Long occupying an important space within the American cultural psyche, motels rose to prominence in the 1950’s and 1960’s following a boom in auto travel. After a decline in motor lodging demand during the 1980’s, a new guard of 21st century moteliers are putting classic motor courts back on the nation’s roadmap for a new generation of travellers wishing to revisit the heydey of roadside Americana. Well-preserved Googie architecture and authentic mid-century furniture harkens back to Atomic Age design, while audaciously embellished themed suites weave the ultimate escapist fantasy. Here is our definitive list of the best retro motels in California.
Mid-Century Motels in California
Palm Springs, CA
Designed in 1947 by famed architect William F. Cody and located in the modernist haven of Palm Springs, the Del Marcos Hotel will transport you back to the era of space-age optimism. Well-preserved architectural features, including floor-to-ceiling windows, and original native stone and redwood exteriors will excite even the most refined mid-century modern enthusiasts. But what really makes this gem one of the best retro motels in California is its spacious Jetson-esque guest rooms, which are meticulously decorated in brightly-hued period furnishings, while a classic U-shaped courtyard houses a sparkling saltwater pool.
Los Angeles, CA
Mid-century modernism meets the 21st century at the Beverly Laurel Motor Inn. Built in 1965 and freshly renovated in 2015, this central Hollywood entry in our survey of the best retro motels in California merges the best of kitschy 1960’s decor with modern amenities (wifi and cable TV!). A stunning vintage Googie-style neon motel sign and classic motor court architecture harken back to the golden age of roadside tourism, while bright, vibrantly-colored interiors capture the decade’s ultra-chic modernist style. Kick back beneath the lush greenery of the courtyard and take a dip in the heated pool before hitting up the Grove and Sunset Strip, only a stone’s throw away.
Desert Hot Springs, CA
This desert oasis of a motel is nestled between Joshua Tree National Park and Palm Springs in Desert Hot Springs, known as California’s ‘spa city’ for its abundance of natural mineral springs. The perfect pit-stop for some serious R&R on your next Pacific Coast getaway, Hot Springs Resort is renowned for its tranquil atmosphere, private hot mineral spring well, and state-of-the-art spa facilities. Soak in one of the resort’s three mineral pools while enjoying 360 degree views of Coachella Valley and Mount Jacinto, or re-energize with a classic Swedish massage and hot stone therapy at the motel’s luxury spa.
Palm Springs, CA
Immerse yourself in 1950’s nostalgia at Palm Spring’s Orbit In. Furnished with an impressive collection of original mid-century modern furniture from iconic designers such as Bertoia, Eames, and Herman Miller, and decorated with vintage Julius Shulman photographs, this courtyard-style motel is completely steeped in retro charm. Spin some Frank Sinatra on your guest room’s personal turntable to set the mood, or sip on the Boomerang Bar’s signature Orbitini while enjoying breath-taking mountain views.
Theme Motels in California
San Luis Obispo, CA
The mother of all themed motels and a recurring topic of interest on this blog, The Madonna Inn is as much a Central California landmark and tourist attraction as a world-class motor hotel. Built in 1958 by husband-and-wife duo Alex and Phyllis Madonna, the legendary motel’s whimsical Swiss chalet exterior houses a sprawling wonderland of kitschy decor and quirky opulence. One hundred and ten individually-decorated guest rooms boast an eclectic array of themes from ‘Just Heaven,’ featuring a celestial spiral staircase and sun-lit viewing tower, to ‘Caveman,’ a rock-walled den decked out with a waterfall shower and animal prints galore. Not looking to stay the night? Step inside for a moment to catch a glimpse of the outlandish men’s washroom (equipped with a rustic waterfall urinal), sink your teeth into a mouth-watering steak at The Gold Rush Steak House, or devour a piece of the Madonna Inn Bakery’s world-famous pink champagne cake.
The boutique motel’s rustic decor exudes the quietude of O’Keefe’s desert retreat.
Los Alamos, CA
Tucked away in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country is the ranch-style Alamo Motel. Cozy yet minimalist decor, inspired by the stylings of Georgia O’Keefe’s Abiquiqui home studio, evoke the quaint cowboy mystique of mid-century New Mexico. Sprawl out on the boutique motel’s sweeping property for a mid-afternoon picnic. After dark, cozy up beside the communal fire pit and enjoy the flavours of local wine at the resort’s private wine bar.
These are some of my personal must-visit hot spots in The Golden State, all of which are contenders for the spot on the list of the best retro motels in California!