by Vanya Akraboff
With thousands of hostels worldwide, it’s no easy task creating a list of the top ten in the world, especially considering that hostels can range from little more than tents on the beach to sprawling, self-contained villages. And that’s without even trying to debate the merits of membership chains (HI, YHA) vs. private hostels, private chains (Flying Pig, Banana Bungalow) vs. just privates. And some areas of the world are notorious for high numbers of fun and funky hostels, such as Spain, Australia, Eastern Europe, and the Netherlands, while others areas (Asia, Latin America, and Africa) seem to have fewer raved-about options – although that probably has more to do with the availability of other cheap options than in the hostel (and tourist) saturated Europe. So what’s a beleaguered backpacker to do?
Well, this list combines a few big, party atmosphere hostels with smaller, funkier ones, and some chains and some singles. I’ve also tried to spread out the locations to cover most different areas of the globe, as well as include hostels in popular urban areas and ones in more unique locations. These hostels have all the basic hostel amenities (internet, linens, storage, no lock-out) so I’ve focused my descriptions on what makes them so popular or unique. All (well, most) of these hostels were frequently mentioned on “world’s top” lists from different hostel and backpacker websites, and had uniformly strong reviews. Several were featured in Hostelworld’s 2005 “Hoscars“, a list of the top hostels worldwide based on the opinions of over 500,000 backpacker voters. As a final note, hostels my friends or I have stayed in that weren’t up to snuff, despite their good rankings, were unceremoniously dumped from the list, while my favorite hostels were given a generous leg-up on the competition.
- Home Youth Hostel (Valencia, Spain): This aptly-named hostel is all you could ever want while traveling, and is the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Home is a small Spanish chain, with, confusingly, three branches in Valencia and one in Barcelona. The Youth Hostel is the mid-cost location, Backpackers being the cheapest and Deluxe the priciest. YH’s prices start at under $19 a night. The hostel is conveniently located right next to Valencia’s famous covered market, close to the nightlife district, and within walking distance of the bus station. The open, courtyard-like architecture gives the smallish hostel a roomy, light, and airy feel while the colorful and creative decor is just like home (but better). The comfy lounge (with games and a DVD den), small, well-equipped kitchen, and, most of all, the young, accommodating, and ridiculously friendly staff create an atmosphere where it’s impossible to leave without five new best friends. The hostel’s only drawback? You might never want to leave Home.
- Balmer’s Herberge (Interlaken, Switzerland): This is a classic friendly, sprawling, party-central youth hostel right at the base of the Swiss Alps. Dorm beds start at under $26, and most areas of Interlaken are within walking distance of the hostel. There’s no way not to meet people when staying here – if not at the nightly movies, the restaurant, or in one of the many large common areas, then downstairs in the disco-like bar (Interlaken’s #1) that fills nightly with staff, locals, and backpackers alike. The hostel has the feeling of having been enlarged countless times, with rooms stuffed under eaves and dual-level creaking hallways, but manages to stay charming (although its size and busyness generate the most complaints). The hostel also capitalizes on Interlaken’s reputation as an extreme sports haven, and the enthusiastic staff (mostly Australian) will set you up with sky-diving, hang-gliding, and bungee-jumping trips before you have time to second guess yourself.
- Celica Youth Hostel (Ljubljana, Slovenia): Celica definitely wins the award for most creative multi-tasking site. Housed in a colorfully renovated former prison, not only can you book “cells” to sleep in, but the hostel is also a contemporary international art gallery and music venue. Rates start at $28 a night, and the hostel is located within walking distance of the main town square and the train and bus station. The quirky rooms were all designed by different artists, and reviewers rave about the friendly and helpful staff (as well as the town of Ljubljana itself). The hostel also offers a bar, restaurant, and filling breakfast. The only negative reviews sited the cramped and small attic dorm room as a poor value – spend the extra euros for a room.
- Banana Bungalow (San Diego, United States): For a high-class location from a hostel, there’s no better place to head than the Banana Bungalow. A US chain with six other locations, the Bungalow offers dorms starting at $27 as well as hotel-like private rooms starting at $49. The Bungalow is right on the beach and has a large deck/ patio, BBQs, beach equipment, and offers many activities (from trips to Mexico to outings at the world-renowned San Diego zoo). It might seem a little overboard to be staying in such posh digs in most backpacker destinations, but if you’re like most young-at-heart visitors, you’re there for San Diego’s beach, sun, and nightlife – all things the hostel more than supplies. They are known for, and actively promote, their “crazy” nightly parties, so backpackers looking for something different, consider yourselves forewarned.
- Mama’s Hostel (Krakow, Poland): This friendly little hostel right in the center of Krakow’s Old Town (and next to Main Market Square) seems to make devoted fans out of every backpacker who stays there. This is an example of basic hostelling done right, and it has countless “best hostel ever” reviews to show for it. It’s within walking distance of the railroad station, has a friendly, young, and multi-lingual staff, large and comfortable rooms, and, astonishingly, free laundry! Those who don’t think free laundry is a big deal obviously haven’t spent enough time on the road – this is just another way Mama’s quietly sets itself apart. The building has a clean and sunny atmosphere, and the staff is quick to point visitors in the right direction. Like many popular hostels, and probably also as a result of the large rooms with wood floors, it can get noisy with raucous backpackers, so you might want to look elsewhere if that’s not your scene. Beds start at $15.
- Base Backpacker’s (New Zealand and Australia): A chain of “revolutionary” (their words) hostels in Oceania, different locations popped up so frequently that I’ve decided to write about the chain in general (St. Kilda and Christchurch both took home Hoscars). Developed with the knowledge that backpackers want both fun and a good, clean place to sleep, they don’t skimp on their cleanliness, comfort, security, and modern facility standards, but all their (prime) locations feature happening bars with themed nights and a variety of activities. And Base more than anticipates the needs of world-weary female travelers with the Sanctuary – girls-only rooms and dorms with feather pillows, large bathrooms, and complimentary Aveda products. So what’s not to love? Some hardened souls dislike the modern, hotel-like feel, and with prices starting around $14 for dorm beds, it’s a little on the expensive side. Some locations are far more popular than others, so check out the most recent reviews before booking a bed in a specific city.
- Bellavista Hostel (Santiago, Chile): Convenient location in the bohemian quarter of Chile, dorm beds at this artsy and comfortable hostel start at just over $15. The sunny rooms have high ceilings and wood floors, and although the street is fairly noisy, the hostel stays fairly quiet (with exceptions, like most hostels!). Located near the nightlife district, backpackers enjoy the ease of meeting the diverse crowd at Bellavista. Instead of sequestering travelers off from the city like some party-centric hostels are apt to do, the energetic and helpful staff go a long way towards helping backpackers fall in love with Santiago. And really, that’s the whole reason you’re out there in the first place.
- Athens Backpacker’s (Athens, Greece): This routinely top-ranked hostel draws in all the backpackers in town with the cheapest beer available in Athens, night tours, and parties. This is the place to meet people and go out and have fun. They are centrally located literally minutes from the Acropolis with a stunning rooftop view (a good place to enjoy that cheap beer) – views are a theme at this hostel, as all the rooms have access to balconies. They also offer (mostly) clean bathrooms and secure rooms in a country with pretty varying accommodation standards (to put it nicely)-although the rooms have a somewhat institutional feel. Dorm beds generally start at over $28, so you might want to take advantage of the kitchen (with free dry goods) to save some cash. And for those seasoned travelers not interested in the club-crawling, first-time backpacking in Europe, let’s all get trashed atmosphere, you’d do well to stay elsewhere (some reviewers have vehement opinions suggesting so). But if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em-most trips include AT LEAST one stop where partying is the number one priority, why not make it Athens?
- Red Lantern House (Beijing, China): China, being one of the more exotic backpacking destinations, behooves the traveler to stray a little from the typical hostel mold. The Red Lantern, housed in a restored traditional courtyard house in the Hutong district of Beijing, takes the extra step in introducing visitors to Chinese culture. The rooms (from $7 for a bed) are clean and comfortable – modern amenities are combined with traditional Chinese decor. The home-stay feel (the hostel is family owned and operated) attracts a diverse crowd of travelers, and reviewers rave about how easily they all fit in at the hostel. The staff is also quick to set up activities and transportation, although savvy backpackers might save money by doing it on their own (but thereby risking mark-ups and scams). The “quiet and serene” setting of the hostel means it’s somewhat removed from the main Beijing tourist attractions, although public transportation is quick, cheap, and easy. The location for this hostel seems to be the make-or-break factor for most travelers; if you want to stay right in the hub of things, there are many cheap hostels closer downtown, but many love the feeling of a having a clean and quiet place to come home to at the end of a hectic Beijing day.
- Ashanti Lodge (Cape Town, South Africa): This hostel is so popular it’s been enlarged twice in the past several years. Ashanti offers everything you could want while staying and partying in Cape Town, including a bar, restaurant, pool, sun decks, BBQ’s, TV lounge, and staffed Travel Centre, as well as a variety of accommodation options including singles, doubles, dorms, and campsites (beds start at around $14). It’s located within short walking distance of Long Street, Cape Town’s main drag. Many groups and backpacking buddies troupe through here, showing off by the pool by day and drinking at the boisterous bar by night, making this hostel a bit overwhelming for solitary travelers. Despite its size and busyness, the hard-working and friendly staff help cut down on the backpacker-industry feel and make everyone feel welcome. That said, Ashanti maintains a pretty constant party atmosphere (with loud music to boot), so ask for a room far from the bar if sleep is your priority, and some reviewers bemoan the fact that many young-un’s get sucked into partying their travels away and not actually seeing Africa.
I hope this list gives you some ideas for places to stay and helps you decide what you want from a hostel, and, more importantly, gets you thinking about where you’d like to go! Sometimes the promise of a friendly and comforting place to stay is all it takes to get you out the door and heading towards the most exotic places imaginable.