Feeling at home in a hostel isn’t part of the backpacker’s lot. You brace for bed bugs, foul roommates and glacial showers. That’s why sitting on a sleek, fire-engine red sofa, flipping through art books and trying not to muddy the shag carpet in the lobby of Lisbon’s Living Lounge hostel feels surreal.
Tucked away on the quiet Rua do Crucifixo in Baixa, the lively valley between the hilly Bairro Alto and Alfama neighbourhoods, the lobby of the Living Lounge could easily be mistaken for a high-end apartment, complete with a luggage-only elevator.
Each of the hostel’s 23 bedrooms is brightly coloured and feature cool designs like a life-size stencil of The Shining’s Danny on his tricycle. You can even get fresh, delicious crepes for breakfast.
You’ll pay triple the price at a nearby hotel for the same amenities, but at the Living Lounge, it will cost you just 27 Euros a night. (Or 12 Euros, if you don’t mind a shared room.)
This won’t surprise anyone who follows Hostelworld.com’s annual ranking of the world’s best hostels, the Hoscars. The Portuguese capital has been nabbing top spots for years, with the six-year-old Living Lounge occupying fourth place in the 2013 rankings behind three other Lisbon hostels.
Valter Pratas is one of four young artists who own and operate the Living Lounge – the same group that founded sister hostel Lisbon Lounge in 2005, effectively kicking off the city’s hostel movement.
Before these businesses, Pratas says travellers were hard-pressed to find affordable, comfortable accommodation in the seaside city, which has become a popular tourist destination in recent years.
“[Nine] years ago, you couldn’t find any hostels in Lisbon – just the government youth hostels,” said Pratas, leaning against the lobby desk as staff prepared a communal dinner.
“They were like hospitals, and they kicked you out of your room because they needed to clean, and they had curfews and things like that,” he said.
“[My friends and I] didn’t have any jobs at the time because we had just finished our studies and literally had nothing to do, so it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s open a hostel, why not.”
The group put their backgrounds – visual arts, architecture and marketing – together and designed a hostel that would debunk the stereotypes. Theirs would be a safe, affordable sanctuary for travellers – a place people would look forward to staying in. And they did.
So much so that copycat hostels eager to replicate the Lounges’ success began opening throughout Lisbon – each one more fancy and inexpensive than the last – making the city one of Europe’s hottest hostel destinations.
Consider that Hostelworld has 60 hostel listings for Lisbon, a city of about 475,000 people, but for Paris, which is 4.5 times its size, there are only 28. And if you’re backpacking in Madrid, a city of 3.2 million, only 27 hostels are listed.
It also means that Lisbon hostels must aggressively innovate to set themselves apart.
From the Living Lounge, a 20-minute walk uphill along trams rumbling into the heart of the Bairro Alto will bring you to the three-year-old Independente. Once the former residence of a Swiss ambassador, the majestic design hostel will make you feel like a VIP in its spacious, creamy interiors.
The hostel offers comfy beds and plenty of activities, but the big draw is its restaurant, the Decadente. At this laidback spot, you’ll spend half what you’d pay for authentic Portuguese fare at a lesser Bairro Alto restaurant, plus you’ll have the rare opportunity to share a table with a mix of fellow travellers and Lisboetas.
“That was the dream, or the ultimate ambition of creating a hub where the melting pot is possible and an exchange between locals and travellers and foreigners can happen,” says Manuel Bastos, guest relations manager for the hostel.
“In that sense, I think we offer something that sets us apart from the competitors.”
The Decadente’s popularity – it was voted one of Time Out Lisbon’s best new restaurants in 2011 – is not a bad problem to have for a young business in a competitive market.
“This is a new wave of hostels,” said Bastos. “It’s not exactly as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Whereas before, the only thing you expected was a mattress and not even a clean set of sheets, now you expect to be catered to, and you expect great accommodation and great service and great recommendations of activities. You expect to be pampered.”
Indeed, great expectations are becoming the norm among backpackers growing accustomed to the high hostel life. And, increasingly, they’re bringing company. At the Living Lounge, Pratas was hosting a French father and his young son on a cross-continent motorcycle trip, while Bastos said an 80-year-old had recently insisted on sleeping in the top bunk at the Independente.
As hostels evolve into legitimate competitors for hotels, they’re not just the domains of lone twenty-somethings. That’s good news for all globetrotters. Higher hostel standards make backpacking accessible to more people and travellers feel more secure on their journeys.
In Lisbon, that’s meant expanding the idea of what a hostel is supposed to look like, and while the threat of an over-saturated market is a pressing reality, right now, it might just be Europe’s best bet for backpackers.
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