Cool new hotels are helping the New England city shed its dowdy image, but can it really compete with the international capitals of chic?Peter Jon Lindberg thinks so
Buff Strickland Mini-bar Cosmopolitans at Nine Zero, in Boston.
| Credit: Buff Strickland

For ages, Boston's hotel scene called to mind that old restaurant joke: not only were the properties outdated and uninspired, there weren't enough of them. But hold up: in just six years, the city has acquired more than 30 new properties. The turnaround began in 2000, when a 60-room upstart called XV Beacon arrived with some crazy idea of a "design hotel." Its success was a harbinger. Once Boston was deemed safe for such stylish hotels, they began opening all over town, and not just in obvious spots like Back Bay. Some, like the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square, have even kick-started neighborhood revivals. The next year and a half will bring entries from Mandarin Oriental, Regent, and InterContinental. For now, the buzz centers on five newcomers, each with a distinct character, locale, and target clientele.

Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common
When was the last time your hotel lobby harbored a ficus tree?Two decades ago?While Boston's original Ritz-Carlton, on Newbury Street, transports guests to 1927, its new sister property—a glass-and-steel high-rise in the Ladder District—takes us straight to 1985. The aesthetic is Trump Revival: a glitzy lobby sporting vast quantities of black and beige marble, lacewood paneling, and a 10-foot-wide fireplace; massive vases of lilies and heliconia in every public space (not to mention those ficus); and a smartly turned out doorman. Opulent to the max, it's exactly what you'd expect from Ritz-Carlton—or a bank in Zurich. The look is a bit anodyne, but Ritz-Carlton hotels are designed for pampering, not provoking. Sleeping here is like collapsing onto a big soft pile of money, from the feather beds and Frette bathrobes to the Bang & Olufsen stereos in the suites. Summon your "bath butler" to draw your whirlpool tub with a touch of lavender oil. Guest rooms are perfectly scaled and capably decorated, if not memorably so, in light earth tones and plain, solid fabrics. (Rooms ending in -83 are the best of the standards, with views over Boston Common.)

The hotel sits a half-block off the park, within a complex that includes a 19-screen cineplex and the Sports Club/LA, a 100,000-square-foot "urban country club" complete with a junior Olympic–sized pool (hotel guests pay $10 for a day pass). The Red Sox's Manny Ramirez owns a condo in the adjacent tower and is frequently spotted at the hotel bar. Coincidentally or not, the Ritz is where the Yankees usually stay when playing at Fenway. I ended up sharing an elevator with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, fighting the urge to trip them as they left. 10 Avery St.; 800/241-3333 or 617/574-7100;; doubles from $579.

Jurys Boston Hotel
The receptionist welcomes you in a Dublin brogue at this Back Bay newcomer. Jurys is an Irish chain, with 36 hotels and a solid reputation back home. After three openings in Washington, D.C., Jurys fixed its sights on Boston, whose Irish roots make for an obvious fit. Of course, Ireland isn't exactly known for chic hotels, which is what makes Jurys Boston such a pleasant surprise—it's as stylish and self-assured as any of its higher-priced rivals. It helps to have great bones: Jurys took up residence in one of Boston's last Italian Renaissance Revival buildings, a stunning 1925 limestone edifice accented with ornate friezes. For 70 years this was the headquarters of the Boston Police Department—note those striking, blue-shaded brass lamps framing the side entrance. With digs like this, you're halfway to greatness.

How shocking, then, to step into Jurys's lobby and be confronted by a chrome-and-glass staircase bathed in an eerie Technicolor glow. A waterfall trickles along the edge of the stairs, shrouded in mist from dry ice. I suppose this is intended to evoke a stream in Connemara, but the sci-fi lights were pure Battlestar Galactica to me. Gas hearths are laid with blue-and-white sea glass. Zany cut-glass lamps and whimsical bronze sculptures provoke the eye at every turn.

The 220 guest rooms are a good deal more sober. Handsome ceiling moldings keep them from seeming too boxlike, but otherwise the look is unremarkable, with fawn-colored carpeting, walls painted sage and rose, and ho-hum mahogany furniture. What does work: vast floor- to-ceiling mirrors, inviting beds sheathed in goose-down duvets, and spacious marble shower stalls with strong water pressure and Aveda products. Free local and 800 calls are a plus. What doesn't work: the cramped desk, offering space for only a laptop and (at least in my room) awkwardly shoved between the two beds to double as a nightstand. Ask to see a few rooms when checking in, as you'll find your fair share of duds. Even within the same category, rooms vary dramatically in layout (some have separate tubs, others just a shower) and views (the best look over Stuart or Berkeley streets, the worst upon an ugly interior roof). In the end, Jurys's trump card is its neighborhood: you're mere blocks from Copley Square, the Theater District, Newbury Street's boutiques, and some of Boston's best restaurants (Via Matta, L, Mistral, Excelsior). The hotel's dining room, the Stanhope Grille, can't compete with those, but the breakfast is excellent, including (you guessed it) rashers, baked beans, and black-and-white pudding. 350 Stuart St.; 866/534-6835 or 617/266-7200;; doubles from $435.

Nine Zero
Like XV Beacon, its closest rival, Nine Zero has the looks and attitude to blend in on Collins Avenue. Yet somehow it landed in the blue-blooded heart of colonial Boston—smack on the Freedom Trail, no less. Location is a big part of its appeal: from your room you can gaze upon the soaring white steeple of the Park Street Church, or the lichen-cloaked headstones of the Granary Burying Ground, resting place of Paul Revere and John Hancock. Can South Beach give you that?

Four years on, Nine Zero still sparkles. This is one of the few design-oriented hotels that can balance cool, ultramodern details with a genuinely inviting ambience. The lobby is done up in rich golds and midnight blues, with boldly striped divans and armchairs that a person would actually feel comfortable sitting on. Sleek chrome and nickel accents and crinkly copper curtains offset the plush old-world carpets. Upstairs is the outstanding in-house restaurant, Spire, which has quickly assumed a place among Boston's best.

With soothing butter-yellow walls and sumptuous ebony-stained furnishings, guest rooms are at once supremely functional and sultry as hell. You get a five-foot-wide, hefty maple desk instead of the usual boutique-hotel wedge of fiberglass, plus free Wi-Fi access, desktop power, Ethernet ports, a halogen lamp, and, like manna from heaven, a fully adjustable, ergonomic, leather-upholstered Humanscale Freedom desk chair. For the sybarite, there's an overstocked wet bar with enough cocktail mixers for an after-party. The staff will customize your mini-bar with anything you can think of, be it Swedish Fish candy or Moxie soda. Bathrooms are outfitted with sizable, flatteringly lit mirrors and luxurious Mario Russo products. Handsome bedside tables have acres of surface area. And the goose-down pillows are some of the softest I've slept on.

There are some gaffes. A proper fan in the bathroom would be useful. So would a couple of hooks for hand towels, which are instead tucked beneath the sink. (What is it with design hotels and their aversion to towel racks?) My room, No. 1809, had a killer skyline view through floor-to-ceiling windows—so whose bright idea was it to run a valance across the top two feet, obscuring the Prudential Tower?Rooms are already cramped, and the valance made the eight-foot-high ceiling seem lower than it was. Request room 1705, 1805, or 1905, and, just for kicks, ask the staff to remove that annoying window dressing. 90 Tremont St.; 800/646-3937 or 617/772-5800;; doubles from $299.

Onyx Hotel
Love them or loathe them, Kimpton Hotels are a singular breed. With their trademark kitschy details (jaguar-print bathrobes, a mini-bar stocked with animal crackers and an Etch A Sketch), they exude youthfulness like few other brands. Kimpton's first Boston property, the 112-room Onyx, opened in 2004, one block from the TD Banknorth Garden, home to the Celtics. Developers say this area is "coming up," but it's hardly a bastion of hipness: there's a Hooters around the corner, plus a slew of Irish pubs and sports bars. Still, the Onyx is convenient to Faneuil Hall, the North End, and Beacon Hill, and it's among the better values in town. I was greeted by a zoot-suited doorman in a fedora. From there it just got cheekier. In lieu of a chocolate on the pillow, I was issued an Atomic Fireball. Room service offered pints of Häagen-Dazs. A free sampler CD featured cuts from Spearhead, Morcheeba, and Polyphonic Spree, and the TV lineup included a closed-circuit yoga channel. Other hotels may offer an evening wine tasting, but the Onyx hosted a complimentary "Rockstar Energy Drink Hour" in the lobby bar. Upstairs, fluorescent-lit corridors lead to modestly sized guest rooms, which hew to Kimpton's urban-bordello aesthetic. Bedrooms are carpeted in chocolate-and-beige checkerboard, papered in thick stripes, and accented in blood reds: red desk blotter, red ice bucket, red chenille throw on the bed. Bathrooms are awash in black marble. Although there are no views to speak of and scarcely any natural light, the rooms give off plenty of sex appeal.

Kimpton Hotels are known for their little extras, and the Onyx makes good on that promise, throwing in passes to the Beacon Hill Athletic Club, Wi-Fi access, and in-town limo service, all free. In the room you'll find 35-inch Sony flat-screen TV's and Aveda bath products.

Onyx Hotel, it turns out, was also the name of Britney Spears's 2004 concert tour. The moniker overlap precipitated a lawsuit; as part of the settlement, Spears's mother (!?!) designed the Britney Spears Suite for the hotel—a replica of the star's childhood bedroom. With plush-pile carpets, glass-beaded wallpaper, and a curio cabinet filled with ceramic figurines, it's goddamned hideous. Be thankful it's usually reserved for 13th-birthday slumber parties. 155 Portland St.; 866/660-6699 or 617/557-9955;; doubles from $289.

Hotel Commonwealth
Kenmore Square has long been considered the armpit of Boston. For decades, "Kenmaw" was the wasteland you traversed en route to Fenway Park. Besides the familiar citgo sign, its only claim to fame was the dingy Rathskeller (a.k.a. the Rat), Boston's equivalent of CBGB. Back in college I cut my head open on the Rat's ceiling pipes while crowd-surfing to Sonic Youth. All that's a memory now, as is the old Kenmore Square—for, in a remarkable twist, this is suddenly Boston's hottest neighborhood. Upscale restaurants have ousted skanky pizza parlors, and an elegant glass transit terminal is replacing the old bunker-like bus depot. Now that the Red Sox have committed to staying at Fenway, Kenmore's winning streak looks set to continue. The square's revival took off in 2003 with the opening of the Hotel Commonwealth, a mansard-roofed McChâteau (erected on the grave of the Rathskeller) with gables and bow windows, a full city block wide. The interior pushes the French Empire shtick further, with red-and-gold carpets, rococo tapestries, and a surfeit of fringe and brocade. Urban chic this is not, but the retro look is kind of refreshing in an era when every city hotel has gone Starck raving mod. Rooms are generously sized, with a large sitting area separated from the sleeping quarters by floor-to-ceiling curtains. The bed itself is a towering pile of goose down and 300-thread-count cotton, and the amenities are unimpeachable: Mascioni robes and linens, L'Occitane bath products, Voss bottled water, chocolate cookies at turndown.

The downsides: My bed got little, if any, natural light, because the windows were so far away. Said windows were sheathed in stiff patterned curtains reminiscent of a Holiday Inn's. (And the windows didn't open—is that too much to ask?) The spindly-legged bench at the foot of the bed was an afterthought, useless for sitting or placing luggage. And the reproduction-antique writing desk, with its celery-and-bronze scrollwork, looked downright silly. On the plus side, the Commonwealth is impressively tech-savvy: the entire hotel is set up for free Wi-Fi access, and each guest gets a dedicated VoIP phone line and handset, which works anywhere on the property. Clearly, this is where you'd take a colleague, not your mistress; aside from the rear views of Fenway's Green Monster, there's not much here to set the heart aflutter.

The Commonwealth's secret weapons, however, are its restaurants. In this corner, the estimable Great Bay, serving some of the city's best seafood. And in the opposite corner, Eastern Standard, a pulsing new brasserie modeled on Manhattan's Balthazar, right down to the frisée aux lardons, the wall-sized mirrors, and the epic bar. Lofty ceilings mean you'll never hit your head, even when crowd-surfing. 500 Commonwealth Ave.; 866/784-4000 or 617/933-5000;; doubles from $349.

Peter Jon Lindberg is a T+L editor-at-large.

Back Bay Hotel

Masculine yet cozy, the 225-room Back Bay Hotel is laden with history: the 1925 limestone edifice with ornate friezes fronts one of Boston’s last Italian Renaissance Revival buildings, which was police headquarters for 70 years. There are some design misfires—ignore the incongruously high-tech chrome-and-glass lobby staircase—but the guest rooms are traditionally handsome, with cherrywood furniture and decorative ceiling moldings. Irish breakfast at the in-house Stanhope Grille is a classic Celtic affair, with rashers, baked beans, and black-and-white pudding.

Room to Book: Any of the four corner premier rooms on the ninth floor, for their panoramic views through double walls of windows.

Nine Zero

With its sleek, minimalist décor, Nine Zero brings modern chic to the historic area around the Freedom Trail. Yes, connecting to Wi-Fi from your ergonomically molded chair while looking out over the lichen-cloaked headstones of Paul Revere and John Hancock may seem paradoxical, but the classical location keeps the hotel’s clean-lined interiors from feeling too coolly contemporary. Just be prepared: while the 190 guest rooms are stylish—with butter-yellow walls, streamlined dark-wood furnishings, and beds with padded headboards—they’re also on the small side.

Onyx Hotel

Tucked away on a side street in the downtown area, the Onyx is a Kimpton Group boutique hotel located within 1.5 miles of city highlights like Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill, and TD Garden. Inside, the public spaces and 112 guestrooms are designed with clean lines, earthy tones, and vibrant red and black accents, including checkerboard carpeting and red suede chairs. Visitors also enjoy a host of little extras, ranging from a complimentary evening wine hour to fruit-infused ice water available daily in the lobby. The Ruby Room, with its fiber optic lighting, is a trendy spot for cocktails.

Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common

Boston’s only Ritz (the Taj chain bought the famous Back Bay property in 2006) is an 12-story glass-and-steel monolith that looms above the Common’s greenery. Opened in 2001, the hotel transports you—oddly—to 1985; the glitzy marble lobby, filled with flowers and a 10-foot fireplace, is pure Trump Revival. Thankfully, the 193 guest rooms are a bit more subdued, with velvety earth-toned upholstery, feather beds, and Frette bathrobes—appealing amenities after a workout in the adjacent 100,000-square-foot Sports Club/LA (where $15 gets you near-round-the-clock access).