We Spent 3 Days In California’s Coolest Up-And-Coming Getaway Destination (Here’s What We Thought About Our Historic Hotels)


Grab some coffee and settle in for your Saturday morning long read, friend! Today’s post is some GOOD OL’ FASHIONED BLOGGING: 50% super dramatic before-and-after shots, 30% design and history education (but like, in an exciting way), 20% anecdotal firsthand experience (again, hopefully in an exciting way), and 10% PURE EXCITEMENT. We have a little bit of everything: massive boutique hotel renovations! Repurposed vintage finds! Prohibition-era secret passageways! A sofa from the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds! The best french fries I’ve ever had in my life (not pictured, but I will absolutely describe them at some point)! Drag Queen Bingo night! Quiet, layered, neutral spaces, AND maximalism galore!

Here’s what went down: we lucked out, basically. Earlier this year, Em headed out to Nevada City – an 1800s gold-mining town about an hour away from Sacramento and Tahoe – for a relaxing weekend trip with Brian. Like all bosses (sarcasm – I literally think Em may be the only boss who has ever done this), she LOVED the aesthetics of the two hotels she’d visited and was like, “you know what would make this romantic weekend trip with my husband better? If I, like, invited my design-obsessed team to spend a few days with me, so we can all stand in a huddle underneath a chandelier and scream about this 170-year-old original light fixture for an hour and a half. That would really take this trip to the next level.”

So that’s how your favorite blog staff (I hope) found themselves in the Burbank Airport on a Tuesday morning in late April. It was a quick hour-long flight up to Sacramento and an easy Uber trip to Grass Valley and Nevada City, an area in which we spent the next three days taking notes from the design team who just pulled off a HUGE restoration of two historic properties. We learned, ate, drank, and laughed a lot and I can’t wait to share it all with you – ARE YOU READY TO SEE???

Hot Tip

If it works with your schedule, a mid-week visit is absolutely the way to go – there’s a ton to do and explore every weeknight. To that end, we wrangled our readers an exclusive 20% discount on stays booked Sunday through Thursday, PLUS complimentary cocktails for two at the National Bar. You can find the booking link at the bottom of the post! We want you to have as much fun as we did.

The Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley, CA

Enter: The Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley, CA. Let me give you some neighborhood context, first (yup, here comes the history!) – about $400 million dollars worth of gold was extracted from the mines in this area starting in about 1850. That means that Grass Valley/Nevada City was the spot back in the day – like, the richest mining town in California, which basically made it the heart of the gold rush – and to that end, THIS BUILDING HAS SEEN SOME STUFF. Cowboys! Gunfights! Famous robbers! It actually even burned down twice – the current structure is from the 1860s – and it’s since played host to a ton of historical figures, like several presidents, iconic boxers, and even writers, like Mark Twain! (Spoiler: One of us even got to stay in Mark Twain’s room!) (Double spoiler: IT WAS ME AND I LOVED IT!!!)

Before we go inside, I wanted you to take a peek at this tasteful outdoor restoration, though. My favorite part of this weekend was seeing how the design and architecture teams really embraced the structures they were renovating – they worked to highlight and embrace the existing features. It feels a lot more welcoming now, doesn’t it?

WELCOME IN, GANG. Stylistically, it’s like classic gold rush-era Americana meets timeless, collected, eclectic design. You see the double doors to the left of the stairs? That’s the front entrance from the street. The check-in desk is located in a dreamy little niche under the stairs, and that’s the saloon through the arch on the left. There’s a TON to take in, so let me point out my three favorite details:

  1. The lighting in this place is IMMACULATE. That chandelier is actually original to the hotel, and you’ll see similar fixtures scattered around the property. (I had one in my room, too.) Keep an eye out in the rest of the photos as I was SO inspired by the lighting – picking fixtures for open concept spaces can be a doozy, but the lighting here was so thoughtfully chosen and everything works SO well together.
  2. You see that wrought iron and glass cage on the left? That’s the OG ELEVATOR. It is AWESOME. The quieter, more neutral updated design really gives it room to sing and shine.
  3. The Holbrooke is a MASTERCLASS in designing with texture. Original stone walls on the right! Copper-clad saloon walls on the left! Not to mention all the leathers, velvets, hides, glass, stone…every space is so luxe and considered.

These are some of our iPhone shots – how sweet is the vignette on the left with that off-center sconce over a mini gallery wall? The scale of those navy chairs is so exciting and unexpected, too. My favorite piece in the lobby was this circular seating – it was custom designed to be authentic to the period! – and the styling up top was SO good (vessel heaven, y’all).

The aforementioned check-in niche under the stairs with a to-die-for floral arrangement wasn’t too bad, either :). I think you can get a good idea of the vibe of the hotel from these quick snaps – it just felt so comfortable and relaxed in here. Next up, please allow me to escort you into the saloon…

HELLO, beautiful restoration before and after!!! It’s rare to see a place that feels more period-appropriate after a renovation, but this room, in particular, BLEW ME AWAY. My favorite change was actually up on the ceiling – look at those now-exposed coffers! It’s such a tiny change that makes a world of difference, don’t you think? I’m also still swooning over the new bar seating – look how much visual clutter was removed by nixing the spindle-backed chairs! – and I’m enamored by the pendants above the bar (plus, gotta adore the new ceiling fans – they really let all the other features take center stage).

Speaking of center stage – WE GOTTA TALK ABOUT THAT BAR IN THE BACK. It’s original! (The onyx pillars almost made me pass out!) As a long-term, long-time lover of vintage, I was just bowled over by all the history attached to this piece – like, I get so weirdly moved when I see old features. I just start thinking about all the people who’d been here, and their lives, and all the conversations that transpired while looking at those little lotus lights reflecting in the mirror, and like…it just DOES SOMETHING TO MY HEART. Being in here felt great.

The entire team ended up sneaking down here early in the morning to grab some more shots of these copper walls. They’re breathtaking, guys. Also breathtaking: the DELICIOUS DRINKS IN THIS PLACE. After flying up on Tuesday, enjoying a quick team lunch, and hammering out some work on the blog (there are private meeting rooms available!), we met in the Saloon to grab a drink before embarking on the BEST tour of the Holbrooke with Anne L’Esperance, the lead designer, and Amanda Miller, a docent who knows ALL the history of the hotel and the area. But now, I want to show you the other side of the saloon. We’re going to the dining room, gang!

I know there’s a lot to take in from an architectural perspective, but I literally could not stop gushing about those seashell sconces being used as picture lights! The Holbrooke is a pretty traditionally ~masculine~ space, so there’s something so soft and sweet about balancing that aesthetic with a whimsical lighting choice.

I also loved the mantle swap in here – this smaller piece (still vintage, and from the correct era!) opened up the space a TON, right? The windows feel much bigger now, too, since they aren’t being dwarfed by a huge wall fixture.

Back to a team iPhone shot! On Tuesday night, after our fun tour of the property, our tiny squad tucked into the area just between the fireplace and window for the most DELICIOUS dinner. (Full disclosure: we actually ended up eating FOUR meals in here in less than 24 hours because the food was too good.) If you’re in the area, this is a MUST-VISIT. If you’re not in the area, well…this is also still a MUST-VISIT. I can drop all of our meal recommendations in the comments if anyone is interested! (I think we ate our way through like, a good majority of the menu. I’ll be returning at some point to finish the job.)

After dinner (and after I had sprinted upstairs to make some 9 PM changes to the next day’s blog post, ha), our team headed into the basement for Soul Supreme at the Iron Door, which is probably the closest we’ll ever get to spending an evening in a Prohibition-era speakeasy. It’s hard to tell in these shots, but there’s a SUPER thick iron door *just* to the left of the bar. In the 1800s, it led straight into the local bank, and it was also where ladies of the night would enter and leave the hotel!!! The transformation in this space is unbelievable – I just kept telling Anne, the designer, that she’d taken a design agony (those black poles) and transformed them in SUCH a genius way.

We had such a great night catching up, drinking wine, and befriending some locals down here – everyone was so generous and friendly. (If you’re as social as we are and you come down here for a drink, you will absolutely hug a stranger while saying your goodbyes at the end of the night.)

Here are two more iPhone shots of the original iron doors down in the lower level. One of my favorite things about The Holbrooke is that it’s so self-contained – I absolutely could have spent, like, 3 straight days on the property without going outside. There was beautiful indoor space, great outdoor space (Em’s room, Ryann’s room, and my room all had balconies!), incredible food, and fun entertainment. The whole place was just such a treat, you know? (Maybe that’s normal for boutique hotels, but it’s new to me.) Now, I want to show you a room that maaaaay look a little familiar to you. READY?

Here’s a peek at Em’s room. Can you believe this transformation? The previous carpeting, wallpaper, and paint left the space feeling dated (and, like, not in a cute/vintage-y way). This updated, more neutral design feels WAY more “modern wild west town” and way less “Victorian leftovers.” One of my favorite things to note: do you see that sweet settee? It’s original to the property. The design team worked to breathe new life into TONS of the already-existing pieces on site, which I loooved from a sustainability perspective. Another case in point…

…is this STUNNING vintage armoire. (If this is really ringing a bell, it’s because this is where Em shot her selfies for our annual swimsuit review post!) I also fell in love with all of the vintage rugs in both properties, which the design team sourced from the fine folks at Revival. (You know, in case you’re trying to get this look at home, too.) All the rooms felt SO light and bright and collected – I loved it.

WELCOME TO MY ROOM, also known as Mark Twain’s former haunt (it’s room number 2, in case you also want to stay here!). Y’all, I had one of the best sleeps of my LIFE in this bed – I sprawled out in the middle and woke up around 3 AM with my arms and legs fully stretched in both directions. (I also cried when I walked in for the first time because it was SO beautiful and I was SO excited.) There was so much character and history in here and my balcony out front had a full dining table set up – it would have been the BEST spot for a late-night team hang if we hadn’t befriended half the town down in the Iron Door. I can’t wait to come back again.

It’d be such a fun space to share with a partner, but it was also a GREAT room to buckle down and get some work done. I was very productive in here (thanks, spirit of Mark Twain). And stylistically…man, what a difference some new carpet, fresh paint, and repurposed vintage goods can make. So much lighter, brighter, and layered, right?

The bathrooms in The Holbrooke were also an absolute DELIGHT – that’s Em’s bathroom on the left and another on the right. Those are the original tubs, too, which the designers refinished and re-installed. The penny tile flooring, brass accents, hits of black, and restrained color palette made these bathrooms feel SO relaxing and rejuvenating. A bunch of us woke up early on Wednesday morning to take baths and they were wonderful 🙂

Around noon on Wednesday, we bid adieu to the Holbrooke, hopped in a minivan, and drove about 10 minutes down the road to Nevada City and our next destination: The National Exchange Hotel.

The National Exchange Hotel – Nevada City, CA

And BOY, we were in for a visual FEAST. If The Holbrooke is a cool, neutral, masculine little brother, The National Exchange (or “The Nash,” if you’re ~in the know~) is the bold, refined, self-possessed big sister. It opened in 1856 and at the time, it was essentially the heart of the town – a major stagecoach stop was right outside; it was home to Nevada City’s first telegraph office; the USPS set up shop inside for nearly 100 years.

Over the years, proprietors transformed The National to fit their needs – balconies were added and removed and a FULL, HIDDEN ROOM was even discovered behind a brick wall in the middle of a renovation. It’s AWESOME. Ready to go inside???

YEAH. I KNOW. It’s literally awe-inspiring, y’all. Welcome to the lobby – those are the main stairs on the left and the front desk straight ahead. Get a load of the original radiator on the right! Look at the patina on that nearly-200-year-old clock! Ogle those pill-shaped windows and the sweet double doors! The tile floor and wallpaper combo are just to die for, too. Can I show you my favorite part real quick?

These are the sconces on the wall when you move a bit further into the lobby, closer to the main desk. They’re original to the property – almost 170 years old!!! – and I’m still basically crying at the logo on the shade. I can’t believe something so delicate has lasted this long, you know?

It would have been so easy to write these off and to instead swap in some new lighting fixtures, but the care and attention to honoring the history of the building just speaks VOLUMES. Another example of going the extra mile is inbound (buckle up, because it’s stunning)…

THIS BAR. Do you see that golden texture in the front? Those are the old radiators from the hotel, which the designers repurposed in here. The wallpaper and tin ceiling and general energy in this space was UNMATCHED. We rolled in on a Wednesday afternoon for a little lunch, spent some time snuggling up in a booth together for a little brainstorming (unplanned, but we were too comfortable to leave!) and then returned to the National Bar later that night for Drag Queen Bingo, which was for sure my favorite part of the trip. (We’ll get into it more below.)

But first: here’s some photographic evidence of us working!!! I still can’t believe we got to be together in person in such a comfortable, beautiful space (Sadly, Mal couldn’t be there and she was DEFINITELY missed!). More importantly, though, how great is that fringed pendant in the window? The wallpaper is an absolute dream, too. (And those booths are such a great pop of color – it’s a jewel box in here.)

Now, I can’t wait to show you some DRAMATIC before and afters – I want to show you where we slept at night, but first, you NEED to see what the team was working with when they kicked off the restoration in 2018…

AND, WELL, WOW. Those are some BONES. (Confusing bones. Disorienting bones. But bones nonetheless!) There are some keeper pieces here – like, please note the original bed frames – but even I, an ardent lover of color and wallpaper and power clashing, can see that this hotel was in desperate need of a cohesive, loving hand. Buckle up and prepare yourself for one of the most satisfying afters of all time 🙂

PHEW. It’s so much better, y’all. There are 38 rooms in The National Exchange, and each has its own special design. Every room is packed with repurposed vintage pieces and they all now feel expansive and fresh and clean. Our rooms were all a bit different – ready to see?

This was Em’s room (and that’s a few of us, posing for a selfie in a HUGE antique mirror). The marquetry on the vintage commode next to the bed was STUNNING, and the whole room was so serene and quiet and pretty. Also, how great does that bed look against that William Morris wallpaper? Around 4 PM on Wednesday, we all took an hour of alone time in our rooms to rest and recharge our batteries – can you imagine decompressing in here?

That’s my room on the left and Jess’ on the right, and I loooooved seeing how the design team styled out wallpapers in different ways. (I also loved seeing Cole & Son’s Thistle print in the wild – my kitchen and dining room wallpaper are also from Cole & Son, so I’m a huge sucker for all of their patterns!)

See how they leaned into a deeper color palette with the green velvet and wood in my room and then went a little brighter with orange velvet and white nightstands in Jess’ space? It’s SUCH a far cry from where these rooms started out and such an impressive and thoughtful restoration.

I also had to show you this room – same wallpaper, but in a different color with a totally fresh vibe. The hotel had stunning public spaces, but leaving our little individual oases was TOUGH. We experienced a little bit of weather on our trip and let me tell you: the sound of raindrops hitting the original wavy glass windows was SO relaxing and comforting. After we all took some time for ourselves, we gathered as a group for another Happy Hour design tour with Anne and Amanda, who walked us around the property and explained the history and the renovation process.

And, well, it’s just phenomenal. This was the back staircase near Jess’ room, and it may be my favorite transformation of the entire post. William Morris’ Meadow Sweet is one of the wallpapers I eyed for my own bedroom, so I loved seeing it covering the hallways across the property. I just can’t even imagine how much work went into bringing The National back to life during the three-year renovation process – like, can you imagine stripping that white paint off each baluster? (Also, please note the little sitting area at the bottom of the stairs – those pieces are all original to the hotel, which is SO COOL.)

On the second floor, you’ll find this MASSIVE goldenrod sectional, a sweet little bar with incredible stone and a gorgeous ceiling (this is also where breakfast is served!), and a really beautiful private event room. Amanda told us that this is a super popular spot for weddings – they can host up to 80 – but we just loved lounging in here.

This huuuuge sofa was split into zones – you can see that they peppered a few coffee tables and bistro tables in different areas – and it felt like such a bold and creative alternative to a more traditional, segmented seating situation. ADORED IT. (If any one of you ever gets married at The Nash, can I come?)

After our tour, we headed downstairs for an INCREDIBLE team dinner at Lola, the in-house restaurant. We were all blown away by this custom lighting – it was designed by Doug Washington and it’s a SHOWSTOPPER. That two-sided banquette is even more vibrant in person if you can believe it. Also, make sure to note the mirror-backed sconces that line the walls. And those Italian Chiavari vintage-style chairs, too!!! SO GOOD.

Had to break out the iPhone shots to really highlight the impact of that arched lighting, obviously – it’s beautiful from the front and the side. For our dinner, we sat right in front of that big window on the left and Pascal, our waiter, was SO MUCH FUN. I threw back my first-ever oyster, we laughed over steak tartare and caesar salads, and we wolfed down two orders of the best gnudi in the world. I think we ended up sitting here for nearly three hours (apologies to our fellow patrons) because it was just so lovely in here – like Paris meets Westworld (but in the good way, like, before the robots rise up). If you’re headed to Lola for the first time, you’re in for a GREAT time and a real treat.

After dinner, we headed back to the National Bar for DRAG QUEEN BINGO – it’s a joint drag show AND bingo night, which is THE BEST IDEA IN THE WORLD. This happens the third Wednesday of every month and I literally do not have words to describe how much fun it was. I literally could not (still can’t, TBH) believe that such a beautiful hotel could also have SUCH a great restaurant and SUCH fun in-house programming – like, HOW IS THIS NOT THE BIGGEST TOURIST DESTINATION? Being here really felt like we were visiting the next ~hot spot~. Get in early while you can! (PS. After bingo had ended, the entire bar started singing Cher’s “Believe,” so it’s a fun place no matter what’s happening.) Afterward, we all dragged ourselves up to bed – team EHD packed a lot into two days! – and we prepared to fly back to Portland and LA the next morning.

I gotta be honest: leaving on Thursday was TOUGH. I wanted more time at The Nash!!! (I also love spending time with our team in person, but I just really loved soaking in the aesthetics of this hotel. I noticed something new every time I looked!) I also wanted to spend more time staring at this sofa, which was pulled straight from the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – Em and I were both on the third floor, so we got to walk past it every time we made our way to our rooms. Doesn’t it work so well with that original light fixture? (And I think we all could have written a second post about the art in this hotel – the owl painting is a stunner, right?)

Before we leave, I just wanted to show you one of my favorite restoration shots just to highlight the dedication and effort laid forth by this team. This is the Good Morning Supply Co., located JUST off the lobby, and it really speaks for itself, doesn’t it? The room on the left could have been an office anywhere, but the renovated space on the right is pretty breathtaking.

They discovered that huge black archway during the remodeling process (awesome) and it took a team of 6 men to haul that black vault on the left from the original lobby into this space. It’s a renovation that honors the history, embraces the spirit, and ensures that generations to come will be able to have fun behind these walls, too.

Closing out today’s novel with a picture of my CUTE AND SWEET team. That’s Ryann, our new hire Sarah (everyone say “hi,” please – she’s Portland-based, a mom of 2, and so much fun!), big boss Em, and Jess. (I took this picture because their outfits all ~went together~ and I dress like a 90s-era Limited Too store exploded.)

Thank you to Em for bringing us up to Nevada City, to the Holbrooke and The National Exchange Hotels for being such gracious and generous hosts, and to YOU for embarking on this little journey with us. I hope we made good companions with your morning cup of coffee 🙂 Did you also love looking at this thoughtful, careful, and intentional restoration? (I sure hope so!!!)

Again – if you’re interested in visiting the area, I can’t recommend these two properties enough. As promised, this link will grab you 20% off stays booked Sunday – Thursday PLUS a complimentary cocktail for two at The National Bar. The offer is valid through September 1, so you have some time to book your travel. (The promotion is called “Emily Sent Me,” in case you run into any trouble.) Maybe we can all go together sometime??? LET’S PLAN OUR MEETUP IN THE COMMENTS, yeah? xx


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