For some people, hotels are just a place to crash while you’re on the adventure of a lifetime. For others, though, hotels are part of the experience —and if you fall in the latter group, good news: There are loads of spectacularly unusual hotels around the world just waiting for you to check in and enjoy your stay.
The history of hotels goes back through most of human history, of course. They just weren’t always called “hotels.” Inns, for example, date back to antiquity; in medieval Europe, monasteries commonly offered accommodation to travelers in areas where inns were few and far between; and during the era of the stagecoach, “coaching inns” offered places for both travelers and their horses to rest on long journeys. Meanwhile, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the world, is considered to be the Koshu Nishiyama Hot Spring, Keiunkan—a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn with an onsen hot spring, in Hayakawa, Japan which initially opened in 705 C.E.
But that’s kind of the point here: What we think of as a traditional “hotel” is a relatively recent invention; for centuries, more “unusual” accommodations were the norm.
And, happily, unusual accommodations are not only alive and well today, but continuously surprising visitors with their unique qualities. There’s nothing wrong with only using your hotel as a basic place to sleep in between activities, of course; if that’s how you like to travel, then go forth and enjoy it. But if you’re on the lookout for evermore creative accommodations, these nine options should fit the bill for both a wide variety of interests and budgets.
The Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel: Alta, Norway
The Sorrisniva Hotel in Alta, Norway, is a spectacular accommodation at any time of year; located above the Arctic Circle, it’s one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights. But between late December and early spring, the hotel offers something genuinely astonishing: Accommodations made entirely of ice.
The tradition dates back to 2000, with the Igloo Hotel being built anew every year. The very first one had just six rooms; now, several decades on, it boasts 26 rooms, four suites, an ice chapel, an ice bar, and a whole lot of sculpture art. Each year, there’s a new theme, too, usually drawing from Norwegian history, culture, and the environment—for example, past themes include the Vikings, Nordic myths and legends, and the wildlife of the Alta Valley.
Lest you worry about the cold, though, guests who have stayed in the ice hotel report that there’s no cause for concern. Despite the fact that the temperature inside is usually between negative four and negative seven degrees Celsius (between about 20 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit), the natural reindeer hide mattress and down sleeping bags provided by the hotel plenty of warmth. Noted Annette White at Buck List Journey, who stayed at the Igloo Hotel in 2019, “I even woke up in the middle of the night and had to shed a layer.”
Rooms aren’t cheap—they usually run between about 4720 and 6540 Norwegian kroner, or about $465 to $645 USD—but a stay here certainly is the experience of a lifetime.
The Clown Motel: Tonopah, Nevada
Haunted motels are one thing—but haunted motels that are decked out entirely in clown-themed décor? That’s something entirely else. It is, however, precisely what you’ll find at the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada. Oh, and also, it’s right next to a cemetery—just to complete the picture for you.
The Clown Motel dates back to the mid-’80s when it was built by sibling duo Leona and LeRoy David. They already ran one motel in Tonopah—the L and L—but chose to build the new one for two reasons. First, it was next to the cemetery where their father was buried. Second, it provided a place for them to house their collection of clown memorabilia. (Yes, really.)
They ran the Clown Motel until 1995 when Bob Perchetti bought it and took over management. During Perchetti’s tenure, an episode of Ghost Adventures filmed on the property in 2015 launched the place into the spotlight, where it’s remained ever since. Now under new management yet again—Perchetti put the motel on the market in 2017 and ultimately sold it to Hame Anand. It’s become a fixture of a particularly memorable stretch of US-95. As Krista Diamond noted at Thrillist in February of 2020, you’ll find “ghost towns, puzzling art installations—unique characters, local lore, and, yes, aliens” on the journey. This, of course, is in addition to what Diamond deemed “one of the most WTF motels on the planet” —by which she means the Clown Motel.
Rooms are a very reasonable $59 per night. Bear in mind that it’s a motel, so it’s not going to be the fanciest of accommodations—but it will be unique.
La Balade des Gnomes: Heyd, Belgium
If you’ve ever wished you could live inside a fairy tale, good news: La Balade des Gnomes can’t wait for you to arrive. Located in Heyd, Belgium—about 50 km south of Liège— it’s built by architect Dominique Noël. La Balade des Gnomes is actually an expansion of Noël’s restaurant. Called La Gargouille, or the Gargoyle, the restaurant offers cozy meals inside a renovated 19th-century farmhouse; visitors have likened it to having dinner in Frodo Baggins’ house. Following the success of the restaurant, Noël took the whole thing a step further and built a charming bed and breakfast with 11 spectacularly themed rooms.
Want to sleep in a woodland troll’s house? Go for it. More interested in spending a night on the moon? You can do that, too. Have you always dreamed of experiencing life inside an actual Trojan horse? The one at La Balade des Gnomes is a lot more comfortable than the one from antiquity.
Rooms start at €135 for two people and go up €260 for a night in the Trojan horse. Breakfast is included—and, by all accounts, it’s delicious!
Giraffe Manor: Nairobi, Kenya
Giraffes roam freely at Giraffe Manor; after all, the property, which consists of 12 acres of private land nestled within a 140-acre indigenous forest, has been a giraffe sanctuary for decades.
The Rothschild’s giraffe has been in a precarious position for generations; in the 1970s, just 80 of them remained in the entirety of Kenya. At about that time, Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville, owners of the 1930s-era mansion that now houses Giraffe manor, adopted an orphaned giraffe, Daisy. From there, the entire sanctuary grew, eventually becoming one of the most important conservation organizations for the nurturing and reintroduction into the wild of the Rothschild’s giraffe.
Betty Leslie-Melville opened the hotel portion of the property in 1984; it later became a part of the Safari Collection portfolio in 2009. Today, it offers 12 luxurious (and expensive) rooms—along with the possibility that a giraffe might poke its head through the window to say hello while you eat breakfast. They’re not there for entertainment, and they’re not domesticated; they’re just kind of okay sharing their space with visitors. Treat them with respect; it’s their home, after all!
The Mansion on O Street: Washington, D.C.
You wouldn’t think it just from walking down it, but O Street near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle houses one of the most extraordinary buildings in the city: The Mansion on O Street, a boutique hotel and museum that’s full of secrets.
Your first impression of the place once you step inside is likely to be that of a massive, overgrown curio shop; every single shelf, table, and surface in the place is full of objets d’art, curiosities, and memorabilia, the vast majority of which is for sale. If something strikes your fancy, all you have to do is ask the hotel staff about buying it, and they’ll get the ball rolling for you. But the deeper you go into the place, the more extraordinary you realize it is. Some walls, it turns out, aren’t walls at all. Some bookshelves aren’t shelves. And some mirrors aren’t mirrors. They’re secret doors—and if you find them and venture through them, more and more of the hotel will open up to you, revealing a marvel that’s seemingly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
It’s a pricey place to stay; rooms start at $375 per night but can go into the thousands for the more elaborate suites. All of the rooms are uniquely themed, though, so you’ll have an experience that’s unlike any other no matter which room you stay in.
What’s more, you don’t have to spend the night in the Mansion on O Street to experience the place; it’s open to the public for tours, too. Speaking from experience, spending an afternoon exploring every nook and cranny of the place, taking in all its spectacular pieces of memorabilia, and seeing how many secret doors and passages you can find is quite an enjoyable time, indeed. Any rooms that aren’t currently occupied will be open for you to view (if you can find them!)—and if one of the tchotchkes on display strikes your fancy, you can probably take it home if you like. You can even sip a glass of champagne while you explore!
Book and Bed: Various locations, Japan
Bookworms, this one’s for you: At the Book and Bed chain of hostels in Japan, you can straight-up sleep in a bookshelf surrounded by all your favorite volumes. The books aren’t for sale, alas—but you can read them while you’re there. In that sense, Book and Bed is functionally more like a residential library, although it’s got the aesthetic of a bookshop. The first location opened up in 2015; now, there are six spread across four of Japan’s major cities.
It’s also worth noting that your stay won’t be a luxurious experience; it is, after all, a hostel, so the style of accommodation is more dorm-like than anything else. You’ve got a choice of two types of beds—one that’s bunk-style, with each bed tucked into a little cubbyhole, and a slightly more spacious one that’s actually behind a bookshelf. Each bed is equipped with lights and outlets, and you’ll have access to a small locker for your belongings. Restrooms and showers are shared. But, hey, with beds running a mere ¥3,300 to ¥4,800—only about $30 to $45—the price is right for travelers on a budget. And being surrounded by books is definitely a good time for many people!
Skylodge Adventure Suites: Cusco, Peru
It’s perhaps a misnomer to call the Skylodge Adventure Suites a hotel; they’re more of an extreme sport with a bed inside. You do, after all, have to either climb 400 meters’ worth rock face or hike and zipline your way to your accommodations; then, once you get to your bed, well, let’s just hope you’re not afraid of heights. The beds are nestled in see-through capsules clinging to the side of a cliff.
If you’re up for all that, though, the scenery from your bed is stunning: You’ll spend the night overlooking Peru’s Sacred Valley, which is not only full of natural beauty but also sandwiched between the former Imperial capital and Machu Picchu itself. What’s more, the capsules are quite comfortable; measure 24 feet by eight feet, they contain four beds equipped with down pillows and quilts, a dining area, and a bathroom. Manager Natalia Rodriguez told CNN Travel in 2018 that the goal of Skylodge was to present “a unique experience that [reconnects guests] with nature or make them realize what real luxury can be” —and it’s probably safe to say that they’ve accomplished that goal.
Prices run around 1485 Peruvian sol (about $430) per adventure. They include private transpiration to and from your originating hotel, guides, equipment, snacks, a gourmet dinner, including a bottle of wine, and breakfast. Quite the deal, all things considered!
The Kennedy School Hotel: Portland, Oregon
The Kennedy School originally opened in 1915, with its Italian Renaissance-style architecture housing a local public elementary school for generations. In 1975, however, it was closed down, leaving the building vacant for more than 20 years. In the late ’90s, though, it got a new lease on life: Siblings Brian and Mike McMenamin, who went into business together in the 1980s to create a brewpub and now run a small hospitality empire, began restoring the building. Currently, it operates as the Kennedy School Hotel.
Over the decades they’ve been in business, it’s become the McMenamin’s habit of rehabilitating old buildings and giving them a second life. As Brian McMenamin told Northwest Travel & Life Magazine in 2015, “When we started, we couldn’t afford to buy new, shiny places, so we bought old ones.” But that was a benefit, the way they saw it: “These places always come with stories,” Brian added, “and we build on that.”
Accordingly, the Kennedy School Hotel, which opened in 1997 with a new addition coming along in 2012, maintains plenty of its former identity as it fills its new role. Wallpaper includes pages from school workbooks; class photos and yearbook pages make up the artwork and décor, and the central food court is located—where else?—in the old cafeteria.
Rooms, which come in queen and king sizes, start at around $185 per night. There’s no TV, by the way, but there’s plenty of other stuff to occupy you while you’re there—including some creatively-maintained bars.
Schlafen im Weinfass: Sasbachwalden, Germany
It’s not unusual for winery and vineyard regions to have several hotels, resorts, or bed and breakfasts nearby; after all, a weekend touring wineries and then collapsing into a comfortable bed in a beautiful location is, for many people, the definition of relaxation. It is however, somewhat unusual for the accommodations on offer to be inside an actual wine barrel. But that’s precisely what you’ll experience at Schalfen im Weinfass in the Black Forest region of Germany. Heck, that’s what “Schlafen im Weinfass” literally means: It’s German for “sleeping in a wine barrel.”
The place is a working farm and winery itself; the wine barrels in which you can sleep are located in and amongst the vines. Each reservation includes two 8,000-liter wine barrels, which sound kind of like a pair of tiny houses, according to Atlas Obscura: One of the barrels holds the beds, while the other provides living space and eco-toilet. They’re heated, too, so you can stay in them year-round. Oh, and breakfast and dinner baskets are included—along with copious amounts of wine, of course.
A one-night stay will cost you €168 for two people (about $182), while a two-night visit runs €336 for two (about $363).
These nine hotels are only scratching the surface of the many incredibly unique accommodation options out there—but they should provide a good starting point if you’re currently planning an adventure. Wherever you decide to stay, keep an open mind; the most unusual of situations might turn out to be the most memorable, as well!