The Ultimate History of Hostels

Hey Hostellers!

As you might already know, I’m a self-called hostel nerd. Maybe you used to travel a lot and stayed in hostels back in the days. OR maybe you’re planning a trip and take into account budget accommodations like hostels. 

In this post, you’re gonna dive deep into the history of hostels. Or at least as deep as the online and a book resources allowed me.

Hostels have changed 

This type of accommodation used to be considered dirty-stinky places where lots of strangers sleep in one huge dorm. Where everyone snores and it’s kind of gross.

Well, maybe there’re still hostels like that. But as the travel industry is changing, hostels changed too. The cleanliness is spotless and hostels…well they can WOW you. So don’t be surprised next time you enter into a hostel and confuse it with a boutique hotel.

Hostels are simply awesome nowadays.

Key Ewa, but what is a hostel?

Before we hop on together into history of hostels, let’s start with principles. What makes hostel so different than hotels and other accommodations.

I have been thinking a lot about how to describe it in the best way. Finally, I have decided to show you what in my opinion are the most important components of the hostel.

Some time ago I’ve created an infographic to show you the basic elements of the hostels. Tho each hostel is different in its character and offer, some elements connect them all. Make sure to download this infographic so you’ll have it handy whenever you need it. Or simply send it to your friend who might need some “what is a hostel” explanation.

But on with the description.

Let’s start with shared dorms. Usually, in the hostel, you will sleep and share the room with other people. Important rule: for each night you pay for a bed. Not for the room. Good news is that nowadays hostels offer also private rooms for all these people who prefer more privacy. And there yes- you pay per room.

what is a hostel infographic
Standard elements of every hostel

Hostels are supposed to be an affordable type of accommodation. 

That is why usually they are fairly cheaper than hotels or motels. I say here “usually” because these days many things change and in cities like Barcelona or Paris, hostels can be quite expensive. But still more affordable than hotels 🙂

Shared facilities and social spaces are places where you will meet other fellow travellers, where you can relax and hang out. What’s more, you will most probably share with others: bathrooms, toilets and a kitchen. 

Don’t be scared! It might be more fun than you expect. At least in the kitchen (hahaha).

Hostel stands for social

A very important point of hostels which is emphasized by most of them is the social aspect. That’s what makes it different from another type of accommodations. The “s” in the hostel stands for SOCIAL. 

This is the place that gives a chance to meet travellers from around the world, share stories and participate in various activities. By creating cool, vibrant common space it gathers people who want to spend a good time. 

There are many different types of hostels:

  • party,
  • family,
  • surf,
  • eco-hostel, etc.

What’s more, one place can connect more than one of the types above. The list can be very long and I guess it depends on the creativity of the people who create that hostel and demands of the market.

Since there are many different categories of the hostel you must make the right selection while booking your stay. If you are not looking for parties, make sure you will not choose the hostel focused on parties. 

Make sure to read my tips on how to choose a hostel that fits your needs, before making a booking.

The history: let’s go back to the roots!

This will be fun! When it comes to the history of hostels, first (after googling) you’ll come across the history of Hostelling International. This is the beginning of the idea of youth hostels and hostelling. 

Youth hostels are different than backpacking hostels. To know the difference you can read a blog post written by The Hostel Girl: “Youth hostels vs Backpackers hostels”.

Shared dormitory in Sunset Destination Hostel, Lisbon
Shared dormitory in Sunset Destination Hostel, Lisbon

I believe that the roots of today’s hostels go back to these two: the birth of youth hostels and modern backpacking.

If you’re more a video fan you can watch a video about the history of youth hostels on my IGTV.

Youth hostels were intended to host students in exchange for a bit of money and help in domestic works. The idea was to create a space, budget-friendly, that provides to students educational experiences and social environment.

The history of a youth hostel goes back to 1909. This is when german teacher Richard Schirrmann has noticed the need for an overnight, cheap accommodation for his students during short trips so they could get other experience from the one that they get in school. In 1912 he established the world’s first youth hostel in Altena Castle in Germany (still is existing and in use!). 

By helping in daily duties like cleaning and cooking students could sleep together in the dorms and earn some extra money.

R. Schirrmann continued his work and in 1919 has found the German Youth Hostel Association. The concept of youth hostel has spread widely in Germany and Europe. By 1930 there were more than 2000 hostels only in Germany.

Birth of first youth hostel associations

Later on, in 1932 International Youth Hostel Federation (since 2006: Hostelling International) was founded in Amsterdam and Richard Schirrmann has become its first chairman. The organization gathered youth hostels from many countries in Europe like Poland, Germany or Switzerland and Great Britain.

Nowadays youth hostels are a minority in Europe since the demands of the tourism industry has changed drastically and the backpacking idea has flourished around the globe. 

However, still, there are few youth hostels where you will need to leave its premises for some hours during the day (lockout) or get back until the certain hour (curfew). 

The aim of hostelling despite changes in the tourism industry is still the same: integrating people from different backgrounds and countries.

In case you want to go deeper into the history of youth hostels, I recommend you to read “Richard Schirrmann. The man who invented youth hostels” by Duncan M Simpson.

“I’m not a tourist. I’m a traveller”- backpackers, hippie trail & hostels

I must say it’s hard to find any information about first hostels in the form that is more commonly known today- for the backpackers.

The meaning of backpacking has changed over the years. But it was always about travelling on the low budget. Usually travelling for a longer period, without following a fixed agenda.

Backpackers try to travel as cheaply as they can to extend their period of travel. That means doing CouchSurfing, hitchhiking and of course sleeping in hostels.

I imagine that first hostels, appeared in its backpacking-needs-form, during the growing popularity of “hippie trail”. This was the time when modern backpacking started to form its shape.

When appeared first hostels for backpackers?

Between 1960 and 1970 young travellers started following the fragments of the old Silk Road, the ancient trading route connecting Europe and Asia. The young, wild and free known as hippies (tho they referred to call themselves Freaks) wanted to live a different life. They started this journey in search of adventure, spiritual enlightenment or in search of cheap drugs.

The most popular trail was starting from Europe to Kathmandu. Through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India to Nepal.

Paulo Coelho in his book “Hippie” describes his memories of his journey to Nepal with the hippie “Magic Bus”. 

It was during that overland journey, hostels begin to appeal to the new group of travellers called very often: “drifters”, “wanderers” or “backpackers”.

“Across Asia on the Cheap”

In 1973 Tony and Maureen Wheeler, published their first guidebook, from their journey across Asia in 1972. Their trip covered the hippie trail from London to Sydney.

This guidebook gave birth to now wildly-famous, Lonely Planet guidebooks. 

As you can imagine during that period aspiring travellers couldn’t count on the internet so a resource like this guidebook became a big thing!

“Across Asia on the Cheap” recommends also youth hostels and hostels to stay in. That’s why I can only guess, that this is the time and place where the first backpacking-like hostels came to live.

the river hostel team
The River Hostel Team, Valencia


Doesn’t matter if you stay in the hostel as a guest or if it’s your working place: you meet new people and some of them might become your good friends, you hear amazing stories and most of all you have fun.

I always recommend booking hostels directly (in the linked post you’ll find out why). However, I know that the best way to find an awesome hostel is through booking platforms (and then booking them directly hehe). In this post, I link websites best for searching for hostels.

As a hostel worker, it’s amazing and exciting to watch how people from totally different cultures can get on with each other and share their experience…this is the true spirit of the hostel.

And if you are still not convinced of the hostel idea treat it as a new adventure!

“All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go.”

Tony Wheeler

But this is for another story.

author signature

P.S.1. The Lonely Planet guidebook “Across Asia on the Cheap” is available on Amazon for free 😉

P.S.2. If you enjoyed reading the history of hostels, make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to get this and other inspiring hospitality & travel industry stories.

P.S.3. This post contains an affiliate link. That means that if you purchase something via it, I’ll receive a small amount of commission that fuels this website. Thank youuuuu!!!

You have a question? Let me know by filling in the contact form below:

Pin It on Pinterest