We were wet, we were cold and my friend, Jane, and I had made the cardinal sin of arriving early at our Lake District youth hostel. We were not allowed in and had to huddle, with our soggy backpacks, under nearby trees until the permitted “admission time” and the bolt on the door was drawn back. (I’m probably making up the bit about the bolt but, such were the draconian rules – no cars, no alcohol, bunk-beds only – in my teenage hostelling years that there might as well have been.) Despite these inconveniences, youth hostelling gave us great dollops of freedom, unexpected adventures and exciting friendships. And it was wonderfully cheap.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and, golly, my room (Safestay York) had its own bathroom – and a TV! In Lisbon (Independente), I found a rooftop restaurant, a groovy bar and staff who had the lowdown on the local scene. Hostelling has gone upmarket. Other hostels have swimming pools, yoga studios, hammocks in courtyards, aromatherapy treatments, co-working spaces; one (in Berlin) even has a microbrewery. Tours, trips and events – local dinners, movie nights – are now commonplace.
I’m not the only one of, shall we say, more well-travelled years who has discovered hostels can be a serious option for solo budget travel, with civilised luxuries and guaranteed meetings with like-minded travellers. According to global booking platform hostelworld.com, 12 per cent of their customers are solo travellers aged 45 and over, with a staggering 80 per cent of that group having completed five solo trips. Those on one-month trips claim, on average, to make 10 new friends.
This doesn’t surprise Gary Morrison, CEO of Hostelworld Group: “The core need of wanting to meet other people when travelling is still there, and hostels are the way to do it,” he says. What has changed, he adds, is consumer demand for better: “Dorms now often have ‘pods’ [effectively, enclosed bunk-beds] and all offer private rooms.”
Forget the ignominy of clambering into the top bunk or scurrying to the shower block. Today’s hostels mean you can retain your dignity, sleep in peace – maybe have a massage for those less-than-supple joints – while keeping costs down. More importantly, you can still have those life-affirming moments of meeting like-minded souls, and turning encounters into firm friendships.
Here are 10 of the best hostels for older travellers.
Rodamón Riad, Marrakech, Morocco
In the heart of the Medina, 10 minutes from the riotous colour of Jemaa el-Fna Square, this hostel offers all the exotic features normally associated with a classy boutique-hotel riad: green-tiled pool in an inner courtyard, classic Moorish architecture, vast urns of glossy ferns, and a rooftop terrace gazing towards the Atlas Mountains. Minimally furnished, white-walled rooms have high ceilings, shuttered windows and beautifully decorative arches and cornices. There’s a homely vibe, helped by the arrangement of rooms around the courtyard – you’re bound to bump into other guests – plus the easy-going poolside restaurant and rooftop bar. Activities include daily guided tours of the souks, plus desert and hiking trips.
The details: Private room from £70; dorm from £20 (00 212 524 378 978; rodamonhostels.com).
Circus Hostel, Berlin, Germany
If you want to get under the skin of Berlin, this hostel in the city’s central Mitte district – Brandenburg Gate, Tiergarten Park, Museum Island, Hackescher Markt – is on a mission to help guests discover more than the touristy highlights with guided tours and behind-the-scenes access. A great way to meet other curious travellers, too. Overlooking Rosenthaler Platz, the hostel has a café and courtyard, plus a convivial microbrewery and bar in the cellar. Rooms have a sparse, modular design with deep-hued walls, high ceilings and generous space. Splash out a little more for a room with a balcony and kitchenette.
The details: Private room from £78; dorm from £25 (00 49 30 2000 3939; circus-berlin.de).
Caveland, Santorini, Greece
white-painted grottoes – dug out of the island’s natural layers of pumice stone – are the authentic, vernacular architecture of Santorini. Those at Caveland were later used as a winery before being turned into a hotel, and now a hostel. With vaulted ceilings, polished stone floors, cool white walls, and sunny splashes of colour in rugs and shutters, each has a kitchenette and patio; there’s also a large shared kitchen (free breakfasts). Throughout the site, brightly painted chairs and tables on bougainvillea-hung terraces, or under lemon and pomegranate trees, plus hammocks by the pool, make convivial meeting spots. Regular yoga classes and dinners in local Greek restaurants also ensure guests soon strike up friendships.
The details: Private room (with breakfast) from £88; dorm from £37, (00 30 22 8602 2122; hostelworld.com).
Lub d, Koh Samui, Thailand
design hostel – and you may have to remind yourself that it’s a hostel – have beachfront rooms but also an infinity pool; small, but nevertheless it’s cool and inviting. Other luxey trims include a second pool with swim-up bar, floating DJ booth, a choice of cabanas, loungers and beanbags for chilling out, plus a beachside restaurant. Balconied rooms, with wood floors and splashy wallpapers, are light and modern. There’s plenty of space to hang out, including a games room.
The details: Private room from £56; dorm from £16 (hostelworld.com).
The People – Paris Nation, Paris, France
No, this is not the cheapest hostel in Paris but it offers a slick design, boutique-style rooms and a cocktail bar, as well as all the buzz, insider knowledge and easy friendships that are the essence of a hostel. (And that you won’t find in a swanky Parisian hotel.) In a grand, 19th-century building, its killer feature is the rooftop terrace (with bar and restaurant) with sweeping views over Place de la Nation and the city. In the eastern 12th arrondissement – Gare de Lyon, Bercy neighbourhood, Bois de Vincennes – the hostel also organises tours and events.
The details: Private room from £142; dorm from £49 (00 33 9 7836 2028; hostelworld.com).
Ostello Bello, Florence, Italy
A five-minute walk north of Santa Maria Novella train station and 10 minutes from the Duomo, in the San Lorenzo district, this hostel, with its high ceilings, terracotta-tiled floors and shuttered windows, has a homely Italian feel combined with an easy-going atmosphere – helped by the complimentary welcome drink. Rooms are lightly but traditionally furnished and there’s a well-priced breakfast in the large, colourful dining room, with its mismatched furniture. Free all-day coffee plus a kitchen, too. There are plenty of spaces for hanging out with new friends including a bar, pavement terrace and the icing on the cake “sulla torta” – a rooftop terrace with Florentine views.
The details: Private room from £54; dorm from £26 (00 39 055 213806; ostellobello.com).
KEX Hostel, Reykjavik, Iceland
Snowmobiling, whale-watching, lagoon swimming, glacier hiking – just some of the trips that can be organised by this hipster-ish hostel in an old biscuit factory in central Reykjavik. With views across the bay to Mt Esja, the building mixes a vintage industrial look with colourful bits of upcycling: polished wood and concrete floors, white subway tiling, old school desks and birdcage-style lampshades. High-ceilinged bedrooms are crisp and clinical with cosy rugs and stylish lighting. People gather in the large bar-dining-lounge area – great breakfast buffet, with pizzas later in the day – or on the heated terrace. Artists, fashion designers and film-makers share the building so you know you’re in a cool spot.
The details: Private room (shared bathroom) from £113; dorm from £26 (00 354 561 6060; hostelworld.com).
Selina Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru
With hand-painted murals, bright-coloured sofas, potted ferns, hammocks and beanbags, this hostel exudes warmth and fun. A couple of minutes from Cusco’s main square, from here you can either explore this Incan capital or take a hiking tour – Sacred Valley, Humantay Lake and Machu Picchu, among others – with the help of the hostel team. Its Wellness Centre offers yoga, meditation and aromatherapy plus there’s a restaurant, bar and kitchen. Good-sized, modern bedrooms have large windows, colourful rugs and space to write up your journal – though you’ll probably be tempted by an ice-cold Pisco Sour in the courtyard to find out what everyone else has been up to.
The details: Private room from £50; dorm from £20 (00 51 480 0494; selina.com).
The Barn near Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand
Not quite your standard hostel – there are self-catering chalets and glamping options as well – the Barn defies easy classification. But what is easy to say is that it bags one of the best sites for exploring the Abel Tasman National Park’s glorious mix of hills, lush vegetation and sapphire-blue seas at the north of the South Island. Furnishings are minimal – double bed, storage, colourful cushions and heaters. Spread across the site are an outdoor fire and kitchen, picnic tables, a food truck, an onsite shop, volleyball, table tennis and a yoga platform. Whatever gets your adrenaline going – kayaking, canyoning, hiking – can be organised here.
The details: Private room (shared bathroom) from £74; dorm from £15; (00 64 3 527 8043; hostelworld.com).
Saas-Fe wellnessHostel 4000, Saas-Fee, Switzerland
Yep, that’s right: a hostel with a spa. And not in some humdrum city but in the flashy Swiss ski resort of Saas-Fee. Surrounded by Alpine peaks and close to the Italian border, the bold, modernist building capitalises on the views with big windows, airy spaces and a sleek, Scandi style. Sweat in the huge Finnish sauna, wallow in the hot tub, or splash around the pool and gaze out over snowy peaks and forests. Ski in the winter, hike in the summer, and come back to a choice of restaurants as well as a lounge and bar.
The details: Private room from £96; dorm from £46, (00 41 27 958 5050; youthhostel.ch).