The Dive Motel

Revamped Modern Motels Worth A Visit

BY Bailey Berg | April 23, 2024

It wasn’t all that long ago that motor lodges defined America’s travel scene. These mom-and-pop operations were ubiquitous places for weary travelers to rest after a long day on the road. According to Mark Okrant, author of “No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise and Reprise of America’s Motels,” at their peak in 1964, more than 61,000 lined the country’s scenic highways and iconic routes. But after interstates went in throughout the middle of the twentieth century, motels across the country suffered. Some shuttered forever, some became by-the-hour situations and some limped on with fewer and fewer guests. 

In recent years, a lucky few have returned, reincarnated and glorious. Some of today’s best revamped modern motels have been updated with chic interiors, thoughtful amenities, elevated food and beverage concepts, and a sense of nostalgia that harks back to the golden era of American road trips. Read on for some of the most hip and character-filled roadside motels across the country, all reimagined for the twenty-first century and worth planning a trip around.  

Austin Motel – Austin

Found on South Congress Avenue, Austin’s mainstreamed hub of independent boutiques and margarita bars, Austin Motel has operated since 1938. Already familiar to tourists because of its proximity to the “I love you so much” mural, a recent renovation gave the motel a boho cowgirl interior that channels the upscale quirk of modern SoCo. Each of the 41 guest rooms now have custom vinyl tufted beds, funky wallpapers of delicate fruit trees or repeating bright red lips, and vintage silkscreen music posters. And the kidney-shaped pool from the 50s now has a bar and deck where you can lounge under classic red and white striped umbrellas and, on select nights, watch movie screenings or listen to live music. Joann’s Fine Foods, the restaurant on site, has a menu of reimagined diner classics with a Mexican twist, served all day. On weekends in the summer, there’s also a wiener cart. And while much is new, don’t worry: the iconic neon sign remains the same.

Americana Motor Hotel – Flagstaff, Arizona

Built in 1962, the Americana Motor Hotel is located along iconic Route 66 and reopened last July after a top-to-bottom remodel spearheaded by Andrew Alford, the former chief creative officer of Graduate Hotels. Some of the decor draws inspiration from the fact that Flagstaff, Ariz. is the first International Dark Sky City — think a lobby flooring that looks like different phases of the moon, sculptures of astronauts, and red and white bathrooms meant to echo NASA’s Apollo moon landing equipment. Rooms are decidedly retro, with wood-paneled walls, swirly printed carpet, headboards inspired by 70’s ski wear and disco balls. New amenities include a year-round heated pool, an expansive backyard with fire pits, telescopes, a fenced-in “barkyard” for travelers with pets, and a stargazer package for astro-tourists looking to explore the dark skies

Phoenix Hotel – San Francisco

Phoenix Hotel (originally the Caravan Lodge) has been a favorite spot for creatives since 1956 — it’s been frequented by everyone from Neil Young and David Bowie to Kurt Cobain and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Today, the original Art Deco architecture is the same, but all 44 rooms have been updated with custom furniture, vintage concert posters, neon art installations and dramatic pops of blue, red and yellow. The courtyard around the pool (one of two historic landmark-status pools in the country) has new tropical landscaping and furniture. And a new lobby was built, with a design inspired by vintage recording studios. 

The Dive Motel – Nashville

If a color-obsessed mad scientist were to give a 1950s motel a 1970s-style redesign, it might look like The Dive Motel. First known as the Key Motel, this spot on Dickerson Pike in Nashville has hosted some of country music’s legends, including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Hank Williams. Not that the stars would recognize their rooms today — after a 2019 renovation, no two of the 23 guest rooms here are the same. Some have furry walls, others have shaggy duvets or carpets, and all have a different wild, wallpaper pattern, including one room with a photo of a craggy mountain covering an entire wall. The bathrooms are each tiled, but some have soaker tubs in the main living area and the Honeymoon Suite has two tubs side-by-side, right next to the bed. Most importantly, all rooms come standard with a party switch that activates a disco ball and the motel’s Dive Radio. For late-night libations, there’s a dark, dark wood-paneled indoor bar with green booths, vintage beer ads and a window to serve the outdoor pool and jacuzzi area, which commonly hosts DJ parties and always has private cabanas for rent. 

The Green Room Hotel – Oceanside, California

This clean-lined, bungalow-style boutique hotel was originally a motel built in the 1950s. The Green Room Hotel now has just 12 rooms, each individually curated to give a nod to the surf and sound subcultures of Oceanside, Calif. All told, there are six studios, five one-bedroom suites and one two-bedroom suite, each unique and mostly white with bohemian accents and one-of-a-kind furnishings (think locally made art, thrifted mid-century modern furnishings, riotously colorful bathroom tilings, and in some units, kitchenettes with retro-style appliances). The Green Room is peppered with fun communal areas throughout, including multiple patios, a fire pit, an outdoor entertainment area and a cedar hot tub. And when you’re ready to get off property, a library of free grab-and-go surfboards and beach cruisers is available for guests.

Bardstown Motor Lodge – Bardstown, Kentucky

In its former life, Bardstown Motor Lodge was the Parkview Motel. Redone with a summer-camp-meets-cocktail-bar vibe in 2022, they’re handing out keys again to 30 guest rooms and five suites. You can sit around fire pits, take a dip in the swimming pool, grab a bourbon slushie at the poolside bar, and play a board game or foosball in a rec room with baby blue cabinets and a stone fireplace. Check out the Bardstown Swim Club — what the motor lodge calls its pool area — for regularly scheduled events as well as cabana and daybed rentals. The Bardstown Motor Lodge is also home to Toogie’s Table, a restaurant that emphasizes a contemporary spin on regional classics. On the second floor of the property, The Bar at Toogies is tucked away and focuses on creative bourbon cocktails (this is Kentucky, after all). 

Ranch Motel & Leisure Club- San Antonio

Ranch Motel just reopened with 26 newly renovated rooms in fall 2023, but the original building dates back to 1948. Details of the original rooms, like tile work and scalloped edges on desk nooks, were kept, but most everything else was given an upgrade. We’re talking guest rooms with Thuma beds, Parachute linens and Le Labo bath products, and a coat of modern black paint on the motel’s exterior. Some of the rooms were retrofitted into common areas, including a reception area and retail shop, and a small HiFi listening room for audiophiles with a focus on Latin, French and Japanese music. There is also a coffee truck, a fire pit area, two courtyards with outdoor seating, a swimming pool surrounded by trees and myriad recreational activities ranging from table tennis and foosball to bocce ball and pickleball. 

Trailborn Rocky Mountains – Estes Park, Colorado

Courtesy of Christian Harder

What used to be the Twin Owls Motor Lodge was recently transformed into Trailborn. Just minutes from downtown Estes Park, Colo. and Rocky Mountains National Park, the revamped offering has 40 guest rooms that serve as a relaxing respite after outdoor adventures. After a day of hiking, guests can congregate around the fire pit on the backyard patio with a cocktail from the on-site bar. Other amenities include a cafe and restaurant and a seasonal pool with views of the nearby mountain range. 

Trixie Motel – Palm Springs, California

Designed by famed drag queen Trixie Mattel, Trixie Motel in Palm Springs is a Barbie pink, mid-century modern fever dream. There are just seven rooms and each has its own exceedingly campy theme (think flamingos, cowgirls, and 70s flower power). No matter which of the rooms you score, you can expect unique murals and wallpapering, a custom statement bed (the one in the space-themed Atomic Bombshell room is circular, for instance), and a glam chandelier.