Ultimate Ava Gardner Travel Guide
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Once heralded as the world’s most beautiful woman, Ava Gardner’s lust for travel, booze and men was legendary.
Gardner was at the top of her game in the early 1950's; the dark haired beauty from North Carolina had starred in hit movies like The Killers, Showboat, Mocambo and The Barefoot Contessa. Her face adorned newspapers around the world, alongside her famous husband, Frank Sinatra. But behind the glamour girl facade was a fiery tomboy who loved drink and mischief. Ava’s love affair with Spain and her fondness for flamenco (and a smouldering bullfighter) has become part of the fabric of Hollywood folklore.
Read on to discover Ava’s favourite restaurants and the hotels she most adored, her favourite drinking and dancing haunts in Europe and the Americas and where to find her homes in Madrid, Rome, LA and London.
“The truth is, honey, I've enjoyed my life. I've had a hell of a good time.”
― Ava Gardner
Smithfield, North Carolina
Ava Gardner’s Birthplace and Grave
Your first stop upon arriving in Smithfield should be the Ava Gardner Museum downtown, for a short film that introduces you to her life and loves, followed by a stroll around hundreds of photos and artefacts from Ava's life and career, including costumes from her movies. Ava’s grave site is a short distance from the museum too.
Next, check out one of Ava’s regular haunts during her early years by catching a movie at the Howell Theatre, a 1935 art deco gem. She visited regularly with her mother and would remember in later years watching her and her mother’s favourite Hollywood star, Clark Gable in Red Dust. Gardner would re-make the film with him in 1953 playing Jean Harlow’s original part.
Later she moved to Newport News, near the docks, to a tiny house she detested, now long gone. Ava would return to Smithfield during the summer holidays, listening to the jukebox with older pals at Holt Lake Pavillion. You can still visit, go boating and enjoy a picnic by the lake but the dancing pavilion that Ava once danced in, no longer exists.
For faded glamour and old Hollywood memories in NYC, you can’t get beat Russian Samovar. This gem of a restaurant in the heart of Broadway holds a romantic secret; this used to be Frank Sinatra’s favourite bolt hole. Order a vodka martini and listen to the resident pianist's Sinatra renditions, as Ava might have done (she owned all his records and was listened to them often, throughout her life).
The only hotel of note that Ava stayed in that’s still open in NYC if you’re looking for a little Ava magic is the St Regis, a grand dame hotel founded by John Jacb Astor at the turn of the 20th century.
Birdland was Gardner's favourite jazz joint, where she regularly watched the likes of Miles Davis perform (they struck up a friendship). Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich were also regular visitors.
Ava spent a lot of time at the Copacobana in the early 1950s, watching Frank perform. The original Copacabana has closed but there’s a tribute to it on Times Square.
During their marriage, whenever Frank was performing in the city, they would stay at Hampshire House, a luxury apartment building that overlooks Central Perk. It’s still an exclusive apartment building today, it’s obviously not open to the public but you can check it out.
Where can you go to soak up some Ava Gardner vibes in Los Angeles? Stay at the home she shared towards the end of her marriage to Band Leader Artie Shaw. This pretty Airbnb is located in the Rancho Equestrian district of Burbank and includes breakfast.*
The infamous Chateau Marmont, where Ava would meet one-time resident Howard Hughes, alongside the Beverley Hills Hotel, is still the best place in town to soak up the old world glamour of Hollywood.
Sadly, most of Ava’s glitzy old Hollywood hangouts have long since disappeared; Chasens, Romanoffs, the Mocambo, all gone. Even the mighty Ciros, where the owner Herman Hover once said that Ava was his most frequent, and intense customer, has closed down. If you want to hear stories about the glory days, the Hollywood Reporter has written a great article on the legendary LA restaurants of yesteryear – ‘If these menus could talk.’
Places that are still open that you can visit are The Formosa Café where Ava would often be seen dancing (Frank visited frequently during their divorce), The Beverley Hills Hotel and The Farmers Market.
Don’t miss the Hollywood Museum, a retro movie extravaganza that’s sure to have some Ava-related gems on show. For memorabilia, it’s hard to beat the Larry Edmunds Bookshop, which stocks a huge array of classic movie books, magazines, prints, posters and lots more.
Do the touristy thing and go see Ava’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1508 Vine Street. Try the Sony Studios Tour, which houses the legendary lot that used to belong to her old studio, MGM.
For something edgier, check out the controversial Ava Gardner mural in Koreatown, which commemorates the spot where the iconic Ambassador Hotel once was (site of Robert Kennedy’s shooting), where you could also find the legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The mural had to be modified due to the background bearing too much resemblance to the symbol of the old Japanese imperial navy (it was supposed to pay homage to the Cocoanut Grove logo).
* Prior to this, Ava was living in an apartment in Westwood village. At the beginning of their relationship, they lived in Artie’s mock-Tudor mansion on Bedford Drive. She later lived in a pink house on Nichols Canyon, where she and Sinatra slept together for the first time, in her little yellow bedroom. Later, Frank and Ava would move together to a love nest in the Pacific Palisades. Unfortunately, none of these properties are available to visit/stay in.
The rest of California
Frank and Ava fans should not miss the opportunity to stay in Frank's Palm Springs Twin Palms House, which he had built for himself in the late 1940s. Gardner wrote about the house in her autobiography;
“It was the site of probably the most spectacular fight of our young married life, and honey don‘t think I don’t know that’s really saying something… Frank’s establishment in Palm Springs, the only house we really could ever call our own, has seen some pretty amazing occurrences.”
One of the original bathroom sinks in Twin Palms has a crack in it from a champagne bottle that Sinatra hurled at Ava.
Ava did a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway with first husband Mickey Rooney for their honeymoon. They married at Santa Ynez Valley Presbyterian Church in Ballard, a small community outside Santa Barbara.
After that, they journeyed up the Big Sur coast to Carmel (where Doris Day chose to call home). It was here at the world famous Pebble Beach Hotel that Ava spent much of her honeymoon (technically they stayed at the Del Monte Hotel, which is now a school and office buildings, but they played golf at Pebble Beach). The story, as told by Ava, was that they both got so drunk on their wedding night that they were unable to consummate the marriage.
Ava stayed in Las Vegas with Howard Hughes and made frequent visits to support Sinatra when he performed there. Both the El Rancho Hotel (she stayed here with her sister & Howard Hughes after he flew them there in his private plane for a surprise weekend break) and the Desert Inn where Ava stayed have both been demolished.
Ava stayed many times at the Cal Neva Resort on beautiful Lake Tahoe. Her and Frank could often be spotted on the lake, boating & boozing. The hotel is currently being renovated and turned back into a 5* resort, so watch this space!
Ava’s first arrived in Spain in 1951 to film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and loved it so much she decided to buy a home in Madrid. By late '50's she was regarded as something of a menace to polite society, according to the actress Esther Williams (AKA the dancing mermaid). Ava enjoyed a hard living, hard drinking lifestyle in Madrid and enjoyed frequent road trips to Barcelona, Seville, Malaga and Mallorca, in search of bullfights, flamenco and gypsy life.
Ava lived at three different addresses during her time in Madrid including La Moraleja and her party flat on the Avenida Doctor Arce, which was in the same building as Juan Domingo Perón, he of Evita fame.
She loved antiques and furnished all her homes with items she painstakingly found in local antique shops & rustic flea markets. Shop like Ava and visit El Rastro, Spain’s biggest and oldest flea market, held every Sunday, to pick up home furnishings worthy of Ava’s retro style.
Horchers was her favourite Madrid restaurant, until the management banned her (a frequent occurrence in her later years as her partying got out of control). The restaurant is still open, supremely elegant and serving classic German/Eastern European dishes.
Opposite the restaurant stands El Retiro Park where it’s said that a raucous night in the early ‘60s, she ran across the park in her underwear. By this point she was spending a lot of time with hard drinking gypsy performers who allowed her to indulge her passion for flamenco.
Discover why Ava was so obsessed with flamenco at the world’s oldest flamenco tablao Corral de la Moreria. Enjoy a romantic night of fine dining, sultry dance and tempestuous passion as Ava and Frank once did (rumour has it that she slapped him here one night…).
Stay at the always discreet 5* Hotel Wellington, near El Retiro Park, where Ava had her first raunchy encounter with Luis Miguel Dominguin, her bullfighter lover, supposedly hours before Sinatra got to town.
Later they stayed together at Castellana Hilton and barely left the room. Sinatra also stayed here when he was in town. Salvador Dali visited her there once for afternoon tea, which he ‘flounced out of because he was offended by the word cucumber,’ according to Ava. It’s now The Intercontinental.
The still stylish Chicote Cocktail Bar was one of her favourite drinking places in Madrid; she brought both Sinatra and Luis Miguel here. The bar earned a place in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, The Denunciation.
Ava was also barred from the Hotel Ritz after urinating in the vestibule between the entrance and reception. The building is currently under renovation by Mandarin Oriental Hotels.
Tossa Del Mar
Tossa Del Mar is where Ava Gardner fell in love with Spain. She stayed here in 1950 while she filmed the hauntingly romantic and beautifully filmed Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, starring James Mason as her ghostly lover. The epic house used in the film is not available to visit but there’s plenty to see and do that’s Ava-related in this delightful little town.
Sinatra came to visit her on the set and they stayed together at Hotel Diana, which is still a delightfully romantic boutique hotel by the beach. Don’t miss the Ava Gardner statue in the main square and remember to ask the local baker for a ‘besos de ‘Ava Gardner’ (translation: Ava Gardner's kisses) to nibble on.
Seville, Mallorca, Malaga
Ava made regular road trips from her home in Madrid all over Spain. Her ports of call were Barcelona and Granada. In Malaga she stayed at the Grand Hotel Miramar. She also loved Seville in sultry Andalucia and would often stay at the magnificent Hotel Alfonso XIII. She met Luis Miguel for the first time in the hotel lobby, during the 1952 Feria. He was travelling with his girlfriend at the time.
Ava was photographed dressed fully embracing the gypsy/flamenco look when she attended bullfights at the Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla.
In later years, she befriended the great British poet and novelist Robert Graves, and would often visit him and his family at their villa in Deia, which has now been turned into a lovely little museum. Ava was spotted on several occasions watching and joining in flamenco performances in the island’s capital, Palma.
Some clever scribe once described mid-20th century Rome as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber.’ The iconic Cinecittà Studios and Via Veneto were the setting for a string of Hollywood scandals, reaching its peak with Taylor and Burton’s ‘Le Scandale’ during the sultry Italian summer of 1962. Ava’s shenanigans pre-date Liz & Dick’s by a decade.
Her most notable Rome-based indiscretions occurred while she was in town to promote Mogambo with her co-stars Grace Kelly and Robert Surtees. The trio were staying at Hotel Excelsior from where they enjoyed several boisterous nights out together. The delighted paparazzi followed them to a series of bars on the Via Veneto, followed by some less than savoury dens of ill repute in the city’s backstreets.
The three blocks between the Aurelian Wall and the US Embassy made up the Via Veneto, a glamourous stretch of legendary hotels, bars and clubs such as l’hotel Ambasciatori, Café de Paris (which was destroyed in an arson attack in 2014), Bar Rosati, Golden Gate, Doney (still an upscale restaurant), Bricktop, Café Strega, the Grand Hotel Flora and the always popular all night pharmacy l’Alka Seltzer.
Some other hotels Ava visited during her time in Rome that you can still stay at include the Hassler Hotel, where she met up with Frank Sinatra when he dropped into town to see if they could reconcile their stormy marriage; they argued, she left. Whilst filming The Barefoot Contessa with Humphry Bogart, she stayed in a suite at the Grand Hotel, just as her divorce from Sinatra was announced.
When she wasn’t being put up by the movie studios she liked privacy and preferred to stay in an apartment, one of her favourite was part of an ancient house on the Corso d’Italia. When she filmed The Naked Maja in 1957 she stayed at an apartment at 9 Piazza di Spagna, because her usual place on Corso d’Italia was occupied.
One restaurant that Ava used to gorge herself in that’s still open is Alfredo’s, a legendary pasta spot and home to the original Fettucine Alfredo. Alfredo himself served Ava his famous dish. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had visited the restaurant 30 years earlier and raved about it, making it a must stop for Hollywood-types when they were in town to shoot a movie.
The Sorelle Fontana fashion house, which was located on Via Veneto, was appointed the official dressmaker for The Barefoot Contessa. Ava became good friends with the sisters that ran the fashion house, and she continued to wear their clothes throughout her life, her beautiful face and fearless personality coming to symbolize the brand during the ultra chic 50’s and 60’s. The restaurant at Grand Hotel Plaza, which is where the fashion house was once located, is loosely themed around the Sorelle Fontana, showcasing vibrant fashion sketches along the walls.
Ava stayed in San Remo and Portofino, which were both filming locations for The Barefoot Contessa. She fell in love with Portofino, the oh-so-glamourous jewel in the crown of the Italian Riviera. She stayed at the Hotel Splendido and often returned there on private holidays. The Splendido’s sister hotel, the Hotel Splendido Mare, even has a suite named after her.
Ava stayed at the George V Hotel in Paris, whilst on a break from filming Pandora and the Flying Dutchman in 1951. Frank Sinatra flew out to see her and they dined at the much storied Tour d’Argent restaurant. More than a decade later, she was back in town to discuss starring in The Pink Panther opposite Peter Sellers, on this occasion she stayed at Plaza Athenee Hotel. Once again, she visited Tour d’Argent, to reminisce about the romantic times with Frank.
Havana was one of the settings for Ava and Frank’s honeymoon (Miami was the other). They stayed, where else, but the Hotel Nacional, witness to endless celeb trysts, political scandals and excessive alcohol abuse during its long reign as Cuba’s top hotel. They stayed in a 3rd floor suite, enjoying a blissful few days exploring the city, drinking mojitos and visiting the red light district of La Playita by night.
Ava returned to the Hotel Nacional during her divorce from Sinatra, using the pseudonym Miss Grey, once again to reminisce about the good times. Ava had become good friends with Ernest Hemingway and regularly spent time with him at his house Villa Finca Vigianr in San Francisco d’Paulo, which is now a museum.
The Mount Kenya Safari Club (now run by Fairmont Hotels) is no stranger to royalty, prominent politicians and Hollywood stars. Winston Churchill enjoyed smoking his cigar in the lavish dining room with his afternoon tea. Ava Gardner visited during the filming of Mogambo in 1953. Sinatra stayed here when he came to visit his wife.
The cast of the film, Ava, Clark Gable and Grace Kelly, stayed at the New Stanley Hotel.
Much of the action was filmed in the wilds of Kenya and Uganda. The first camp was set up near the Kagera River, while the second camp was erected close to the Uaso Nyiro River.
Ava kept a flat in Regent’s Park in London in the early '50's. She moved to the city permanently in the late 60’s, settling in a luxury flat at 34 Ennsimore Gardens from 1972 until her death in 1990 at the age of 67. You’ll find an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the wall outside, commemorating the fact that the great Hollywood legend once lived here.
Ava enjoyed walking around the many parks of London and was often spotted in Ennismore Gardens, walking the latest of her beloved Pembroke Welsh Corgis.
One restaurant where Ava is known to have eaten (along with every other VIP in the world) that’s still alive and kicking (and serving the same menu, more or less) is Rules, one of the capital’s oldest restaurants.
She also stayed at international hotel heavyweights, Claridges and The Savoy. She and the rest of the cast of Pandora and The Flying Dutchman were put up at Claridges during filming, even hosting a press conference in the hotel’s stylish Banquet Room. She stayed at The Savoy in 1956 whilst working with a speech coach for her role in Bhowani Junction.
While she was married to Frank, he performed at the much celebrated London Palladium for the first time in 1951. Ava was on the front row watching her husband. Afterwards they went out to celebrate at an unnamed restaurant in Bray on Thames, the home of English fine dining.
Ava holidayed in Mexico with Frank Sinatra at the end of a tumultuous year for the couple in 1951. They stayed at the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City for a few days (they had all their meals sent to their suite and never left it until they boarded their flight for Acapulco). The hotel collapsed during the 1985 earthquake, another has been built in its place.
Night of the Iguana, co-starring Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr, was filmed in the pretty, seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta. Burton was in town with Elizabeth Taylor and they later bought the villa that they rented during filming, Casa Kimberley and turned it into their own private love nest. Casa Kimberley was recently re-vamped and re-opened and you can stay in Elizabeth’s room, where the pink bath suite is original and chosen by her.
A few years later, Ava would return to Mexico to film The Sun Also Rises alongside Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power: the town of Morelia doubled for Pamplona in Spain. This was not a happy stay for Ava, who was experiencing personal problems at the time, she stayed in a villa outside the town by herself.
Other hotels of note that Ava Gardner has stayed in:
Faletti’s, the best hotel in Lahore (Ava stayed in Room 55, now known as the Ava Gardner Suite), where she filmed Bhowani Junction, the cast & crew also stayed here and enjoyed group dinners in the hotel’s restaurant.
While promoting The Barefoot Contessa Ava completed a publicity tour of South America that included Argentina, Chile, Peru & Venezuela and of course, Brazil where she stayed at the Cococabana Palace Hotel.
She also stayed at the Grand Yarra Hotel just outside Melbourne, while filming On The Beach (not a happy experience, Ava was quoted saying that “On The Beach is a film about life after the apocalypse, I think Melbourne is an apt place to film it”).
Sources used in this article:
Ava Gardner - Lee Server
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations - Peter Evans and Ava Gardner
Sinatra: The Life - Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan