Travel

The cafés, hotels and city streets that inspired women to create great work

From the café where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, to the motel that inspired Joni Mitchell, think of this as your ultimate travel guide to the most creative spots in the world.

Humans have always sought inspiration in their surroundings. But finding an environment where we feel moved to create is as individual a pursuit as finding true love; what stimulates one mind could leave another cold. There is no set formula to being inspired.

The good news is that we don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money to find an inspirational corner of the globe, we don’t have to travel far, and we don’t need to remain entirely devoted to that one spot for life. Because it’s not really the surroundings that inspire; it’s what our imagination does with a particular backdrop, sight, sound or stimulation. As Sylvia Plath so brilliantly said: “everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise”.

So the space where inspiration strikes could be as simple as the cafe on the corner, as with Sofia Coppola in the Parisian Cafe de Flore. Or it could be the result of a dedicated search for inspiration, as with Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s depictions of other-worldly rock formations in the wilds of New Mexico. Singers like Adele, meanwhile, have been moved to compose perfect soul songs by simply wandering through London.

Here, Stylist reveals the places where nine great women have been inspired to create, from the River Lea in London to the DeSoto Beach Motel in Savannah. Seeking inspiration for a project yourself? Why not give one of these destinations a try…

Frida Kahlo: Blue House, Coyoacán, Mexico City

Frida Kahlo outside of the Blue House in 1940

Now a museum dedicated to the artist Frida Kahlo, her childhood home, the Blue House, is the place that most inspired her… and also held the most distressing memories for her.

In 1925, 18-year-old Kahlo was in a bus accident with her boyfriend, Alejandro. The metal handrail of the trolley bus pierced her abdomen and uterus, breaking both her spinal column and pelvis, along with her collarbone and two ribs, while her right leg was left shattered. She was hospitalised for a month before being dispatched home to the Blue House to recuperate, bedridden and trapped in a full-body-cast for three months.

At her request, she was brought a mirror and an easel and produced her first self-portrait. Her period of confinement at the Blue House set the subject and melancholy tone of Kahlo’s body of work going forward. As she said: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” 

If you want to immerse yourself in the grand Mexico City neighbourhood, book into the Casa Moctezuma, a nearby hotel in an elegant Porfirian-era mansion retaining original woodwork and other period flourishes. 

Eve Babitz: Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles

A sumptuous room at the Chateau Marmont

Nobody has captured the dizzying glamour of sixties and seventies Los Angeles better than it-girl and writer Eve Babitz, of whom Vanity Fair once said, “she is to prose what Chet Baker is to jazz”. 

Babitz first flirted with notoriety in 1963, when the then-20-year-old was photographed by Julian Wasser playing chess with artist Marcel Duchamp. Her essays and fictitious memoirs helped define what it meant to be young, talented, female and restless in Los Angeles at the time, and her life is currently being adapted into a Hulu series, titled LA Woman.

In one of the most pop-culturally dense cities on the planet, Babitz reigned supreme, and beautifully eulogises landmark hotels, dive bars, restaurants and street corners in her writings. For a true taste of seventies LA, book into the decadent Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, the setting for Babitz’s tales of cocaine binges and four-day trysts with musicians and actors. More recently, Sofia Coppola shot her 2010 movie Somewhere at the hotel, and the location inspired the Father John Misty song Chateau Lobby #4.

Adele: River Lea, Tottenham, London

Adele dedicated one of her songs to the River Lea

Adele’s love of London is well-documented in her music, perhaps most famously on Hometown Glory, her debut single. But it’s River Lea, a standout track from her 2015 album 25, that most beautifully illustrates the inspiration the singer takes from the UK capital. 

The Lea flows south from Luton and passes through Tottenham, where Adele grew up. In the lyrics to the song she compares the winding nature of the river, and its use and abuse by society through the ages, to her own life: “It’s in my roots, it’s in my veins / It’s in my blood and I stain / Every heart that I use to heal the pain … I blame it on the River Lea.”

Today’s increasingly hip Tottenham is a little different to the Tottenham that Adele grew up in, but the area still has bucketloads of local character, as well as a new breed of destination pubs and restaurants. With food by Lucky Chip (expect exemplary poshed-up burgers) and a bar team from the people behind Ruby’s in Dalston and Night Tales, The Bluecoats  is a brilliant update on an old-school boozer and a great place to soak up the local flavour while drinking a local Beaverton brew. 

Georgia O’Keefe: Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

Georgia O’Keefe’s dog, Chow, outside of her home in 1966

Ghost Ranch is the impossibly atmospheric former home and studio of American Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who spent many summers there. In 1940 she bought a house on the land, leading to a vast body of work inspired by the dramatic red rock terrain and surrounding cliffs. (And a lot of starry dinner parties, as O’Keeffe hosted friends and luminaries like Andy Warhol and Joni Mitchell.) 

Just off Highway 84 you’ll find what O’Keeffe named White Place, a canyon flanked by slate-grey cliffs and gothic-looking pinnacles; it’s also possible to pay a pilgrimage to the fossilised cedar O’Keeffe immortalised as Gerald’s Tree in a series of canvases.

Today, Ghost Ranch is a retreat centre open to the public that runs over 300 courses in everything from spirituality to photography, archeology and writing. Beyond the ranch, there’s dramatic hiking nearby, and it’s worth venturing to the Echo Amphitheatre, a natural sandstone formation, or the peaceful Monastery of Christ in the Desert. The Ruth Hall Museum of Palaeontology is also a highlight for dinosaur fans (c’mon, who isn’t?!). 

JK Rowling: The Elephant House, Edinburgh

The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where JK Rowling wrote many of the Harry Potter books

This tea room and coffee house might only date back to 1995, but the Elephant House was firmly put on the map after JK Rowling revealed that she wrote some of her Harry Potter series here. With a quiet back room (also beloved by Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith) overlooking Edinburgh Castle, it’s easy to see why this place inspires.

The cafe puts you right at the centre of things, but if you’re on a dedicated Harry Potter pilgrimage, book into the Balmoral Hotel at the eastern end of Princes Street, where Rowling finished the Harry Potter series in room 552. Today the door is decorated with a bronze owl and a small gilt sign: The J.K. Rowling Suite. 

Speaking about her decision to move to the hotel for six months while she completed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling said: “there came a day where the window cleaner came, the kids were at home, the dogs were barking and I could not work and this light bulb went on over my head and I thought, I can throw money at this problem. I can now solve this problem… I thought I can go to a quiet place so I came to this hotel because it’s a beautiful hotel… and I ended up finishing the last of the Harry Potter books in this hotel.”

Joni Mitchell: DeSoto Beach Motel, Savannah, Georgia

Joni Mitchell with on-again-off-again partner John Guerin

The Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell released her eighth studio album, Hejira, in 1976, and it remains one of the 20th century’s most iconic road trip albums. The tracks were largely penned by Mitchell on a lengthy journey from LA to Maine, and then back to California via Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Mitchell drove without a driver’s licence, relying on the truckers en route to signal when police were ahead, and the imagery in the songs include highways, nameless small towns and desolate snowy landscapes. 

Mitchell described the album as: “really inspired… there is this restless feeling throughout it… The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Perhaps the best-loved track is Blue Motel Room, written at the DeSoto Beach Motel in Savannah, Georgia, and inspired by the first breakup of the on-again-off-again relationship between Mitchell and the percussionist John Guerin.

Agatha Christie: Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul, Turkey

The restored bedroom where Agatha Christie stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel

Novelist Agatha Christie was an insatiable traveler who found inspiration all over the globe, as well as closer to home in Devon. One destination in particular that always inspired her was the Turkish capital of Istanbul. 

She stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel, in the heart of the hip Beyoglu district, a destination beloved by travelling aristocrats, artists and writers. It was here at the Pera Palace that Christie conceived one of her most famous Poirot novels, Murder on the Orient Express, and the train in question still runs from London to Istanbul.

Built in 1892 by the French-Ottoman architect Alexander Vallaury, the landmark hotel was designed in a mishmash of neoclassical, art nouveau and oriental styles, that fittingly make every guest feel like they’re stepping into a period drama. 

A little fact for die-hard fans - Christie’s preferred room was number 411, and today, one of the hotel’s restaurant’s is named Agatha in her honour. This is where to dine on contemporary Turkish cuisine when you’re done exploring the lively thoroughfare of Istiklal Avenue and the nearby galleries, museums and restaurants. 

Monica Ali: Brick Lane, London

Graffiti in Brick Lane

When a 34-year-old Monica Ali published her debut novel, Brick Lane, in 2003, it was immediately heralded as a modern British classic. In that same year, Ali was included on Granta’s list of the Best Young British Novelists, while the novel went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize before being named best debut novel at the WH Smith People’s Choice Book Awards.

Taking inspiration from the immigrant tales of Tower Hamlets, much of Brick Lane was an interweaving of stories and experiences from Bangladeshi-born Ali’s childhood. Brick Lane has a rich migrant heritage dating from the French Huguenots, having also seen an Irish, Jewish and - most recently - Bangladeshi community settle here. 

Brick Lane today remains a melting pot of British culture, and a feast of inspiration for artists, chefs, musicians and writers. Sleep at the hipster hub Hoxton Shoreditch, but do your eating back on Brick Lane itself; Sheba has been dishing up great, no-nonsense dishes from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan since 1974.

Sofia Coppola: Cafe de Flore, Paris

Cafe de Flore in Paris has inspired many an artist

This 6th arrondissement cafe is one of Paris’s oldest coffeehouses, a hub for writers, artists and philosophers since it first opened in the 1880s. Like its main rival, Les Deux Magots, the Flore boasts an impressive intellectual pedigree, associated with names like Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus.

So when filmmaker Sofia Coppola wanted a suitably inspirational setting for production meetings for her 2006 film Marie Antoinette, she settled on the Flore. The menu is populated by classic Parisian brasserie fare such as onion soup, confit duck and profiteroles, while the classic Art Deco interiors, with red seating, mahogany paneling and distressed framed mirrors, remain more or less the same since WW2. The upper level of the cafe - which is just a stone’s throw from the Coppola family’s Paris apartment - remains an inspirational refuge for 21st Century creatives.

When in the city, Coppola stays at that apartment, but travellers trawling the streets of Paris in search of inspiration should bed down in the nearby L’Hotel. The location is famous for being the hotel where Oscar Wilde died, and where the likes of Ava Gardener and Frank Sinatra lived it up.

“I’ve always loved this part of Paris,” Coppola says of Saint Germain. “Even though my family is Italian, we came here a lot when I was really little. And then I came to Paris as a teenager: I spent two summers interning at Chanel. You naturally feel a connection to certain places, and, for me, Paris is one of them. I would look at my parents’ French friends and think, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to be like when you grow up’.”

Images: Getty, Unsplash