Bumming in Style
Stylishly redone, the hostels in Austria’s capital are repairing the negative image of the budget accommodation
Many recall our first experience at a youth hostel: Crowded rooms, dirty halls and one dingy toilet for what seemed like the entire Light Cavalry was what I faced the first time I ventured into the heart of Paris. My first hostel visit made me feel like a tramp, to be frank, without the romance.
That’s why my jaw dropped as I stepped into The Lounge on Mariahilfer Straße 137 (around the corner from Vienna’s Westbahnhof), one of four hostels in Austria and Germany owned and run by the Vienna-based chain Wombat. This was nothing like the claustrophobic, worn down and relatively expensive hostel I had known in Paris.
The front desk of Wombat’s Lounge consists of a long and spacious counter where stacks of travel guides are aligned against the wall, ready for any questions about any place a backpacker might head off to next. As I glanced to the left, I noticed a group of guests relaxing near a wall-mounted flat-screen TV. Some watched the news as others glanced through guidebooks or a local paper. Around the corner, a few people sat at a circle of PCs, surfing the web. A few meters on, a bunch of mattresses awaited exhausted travelers looking to relax and mingle, in an almost sensual atmosphere.
Vienna’s hostels have grown up, and at prices as low as €20 a night for dormitory accommodations, their comfortable amiability is attracting more than just backpackers. An ample double-room costs only €60 a night, which is why hostels like The Lounge can expect to be pretty-much full from now through October.
Hostels are young and energetic, and get creative to attract their customers. Hostel Ruthensteiner, Robert Hamerlinggasse 24, offers a cozy courtyard with giant-chess, to liven up a sunny afternoon after sightseeing. Their small and more familiar size (roughly 40 beds) and central location near the city’s Westbahnhof are key to Ruthensteiner’s popularilty. Klein und fein, as the Viennese say.
"Hostel guests really care about cleanliness, we found out," explained Wombat Hostel manager and backpacker, Boris Muche, 25. "I started out working at the reception as a student five years ago at the Wombat ‘Base’ location" (at Grangasse 6 in Vienna’s 15th district). Now Boris manages operations at the almost three-year-old location on Mariahilfer Straße.
As he shows me a few rooms, I’m particularly impressed by the quality of furnishings, this was nicer than my college dorm room, and I’d seen worse at a hotel! All the furnishings looked new and the light colored wood made for a cozy and warm feel. Even the bathroom and shower felt spacious and clean.
Another hostel known for its cleanliness is the Hostel Westend in the 6th District. Hostels like Westend and Hostel Myrthengasse, the Routensteiner and the Wombats focus on differentiating themselves from big chain-hostels like the A&O family and Meininger. Walking through the A&O (Lerchenfelder Gürtel 9), you feel sterilized; if feels more like a cheap boarding house, bare-bones and borderline gross, with overpriced double-rooms.
Glancing through various offers on www.hostelworld.com and www.hostelz.com, I begin to wonder whether that hole in Paris would be able stay open with such refreshing competition.
Located near the MuseumsQuartier, the crisp Hostel Myrthengasse is also an insider tip, with just a short walk to the city-center and key destinations like Karlskirche at Karlsplatz, the State Opera House, Kärntnerstraße, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and the Hofburg Palace.
"What’s great about this job is everybody is curious about stuff, and everybody has something to share," The Lounge’s manager Boris Muche laughs. "The multicultural exchange is great." Sometimes things get pretty absurd, he admitted.
"Once I found myself with a visitor whose car broke down, and he asked me to help him find a single engine-block. All of a sudden I was online, searching for engines, and calling up local car shops. I was so surprised!"
With guests mostly between 20 and the late 30s, you can tell the hostels’ vibrant and buzzing atmosphere keeps the job lively for the employees. The Lounge offers a spacious and attractive bar in their basement, which quickly fills up at night.
In short, these hostels just aren’t what they used to be. Clean, friendly, cheap, practical, fun, spacious, convenient… and sexy? It has certainly changed since my first trip in Paris.
"When people say they want warm eggs for breakfast, we listen," remarked Muche.
When I asked him to share the craziest thing that ever happened, it was this: Two Korean ladies were standing near the reception at around one in the morning and all of a sudden two Aussies, totally drunk, came running through The Lounge, wearing only a sock.
"The look on their faces, oh my!"
15., Robert Hamerlinggasse 24
(01) 893 42 02
7., Myrthengasse 7
(01) 523 63 16
6., Fügergasse 3
(01) 597 67 29
Wombat "The Lounge" Hostel
15., Mariahilfer Straße 137
(01) 897 23 36