Image: Boathouse at Knotts End, England
Courtesy of Chic Retreats
England's Lake District has always been inspiration for painters and poets, so pack watercolors and journals for a stay at the Boathouse at Knotts End (doubles from $463), a 19th century stone cottage on the water's edge in scenic Cumbria.
updated 1/5/2011 12:10:30 PM ET 2011-01-05T17:10:30

The English call them bolt-holes: informal, personalized spaces to escape the madding crowd. A place to put your feet up and feel at home, plan the next foray to galleries and greenswards, or merely contemplate the approach of cocktail hour.

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Of course, Europeans have always had a way with infusing small-scale hotels with quirky charm. But now there is a new generation of independent hoteliers who moonlight in the art world. They’re creating intimate boutiques where the creative vibe is inspiring and the rooms are curated by artists whose personal passion for collecting rarities overlaps with an unorthodox sense of hospitality.

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Take 40 Winks: the East London inn is the creation of eccentric interior designer David Carter, who turned his own 18th-century townhouse into a fashion-and-arts hangout. Here, Shoreditch gallery owners can mingle with out-of-town clients during the playfully risqué gatherings (tableaux vivants, shadow puppet shows) that Carter hosts every month in his public drawing rooms. Upstairs, two bedrooms are filled with his flea market finds from Portobello Road and Clignancourt in Paris. A brushed-aluminum Empire-style hip bath dominates the shared bathroom, and while there’s no dining room, Carter makes sure the honor bar is always stocked with the makings for a proper gin and tonic.

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In Rome, hotelier Alberto Moncada’s aristocratic great-grandfather, a devoted patron of the arts, once built private studios on Via Margutta where Picasso, Puccini, and Stravinsky composed masterworks. Around the corner, Moncada has continued the family tradition by commissioning sepia-toned photographic murals of local monuments to grace the 14 suites in his newly opened Babuino 181. This renovated palazzo also has a rooftop terrace and bar for the ora del cocktail. For breakfast, however, Babuino happens to be steps away from La Buvette, a local favorite on Via Vittoria where the baristi prepare espressos while countesses feed their lap dogs apricot jam cornettos.

From the forests of northern Sweden to the orange groves of Sicily, Europe’s new artistic hotels are among the Continent’s finest. All have fewer than 15 rooms—and many cost less than $250 a night.

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