No backpack required: Best hostels

Hostels that offer private rooms and great amenities.

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From the September/October 2013 issue of the magazine.

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The Out NYC

The Out NYC

Most of us soon grow out of our youth hostel stage. Flea-pit dorms, sweaty-sock aromas and those greasy group kitchens ever-encrusted with mystery meat pasta residues are best remembered in rose-tinted retrospect. But times are a changin’ in hostel land—as savvy mainstream travellers are increasingly discovering.

A swath of new and upgraded independent hostels has unfurled its bedroll around the globe in recent years. Aiming to retain those maturing backpackers who previously graduated to hotels, they’re also luring bunk bed-hating newbies who won’t stay anywhere that doesn’t offer ensuite private rooms with fresh linens.

But this new breed of “boutique hostels” isn’t just serving up minimum amenities on the cheap. With private room rates that often echo small hotels, value-added extras from free wi-fi to gratis breakfasts make them attractive alternatives. Add standard features like lounges, cooking facilities, laundry rooms, complimentary local tours and the occasional swimming pool, and these next generation hostels suddenly become serious options for all.

Here then, for those planning Europe and U.S. trips, is a handpicked array of some of the best hostels with hotel-style rooms. Book as far ahead as possible—most have only a few ensuites that are highly sought after—and be prepared to meet a cool new crowd of fellow travellers during your stay. Luckily, your private room means you won’t have to listen to them snoring on the top bunk.

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Independente Hostel & Suites in Lisbon

While Australia—home of the perennial twentysomething traveller—kicked off the fancy hostel trend more than a decade ago (consider the Base Backpackers mini-chain if you’re visiting this region), Europe has made the biggest leaps in hotel-style sleepovers in recent years. One of the best of the bunch is the stylish Independente Hostel & Suites in Lisbon.

Located in the historic city’s hipsterish Bairro Alto district, this two-year-old property handsomely colonizes what used to be the Swiss ambassador’s residence. Alongside regular dorms, its four rustic-chic, river-view private rooms—with balconies, hardwood floors and exposed timber beams—will cost $149 for two people including breakfast. Rooms are lined with vintage books and furnishings, while its good-value onsite restaurant and beer garden lures as many locals as hostellers: go for the hearty weekend brunch.

Value without sacrifice is also the approach at Amsterdam’s quirky Cocomama. Well-located not far from Rembrandt Square and the recently reopened Rijksmuseum, it’s in a heritage building that once housed an infamous brothel. The cozy private rooms here ($146 a night) have an artsy, bohemian feel with chandeliers and high ceilings, while the hangout areas and solicitous young staff are key attractions—Joop, the friendly hostel cat, is also ever-ready to socialize.

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Circus Hostel in Berlin

You’ll also be purring at Berlin’s top option. With a hotbed of hotelesque alternatives—the large Grand Hostel and the swimming-pool-equipped Plus Berlin are popular—the best of the bunch here is Circus Hostel. Opposite a handy U-Bahn train station (you’ll be in the city centre in 10 minutes), the recommended rooms at this brightly painted sleepover are two spacious, kitchen-equipped private apartments ($136 a night). A bar and restaurant add to the allure, while a busy events calendar and frequent free city tours keep things lively.

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Plus Berlin

The chic hostel trend has also hit the U.S., even reaching New York, that bastion of bloated room rates. Trendy options include Out NYC and the Bowery House. But it’s Brooklyn’s sociable New York Loft Hostel, located in indie-flavoured Williamsburg, that’s the top lure. Rooms are just $92 a night, including breakfast. With its exposed-brick private quarters and cool subterranean bar, it stages regular freebie fondue nights.

 

There’s an equally inviting option 1,200 km west at the Chicago Getaway Hostel ($89 a night with breakfast). Socked into a row of redbrick townhouses in the vibrant Lincoln Park neighbourhood, the main attractions here are the immaculate and spacious—if Spartan—private rooms. Bike rentals and a courtyard patio brimming with international travellers add to the appeal, and you’ll likely spot the same crowd on the hostel’s regular guided pub-crawl nights.

If you head south to cool Austin, Texas, you can see what may become the favourite of America’s next generation hostels. Opened in 2012 in a heritage fire hall building, the Firehouse Hostel is just steps from downtown’s 6th Street entertainment core. For $119 a night including breakfast, its comfortable private suites have large bathrooms and an elegant, high-ceilinged look. And there’s also an adjoining cocktail bar if you don’t want to stray too far from your room on your first night. It’s the perfect place to toast your return to hostelling—backpack not required.

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