Posh hostels in Lisbon
First appeared in DIVA magazine.
I knock hesitantly on the hostel door. Surely there’s been a mistake; I knew the Travellers House was ‘centrally situated’ but this is amazing, slap bang in the middle of all the action on one of Lisbon’s most iconic strips, the pedestrianised Rua Augusta. Ahead of me is a grand archway that leads out into a vast square facing the Tagus River. Five minutes stroll in one direction I’ll find some of the Portuguese capital’s funkiest shops and ten minutes in the other I’ll arrive at the bottom of a windy road up to the Moorish Sao Jorge Castle. And all starting at sixteen euros for a dorm or 60 for an ensuite double.
Surely there’s a catch? Maybe Travellers House isn’t just a super convenient, excellent value, socially undiscriminating and environmentally conscious place to stay; perhaps it’s actually a nudist hostel (could be worse…) or they only clean it twice a year.
Not only is it all spic and span but Travellers House is full of friendly (and fully clothed) international visitors who take the time to follow the rules about clearing up after themselves and what rubbish goes in which bin. I get the sense in fact that the owners demand a kind of environmental conscientiousness from their customers which most hotels don’t.
I step inside and am welcomed immediately by staff member, Enrique, who begins a guided tour. Clearly my cynicism will find no fodder here. Not only is it all spic and span but Travellers House is full of friendly (and fully clothed) international visitors who take the time to follow the rules about clearing up after themselves and what rubbish goes in which bin. I get the sense in fact that the owners demand a kind of environmental conscientiousness from their customers which most hotels don’t. My room is a decent-sized double at the top of the building with a tiny balcony looking down on the frenetic street below. The myriad awards on the wall downstairs become all the more believable. The last time I was in a hostel was in Cairns, Australia, aged 21 and all I remember is excess noise and two drunk German men flashing their bits about at 2am. Has backpackers’ accommodation matured into adulthood, just as I have, or is this high-class hostel (a.k.a “poshtel”) unique to Travellers House?
“Lisbon is famous for these kind of upmarket hostels,” says Enrique as if he overheard my thoughts. “Each has its own personality and decor. I’ll arrange for you to see some if you like?”
I nod, intrigued, and think little more of it. A couple of hours later I return from my first exploration around the picturesque ancient streets of adjacent neighbourhoods, Chiado and Baixa:
“Excellent, you’re back!” Enrique says: “Mama has invited you to dinner!”
“What?” I say. My mother’s here? And she’s…
“Just around the corner is Home Hostel,” he explains. “Mama cooks every night there for all her guests. They eat like one big family. Traditional Portuguese food.”
It would be both rude and unadventurous to turn down such an authentically Iberian invitation so I take a shower and head over. On the way I drop into another recommended nearby hostel – Living Lounge – for a quick tour. Just when I thought it couldn’t get more impressive…. This one is both opposite the Baixa Chiado Metro station on the Rua Crucifixo, and near the river and trendy shops. It’s one of a duo of hostels (including the similarly-named Lisbon Lounge) owned by a group of Portuguese artists who have themselves designed both properties. Every room is different with flashes of colour, trilby hats artwork and thought-provoking slogans just a few of the quirks.
Quite honestly, I’ve got hostel envy but I have to go. I have a dinner date at Home House which is also lovely – decorated with dark wood panelling and boasting air conditioning and hairdryers! I slip self-consciously into a corner seat and start reading. Within minutes however I’m asked to move. Everybody eats together, I’m told. It makes more space and… well, it’s just what Home House dinners are about. And at ten euro for three courses and wine, it’s difficult to protest. I am sat next to two Irish travellers in the midst of a grand European tour. The atmosphere is relaxed as all fifty of us line up to be served each course by La Mama (a grandmother) herself. It takes three hours for us to make our way through pea soup, roast chicken and biscuit ice cream (traditionally Portugese, really?) and it’s nearly midnight when I leave my new friends who have tried and failed to get me to drag me on to a club.
Early next morning, pockets stuffed with maps and must-see-and-do suggestions courtesy of Travellers House staff, I start with a trip up the Rua Augusta Arch (2.5Euro). After a few quiet minutes marvelling at Lisbon’s historic red-roofed buildings I head down and stroll over to Cais do Sodre station to catch a train to the fishing village of Cascais recommended by hostel staff. It’s a bit of a tourist trap though and I’m underwhelmed, though the sardines at Taberna do Lipe on Rua das Flores are excellent value, taste delicious and tick the local delicacy box. That afternoon I return to central Lisbon and wander through the districts of Alfama (narrow streets, beautiful architecture) and El Barrio (hilly and hip).
Dinner that evening at the Mercado de Ribiera is a major highlight. The perfect place for a single traveller to dine, it’s been the city’s main market since 1892 but this year was taken over by Time Out and pulled into gastronomic fold with various stalls serving authentic, well sourced and slightly overpriced food (think: London’s Borough Market with seats). For a nightcap head to Barrio Alta and Principe Real where the gay vibe is strongest. It’s a mixed crowd though and Lisbon’s girls scene can be quite fly-by-night so the best thing to do is rock up somewhere known for being lesbian friendly like Purex (lesbianpickup.com/listings/purex-club) and ask where everyone goes.
During winter temperatures in Lisbon drop almost as fast as the prices. If you’re not put off by chilly nights and quieter streets then December – March is a great time to visit. Direct flights to Lisbon operate from London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Bristol with TAP Portugal, BA, easyJet and Ryanair.
– By Lucy Fry