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Inns in Europe were possibly first established when the Romans built their system of Roman roads two millennia ago. The Gospel of Luke records there being "no room at the inn" at the time of the nativity of Jesus. Some inns in Europe are several centuries old. In addition to providing for the needs of travelers, inns traditionally acted as community gathering places.
Historically, inns in Europe provided not only food and lodging, but also stabling and fodder for the travelers' horses. Famous London examples of inns include the George and the Tabard. There is however no longer a formal distinction between an inn and other kinds of establishment. Many pubs use the name "inn", either because they are long established and may have been formerly coaching inns, or to summon up a particular kind of image.
As modes of transport have evolved, tourist lodging has adapted to serve each generation of traveller. A stagecoach made frequent stops at roadside coaching inns for water, food and horses. A passenger train stops only at designated stations in the city centre, around which were built grand railway hotels. Motorcar traffic on old-style two-lane highways may pause at any camp, cabin court or motel along the way, while freeway traffic is restricted to access from designated off-ramps to side roads which quickly crowded with hotel chain operators.
The original functions of an inn are now usually split among separate establishments, such as hotels, lodges, and motels, all of which might provide the traditional functions of an inn but which focus more on lodging customers than on other services; public houses, which are primarily alcohol-serving establishments; and restaurants and taverns, which serve food and drink. (Hotels often contain restaurants serving full breakfasts and meals, thus providing all of the functions of traditional inns. Economy, limited service properties, however, claim at most an included continental breakfast as there is no kitchen and no bar.)
In Asia Minor during the periods of rule by the Seljuq and Ottoman Turks impressive structures functioning as inns (Turkish: han) were built because it was thought that inns were socially significant. These inns provided accommodation for people and their vehicles or animals and served as a resting place for people, whether travelling on foot or by other means.
These inns were built between towns if the distance between them was too far for one day's travel. These structures were called caravansarais which were inns with large courtyards with ample supplies of water for both drinking and other uses. They would also routinely contain a café in addition to supplies of food and fodder. After the caravans travelled a while they would take a break at these caravansarais, and spend the night there to rest both themselves and their animals.
The Inns of Court in London were originally ordinary inns where barristers met to do business, but have become institutions of the legal profession in England and Wales, and no longer function as inns.
Most properly, "inn" in modern usage signifies a hotel which provides both lodging and a restaurant (possibly with a bar or tavern) to travellers. There is a growing trend for roadside motor hotel operators to distance themselves from the low-end category of "motel" in their branding by styling themselves instead as "inns" or "lodges".
The term has been readily adopted by chains such as Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, Days Inn and Knights Inn, even though not all of these serve food and drink. Less often, it has been applied to tavern-only facilities (such as the Stonewall Inn at the centre of the New York City drag queen riots of 1969) or restaurants (such as the former U-Drop Inn café on U.S. Route 66 in Texas) which do not provide all functions of a traditional roadside inn.
Laws governing motels and hotels are often named "Innkeeper's Act" or refer to hôteliers and motel operators as "innkeepers" in the body of the legislation and legal precedent cases. These laws typically define the innkeepers' liability for valuables entrusted to them by clients and determine whether an innkeeper holds any lien against such goods. In some jurisdictions, an offence named as "defrauding an innkeeper" prohibits fraudulently obtaining "food, lodging, or other accommodation at any hotel, inn, boarding house, or eating house"; in this context, the term is often an anachronism as the majority of modern restaurants are free-standing and not attached to coaching inns or tourist lodging.
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