For my recent travel story for the Star Tribune, I divulge five of my favorite grown-up hostels—the kind of hostels you would want to stay in even if you’re over 25, have your partner (or your parents) in tow, or generally believe that there’s a very good reason that “hostel” sounds like “hostile.”
Before I fell back in love with hostels, my relationship with them had hit a definite low point.
While traveling in the South of France a year and a half ago, I met up with my musician friend Sy in Toulouse, a city neither of us had ever been. Her email told me to meet her at La Petite Auberge de Saint-Sernin, a hostel near the Basilica of Saint Sernin, the oldest Roman church of its kind in the world.
But I had already made a halfhearted vow to swear off hostels, the way you might break off an exciting yet dubious romance that too often leaves you feeling regretful in the morning. And after years of enjoying the intimate conviviality and communal joie de vivre so particular to many hostels––as well as earning bragging rights to a few horror stories––I was throwing in the towel. Specifically, the thin, battered, postage-stamp size rental towel that costs around two euros at most hostel reception desks.
But Sy had already checked in, and I had agreed to join her. Upon arriving in the tiny, non-nonsense reception area, I found the hostel was cozy––if by cozy you as mean comfortably cramped as my old Brooklyn living room, with standard bunk beds stacked in a tiny co-ed room. A sleep-deprived Sy recounted her story of the drunk, foul-mouthed Russian metal band who had decamped in the room the night before. Between the yelling, the mess, the terrible proximity of the ensuite bathroom to the beds, and a particularly obnoxious lower-bunk assignation between the drummer and an equally drunk female visitor from another room, the night had been sheer hell.
Thankfully, they had departed. Tonight would be better, Sy promised.
And it was––at least for us. Yet as the hours trudged towards dawn, we heard a soft knock at the door and a plaintive request: was there a free bed in the room? The voice was young, American, female, and desperate in the peculiar way that a sleepless night in a hostel can make one desperate.
In the morning, Sy and I shuddered to hear the woman’s story. Let’s just say this: if penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it might have been called “The Case of the Young Male Traveler who Mistook Someone Else’s Backpack for a Toilet.”
I hadn’t had a hostel experience like this since I stayed in an Athens hostel where the condition of the showers intimated that I would actually be filthier post-shower. The man passed out drunk, face down, in front of my room looked like he had braved the shower himself.
When Sy and I left Toulouse and hopped on a train to lovely little Albi to see the Toulouse Lautrec Museum, we resolutely stayed in a hotel with a pretty little courtyard. It was conspicuously free of rock bands, Russian or otherwise. That night I vowed: no more hostels. Nada. Fin. Finito. Finished.
But then I found myself in Stockholm one February evening, balking at the price of a gloomy 2-star hotel whose grim décor resembled a Soviet version of IKEA. So, to save myself hundred of krona, I gave myself a one-time out and checked into a surprisingly cheap hostel with a sweet little café. And then I wound up spending a couple of weeks in Portugal. Did you know that Portugal is basically the world capital of amazing hostels? I’m talking phenomenally wonderful places that could take your mother to.
If you read the Star Tribune story, I talk about staying at Gallery Hostel in Porto and Home Hostel in Lisbon. Two other Porto hostels where I stayed and ate pretty fabulous multi-course communal dinners were Tattva Design Hostel and Yes! Hostel. Thanks to the amazing Christian from Hamburg for the latter recommendation.