Hotel Insider: Raffles London is a historic haven with an offering of opulence

There's a story to be found in every detail after the $1.26 billion revival of the Old War Office six years in the making

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At the dawn of the 20th century, amid the tumult of war and political intrigue, London’s Old War Office on Whitehall stood as a bastion of exclusivity.

Its front door, a portal to power, swung open only for generals and cabinet ministers such as Sir Winston Churchill – with hundreds of messengers, secretaries and officials, including James Bond author Ian Fleming, forced to traipse through a courtyard entrance at the back.

TE Lawrence, better known as the enigmatic Lawrence of Arabia, wryly observed in 1914 that the building's marble stairs were exclusively for the use of field marshals and the office cleaners – a social dichotomy etched in stone.

Fast forward to today, and the once impenetrable Old War Office is embracing a new era of London luxury as Raffles, a name synonymous with grandeur and history, transforms this architectural marvel into a beacon of modern opulence.

The National checked in to find out what stories will unfold next in this repository of British history.

The welcome

At Raffles London at The OWO, your arrival heralds the start of an immersion into one of London's most historic hotels – a place that has played host to some of the most significant world-shaping events of the 20th century.

Skip the taxi – the best way to get there is via the London Underground to Westminster Station, where you will be welcomed by the imposing grandeur of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. A brief jaunt along Whitehall will take you to the hotel, where a doorman in a bowler hat and sharp suit greets you for check-in.

Inside, refreshments are offered as check-in is completed in an effortless manner before your personal butler takes over, leading you to your room through the hotel's hallowed and heavy-carpeted halls, past oak-panelled walls adorned with art that speaks to London's past and present.

The neighbourhood

The UK capital’s most famous sights are all right on your doorstep. My suite faces on to the Royal Horseguards, where tourists taunt the King’s famously sullen-faced guards on horseback in their fluffy bearskin hats, and the nearest grocery store is a mere three-minute walk away in Trafalgar Square.

Whitehall might not scream luxury in the same way as Mayfair or Knightsbridge, but it is the true epicentre of British power. From one window, the monolithic Ministry of Defence headquarters building looms large. From another, you can glimpse the gated entrance to 10 Downing Street – the UK prime minister’s residence – and the silhouette of Big Ben.

The room

Tucked away under the hotel's grand turrets, each corner suite is a nod to a famous female war heroine or spy. Our room is named after Christian Lamb – one of the oldest surviving members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, who was instrumental in the planning of D-Day.

Stepping into the suite, I am struck by the rich, red decor and art deco touches in the lounge – a throwback to the heyday of the Queen Mary ocean liner. It is the perfect space for entertaining, with a dining table that seats six, and custom-made furnishings.

Then there is the bedroom – a comparatively calm oasis with creamy walls, subtly textured wallpaper and lush, deep carpets that beg you to go barefoot. Everything in the suite is a breeze to manage, thanks to a handy iPad that lets you control it all – from the curtains to the TV, or choosing your perfect pillow from an extensive menu. It works seamlessly.

The service

When we visit, the hotel has just opened its doors. But staff all have strong pedigrees from leading hotels in Asia and Europe, such as The Connaught and Mandarin Oriental.

The team is headed up by Philippe Lebeouf, an imposing Frenchman with decades of experience managing hotels such as ultra-luxury Parisian hideaway Hotel de Crillon and London’s legendary Claridge’s. His experience shows.

The in-room iPad is a game-changer, with super responsive staff ready for any curveballs you might throw their way – such as when we ask on a lazy afternoon if the hotel could provide us with the board game Monopoly. Even though they don't have it, the concierge hotfoots it to the nearest shop and picks it up in a lightning-fast 20 minutes, charging us a mere four dirhams for the effort.

The scene

In 2016, India’s billionaire Hinduja brothers bought The OWO from the British government and launched a lavish six-year revival, spending £1 billion ($1.26 billion) to restore its soul. The transformation is nothing short of breathtaking.

There are hand-laid mosaic floors, heavy oak panels and chandeliers that have gazed down upon history, all framed by that iconic marble staircase – once a metaphor for societal division, now a dramatic lobby centrepiece.

The hotel's heritage suites – Haldane, Granville, Churchill – are more than mere names. They're tributes to the historical titans who once roamed these corridors.

The stories these walls harbour are staggering. In the lead-up to D-Day, Churchill rallied the troops from a balcony that now sits over the concierge desk. MI5 and MI6 were formed here around a stately wooden conference table that is now a centrepiece in a suite that’s heavy with history.

And don’t forget Fleming, whose visits as a naval intelligence officer and journalist undoubtedly coloured his James Bond narratives – with the building later featuring in three of the films.

The food

Guests are able to flit between nine restaurants – three under Michelin-pedigreed Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco – two bars and a secret spy-themed speakeasy.

Breakfast and dinner are served at Saison, an airy indoor courtyard evoking the Golden Age of travel and framed by a triple-height arched fresco inspired by Queen Victoria’s love of the French Riviera. Dishes here are decidedly Mediterranean, but almost all of the ingredients are sourced locally, from the quince in the duck terrine to the clams and cockles dotted through to the spaghetti al vongole.

Afternoon tea in the cosy drawing room is a must-do, accompanied by the sounds of a live pianist with a penchant for musical theatre classics, and doughy slabs of scones.

For a special dinner, head for the glitz and glamour of Cafe L’Aperouse – an outpost of the Place de la Concorde original in Paris – where Dubai-level prices are more than justified by the exceptional cooking and energetic, youthful service. The sumptuously rich Gratinee Des Halles onion soup (£19) is famous for a reason – and no meal here would be complete without a wedge of the restaurant’s signature vanilla cake (£16), with its silky buttercream frosting.

Highs and lows

Beyond the rich history, opulence, and exceptional service, one of the hotel’s standout experiences lies four floors underground. Here, a serene and dramatically lit 20-metre pool, jacuzzi, sauna and steam room await, alongside a Guerlain spa offering tailor-made treatments based on your specific needs and quirks.

We counted no fewer than seven different products in a 55-minute session, from rare skin-healing honeys laced with royal jelly to grain-free resurfacing peels bursting with the hypnotic blue petals of the nigella flower.

Back above ground, roaming the labyrinthine corridors is a minor adventure in itself, but if you find yourself disoriented the ever-present and helpful staff are quick to guide you back on track.

Security can feel a bit overzealous, particularly if you're snapping photos with anything bulkier than an iPhone, but it’s a small price to pay considering the building's significance and prime location.

The insider tip

Join one of the complimentary daily heritage tours led by Emiel Danneels, the hotel's resident historian and part-time concierge. His vivid storytelling breathes life into the building's history in a way that a book or brochure never could.

The verdict

Raffles London, once the Old War Office, stands not just as a hotel but as a monumental slice of history. Yes, the price tag is hefty, but a stay here is an indulgence that is, without a doubt, worth every penny.

The bottom line

Rates start at £1,100 per night, excluding taxes, for a classic room. Check-in is at 3pm and checkout is at 12pm;

This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel and reflects hotel standards during this time. Services may change in the future.

Updated: March 05, 2024, 9:06 AM