It was 1913 when the first coast-to-coast highway snaked its way across the United States, and by the 1920s, a new kind of business was chasing those early autos across the country: the motel. A brand new style of accommodations, the "motor hotel" or "motor lodge" was centered around guests and their cars, rather than visitors arriving on foot or from nearby train stations.
Motels first appeared on the west coast and soon spread nationwide. As competition between motor lodges heated up in the midcentury, they came to have a certain iconic, attention-grabbing look – the big, splashy neon signs many travelers still associate with Route 66. Their mostly-uniform design featured long, narrow profiles sometimes bent around a pool and chic, modern decor that was certainly a step up from campgrounds and RV parks.
Though many of the country's motor lodges were built over fifty years ago, over the past few years, there’s been quite of a motel renaissance. Creative hoteliers are taking rundown vintage motor hotels and sprucing them up with modern amenities – without sacrificing any of the nostalgic charm.
Now there's another reason to turn to retro-cool motels over more traditional multi-story hotels – the COVID-19 pandemic. As travelers turn to road trips over air travel, motels are not only convenient, but extra appealing with their exterior entrances, few or outside common areas, and, often, discreet HVAC networks that aren't shared between rooms. These motels cater to a road traveler that wants more than just a bed and a bathroom, they're seeking a vibe.
Whether you're in it for the Mad Men era vibes, the social distancing, the history or a little of all three, here are a few of America's coolest motels where you can rest your head, retro-style.
Austin Motel in Austin, Texas
Joanne’s Fine Foods, a classic 1950s-style diner, is the Austin Motel’s restaurant, and its throwback vibe captures the overall spirit of the super-hip property. Opened in 1938, the motel underwent a makeover in 2017 and now stands as a tribute to mid-century modern design and style.
Each room features retro-esque radios and lamps, plus orange and yellow vinyl accents that complement the ultra-colorful, vibrant wallpaper. But the biggest draw is the kidney-shaped pool, a gathering spot for locals in the warm weather. Both the motel and the diner fit perfectly into their setting, too – Austin’s super-hip South Congress neighborhood.
Best neighborhoods to stay in Austin and still be close to the action
Beck’s Motor Lodge in San Francisco, California
Rooms at this Castro district motel are no longer $5 per night – the rate charged when it opened in 1958 – but parking is free, which is hard to come by in San Francisco and a big boon for road-trippers passing through. Beck’s Motor Lodge is perhaps the most historic on our list, considering its role in the LGBTQIA+ history in the 1960s.
A 2017 makeover added sunburst décor, analog clocks, simple throwback furniture and other details that enhance mid-century modern vibe. Contemporary amenities like flat-screen televisions were added, too. A few of the 58 rooms have access to the rooftop sundeck, a perfect perch for a timeless San Francisco activity: watching the fog roll by.
17 top things to do in San Francisco
Vagabond Hotel in Miami, Florida
Once you know that Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra hung out here back in the day, you’ll understand how important it was that this Miami haunt’s snazzy 1950s-era vibe was preserved during a 2014 refurbishment. The works brought the hotel back from the brink of disrepair. The Vagabond Hotel’s revival is in sync with the design-centric MiMo Historic District in which it’s located. The sleek rooms feature Atomic Era-style geometric stenciling on the walls, groovy vintage lighting fixtures and custom-made furniture with pops of Miami-appropriate pink, turquoise and muted yellow hues.
Feel the Miami heat at these 21 hotspots
Modern Hotel & Bar: Boise, Idaho
Because of the growing number of hipster business that have sprung up over the past few years – breweries, farm-to-table restaurants, artist galleries – Boise has developed a reputation as ‘Little Portland.’ As such, the Modern Hotel & Bar, an expansive low-rise building located about a ten-minute walk from the vibrant downtown, fits right in.
It opened in 2007 in an overhauled Travelodge, an early lackluster motel franchise with all the hallmarks of a classic roadside accommodation, such as rooms that open onto an outdoor corridor. The rooms are decorated with mid-century modern furniture and retro-chic lighting. The stylish, laid-back restaurant/bar features creative dishes and classic cocktails. The most buzzed-about thing, however, is the turntable and collection of ’45s in the lobby bathroom. When the hotel opened, locals lined up to play DJ.
The Dive Inn Motel in Nashville, Tennessee
Don't get spooked by the weathered sign original to this 1953 motor lodge – this place has been given a complete, detailed makeover. Leaning hard into the kitsch of yesteryear, each of The Dive Inn's 23 rooms has a different theme, from 60s rustic to 70s stripes. The guest rooms also come equipped with a ‘Party Switch’ that sets a disco ball to twirling to one of four themed sound channels that evoke Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll or Sleep. Guests can take advantage of the titular swimming pool, as well as the onsite Dive Bar, where you can get food, beer and cocktails.
Nashville for free: the 20 best things to do without touching your wallet
Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas
The towering cowboy figure flanking the roadside sign for the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo is a dead giveaway of the adjacent Big Texan’s kitschy throwback vibe. Not convinced? Just take a look at the motel’s façade, which looks like the set of a Western movie, and the Texas-shaped pool.
Opened in 1960 and located on Route 66, just a few minutes from Rick Husband International Airport, the property’s rooms feature campy touches such as swinging saloon doors, old-timey wooden furniture and animal pelts, all of which add up to a theatrical Old West atmosphere.
The most unmissable road trips in Texas for beaches, BBQ and big open skies
Thunderbird Inn in Savannah, Georgia
With its neon sign, blocks of color marking the exterior along with MoonPies and cans of RC Cola on the nightstand, the T-Bird Inn looks like something out of a Doris Day movie. When this downtown Savannah motel, which sits on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1964, it lured travelers – including the Jackson 5 – with its ‘refrigerated’ rooms.
Now, after a 2018 overhaul, it charms with warm popcorn on arrival, retro-chic rooms, full-on green initiatives and complimentary Krispy Kreme donuts. Also, puppy parents will be happy to know that the hotel features an enclosed dog run and offers doggie bedding and treats.
13 best things to do in Savannah
The Anvil Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming
Rather than dialing its style back to the midcentury, the Anvil Hotel instead references a whole century prior with a chic, spare take on 1860s western style. Think bead board, metal bed frames, milk glass globe sconces and gleaming brass hardware in the loo. But for all its handsome Shaker minimalism, the Anvil is a 1950s motel through and through – complete with the oldest neon sign in Wyoming.
But the Anvil just so happens to be calibrated for modern tastes. The lobby isn't a dressed-up living room, but a mercantile stocked with well-curated goods. The restaurant and bar is an Instagram-worthy, wood-fired Italian trattoria that serves up fresh takes on classic cocktails. And the location is pure Jackson Hole, a stone's throw from the Tetons and a reasonable drive to Yellowstone.
Unscripted Durham in Durham, North Carolina
Retrofitted into a 1960s motor lodge, the Unscripted Durham boasts a giddy, mod sensibility with a vintage-style poolside lounge, mid-century modern furniture in the lobby and guestrooms and wallpaper with colorful geometric patterns throughout.
No modern, high-tech amenities are spared at the expense of a thoughtfully designed vintage look that makes you half-expect Don Draper to stroll through the lobby of this conveniently located downtown Durham property. There’s a smart flat-screen television and Bluetooth sound system in each room and high-tech equipment in the fitness center.
Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon
Located in Portland’s fast-evolving Central Eastside neighborhood (known locally as Lower Burnside, or LoBu), Jupiter Hotel takes the log cabin design that’s inextricably linked to the Pacific Northwest’s woodsy landscape and gives it a jolt of cool, modern energy. Set in a low-slung 1964 motor lodge, which stretches out across several zig-zagging buildings, rooms open to an outdoor corridor.
But the old-school look of the exterior belies the sleek rooms, which balance subdued minimalism with pop art vibrancy. The creative vibe that’s so characteristic of Portland extends beyond the rooms. The lobby doubles as a gallery for local artists, and the Doug Fir Lounge – a log-cabin-themed restaurant/bar and club next to the motel – features local beer, nightly concerts and a lively patio. If the creativity (or Portland's legal cannabis) moves you, doodle your masterpiece on your room’s giant chalkboard before snapping it and tagging it #jupiterhotel.
You may also like:
Stay in a vintage Airstream at these quirky caravan hotels around the world
6 rentals for serious vintage vacation vibes
We've visited 48 US states in a camper van – these are the 10 best