I never thought about it much, but hostel culture is actually a pretty cool thing to discover in different regions of the world. I’ve only stayed in hostels in Europe and Japan, but I can say I’ve stayed in enough to realise the vibes/service level/ atmosphere/ culture all feel kind of characteristic to the country. I think I’ve definitely stayed at over 30 different hostels and the most memorable ones were where I made friends that really made my experience in that city, had a bad experience, or were just a little different to the usual hostel experience.
The worst hostel I’ve stayed in so far was in Annecy Hostel in France- quite a bummer because this was actually the most beautiful place I visited. Unfortunately only one hostel existed in the town during that time and it was the most affordable place (25 euro I think I paid). When I arrived, it looked like an old 2-storey family home with overgrown foliage at the front just concealing a hinged wooden gate – bad service, dirty kitchen and messy communal room, dirty showers and uncomfortable bedding conditions. On the plus side I met a guy that was 28 years old and was just basing himself there while he tried to find a job – I enjoyed playing snooker with him and trying some french champagne on a cool sunny afternoon in the backyard where chooks ran about.
The most comfortable hostel was Garden House Hostel in Porto – a stylish, chic, boutique kind of feel with clean rooms, open spaces and friendly staff. I stayed at this hostel twice for its great location and it sort of nice to come back to a familiar place. I love that it had such an open home feel and the couches, guitars, and back porch made it a really nice area to just chill in the afternoon. Actually I spent a lot of time at the hostel planning my travels (this was the point my laptop actually broke down and I had to get it fixed at the apple store in Geneva!), I met and made dinner with a mother and son from another part of Portugal, and on my last afternoon I got to try the Pastel De Nata (Portugese tart) for free since they had leftovers! I felt entirely safe and worry-free at this hostel, showers were so roomy, and the mattresses were like clouds! Porto has some of the trendiest hostels might I add!
The most memorable hostel was Youth Meeting Home in Florence for a few reasons. It wasn’t the prettiest, cleanest, or most spacious. But it was personally the most hospitable. I had arrived from a nightmare of getting fines (note the plural!!) on trains in Italy, arguments with ticket officers, and was raged and ready to leave the country. When Imran, the receptionist, welcomed me and asked how I was, I broke down in tears. Imran and his colleague consoled me and the rest of my days in Florence was made of entertaining conversations with Imran, pasta/drinking nights with the hostellers, people watching from sandstone bridges, strolling around in the evening where live bands were playing, watching the sunsets every night from the Ponte Vecchio, discovering soy gelato, and giving away my Lampredetto to a stranger who turned out to have a brother that owned a restaurant/bar and gave me a free lunch!
Panino con Lampredotto by the way is a Florentine tradition, amongst the ‘must try’ Italian comfort foods. It’s basically a street food – a soft rolled filled with tender slices of tripe (cow stomach), salse verde, and a spicy sauce that dripped with all the juices combined. Your nose will lead you to the food truck, but looking at the tripe made my stomach gurgle!
The most out-of-the-ordinary hostel was probably Hostel Tabor in Ljubljana. Odd because it was actually a boarding school turned hostel during the holidays, which is a nice way to make money while the building isn’t being used. But it was different in that the school office was the reception, the cafeteria was the breakfast place, and the dorms were the hostel rooms. These were all in separate buildings as if you had to walk between buildings to get to your class. Rooms were pretty shabby and what you’d expect of a high school twin dorm room, but I actually had my room all to myself which was nice!
Staying in hostels, I learned quite quickly the key things to look out for when booking hostels. These were my top 5:
- LOCATION – like real estate, prices will increase the closer you are to transport and key attractions but trust me it’s worth it. After a looong day of being on your feet sightseeing that extra 5-10 min walk back to your hostel will not be something to look forward to. Although there were times I didn’t mind saving a few euros and staying in the outskirts; it allowed me to appreciate the the city more and wander about the quieter parts of a town.
- SECURITY/LOCKERS – I didn’t mind if my backpack was left out but I needed a locker to keep my laptop & camera accessories while I was out for the day. You’ll always need your own padlock and double check the locker can’t be broken into! Most hostels will have lockers – the storage lockers attached to bunk beds are the best!
- 24/7 RECEPTION – Because you’ll arrive at all sorts of times of the day and night and you want to know you’ll have a place to sleep
- CLEANLINESS – if you’re more of a laid back / worn traveller and can deal with a little dirt, you’ll be fine 90% of the time. The standard hostel usually would have a newly set up bed with sheets upon your check in and towels for rent. Sometimes you have to set up your own sheets (I didn’t mind this, but I was annoying if I was already tired) and the better hostels would clean the rooms every day.
- GREAT CULTURE/ORGANISED ACTIVITIES – because you want to stay at a place with a great vibe and communal space where you can connect with other travellers! It’s common for a lot of hostels to run free walking tours, pub crawls and cooking nights that you can pay a few euros for.
And my favourite things about hostels?
- AFFORDABILITY – Dorms can range from 5 Euros a night to 40 Euros a night but all travellers have a budget and hostels offer great value for money. Some see accommodation as just a place to stay for the night since you’re spending the majority of your time outdoors after all. But comfort and hospitality are a true contribution to your travel memories.
- FLEXIBILITY – Feel like staying longer and that you didn’t have enough time to get to know a place? Hostels almost always have ‘reserve beds’ for guests who want to extend they’re stay. Plus some of them will give discounts for consecutive days.
- THEY’RE ALL DIFFERENT – Every hostel has it’s own personality and offers a unique experience. Because I moved destinations every few days, the feeling of different was always refreshing and fun – that’s why we travel right?! It makes us more agile, adaptable, and alert 😉
- MEETING OTHERS – It’s true when you’re travelling solo, you are alone in that you only have yourself to depend on. But hostels take away the worry of finding company to share a meal/drink, go sightseeing for a day, or even a travel buddy who’s heading in the same direction. The sad thing is interactions can feel short lived, but there’s a good chance you’ll meet a few people you’ll keep in touch with, and most importantly develop an open mindedness to differences in cultural & social attitudes, behaviours, and opinions. Also, when you come home you can say you’ve meet people from all over the world!
- THEY KEEP YOU TRAVELLING – every hostel has information/brochures/flyers/posters about what to do, where to go next, and local events you can join. Most would also have PCs available so you can do your research or print tickets.