*This was originally published on Kolby Does Europe...
Talking to a friend today, we realized the only difference between a hotel and a hostel is the letter 's'. (He gets credit for the line, not me. His name's Mike Reed, and he's wherever he is all week.) But while that sounds like a compliment – and I mean it to – it's misleading, as well. Because that singular 's' can be a discriminatory numeral, for no reason whatsoever.
And often, when a hostel is done right, it's not equal to a hotel... it's better.
It's like hipsters invading a formerly dumpy downtown area is often a solid predictor of what's about to become trendy and soon, therefore, expensive. But with hostels, you know that when a country – or a city, in the case of Lisbon, Barcelona, or Budapest – is doing them right, it's a sign that while a destination may be popular with only young travellers for now, it's going to be a favourite of the adult soon. And sadly, the adult rich. That's not to say there's anything wrong with a traveller who flings dollar bills or can afford to – but certainly, you know they're ruining the authenticity of a city because they poor money down the wrong drains. They spent 20 Euros on crappy chain restaurants – choosing North American-style diners instead of actual tavernas, coffee bars, or tapas joints. They'd rather spend the hundreds on the same Best Western they've always stayed in – often paying an extra $10 for every added amenity – than spend tens on somewhere that has everything they think they're paying more for.
Take a quick gander at the world's best hostels, and you'll see they've not only got Bars, Restaurants, cosy Beds, pristine Showers, and gorgeous wooden interiors, but they've got a slew of activities to suit a variation of travellers – Pub Crawls for the still-immature and energetic, Free Walking Tours and Day Trips for the historians, a cheap Bar and nightly, home-cooked Dinners for the social sweatpants-ers, and they're starting to have more of the extras you never knew you wanted, too... the bunk beds have dividers and curtains, and each bed in Lisbon's Home Hostel (for example) gives the sleeper a little ledge near their head with two outlets, so you can doze off while charging your phone or your iPad, and you don't have to worry about it getting stolen from the corner of the room.
(*At Lisbon's Home Hostel, just for a thermometer, the bar sells small and large beers for either 1 Euro or 2 Euros, and happy hour slices those prices in half. You can guy a whole bottle of wine for 6 Euros, and the hostel's home-cooked three-course dinner comes with unlimited wine and beer... for 10 Euros total.)
Some of Europe's most desperate cities have been pouring their effort into their hostels – they need to, with Poland, Portugal, Greece, and Spain crushed by the '08 economic crisis and the slow drip to recovery.
They need the dollars tourism brings, and cities like Lisbon, Porto, Budapest, Berlin, Corfu, Madrid, and Krakow have turned to hosting clean, beautiful, stylish hostels to entice frugal, under-30 backpackers and partiers.
In turn, the classics – cities like London, Paris, and Rome, where hostels can be great but aren't yet as established, common, or uniformly excellent – are getting stale. They're not bringing in anyone new, because they've never had to. Their appeal is historically documented and obvious. They're fat – they're not trying. They're not creative and they're lazy.
But of course, I can't shame you into anything. And I'll never tell you not to go to London or Paris or Rome, because they really are terrific. (Duh.) And I might not be able to convince you to substitute Italy or the South of France for the coasts of Portugal or the ruin bars of Budapest. You'll just have to know what you want, and I'd encourage you to try something – anything – new.
Here's a menu of what the rest of the world loves...
The Hoscars 2014 – The Best Hostels in the World
Best Small Hostels:
2. Budapest Bubble (Budapest, Hungary)
3. Adventure Queenstown Hostel (Queenstown, New Zealand)
4. Hostel One Paralelo (Barcelona, Spain)
Best Medium Hostels:
4. Goodmorning Lisbon Hostel (Lisbon, Portugal)
5. Living Lounge Hostel (Lisbon, Portugal)
Best Large Hostels:
2. Yes! Lisbon Hostel (Lisbon, Portugal)
3. M Montreal (Montreal, Canada)
Best Extra-Large Hostels:
2. HI – Boston Hostel (Boston, United States)
5. Abraham Hostel Jerusalem (Jerusalem, Israel)