A brief history of hostelries

By Geneviève Lacroix

A home from home when travelling?

It seems normal today when travelling to reserve a room in a hotel, B&B or guest house – or even rent a house for the length of one’s stay. These tourist accommodation sites have not however always existed as such, quite the contrary in fact. Even the idea of a ‘hotel’ is a fairly recent concept in terms of accommodation when travelling. The subject is vast and there have been countless developments. This article offers an overall panorama (synthesis) of the development and history of hostelries over the centuries. It will be followed a series of detailed sections, devoted to the most exciting pages in this history.


This 19th century inn, looks like a high quality establishment in the true English tradition, which nonetheless retains its characteristic mix of patrons – a painting by Edward Villiers Rippingille (1798-1859)

Hospitality – a hallmark of civilisation

Sleep is one of the human body’s most basic needs. When travelling, the question of where to lay one’s head is of vital importance. Under the stars? Exposed to bad weather, predators and prowlers? Much better to rely on the hospitality of local inhabitants in the place visited, in the hope of returning the favour or for payment.


Rural hospitality in the Highlands © National Trust

All cultures consider welcoming strangers to be the essence of conviviality and often the height of refinement. On a small scale, welcoming travellers is always beneficial. Information, commercial and cultural exchanges and entertainment are all excellent reasons for ‘welcoming’ someone. As is knowing you can expect a welcome in return in a foreign location the next time you are on a trip. But what happens when the influx of travellers and commercial travellers becomes unmanagable in terms of well-meaning hospitality?

The cost of Hospitality

When you have no contacts in the town you are visiting, or maybe you do have some but they are committed elsewhere or you don’t want to get involved in an exchange, you may well prefer to pay for a comfortable place to stay. Hospitality rates go back to antiquity and the development of commercial routes. The first exchanges, whether on land or by sea, generated a need for stopovers and places to eat, rest and meet up with colleagues and local inhabitants. Traces can be found in our vocabulary. A taberna in Latin is a ‘place with wooden boards’. Then the word evolved to mean ‘boutique’ (shop) and ‘cabaret’ (café).


Old Roman ‘taberna’ in the port of Ostia © Patrick Denker

Monastic Hostelries

The earliest monastic communities developed in the Middle Ages and sought sites and locations preferably far away from towns. These convents were set up as spiritually and economically independent entities. Out of charity, they extended a welcome to those in need whether local or passing through. The development of their ‘hostelry’ in the open areas of the monastery gradually made it possible to organise reliable staging posts on pilgrimage routes. Travellers enjoyed food provided by the community and were accommodated according to the standards of the time.


Hospitality at St Mary’s Abbey, in Yorkshire, goes back to the 14th century © Kaly99

On the other side of the coin, religious personnel sometimes had to go into town, where the communities had a ‘refuge’ in an urban setting, a place where its members could stay without having to call upon the hospitality of friends, rich citizens who supported their order, or even ‘shady landlords’ and professional innkeepers.

Inns – places to eat and sleep


‘The Star’ in Alfriston (Sussex) is one of England’s oldest inns. It is wreathed in numerous legends where Vikings, Normans, kings and smugglers all play an epic role …

Originally, an ‘auberge’ (inn) was an army barracks, then a house, a simple little hotel, generally in the countryside, where you would pay for an overnight stay and a meal. This sort of accommodation was generally linked to a working farm. They may have provided the traveller with a bed and a stable for his horses, meals prepared with ‘home made’ products and locally supplied forage. It was bad form to arrive with your own chicken stew. If you opted to stay overnight, it was understood you would take a meal. Sleeping therefore went hand in hand with eating.

Travellers congregated in a large room where they would share the day’s meal, washed down with beer or wine. Standards of welcome varied, it depended where you went, in the same way as customs varied from one country to another. You were as likely to meet soldiers as merchants, important officials as craftsmen, as well as all types of adventurer, which led to a surprising social mix. It is easy to imagine the atmosphere which prevailed in these inns at the end of the day, around the hearth, sometimes animated, sometimes fraught, depending on who had arrived. It was common in such inns, to sleep several people to a room (even sharing a bed). It should be said in passing that certain establishments enjoyed a better reputation than others – some were downright insalubrious – however, travellers often had no choice in the matter …

Coaching inns, Post houses

The Post houses which sprung up at the end of the 15th century were originally intended just for the rapid delivery of State mail. With the appearance two centuries later of the first mailcoaches, which enabled a few passengers to accompany the mail, these Post houses gradually became coaching inns. The physical limit of a horse is a fundamental factor in the close-linked network of places where horses could be changed (5 to 7 leagues, i.e. between 20 and 27 km). In the history of hostelries, the coaching inns thrived through interaction and are the forerunners of hotel chains. For everything to run smoothly, riding and draught horses had ideally to be of comparable quality, belong to the same network and be interchangeable.


The old coaching inn in Asselborn, in Luxembourg, was located on the route between Austria and the Low Countries. Its inn, recently renovated, provides accommodation and food to travellers.

The first hotels

From the 11th century onwards, a hotel became synonymous with house or inn, in everyday French. Hospitalia are guest rooms and a hôte is the person who welcomes a stranger, or who is welcomed by him. The concept of hôtelier and hôtellerie have existed since the 12th century. The term hotel – a shortened form of hôtellerie – is closely linked to hospital, a place which receives the sick and hospice, a place for guests as well as the destitute and hostage, a person who is kept under house guard.


The hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais in Paris, a place of refinement today, was a much more modest establishment in the 19th century, when rooms were rented out on an annual basis.

Along the same lines, the word hotel is also used in French to denote a ‘nobleman’s mansion’. From the 17th century, a hôtel particulier describes an aristocratic townhouse.

The Grand Hotels

The development of elegant educational tours, ‘Grands Tours’ and sojourns in spas beginning in the 18th century, gave rise to need for quality accommodation, where comfort was key. Without creating links of reciprocity and doing away with the need to share with professional travellers who are just passing through. Following the organisation of tourism and the rise in purchasing power – and the need of the bourgeoisie to make their mark as a new economic force in the 19th century, certain key locations underwent an unprecedented expansion. Some bold entrepreneurs will invent the concept of the grand hotel then the palace – as in ‘palace for rent’.


The former Hôtel Bellevue, built in 1776, was the first grand hotel in Brussels. Its guests included numerous public dignitaries, members of the highest echelons of European aristocracy, and high ranking military personnel ; gradually its clientele extended to wealthy travellers, businessmen, stars from the theatre, celebrated artists and other explorers … © Archives Ville de Bruxelles

These opulent new grand hotels developed their own specific architecture. Vast, becoming part of the landscape, and encompassing the best of what was on offer, such as majestic squares, the sea, the mountains or wonderful views, they were equipped with lifts, wide bay windows, stylishly laid out parks, hairdressing salons, baths, etc. Nor forgetting rooms for the staff, which echoed the rooms of the maids in the clients’ usual accommodation. These modern and comfortable grand hotels offered such attractive living conditions that living in them became an art in itself. In the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous personalities prefer ‘hotel living’ to having their own apartment such as Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel. And for clients who are just passing through, living in a hotel becomes an end in itself. The stopover has now become a place to stay, a leisure destination.


In 1912, the Westin Palace in Madrid was the largest hotel in Europe. It offered its clients certain refinements which were rare at the time – a private bath and a telephone as well as a ballroom, lounge and brasserie © Westin Palace

Planning your own journey

With the development of the car, travellers start to plan their own journeys. Now you can go where you want, depending on the state of the roads. Regional travel becomes a good bet, and a way of avoiding town centres and the humdrum. Small out of the way local hotels in the countryside jump on this unexpected bandwagon. Picturesque tourism thrives on highly original places to stay, small hotels which would not survive without this new clientele in search of new experiences and a ‘return to authenticity’.


Holidaymakers on the famous ‘Nationale 7’ motorway, linking Paris to the Côte d’Azur (author unknown)

The world of the commercial traveller, however, remains restricted to hotels just off the main arterial roads, which are predictable, lack charm and have no swimming pool.

Paid leave and the advent of mass tourism

Starting at the end of the 1930s, but accelerating in the immediate post-war years, holidays become part of the social pattern for all. Having exhausted the joys of holidays with the family, mythical destinations – the seaside, mountains and the countryside – have to absorb the waves of tourists who are new, unfamiliar and quite undemanding. A rash of small boarding houses spring up for families on the spree.


The Gasthof Fraundorfer is an old inn in Partenkirchen (Bavaria) on the route to Tyrol © Pixelteufel

Progress in commercial air travel and the ever decreasing price of flights opens up new horizons. Islands, the sun and beaches see the advent of hordes of very codified holidaymakers, delighted to discover huge, ultra-standardised, hotels, whose points of reference are basically the same as those they are trying to leave behind. Or those they believe they are trying to leave behind. Today, even campsites offer hotel-like services such as bungalows and on-site caravans. The ideal solution for those who want to feel ‘at home’ as much as possible when away. An option to be avoided if you are seeking a complete change of scene!

Whither new forms of hotel-like accommodation?

After the huge rise in youth hostels, solutions for inexpensive accommodation in a local setting have mutiplied; coachsurfing, the loan and exchange of apartments, house sitting (coupled with the fervent hope you will mow the lawn) are firmly becoming the norm. And even if the price is sometimes steep – each system spawns spin-offs – rejecting the bland interiors of traditional hotels, a taste for ‘the spirit of the place’, picking up on how people once lived there and a firm desire to enter an inhabited and undefined universe, enables one to break into one’s piggybank and live elsewhere ‘as if in another’s shoes’.


And what about you – what type of accommodation do you prefer when you travel? Wouldn’t you like to discover some real ‘old fashioned’ hospitality and experience the history of hostelries by yourself?


Theodore tiega


C'est majestueux cet idée de cohabitation pacifique dans un cadre sublime.

MUNKULU di Deni Lin-Noé


C'est simplement passionnant

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Historical authenticity
Ambiance and settings
Quality of welcome
Degree of comfort