose personal passion for collecting rarities overlaps with an unorthodox sense of hospitality.

Take 40 Winks: the East London inn is the creation of eccentric interior designer David Carter, who turned his own 18th-century townhouse into a fashion-and-arts hangout. Here, Shoreditch gallery owners can mingle with out-of-town clients during the playfully risqué gatherings (tableaux vivants, shadow puppet shows) that Carter hosts every month in his public drawing rooms. Upstairs, two bedrooms are filled with his flea market finds from Portobello Road and Clignancourt in Paris. A brushed-aluminum Empire-style hip bath dominates the shared bathroom, and while there’s no dining room, Carter makes sure the honor bar is always stocked with the makings for a proper gin and tonic.

In Rome, hotelier Alberto Moncada’s aristocratic great-grandfather, a devoted patron of the arts, once built private studios on Via Margutta where Picasso, Puccini, and Stravinsky composed masterworks. Around the corner, Moncada has continued the family tradition by commissioning sepia-toned photographic murals of local monuments to grace the 14 suites in his newly opened Babuino 181. This renovated palazzo also has a rooftop terrace and bar for theora del cocktail. For breakfast, however, Babuino happens to be steps away from La Buvette, a local favorite on Via Vittoria where the baristi prepare espressos while countesses feed their lap dogs apricot jam cornettos.

From the forests of northern Sweden to the orange groves of Sicily, Europe’s new artistic hotels are among the Continent’s finest. All have fewer than 15 rooms—and many cost less than $250 a night.

Tenbosch House, Belgium

The two attached town houses that make up Tenbosch House (doubles from $310) contain seven uncluttered suites in the heart of Brussels’s of-the-moment Ixelles neighborhood. The hotel showcases contemporary furnishings—such as Tom Dixon’s copper bubble lamps—and a rotating collection of art curated by top local galleries.

40 Winks, England

Near hip Shoreditch, Great Value 40 Winks (doubles from $200) is a darling of the theater and fashion crowd, including actress Kristin Scott Thomas; Dolce & Gabbana often uses the 18th-century town house turned design studio as a set for photo shoots. Above the public salons and a postage-stamp garden, the two bedrooms are filled with vintage discoveries from Portobello Road and Paris’s Clignancourt market.

Boathouse at Knotts End, England

The Lake District has always been inspiration for painters and poets, so pack watercolors and journals for a stay at the Boathouse at Knotts End (doubles from $463), a 19th-century stone cottage on the water’s edge in scenic Cumbria. It has slate-and-oak interiors, with a single cozy bedroom, a lounge with a leather sofa, and a kitchen for preparing tea and biscuits. In the slip below, a boat awaits for rowing on the private lake.

Hôtel Ville d’Hiver, France

The Great Value Hôtel Ville d’Hiver (doubles from $244), in a quiet seaside town southwest of Bordeaux, takes liquid refreshment seriously. This former bottling plant has a classic bistro with an extensive wine list from the region’s best vineyards—including 30 organic vintages. The 12 guest rooms are furnished with Napoleon-era antiques and modern steel-and-bamboo campaign beds.

Babuino 181, Italy

Sepia-toned photographic murals of iconic Roman monuments set the tone in the 14 rooms at Babuino 181(doubles from $417). This palazzo near the Spanish Steps retains original details—a cast-iron railing and Italian marble staircase—and, come this spring, will have a marvelous rooftop bar for aperitivos. Babuino is also a block from Via Margutta, a cul-de-sac lined with some of the Eternal City’s best galleries and design shops.

Aranjaya, Italy

In Sicily, Great Value Aranjaya (doubles from $228) is a rustic farmhouse with eight antiques-filled rooms, set in an orange grove on the fertile Catania Plain, facing Mount Etna. Everything from the olive-oil soaps to the pasta (prepared by a Tunisian chef and served poolside) is produced on or around this 300-year-old estate.

Inn on the Lake, The Netherlands

Just outside Amsterdam, a 17th-century church rectory has been transformed into the Great Value Inn on the Lake(doubles from $165). The four bedrooms—decorated with soft pastels and prints—overlook the cobblestoned village square or a waterway that freezes in winter for ice-skating. At the restaurant, don’t miss the venison with red cabbage or cod fillet with hollandaise.

Consolación, Spain

On a cliff near a pilgrimage route in Aragon, Great Value Consolación (doubles from $190) has 10 cube-shaped guest quarters with sunken baths and wood-burning fireboxes hanging from the ceiling. One wall is made entirely of glass, for unobstructed views of the pine-covered hills. In the adjacent 18th-century hermitage are two additional suites, a restaurant serving seasonal fare, and a library for those who want to curl up with a real page-turner.

Treehotel, Sweden

The Treehotel (doubles from $482), inspired by a documentary film about tree huggers, takes green to new heights. Suspended in the trees of a forest in northern Sweden, 37 miles from the Arctic Circle, the five conceptual retreats resemble, respectively, a cubic cabin, a flying saucer, a bird’s nest, a Modernist pinecone, and a mirrored box. Footbridges and viewing platforms above the Lule River valley allow guests to commune with nature. Even the birch sauna seems to float in midair.

Vorstadt 14, Switzerland

Part of the RoughLuxe collection, Vorstadt 14 (doubles from $490) is an art experiment from top to bottom. The ground floor of this updated 15th-century house near Zurich is occupied by Face, a postmodern gallery, while the remaining three floors—called Brain and Soul—contain a suite and a private apartment with an open fireplace and platform bed. For cocooning creatives, chef Hubert Erni will deliver sushi and strudel from his equally progressive restaurant the Blinker, nearby.