Walking down Rua de Miguel Bombarda, the main artery of Porto, Portugal’s vibrant arts district, I finally found the unassuming door of the circa-1906 building I was seeking. Not sure exactly sure what lay behind it, I was surprised to enter an elegant, light-soaked atrium lined with the azure tiles for which Portugal is famous.I took in the impressive details: soaring glass ceiling, whimsical indoor garden, arresting contemporary art beckoning along the corridor. Surely this couldn’t be the 20-euro-a-night hostel I was looking for?
Indeed, it was. And the Gallery Hostel in Porto is increasingly not alone in its ability to impress travelers spoiled by the style and service of design-centric boutique hotels.
A new breed of hostel has been popping up in Europe from Glasgow to Ljubljana, as well as other parts of the globe. There’s thankfully no longer a need to drop $90 on an unspectacular two-star hotel when a perfectly cozy hostel bed complete with comfy mattress, duvet, reading light and privacy curtain might be snagged for a third of the price or less.
The Gallery Hostel’s entire building functions as an eclectic art gallery featuring regional artists. Run by kind owners who love to chat as they’re installing new exhibits, it’s an inspired space. Inspiration extends to the sleeping quarters. Themed around local Porto artists, the cool white rooms, accented by large framed prints, are studied exercises in how to make communal living as harmonious as possible. French doors allow light to spill onto the gleaming wood floors, where sleek customized beds invite guests to curl up with a novel.
Are you wondering about the bathroom situation? If the word “hostel” conjures an innate dread of communal bathrooms, banish the thought: The Gallery’s colorfully tiled en suite bathrooms are spotless, and the showers pass my “conditioner test” with flying colors. (A hostel fails the test if I have to skip the conditioner just to make the ordeal as brief as possible.)
It’s not just comfort and design that set boutique hostels apart. Add in deluxe amenities — a generous breakfast buffet, welcome cocktails, free walking tours, knowledgeable staff, and communal dinners featuring local cuisine — and even those who swore off hostels years ago might reconsider.
As an almost unbreakable rule, the only meal I eat in a hotel is breakfast — the allure of the local food culture is just too strong. Yet when a friendly Gallery staff member invited me to the family-style evening dinner, I was intrigued. I’d eaten in hostels, but those meals were usually a bare-bones continental breakfast or a cafeteria- style dinner.
So I joined a couple of the Gallery’s staff and a handful of guests for an intimate three-course dinner party around a long wooden kitchen table. It felt as if we were dining at a friend’s home, albeit one with a phenomenal eat-in kitchen.
Dinner and a movie
Over a surprisingly non-boring preparation of bacalao (when the Portuguese claim that cod can be cooked a thousand ways, they’re not kidding) I met Jacob, a Danish economist. Since it turned out neither of us had seen Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and it was pouring rain, we grabbed our post-dinner cocktails from the bar and settled into the fabulous cinema room. It was decked out not only with a big screen and loads of films, but with what might be the world’s most comfortable movie-viewing sofa.
It was settled: I couldn’t possibly leave the Gallery after only a single night, and booked two more.
Traditional vs. boutique
It used to be that staying at a hostel past your mid-20s was often like sitting at the kids’ table: only fun for kids. Yet for the past several years, it’s become easier to find spots across Europe that have matured past adolescence.
Don’t be mistaken: If you want to experience the classic backpacking-around-Europe rite of passage, you can easily find a traditional hostel with all of its maddening charms. These bastions of youth offer a kind of boot camp in the art of authentic travel. No wonder backpackers and young budget travelers love hostels with the same fervor with which others love to hate them. Where else can you employ your shaky college Italian to form an instant bond with a fascinating stranger while brushing your teeth at midnight?
Boutique hostels, on the other hand, are staking out fresh territory for budget-minded travelers who appreciate the comfort, style and amenities of design hotels yet yearn for the camaraderie, spirit and notoriously low price tag of hostels.
What boutique hostels may lack in privacy (say, private bathrooms) they make up for in looks and chemistry — that is, opportunities to spontaneously connect with others. In communal lounges and sociable lobbies, it’s natural to strike up a nocturnal chat over a bottle of Riesling with someone who’s off to catch the same ferry to Corsica in the morning.
Budgets aside, isn’t this kind of synchronicity one of the reasons we travel in the first place? The thrill of unexpected experiences with new people in far-flung places: This is what hostels are really selling. Even four-star hotels can’t usually manufacture this kind of thrill, no matter how high the thread count of their sheets.
5 boutique hostel picks in Europe
Lavender Circus Hostel, Budapest; from 16 euros per person; lavendercircus.com: In a refreshing departure from hostel lobbies that belong in an Ikea showroom, walking into the Lavender Circus feels like entering the living room of a Jazz Age poet: whimsical, romantic, slightly worn around the edges, and altogether welcoming. Each room is an artful refuge, individually decorated with homey antiques and fanciful touches. Upon check-in, the staff will treat you to a whirlwind verbal tour of Budapest, with highlights clearly marked on a paper map. Never have I entered a completely unknown city and felt better prepared. All the rooms are private doubles, so it’s the perfect place to head as a duo.
The Hat, Madrid; beds from 17.50 euros; thehatmadrid.com: Tucked into a quiet street behind the sprawling Plaza Mayor, the Hat is young, vibrant and social. The contemporary rooms cater to a mix of solo travelers, small groups, couples and families. The Hat’s mod lobby transforms from cheerful breakfast buffet to afternoon chill-out spot to evening cocktail bar where residents concoct their plans to hit the tapas bar circuit. The vibe is serene enough that joining the party is optional. How could the rest of the hostel possibly live up to this glowing first impression? As I checked into my streamlined room and slid under a fluffy duvet, I remembered that sometimes you can indeed judge a hostel by its lobby.
City Backpackers Hostel, Stockholm; from 21 euros; citybackpackers.se: City Backpackers has been in business more than two decades, well before “boutique hostel” entered the parlance. By embracing that Scandinivian ethos — streamlined, smart and chic but never flashy — the owners have created an affordable urban idyll in a city where prices can prove daunting. While the rooms are less luxe than most boutique properties, they’re well-appointed with reading lights, innerspring mattresses, duvets and layouts for couples and families. Kick back with some bleak Scandinavian crime fiction in the common area, and enjoy breakfast in the cozy streetside cafe. Join a bike tour or enjoy the outdoor lounge. During winter, don’t miss the Viking Sauna Tour.
Home Hostel, Lisbon; from 12 euros; homelisbonhostel.com: If you’re homesick, the Home Hostel might cure what ails you. Handsome interiors — a gleaming dark wood bar, a fetching library-meets-lounge — are wrapped up in a gracious old apartment building. In my clean room, there was enough space to do yoga. But Home feels like home because of Mamma, the hostel’s grand dame/patron saint/chef extraordinaire. Mamma’s dinners follow a leisurely ritual: Order your drink at the bar, then sit down at the table for soup, a Portuguese specialty and dessert. Finally, there’s a rousing toast of Ginjinha, a local sour cherry liqueur, led by a departing guest. Join the nightly pub crawl helmed by enthusiastic staff members — they’ll even make you a hangover breakfast. Book in advance.
Cocomama, Amsterdam; from 27 euros; cocomama.nl: Spend the night in a former high-end brothel in a city where many things that are illegal elsewhere are perfectly legal. Welcome to Amsterdam. Hidden in a genteel rowhouse near the lively shopping and dining street Utrechtestraat, Cocomama offers a unique solution to the city’s budget lodging dilemma. Soak up Dutch culture in tasteful dorm rooms, which riff on themes of cheese, bicycles and the Red Light District. With private rooms themed on Delft pottery and Van Gogh that feature goosefeather duvets, in-room coffee and fully stocked ensuite bathrooms, families and couples are happily catered to. Movie nights, friendly staff, a back garden and a cat named Joop add to the fun.
Sarah Chandler is a Minneapolis-based writer whose travel writing has appeared on Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, CNBC and the Eurail Blog.