Say “hostel“ to a non-European and they’ll probably imagine a dingy dormitory full of down-and-out drifters and semi-homeless hippies. But in Europe, hostels are seen as vibrant and thriving, temporary homes for curious wanderers from across the globe. They’re also cheap, social and super fun — many of my favorite travel memories come from the hostel rather than the city I was exploring.
But, for those not used to it, hostel culture can be difficult to navigate. So we caught up with seasoned hostel traveler, Matt, to find out the best way to experience Europe’s hostel scene.
Matt is 26 and from Tasmania, and he’s been traveling on-and-off for almost two years. There are very few corners of this green earth that he hasn’t stepped foot in — but his favorite place to explore is Europe. Here are his top tips to get the most out of hostel life.
1. The Golden Rule Of Hostel Culture
Although many people travel with friends, Matt thinks going solo is the best way to get the most out of hostel culture. “Just talk to people,” Matt says. “I was terrified at first, but I found that being by myself was a lot more fun than traveling with people. I had more freedom and I was forced to socialize. I met so many people.”
Now a seasoned solo traveler, Matt’s key advice when meeting people is to be friendly and open — and don’t dominate the conversation. “People from other places and cultures have different experiences,” Matt says. “Even if you know a lot about something, it doesn’t mean you can’t let other people talk about it. Be respectful and listen.”
Hostels are communal spaces, so it’s likely you’ll be sharing your kitchen, bathroom and bedroom with others. Matt says there are set rules that will guarantee good vibes throughout your trip. “Always do your washing up, don’t leave your stuff all over the room and lock your bag. Don’t be a giant jerk, basically.”
2. Think Outside The Box
On your first trip to Europe, you’ll likely want to hit Rome, Barcelona, Madrid or Paris. But Matt says the best experiences happen off the beaten track in hostels that aren’t on many peoples’ radar. “I like to stay in rural hostels,” he says. “I’ve stayed at hostels on isolated islands, in the Polish Slovak mountains and in a tiny little Spanish village with 200 people.”
There are benefits to being away from the hustle and bustle of capital cities. “These places are much cheaper, far less busy and a lot more beautiful. The people you meet have interesting stories because no one tends to go places like that on their first trip. They’ve probably traveled for a year or so and have a lot more to tell.”
3. Travel Slow
Though it’s tempting to tick as many places off your list as possible, slow travel has its perks. “Quite often I’ll be somewhere for two weeks or even a month,” Matt says. “You get more comfortable and familiar with the place. I’ll get to know the hostel staff, other slow travelers or the guy selling böreks across the road. You also get accepted into local communities — people don’t see you as just a one-off sale, so they’ll be more friendly.”
Matt is currently in Serbia. “The Balkans are great for slow travel,” he says. “I think because it’s a less popular destination, locals are less jaded towards tourism. Rural Spain and Portugal are also very friendly towards slow travelers.”
4. Know Your Limits
Hostel culture in Europe is synonymous with pub crawls and drinking games. As someone who’s led hostel pub crawls all around the world, Matt has one key piece of advice on how to navigate them: “Know how much you can drink,” he says. “You might meet people who drink a lot and you’ll try to keep up with them — that’s where the cautionary tales kick in. People get too drunk and behave badly. So know your limits when it comes to drinking.”
Matt adds that he broke a rib earlier this year after falling off a car roof, so he speaks from experience.
5. Take Advantage Of Hostel Culture And Activities
Most hostels in Europe offer activities and excursions for their guests. “Hostel activities, especially the cheap ones designed for socializing, are always worth doing. Everyone at the hostel comes together rather than staying in segregated groups.”
However, Matt tends to stay away from the day trips that cost €100 or more. “I don’t usually do those because I can’t afford it, and a lot of people in the hostel can’t either. They’re mostly for people who’ve booked through a hotel or tour company.”
Bonus: Matt’s Top 3 Hostel Experiences In Europe
- The Grove Hostel in Bar, Montenegro: “It’s in an old saw mill that should be on the TV show Grand Designs. It’s amazing. There’s a super nice open-plan space downstairs with a modern kitchen. They’ll drive you to the beach where you can swim, play frisbee and cook dinner. We even had a party for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing while I was there.”
- Youth Hostel Plakias in Crete, Greece: “The whole thing’s set in a quiet olive grove in rural Crete. Each dorm is in a separate little out-building, and there’s a massive communal area with deck chairs and hammocks strung up everywhere. There’s also a vegetable garden, so breakfast is whatever the hostel owner is growing. It’s a really relaxed, small, communal place.”
- Old Town Hostel in Kotor, Montenegro: “It’s just so much fun. I was there for three weeks last year and two weeks this year. Every day we went on booze cruises or had sunset BBQs. It’s such a beautiful town in such a beautiful place — imagine a Croatian old town dropped in the middle of a Norwegian fjord.”
If you’d like to get to know Europe’s unique and vibrant hostel culture, check out our partner, Hostelling International. You can also follow Matt on his adventures by visiting his travel blog, Out of a Backpack.