16 Ghost Towns That Are Coming Back to Life As 'Scattered' Hotels
While exploring the countrysides of Italy, Cyprus and even China, I’ve stumbled on dozens of abandoned villages seemingly left behind by urbanization. Most have a lot going for them: distinctive architecture, history, fresh air, nearby vineyards or farms... but no one to maintain the historic buildings.
But I'm far from the first person to mourn the world’s decaying villages. In the 1980s, Italian hotel consultant Giancarlo Dall'Ara made a similar observation while wandering through towns in the Friuli region, in northeast Italy, which was devastated in 1976 by an earthquake.
Where others saw crumbling, desolate villages, Dall’Ara saw a missed opportunity. With a dual aim of preserving the heritage architecture and injecting new economy into the villages, he developed a tourism model: Albergo Diffuso (loosely meaning “scattered hotel”).
Now a fixture in Italy, alberghi diffusi seem to be a win-win: Former residents can lease empty properties for another income stream, and travelers experience village life first-hand. While the houses are peppered about town, there’s usually a central reception (which often doubles as the town tavern), and a mix of hotel-esque services.
“Alberghi Diffusi have incentivized young people to come back [from cities or abroad] to the villages and renovate their family homes, [which they can then lease out to the hotelier],” said Dall'Ara, the president of the Alberghi Diffusi National Association. “The sustainable concept also enables foreign travelers to come and “live” in the villages and get a feel for local life. The concept also contributes to the birth of new businesses and activities such as restaurants, artisan crafts, shops, B&Bs, tours.”
From Italy to Croatia, Switzerland, Tasmania, the U.S. and even the Himalayas, various iterations of scattered hotel concepts have since sprung up around the world. These countryside cabins, beachfront dwellings, and heritage village homes showcase a new type of luxury.
One of Italy’s first alberghi diffusi, Sextantio has transformed the medieval hill town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, inside Gran Sasso National Park in southern Italy. When the owners began the project in 2005, the village was nearly deserted, as young people moved to the city in search of work. At the time, there was just one tavern and no more than 60 inhabitants.
Now, the village’s population has more than doubled, and a steady stream of travelers arrive each year to experience a taste of country life. The owners turned humble shepherds’ lodges and pig sties into 31 beautiful suites, plus a restaurant, wine bar, and artisan workshops. A former so-called witch’s lair is now a business meeting room, while the village dungeons have been reimagined into a wedding venue.
Aman Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
Sveti Stefan island sits off the coast of central Montenegro, near Budva. In its heyday, the island was a flourishing commercial and administrative centre. But many of the inhabitants left in the 1700s to find new opportunities abroad. The desolate island transformed into a government-run hotel in the 1950s (visited by the likes of Sophia Loren), but later shuttered following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
After a careful renovation project that spanned four years, from 2007 to 2011, the little village emerged in its current iteration as Aman Sveti Stefan. Within the massive property, travelers will find dozens of village houses, restored 15th-century chapels, cliffside restaurants, four beaches, and an oceanfront spa that shares a plot with Villa Miločer (once a royal summer house and now an Aman hotel).
Casale Panayiotis, Cyprus
A wave of urbanization in the 1950s and '60s left the ancient spa village of Kalopanayiotis, located in the mountains of northern Cyprus, all but deserted. When resident John Papadouris returned home from working abroad to find a ghost town, he raised funds to revive the historic homes and lease them from owners. The project evolved into Casale Panayiotis, featuring dozens of renovated village cottages, restaurants, cafes, a wine bar, and spa, not to mention easy access to the 11th-century Monastery of St. John Lampadistis (a UNESCO heritage site) just across the river.
Il Borgo di Sempronio, Italy
About two hours northwest of Rome, Il Borgo di Sempronio provides a collection of cozy independent dwellings scattered across the historic center of Semproniano — near the hot springs of Saturnia. Since opening in 2007, the hotel says it has revived the nearly empty village with an influx of tourists and renewed economic opportunities for existing farms, restaurants, shops and more.
Set in the heart of the Troodos mountains (read: wine country), Lofou is one of the most charming villages in Cyprus. The 12th-century town is home to just over 100 residents, one or two taverns, and a fabulous wine bar. For a slice of the quiet village life, travelers can stay with Oinoessa, a scattered hotel with stylishly updated stone village houses — each kitted out with fireplaces, local textiles, and gorgeous antique furniture.
Corte della Maestà, Italy
Civita di Bagnoregio gives the term “small town” a whole new meaning. There are just eight full-time residents in this ancient Etruscan village, which crowns a mountain in the countryside of Civita, in central Italy. Here, you’ll find Corte della Maestà, an albergo diffuso with five suites built inside a cluster of restored buildings. The design will transport travelers to a bygone era: picture antique four-poster beds, claw-foot tubs, private gardens, and theatrical Italian artwork at every turn. In the past nine years since the hotel opened, the village has gone from a deserted outpost to a buzzing little economy with 60 guestrooms, five restaurants, three bars, and lots of local shops.
Castello di Postignano, Italy
Sporting a regal setting within a 9th-century medieval hamlet in the hills of Umbria, in central Italy, Castello di Postignano is an excellent example of an albergo diffuso. The village dwindled in the 20th century as many residents emigrated abroad, and the area was left to decay — only to be shaken further by a devastating earthquake in 1997. But in 2007, a private Italian company began restoring the buildings in collaboration with the regional government. The result: Seventeen luxurious apartments, a restaurant, wine bar, swimming pool and spa scattered around the historic lanes.
Brickyard Retreat, China
In the 1990s, architectural designer Jim Spear and his life and business partner Liang Tang ventured to Mutianyu, a 500-year-old community at the foot of the Great Wall, on a weekend break from Beijing, only to find a run-down village with few economic opportunities for local residents. They acquired and renovated a village house, which eventually became their full-time home. Encouraged by the local government, the pair transformed a smoke-belching tile factory into the Brickyard Retreat, with 25 beautifully appointed rooms offering panoramic views of the Great Wall. The hotel also manages and rents 11 renovated homes across four nearby villages, all with modern amenities, private gardens, and mountain views.
A unique journey through the Himalayas, Shakti Himalaya was founded in 2004 by a Mumbai native who wanted to bring new tourism opportunities to the remote mountain region between India, Bhutan and China. The experience revolves around the Village Walk: With local porters and guides, travelers walk from one village to the next, staying in tastefully renovated houses that have been leased from local residents.
The Pavilions Himalayas, Nepal
Set inside a working organic farm, southwest of Pokhara city in central Nepal, Pavilions Himalayas debuted in 2015 with a two-part mission: to provide sustainable employment for village residents and create an environmentally sensitive luxury experience. In just over two years, the retreat has already made significant progress. For starters, the 14 luxury villas are completely self-sustaining, generating resources from a mix of rainwater harvesting, biogas, and solar-panel power systems. As for community projects, Pavilions Himalayas has committed 70% of profits to local nonprofit Right4Children and continues to buoy the village with employment, hospitality training for young adults, and development for children’s educational programs.
Sawyers Bay Shacks, Tasmania
Clem Newton-Brown, the founder of Sawyers Bay Shacks, grew up spending his summers in an old farmhouse on the beach on Flinders Island (in the Furneaux islands off the northern coast of Tasmania). Back then, Flinders Island was a beautiful place struggling with a dwindling population. But he took a gamble: Having inherited a piece of beachfront land, Newton-Brown built his upscale seaside lodges with panoramic views across the coastline. In the years since, the island has enjoyed a healthy rebound. New lodges, food stores and organic producers have sprung up in the area, which is now among Tasmania’s most talked-about tourist destinations.
Citta dei Nicliani, Greece
Citta dei Nicliani is a Peloponnese charmer built inside the village of Koita, on the Mani Peninsula in southwestern Greece. Deserted during World War II and the Greek Civil War (from 1946-49), the 18th-century village of Koita remained largely abandoned until around 2006, when hotel owner Panagiotis Sepsas returned to his ancestral hometown, bought a collection of tower houses and began a meticulous renovation process. Opened in 2011, Citta dei Nicliani onces again welcomes travelers to the stone-walled courtyard rooms, local food, wine, and stunning coastline.
The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens, Florida
Just opened in March, The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens has injected new life into sleepy St Augustine, in northeastern Florida. Located in the city’s old town, the inn renovated a run-down cluster of nine historic buildings (once the Dow Museum of Historic Houses). It is indeed an “old town,” at least by American standards, dating back to 1565 when the city was settled by the Spanish. The historic center continues to evolve, driven by a string of trendy new eateries, craft breweries, and cocktail bars such as The Well Bar — a former auto garage renovated by the hotel.
Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li
This September, Capella Shanghai Jian Ye Li opened inside a 1930s shikumen — a stone-gated residential complex—within the cultural preservation zone of Xuhui District, in Shanghai. The 55 renovated brick-and-stone villas stretch across a vast network of 22 alleyways, connected by a series of courtyards, water features and secret gardens. In the communal spaces, guests will find Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire (the French chef’s debut restaurant in China), historic French and Chinese artwork, a library, shopping promenade, bars, and spa. Though set off from the surrounding village, travelers simply need to step outside the stone gateways to be immersed in local life.
Dunton Hot Springs, Colorado
An all-natural outpost in Colorado, Dunton Hot Springs is built on the site of an 1800s mining town. It was once a thriving industrial center, but eventually lost its momentum and was completely abandoned by 1918. The land spent the next half-century as a cattle ranch and the buildings were left to survive the elements. Then in 1994, the current owners purchased the 500-acre plot and set to work renovating the mining towns’ remains. After seven years, the elbow grease paid off: Now travelers can enjoy Dunton’s authentic, hand-built log cabins, bathhouse, and cozy restaurant (inside the old Saloon) at this Relais & Châteaux property.
The tiniest village in Switzerland, Corippo (population: 14) recently announced plans to morph into an albergo diffuso next spring. Located in the Verzasca Valley, near the border with Italy, Corippo is home to traditional houses with pretty stone roofs. The mountain village was once home to 300 people but suffered from depopulation as younger generations left for cities. Taking inspiration from Italy’s successful models, the hamlet’s heritage association plans to renovate the abandoned homes, bakery, old mill and tavern to provide an inviting experience for travelers.