At first glance, the Gables seems like a typical bed and breakfast -- a welcoming, historic home decorated with traditional furniture and Victorian charm. It's the kind of place you might find on a quiet road on an antiquing trip in the country. But this B&B is actually located in the bustling metropolis of Philadelphia. The Gables is proof that travelers can have the best of both worlds: quaint country charm and big-city sights.
Urban B&B's may look like country inns, but they often have many of the modern conveniences found in major downtown hotels, such as high-def TV's, wireless Internet and easy access to public transportation. What sets urban B&B's apart from the big hotels, though, are some of the same things that make country B&B's so special: an intimate atmosphere, individually furnished rooms, a residential location and excellent value for money. B&B's may not be right for every traveler -- but we bet that once you trade in the anonymous big-box hotel for a charming urban inn, you'll be hard-pressed to go back.
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
A Personal Touch
Unlike big-city hotels where the breakfast room is often full of guests huddled behind newspapers, most B&B's offer a chance for guests to mingle over the morning meal, discussing where they're from and what they're planning to do in the city that day. Warren Cederholm, owner and innkeeper at the Gables, recalls one morning during which a woman announced over breakfast that she was looking to purchase a violin -- and discovered that a man across the table was a violin maker by trade.
It's this kind of opportunity for personal interaction that draws many urban travelers to B&B's instead of similarly priced hotels. B&B's are generally small enough that the owner or innkeeper will greet guests personally and call them by name throughout their stay, making B&B's a popular choice not only for couples but also for solo travelers, especially women concerned about security in a big city. "As a woman traveling alone, I often feel a lot safer in a B&B," says Sandy Soule of BedandBreakfast.com. "You're not some anonymous person in room 1504. [The innkeepers] know who you are; they know where you are."
In addition to feeling safer, many travelers feel more at home in a B&B -- often because of quirky little touches that you'd rarely find in a standard hotel. The Artists Inn in San Francisco is decorated with original paintings by owner/innkeeper William Shields, while the 1871 House in New York has some of the city's only working fireplaces. On my arrival at the Gables in Philadelphia, I was greeted by a friendly, well-behaved miniature poodle named Oscar.
Home Away from Home
On our first visit to the 1871 House in New York, we had to double-check the address before ringing the doorbell to make sure the stylish brownstone we were looking at really was a B&B, not a private residence. (Actually, it's both, serving as a guesthouse for visitors and a home to the innkeepers.) This is another common difference between big-city B&B's and large downtown hotels -- the former tend to be located in residential neighborhoods, so when you visit you'll get more of a sense of how locals really live.
"Guests feel like New Yorkers when they stay here," says Lia Raum, who as proprietress of the 1871 House lives on the premises and can recommend places to eat and things to see from a local's perspective.
What Not to Do at a Hotel
Soule says that the neighborhood is one of the prime criteria she uses in selecting an urban B&B. "By staying in a B&B, you're part of the scene. You're not a tourist," she explains. That's why she loves the Artists Inn in San Francisco. Situated in Pacific Heights, one of the city's most scenic residential districts, the B&B is less than a block away from the boutiques and restaurants of Fillmore Street -- popular with visitors and locals alike.
Other B&B's are in quieter neighborhoods, away from tourist crowds and near the places where locals shop, eat and play. The Gables is just a few blocks from Clark Park, a small neighborhood park that runs across both sides of Chester Avenue in Philadelphia's University City neighborhood. As I walked by on a recent summer evening, I saw a pick-up volleyball game in one corner of the park, while across the street a young boy was leaping into the air after a Frisbee. Folks wandered through with dogs on leashes and kids in strollers, while the sound of bongos filled the air with an infectious beat. It was a scene that could have taken place in any city or town in America -- and it made me feel right at home.
Getting More Bang for Your Buck
Many travelers don't think they can afford to stay in a bed and breakfast, but prices at big-city B&B's are often surprisingly competitive -- especially when you consider that the rate usually includes full breakfast.
We compared the prices at several B&B's against those at nearby hotels just to get an idea of what was available. In New York, we found nightly rates in the $250 - $400 range at the 1871 House, comparable to those at the Loews Regency Hotel around the corner. A couple of blocks away at the Lowell, rates start at $600 and up.
For stays in Philadelphia's chic Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, we found nothing below $175 a night at the Sofitel; a few blocks away, rooms at B&B La Reserve started at $80 per night and topped out at $175 per night for their executive suites.
Booking a stay at a B&B is often simpler than booking at a hotel. While hotel rates often fluctuate from night to night and room to room, most B&B's show photos of each room along with nightly rates so you know exactly what you can expect to pay even before entering specific trip dates. Also, B&B's tend to have fewer additional expenses than hotels -- such as minibar charges or tips for porters and concierges. "You're not going to get nickel and dimed at a B&B," says Soule.
Get Free Travel Deals and Tips!
A few notes of caution: When comparison shopping in your own city of choice, be aware that hotels often have certain amenities that the B&B's don't -- such as fitness centers, bars, restaurants or even private bathrooms (some rooms at La Reserve have shared baths) -- so be sure to read the amenity list carefully if there are certain ones that are important to you. Also, many B&B's are located in historic properties that aren't handicap-accessible. Guests with physical disabilities should call before booking to see what accommodations can be made.
A Few of Our Favorites
There are fabulous B&B's in cities across the world, but we've picked a few of our favorite American ones to get you started. Got others? Share them with us on our message boards!
Atlanta: The Shellmont Inn offers Southern charm at its best near Atlanta's Midtown Mile. Rooms feature historic touches like four-poster beds and fireplaces, as well as modern amenities (flat-screen TV's and free Wi-Fi).
More Places to Stay in Atlanta
Boston: La Cappella Suites was originally founded as an Italian chapel in the 1940's and has since been converted into an elegant B&B in Boston's North End. Large, airy suites are located on the building's fourth and fifth floors, and offer views of the city's skyline and harbor.
More Places to Stay in Boston
Chicago: The Gold Coast Guest House is located in an 1873 townhouse not far from Chicago's Magnificent Mile. Guests can enjoy complimentary coffee, tea and hot chocolate throughout their stay.
More Places to Stay in Chicago
New York: The 1871 House is in a five-story townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side just a few blocks from Central Park. Our favorite room is the Garden Room, which opens up to a large terrace filled with plants, flowers and wooden patio furniture.
More Places to Stay in New York
Philadelphia: We enjoyed the elegant but unpretentious Victorian decor at the Gables in University City, as well as the huge wraparound porch. The more modern La Reserve Center City Bed and Breakfast offers charming, comfortable rooms in the lovely Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.
More Places to Stay in Philadelphia
San Francisco: The funky Artists Inn, located in a 19th-century farmhouse in Pacific Heights, has a small garden courtyard and three rooms decorated with original art by the innkeepers. We also like Casa Madrona in Sausalito, which boasts a new spa.
More Places to Stay in San Francisco
You May Also Like
--written by Sarah Schlichter