The exterior of Caliente Tropics in Palm Springs, California. There is an arched structure over the parking lot.

By Darren Bradley

Travel back in time to the golden age of motels

In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, wholesome American families embarking on road trip vacations actually wanted to stay in motels. They weren’t just affordable and convenient—they were in fashion. They were modern and homey and optimistic, even futuristic, in their design, with dramatic angles, colorful interiors, and oversized neon signs. Sometimes, there was even a touch of fantasy.

“For some travelers, the motel experience was the closest they might have to visiting the Hawaiian Islands… or a trip to the moon! Not everyone could afford a trip to Hawaii, but many could afford to stay at the Polynesian-themed Waikiki Motel,” says Heather David, the author of Motel California.

By the 1970s, the market, especially in California, was saturated. Chains proliferated, putting mom-and-pops out of business. And, the advent of the interstate highway system pulled traffic away from the roadside motor inns that hugged older, smaller routes, says David.

Today, she says, “there are few intact mid-century motel survivors and even fewer where you’d actually want to stay the night.”

If you’re driving across California, don’t resign yourself to a generic motel. David has shared with us her favorite examples of midcentury and Googie-style motels still worth visiting, from San Diego to Palm Springs to the Central Coast to Lake Tahoe. Many of them are time capsules that retain their cool signs. They’re all comfortable and full of character.

For more midcentury goodness: