Lisbon has the world's best hostels
I went to Lisbon because I got hostel stranded for the weekend in Spain: all the hostels in Madrid and Barcelona were booked and hotels were so expensive that it was cheaper, and more interesting, for me to take a night bus to Lisbon. Of Lisbon I knew close to nothing.
I arrived at downtown just as the sun was coming out, groggy from barely catching a wink, without a reservation because the hostel aggregators showed there were rooms aplenty (were I not recklessness I would not have gotten stranded in the first place). I decided, at a whim, to follow the first pair of backpackers that I saw. Which I did, and ended up at the other bus station.
So I changed tack, fished around for public wifi, and google-mapped the closest hostels from my iPhone. I picked the first one that catched my fancy, Lisbon Lounge (the English name gave me a sense of security?) and stumbled inside it without knowing what on earth to expect. Having been through so much in countless hostels in the past months, I was ready for whatever.
I didn’t expect to find inspiration. It was the best hostel I’ve stayed in my life. As I later learned, Lisbon had 4 of the 10 best hostels in the world in 2009, according to hostel aggregator feedback ratings. More impressively, the 3 best hostels in the world were in Lisbon (the hostel where I stayed was the 3rd). These are hostels with hundreds of reviews and feedback ratings of around 95% (!).
The place was impeccable, gorgeously designed (even the door signs where beautiful), the bath was better than my own house’s, the kitchen was warm and welcoming, there was sunlight all around, the location was perfect. There was free wifi everywhere (isn’t it funny how at many 5-star hotels they charge for internet when at most hostels it’s free?) and it was fast (the fastest hostel internet I’ve had in the world so far, the worst was, ironically, in South Korea, which goes to show the importance of location, even within location). There were big free lockers in the room (labeled with your bed number in an elegant fashion, natch) and for around 8 euro you could enjoy some communal dinner in the kitchen to socialize. The staff were truly helpful and kind. In a word: it was world-class, perfect.
The most interesting thing is that some 4 years ago Lisbon didn’t even have a modern hostel. Talking with the receptionist, Anya, I learned that the hostel was started by 2 couples of artists that together design everything. They where the first great hostel and their success and how far they had pushed the bar seemed to be the cause of so many good hostels sprouting all over this backpackers’ nowhere land. They didn’t know anything about running hostels so they traveled around and researched them intensively and asked friends for help, they kept trying new things, kept caring. (I was checked in by one of the founders in fact, and yes, they care.)
So, in little time, without relying on local tradition, if you mix effort and an open mind, you can become world class everywhere. Like a Portuguese friend (a thought soulmate) put it (I paraphrase): Western civilization is so far spread now, that you can gather the best of it and push it forward from pretty much anywhere (we doubted Africa though).
I don’t believe you can do great stuff isolated from modern culture, ideas and people, but more and more you can be in the midst of it all, and even ahead, from anywhere, with just a little effort. Just like you can find, and found, the world’s best hostels in Lisbon.
As for Lisbon? My favorite city in Europe, and not only because I was so kindly shown around and dined by Olifante. It’s a gorgeous city, not too touristy, affordable, by the bay, beautiful. The people are friendly and the food is great (sweet pastelerias, bakery/cafe combinations, everywhere).