The Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor can be most accurately summed up for Western audiences as “Downton Abbey meets Egypt.” That’s because the Downton Abbey cast of characters is precisely the target clientele for which the luxury hotel on the eastern bank of the Nile in archaeology-rich Luxor was built.
Today, the Winter Palace in Luxor is managed by Accor Hotels under the luxury French brand Sofitel, which helps ensure that most amenities expected by Western visitors and higher standards of quality and service are for the most part in place at the property.
Strangely enough for a relatively modern structure, especially compared with the temporal scale of Egypt, there is quite a bit of mystery and misinformation surrounding the origins of the Winter Palace. Hotel staff and some people in Egypt often tell guests that it started out as a royal palace during Ottoman times, which the name certainly implies. However, maps of Luxor from throughout the 1800s do not seem to show any such structure on the site.
Similarly, both local lore and the Sofitel’s own website for the property claim that the Winter Palace Hotel dates to 1886. The hotel’s fine dining French restaurant is even named 1886 to commemorate the year in which the property supposedly first opened. However, guide books, newspaper articles, and tour operator literature from the first decade of the 20th century all clearly reference the grand opening of the Winter Palace Hotel in 1907 by the Upper Egypt Hotels Company, which was only founded in 1905.
It is possible that people are confusing and/or mixing the history of the Winter Palace Hotel with that of the Luxor Hotel next door, which was the first hotel to be built in Luxor for foreign visitors. But the Luxor Hotel opened its doors in 1877, not 1886. (For an excellent discussion of this mystery, see The Winter Palace and Luxor Hotel: a case of mistaken identity? by journalist Andrew Humphreys).
By all historical accounts, the original building that is today the Winter Palace Hotel was built from the ground-up some time between 1905 and 1907 and began welcoming guests in 1907. Today the original building still welcomes guests and is one of the best places in all of Egypt to really get a feeling of what life was like for the elite, both foreign and local, during colonial times.
Grand staircases, huge doors, high ceilings, and long hallways harken back to another time when few could afford to travel to such a faraway exotic place, and when some of Egyptology’s greatest treasures were either fresh in people’s recent memories (e.g., the Rosetta Stone) or yet to even be discovered (i.e., King Tut’s tomb).
While lounging, having tea or a drink, or dining in the Winter Palace, you can easily imagine Howard Carter or Lord Carnarvon strolling into the room in a white linen suit dress off the day’s work of excavating and cataloging King Tut’s golden and bejeweled treasures nearby.
The trade-offs for this authentic historical ambiance at the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor are the trappings of modern luxury, meaning the Winter Palace does come across as a bit dated in its trimmings. However, I always forewarn visitors about this trade-off and still recommend that they try out the Winter Palace when staying overnight in Luxor.