Ham Yard Hotel, London

Colorful and carefree, this Soho design paradise includes a hidden bowling alley and movie theater

Something’s in the air as soon as you arrive at London’s Ham Yard Hotel. It’s perhaps the immediate juxtaposition of calm after the walk through Piccadilly Circus, a block away. Situated in a private-like courtyard (where pedestrians can also take a shortcut), the hotel is surrounded by lovely independent boutiques, large oak trees, a gigantic bronze sculpture by English artist Tony Cragg, and rare for the vibrant Soho area: sunlit outdoor dining. The newest property from Tim and Kit Kemp opened in June 2014—becoming the ninth boutique lodging under their Firmdale Hotels umbrella—and Ham Yard is their biggest and most impressive yet. Without a doubt, it was the highlight of our recent trip to London (edging only slightly past Harry Potter Studios and local restaurants in ranking).

If boutique hotels of late have been falling into a formulaic, stale template as they expand, Ham Yard is a true gem for the jaded traveler who’s seen it all. Forthrightly eschewing minimalism, it’s a kaleidoscopic treasure chest of surprise. Every nook and cranny—from the drawing room’s chandelier made of crystal-studded ships to the color-blocked elevators—surprises the eyes with unexpected artwork, design objets, and souvenirs from travels. Done haphazardly, this would be a nightmare visit to grandmother’s, but Kit Kemp (who designs each property) makes Ham Yard feel anything but kitsch. There’s a sense that everything has been placed carefully with purpose, creating a charged energy. Who else could pull off a vintage pipe organ as a seating divider in the ground floor restaurant, or a neon silk thread installation by young artist Hermione Skye O’Hea in the lobby?

On the upper floors is a mix of 91 bedrooms and suites—the décor of each, different—as well as 24 residential apartments, with a minimum of a 90-day stay (a popular choice in the summer for foreigners). The very high beds make you feel regal; add a gigantic fabric headboard, crisp white sheets and duvet cover, plus four body-length pillows, and sleep seems to arrive in seconds. Though the bustling city (and any kind of cuisine you’re craving) is just steps away, you can’t help but feel like you’re in a friend’s home, being taken care of by the world’s greatest hostess. Even the bathroom amenities have been overseen by Kit; her new bespoke collection Rik Rak launched when Ham Yard opened, and the range includes eye cream and pillow mist.

The rooms are swoon-worthy (we also loved the vintage illustrated wallpaper adorning the hallway that describes roots, flowers and vegetables in French) but it’s the communal spaces that make Ham Yard an oasis for the tired traveler and eager explorer. Underground, past the spa level, is the Croc Bowling Alley—named after the three gigantic driftwood crocodiles hanging on the wall (and guarding the dance floor) which Kit discovered on her travels and brought back to London. The 1950s bowling alley itself was also imported, all the way from Texas. Bookable for private events, the space is available for guests to rent lanes by the hour.

Further spaces include the how-did-they-manage-to-fit-this 190 seat state-of-the-art theatre, made extraordinary with bright orange leather seats and blue wool walls; this is often booked for premiere screenings. But Kit also hasn’t left out the guests. For their exclusive use is the Library and the Drawing Room, where the patterned furniture (much of which was custom designed by Kit) begs to be touched, books encouraged to be read, and each stocked with a large honesty bar. The secluded roof terrace feels like you’ve stepped into the English countryside for a moment; beyond the unique outdoor furniture, like horse-shaped benches, there are gardens where lettuce, herbs and vegetables are harvested for use by the restaurant, and even two bee hives.

There’s no sign of Firmdale Hotels slowing down. Their first stateside property, the Crosby Street Hotel, has already won over locals and visitors as a go-to respite in NYC’s Soho neighborhood—with its own theater and sculpture garden, too. The lobby alone is worth a pit stop for an Instagram (Jaume Plensa’s head sculpture makes an immediate impression). Later this year Firmdale’s second NYC location, the 15-floor Whitby, will open in midtown Manhattan (on 56th Street between 5th and 6th Ave)—and we’re thoroughly excited to see this boutique hotel’s individualistic decor and attitude shake up the very corporate surrounding area.

Room rates start at £320 (including tax); book online via Firmdale Hotels and don’t leave without having breakfast here at least once. If it’s your first time in the area, we recommend taking Eating Europe’s Twilight Soho Food Tour, which covers a lot of ground (and restaurants we’d write about) in one night.

Images by Nara Shin