LISBON (Reuters Life!) - Squeaky clean, elegant and well-located, a young crop of Lisbon hostels is reinventing the concept of a backpacker's inn, luring guests of all ages in these difficult times and sweeping the industry's own Oscars.
Dublin-based hostelworld.com recently named Portugal's capital the top location for hostels in the world in its Hostelworld Customer Annual Ratings, or HOSCARS. Three Lisbon establishments were picked as No. 1 through No. 3 among 20,000 properties worldwide, and a fourth ranked in the top ten.
The ratings are based on some 800,000 travelers' reviews.
"There has been an explosion of hostels in Lisbon for the past year and a half and the quality of the hostels has been extraordinary," said Aisling White, marketing manager with Web Reservations International, Hostelworld's parent company.
"They really lead the way in an ongoing change of the image and standard of a hostel," White said.
Located in Lisbon's tourist-crammed down town Baixa area, they are not far from the Tagus River and surrounded by historic monuments and dozens of typical pastry shops. These hostels are worlds away from the dirt-cheap, and often grimy student hostels dotting the dodgy outskirts of many European cities.
Cozy, brightly decorated chill out rooms with flat TV screens and free Internet would make many boutique hotels envious. Bathrooms are impeccably clean and dorms with bunk beds are far from barracks-ugly.
Dorms for up to eight people and a common bathroom are still typical of a hostel, although many also feature double rooms, making them more attractive for couples seeking some privacy.
During the global crisis, hostels become an attractive alternative, with a bed and breakfast to the tune of 18 euros, while a hotel room in the same part of town would top 70 euros.
"We can't complain about a lack of bookings, especially for double rooms. We are not really feeling the crisis, it's same as a year ago," said Valter Pratas, 31-year-old painter turned co-owner of the Lisbon Lounge Hostel - the first private hostel in the city, opened five years ago and ranked No. 3 now.
"We now quite regularly receive small families or couples that, say, last time visited Lisbon and stayed in a hotel, but now have a little less money," he said.
Added White: "With the credit crunch, people are loathe to give up holidays so are choosing to do them a bit cheaper ... Due to the high standard of hostels in Lisbon it may prove to be hugely popular among people of all ages."
She said the backpackers' thumbs-up in the form of HOSCARS is a good sign for Portuguese tourism as backpackers "constantly lead the pack when it comes to the next 'big' destination. They are clearly saying that Lisbon is the next hotspot."
The secret of success, according to hostel owners, is that they themselves are traveling aficionados.
"We have what we know a traveler would like," said Goncalo Figueira, co-owner of top-ranked Travellers House.
"Cleanliness and comfortable beds are of course essential. What makes us different is the extras like the cozy lounge, the support we give to clients, the dinners," he said. The hostel boasts typical cuisine nights with music and party atmosphere.
Benjamin Hantzschel, a tourist from Germany in his twenties, says he found out about the hostel's ranking when he booked through hostelworld.com and he wasn't disappointed.
"In fact it's amazing, it's really easy to get to know the other guests, which is great when you're traveling, and the staff have been really helpful," he said.
For owners, the business is gratifying at the very least.
"We won't get rich doing this. But on the other hand, I'm going on a traveling vacation for three months soon. We can do what we want, it's a lifestyle option," Figueira said.
Additional reporting by Shrikesh Laxmidas, editing by Paul Casciato