The Hotel of Spies and Kings

Exterior Palacio Estoril 2

The Palácio Estoril Hotel is, without doubt, one of the most historical hotels in the world: quite a feat for a hotel that is not even 86 years old! Originally intended to be built in 1914, its construction was delayed due to the outbreak of World War I. It was only in 1928 that Fausto de Figueiredo, a businessman responsible for the development of tourism in Estoril (a seaside town 20 minutes outside of Lisbon), started on the project, which was completed two years later. Although it had an impressive opening, hosting Prince Takamatsu (the brother of Japan’s emperor Hirohito) on his honeymoon, what would happen over the next 15 years was more than de Figueiredo could ever expect…

World War II begins only a few years later. With the Allies and Axis powers fighting for control of Europe, Portugal (as a neutral country) became a hotbed for British, German and (after its entry into the war) American spies. The Palácio Estoril Hotel, in particular, was extremely popular: it was not uncommon to find German secret service officials playing cards and enjoying a drink just a table away from British spies reading the papers and discussing current affairs. For an excellent recounting of this idiosyncratic situation, I highly recommend Neill Lochery’s gripping book, Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light 1939-1945. It takes you back in time to this uncertain, memorable era.

Exterior Palacio Estoril 1

Photo c/o


Add to the mix the Spanish, Italian, Bulgarian and Romanian royal families, who all sought refuge in this hotel during the war (Estoril became known as the Coast of Kings), and you have the movie Casablanca, many times over. The hotel was so renowned that it served as inspiration for Ian Fleming’s book and movie, On Her Majesty’s Service (part of which was actually filmed at the hotel), starring George Lazenby and Diana Rigg. To a history geek like me, walking around this place and knowing how many secrets and influential people were kept here, is a real treat.

Interior Palacio Estoril 3

The hotel has hosted royalty such as Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, the Princes of Luxembourg and Prince Edward. In 2011, the Royal Gallery was added to the hotel, displaying portraits of all the European royalty that have stayed there. It has also hosted “royalty” of the silver screen, like Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida, Pedro Almodóvar, Orson Welles, and Diana Rigg. Politicians like Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as singers such as the famous Portuguese fadista Amália Rodrigues, Charles Trenet, Diana Ross and Joan Baez are/were all fans of this landmark hotel. This list is by no means exhaustive, as it excludes famous athletes, artists and writers that have all stayed there. Perhaps the title I’ve given it – The Hotel of Spies and Kings – is, in fact, quite an understatement.

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Today, its art deco architecture and interior still provide a home for classy events and elegant parties. It’s also a home to vacationers whose predecessors were temporarily housed here during WWII (because, when tradition is so luxurious, why break it?). From the look of the pictures, wouldn’t you want to stay there too?

Have you been to this hotel? Let me know in the comments below.

*All exterior photos c/o

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