For lots of us at the moment, staying in a hotel feels like a dim and distant memory. But trust me, they’re still out there waiting to host us all as soon as conditions allow. And some have been around for quite a while now, proving that wanderlust is far from a modern phenomenon.
In Japan, the traditional inns known as ryokan began appearing around 1,300 years ago. In Medieval Europe when travelers weren’t staying in monasteries they would head for the cozy inns of merchant towns. In the Middle East, the Turks created caravanserai – roadside inns where weary travelers could rest and refresh on their long trade journeys.
Amazingly, despite the ravages of time, war, progress and modernity, many of these ancient inns, hostels and hotels exist and indeed thrive still today. From the truly ancient Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan that played host to wandering Samurai 1,300 years ago to the Old Belle Hotel in the UK, which has housed royalty, politicians and most people in between since the 12th Century, Budget Direct has charted the oldest hotels in nearly every country in the world.
Southeast Asia and Oceania
The oldest hotel still operating in the world is in Japan, located in Hayakawa Town, “the least populated town in Japan.” Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan has been hosting Emperors and Shoguns in its hot springs continuously since 705 AD and has been passed down through an impressive 52 generations of the same family. Despite the onset of modernity and a renovation in 1997 that thankfully preserved its original layout, this is a true ryokan experience with traditional woodwork, tatami mats, hot baths and no WiFi!
In fact, if this were a ranking of oldest hotels in the world we wouldn’t need to look much farther than Japan, as the oldest three at least are all located here.
Middle East and Central Asia
In stark contrast to Southeast Asia, nearly all of the surviving hotels in the Middle East are less than 150 years old with the single exception of Iran’s luscious Abbasi Hotel in the city of Isfahan. Built in 1700 along the Silk Road by the Shah Sultan Hasayan’s mother, it was a caravanserai for traveling caravans on the trade route before being donated to a theological school. Renovated in the 1950s as a modern hotel but still in the original building, it remains a dazzlingly opulent and colorful place to rest your head.
The oldest hotel in the US can’t quite stand up to Japan’s ancient ryokans, but The Seaside Inn has still been happily serving visitors to Maine since 1660, if not earlier. It too has a long history tied to one family, the ninth-generation Gooch-Mason family have run The Seaside Inn since 1756 and are so ensconced in Maine lore that their descendants even appear in Kenneth Roberts’ revolutionary war novel, Arundel.
Across the Caribbean now to Nassau’s Graycliff Hotel that has lived one of the more colorful lives of any hotel. From its origins as a 17th Century Anglican Church, it has gone on to become a mansion for famed pirate Captain John Howard Graysmith, a garrison and HQ for the US Navy and in its more recent incarnation, an inn since 1844 where it has played host to everyone from Winston Churchill to the Beatles.
Some intrigue in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay where two hotels are in contention for the oldest spot. Originally built as private residences, The Asuncion Palace Hotel was built in 1858 and the Gran Hotel Del Paraguay sometime before 1870, becoming a hotel in 1873 – but as the Palace Hotel doesn’t explicitly state when it started operating as a hotel, we’ll plump for the Gran Hotel as the oldest not only in Paraguay but also in South America.
By far our busiest map, Europe is home to nine of the ten countries with the oldest hotels, topped by Germany’s Gasthaus zum Roten Bären. Parts of The Red Bear Inn (as it’s also known) were first built in 1120 even before the beautiful city it now resides in, Freiburg, existed. Records show it operating as an inn since at least 1387, although much of it was rebuilt in 1718 after an unfortunate encounter with the French, but in the basement still sits an original archway that dates back more than a thousand years.
The UK isn’t far behind thanks to the chic and historic The Olde Bell, which first opened its doors in 1135 AD as a guest house for visitors to the nearby Benedictine Priory. Winston Churchill and Dwight D Eisenhower met here during WWII and there’s even a secret passage running from its cellar to the village priory, used by Lord Lovelace of Hurley who was a plotter of the Glorious Revolution in 1688.
Africa’s oldest hotel sits in the heart of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve and has done so since 1779 when the Houw Hoek would house travelers on the road to and from Cape Town. Since then it has grown and been developed into a large modern hotel but one icon of its past remains – the giant blue gum tree planted in 1850 by then proprietor and German former missionary, Johann Paul Beyers to celebrate the birth of his fifth child. The tree still guards the hotel entrance today.