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&Bs may look like country inns, but they usually have many of the modern conveniences found in major downtown hotels, such as high-def TVs, high-speed Wi-Fi and easy access to public transportation. What sets urban B&Bs apart from the big hotels, though, are some of the same things that make country B&Bs so special: an intimate atmosphere, individually furnished rooms, a residential location and excellent value for money. B&Bs 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.
A Personal Touch
Unlike big-city hotels where the breakfast room is often full of guests huddled behind newspapers, most B&Bs 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&Bs instead of similarly priced hotels. B&Bs are generally small enough that the owner or innkeeper will greet guests personally and call them by name throughout their stay, making B&Bs 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, former Marketing VP for 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 Pop Art B&B in Rome has four rooms decorated in the style of artists such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, while the Dreamcatcher Guest House in San Juan serves vegan or vegetarian brunch each morning and is filled with unique knickknacks collected by the owner. 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&Bs 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.
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&Bs are in quieter neighborhoods, away from tourist crowds and near the places where locals shop, eat and play. The B&B Au Petit Roi in Quebec City is just outside the historical city walls, which some tourists might find inconvenient — but I loved being on a quiet residential street where I could hear the sounds of family dinners through the open windows as I walked past.
Getting More Bang for Your Buck
Some travelers don’t think they can afford to stay in a bed and breakfast, but prices at big-city B&Bs are often surprisingly competitive — especially when you consider that the rate usually includes full breakfast.
We compared the prices at several B&Bs against those at nearby hotels just to get an idea of what was available. In Rome, the Pop Art B&B ranged from $88 to $117 a night on the spring and summer dates we checked, while a block away the Hotel Abruzzi was charging $160 to $243 a night on the same dates. Both are within walking distance of the Pantheon.
In Sydney, one of the top-rated B&Bs is the Sydney Harbour Bed and Breakfast, located near Circular Quay. On the dates we checked, rooms started at $131 to $191 at this B&B, in line with rates at the nearby Rendezvous Hotel Sydney ($156 – $193).
Booking a stay at a B&B can be simpler than booking at a hotel. While hotel rates often fluctuate from night to night and room to room, most B&Bs 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&Bs 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.
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&Bs don’t — such as fitness centers, bars, restaurants or even private bathrooms — so be sure to read the amenity list carefully if there are certain ones that are important to you. Also, many B&Bs 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.