Sometimes a hotel is just a place to sleep, but sometimes it’s an experience unto itself. With such rich, interesting history, the UK presents opportunities for hoteliers to create experiences which feel immersive, abstract or just plain silly. If you want a no frills overnight stay, this probably isn’t for you, but if you want to inject a bit of weirdness and wonder into things, here are our favourite unusual hotels in the UK.
As the name suggests, this hotel is in the old Manchester Stock Exchange building, and rather than shedding its financial roots, the owners decided to revel in them. Guests are greeted by a huge entryway with marble pillars and a mirrored reception desk evoking a scene from a film noir. Old photographs of parties and items from the building’s former life dot the walls, and the former trading floor has found new life as a restaurant. Things are bit less heavily themed in the rooms, but the marble counters and Mad Men-esque furniture will take you back in time.
If you’re staying in Oxford, you might opt for a place which evokes the academic history of the city. Few people’s first thought would be “I want to stay in an old prison”, unless they’d heard of the Malmaison. The company has hotels all over the UK, but the Oxford location is extra special. The walkways, cell doors and many other features have been retained, with all of the usual hotel comforts being built around, between and on top of them. The former exercise yard is now a garden with deck chairs, and the larger suites occupy the old debtor’s tower and governor’s house. There’s also a restaurant in the basement, so if you’ve ever wanted to live out your own prison drama, this is about as close as you can get out of handcuffs.
A hotel on its own island sounds like the set-up to a spy film, but arriving on Burgh Island feels more like being invited to an oligarch’s private home for a soirée. Burgh is only an island during high tide, during which time the only way to reach this lesser-known gem on the Devon coast is via their sea tractor, which resembles an open train carriage with about 4.5m (15ft) between the seats and the wheels. The hotel itself is a gorgeous array of domed ceilings and 1930s-style trappings evoking an Agatha Christie novel, which is fitting given she herself wrote two books while staying here. Activities include ballroom dancing lessons, tennis courts and swimming in a natural seawater mermaid pool separated from the sea by a WWI sluice gate. The rooms have balconies overlooking the Atlantic, and come with complimentary gin and tonic.
The HMS Fingal used to run supplies to lighthouses along the Scottish coastline. It changed hands many times over the years before finding itself in Edinburgh harbour in the care of the Royal Yacht Britannia Trust. It took three years to convert it to a hotel before it opened in 2019, and it now shines with all the opulence of the Titanic but with none of the peril. The rooms are awash with nautical quirks including cabin trunks and porthole windows, and the beds have custom throws handmade by a local weaver. The best views can be found exploring the upper deck or in the Lighthouse Restaurant and Bar, where you can dine in the company of relaxing jazz music and sip on a cocktail.
It’s really easy to test the appeal of this establishment to newcomers – if you don’t like The Beatles, or are even just indifferent to them, avoid at all costs. As the name suggests, this loving tribute to Liverpool’s most famous export is absolutely steeped in Beatlemania, with bright, Yellow Submarine-style colours, photographs of the four of them in every direction and their tracks playing in all the common areas. Happily, it’s done lightly enough not to be too obtrusive – the rooms have the odd painting but you won’t find any busts of John Lennon peering over you in the bathrooms. The beds have big comfortable mattresses, and there’s an unpretentious pub-style menu in the restaurant.
While the ill-fated Titanic famously set off from Southampton, it was registered in Liverpool, and would have certainly visited had it survived its maiden voyage. The Titanic Hotel honours this history in an old shipbuilding warehouse on the Stanley Dock. The building has been restored to show off its grand features, with big metal pillars supporting the high ceilings and maritime quirks such as cog patterning on the hallway carpets. The spa and pool area is especially impressive – picture a red-brick cellar straight out of a gothic novel. Even the smallest rooms feel first class at 56sqm (603sqft), and all are outfitted with enormous bathrooms to mill around in a fluffy robe.
Sitting in the shadow of the BA i360 tower, moments away from the beach, the Hotel Pelirocco is packed to the gills with quirks. The rooms are themed after Darth Vader, Dolly Parton and Betty Page among other icons and countries, with all the fixtures and fittings matching the style in question (Lord Vader’s suite has lightsabers; the Dollywood one has Stetsons). Downstairs, there’s a wackily-decorated cocktail bar which stays open until 3am at weekends, as well as a lounge with a karaoke bar. Adventurous couples might be interested to know that ‘toys’ can be ordered to the rooms, and those who make full use of the bar and dance floor will be glad of the hangover kits available at the front desk.
Ever wanted to sleep on a bed with a TV at the foot and a huge mural of a dog in sunglasses as a headboard? You need Qbic in your life then. Sustainability is central to the hotel’s philosophy – solar panels on the roof, recycled furniture, motion-sensitive LED lighting – all in service of a truly eco-friendly stay. The bespectacled dog in question is one of several wall photos supplied by Cafe Art, a charity that finds work for homeless photographers, and you can find other examples all over the hotel. Unsurprisingly, the food menu features lots of veggie and vegan options, and stepping out will lead you to Whitechapel, with its new-school attractions such as the Genesis Cinema and the Nomadic Community Garden.
On almost the complete opposite end of the London hotel spectrum is The Rookery, which draws on the crime-ridden past of its home – Smithfield – as inspiration for its look. Smithfield meat market used to host the Bartholomew Fair until it was shut down by police in 1855 for being a “school of vice”. The hotel evokes this history with dark colour schemes, carved wood everywhere, red silk and gold leaf. There’s an honesty bar in the relaxed Conservatory bar, or you can sit and read in the well-stocked library. There’s no restaurant but you can order baguettes, crab tortellini and other dishes from the room service menu.
You can’t fault the Good Hotel for directness in the naming department, and it lives up to its name. Located in Royal Victoria Dock, a bastion of East London urban restoration, this post-modern haunt was shipped over from Amsterdam and secured to the dockside, bringing Dutch hipster sensibilities with it. The wood and industrial lighting has the feel of a flexible office space, but the building was originally a detention centre, and some elements from its past have been retained for the rooms, with lots of handy space-saving solutions such as charging ports concealed under the beds. All the rooms look out onto the Thames and there’s a bar on the roof that has the best views in the house. There’s also a restaurant with a tantalisingly creative menu, which combines high-end dining with street food standards (and pricing).
Far and away the most exclusive (and costly) stay on this list, No Man’s Fort is one of four forts built in the Solent around 170 years ago to defend from a French naval invasion. Historically regarded as a massive boondoggle, this fort found new life as a hotel in 2012. You arrive by boat from Portsmouth, mingle with the other guests at an introductory dinner and are then free to find your room, which encircles the rim of the fort. There’s an astroturfed lounge terrace with hot tubs up top, and beyond the dining room, the Lord Nelson pub offers a stiff pint and a hearty platter of fish and chips or a beef burger. You can also toast marshmallows around an open fire after dinner.
This hotel sits in the middle of a vast estate just outside the city of Durham. The interior blends marble with modern touches, local artwork and a French brasserie, which might sound like a bizarre patchwork of disciplines but all serve a purpose. The rooms are outfitted with wood panelling and faux fur throws. To add to the swanky feel you can rent out the hotel’s Bentley for the day, and there are three restaurants to choose from: the Asian-style Fusion, the Parisian Rib Room and the Pemberton Carvery. To work all that off you can visit the futuristic gym, one of the two golf courses or the driving range. Then ease your tired muscles at the huge ESPA spa.