Viewed as a hub for community rather than just a place to rest for the night, Hostelling International USA (HI USA) hostels have evolved into cultural centers for the towns they represent. Each traveler that visits influences the vibe of the hostel by coming together to create experiences.
While every HI USA hostel shares core values, MiLLENNiAL teamed up with them to showcase six American locations – three East Coast, two West Coast, and one in the Midwest – with unique characteristics inspired by their local communities as well as the travelers that happened to be in town.
What we discovered was a distinct personality that embodied the hostellers themselves. The people we met along this journey inspired a unique experience that could have only been possible by being at the right place at the right time.
The Eccentric Connoisseurs
Arriving at HI Portland Northwest, we were greeted by Meghan, a cute punk rockabilly staffer dressed in a purple and black 50s-style dress complete with black cat-rimmed glasses, purple hair, purple lips, and of course, a black spiked septum ring. Her personality immediately embodied a slice of what Portland had to offer – a colorful and vivacious vibe with warmth and homey allure.
Her energy was so electric that it could boil water as she enthusiastically whipped out a map of the city and began marking the “must-sees” of her town. On the list were popular neighborhoods including the Pearl District, Mississippi Avenue, Alberta Avenue, and Hawthorne in addition to some of Portland’s best breweries and food shops.
Meghan encouraged joining the bike culture by renting some wheels to tour the city, but reminded us to be back in time for the popular Secret Garden Open Mic night that attracts a packed crowd of guests and members of the community.
After cycling from West to East Portland, we entered the hostel just as the first acoustic guitarist stepped up to the mic. A local home brewer shared his fresh craft brews alongside the hostel staff serving hamburgers and pasta salad, available to patrons on a donation basis
Within 30 minutes the garden was packed with hostellers and locals listening to the soulful folk music being performed. It was a great night for community engagement as the local performers encouraged the travelers to get up and sing.
The Wacky Heroes
It was ComicCon weekend when we arrived at HI San Diego Downtown. The freaks and geeks were in no short supply as the streets were bombarded with enthusiastic fans of every supernatural television show, film, video game and comic book.
The hostel was relatively quiet as hostellers were making their exodus to the great convention halls, but a few stragglers lingered throughout, taking a break from the madness below. Settling in for some much needed relaxation, a few solo travelers kicked back to watch a movie in the comfortable TV room while others caught up on email. The hostel environment lent a suitable atmosphere for every wavering mood.
After touring the Gaslamp’s quaint urban metropolis, we returned to the hostel to see a group of Lord of the Rings characters with the four Ninja Turtles standing in the lobby. Interjecting a comment about their appearance, we were enthusiastically invited to join them for a night on the town.
We stopped into Zymology, a hip mad scientist bar up the street known for their zany antics and herb infused cocktails. The bartender was just as bombastic as the convention attendees themselves. Dressed like Albert Einstein, he announced to our group to expect the wildest bubble party known to mixology. With a deep villainous laugh he poured champagne over a block of dry ice that sat at the bottom of the beaker used to serve the drink.
Then, as if sitting with a group of Lord of the Rings and Ninja Turtle characters wasn’t enough, in walked Batman, who took a seat next to us at the bar. It was like Halloween in July. Everyone was in a good mood and had interesting backstories. The night was a barrel of laughs and memorable to say the least.
The International Historians
HI Washington DC attracts one of the most fun and diverse international crowds. We couldn’t step onto the hostel’s elevator without striking up a conversation. A Korean girl even offered us cherries. The friendly and open vibe of these hostellers was truly amazing and unlike any other city we visited.
The HI Washington D.C. volunteer-led sunset monument tour brought together 20 international travelers to walk around the National Mall. We met cousins on their first journey together from England, solo travelers from South Africa, Finland, and Germany, a cute couple from Spain, and a recent high school graduate on his first road trip from Florida.
After our exhausting walk, we returned to the hostel and shared travel stories in the lobby for hours before agreeing to meet up with our newfound comrades in the morning for breakfast.
Like clockwork, we stepped off the elevator at 8am to a bustling kitchen hall. Every table was filled with hostellers taking advantage of the community continental breakfast. We waved hello to our new friends who had reserved two seats for us at a table for eight.
Standing in line for some muffins, the kitchen superintendent, Jimmy, played a game with each hosteller – not allowing us to grab anything until we said “good morning” in another language. Hearing all the different greetings was like being at a United Nations convening.
The Old-Fashioned Outdoorsmen
Just an hour outside of Washington D.C. in the Maryland Appalachian Mountains lies the town of Harpers Ferry. This underestimated destination quickly became our favorite spot on the trip.
Unassuming and beautifully preserved, the authentic nature of the environment fully embraced the 19th century. With its cobblestone streets, brick taverns and “living history” volunteers, we found ourselves in a historical paradise we never knew existed.
Tucked two miles into the mountains above Downtown, HI Harpers Ferry’s unique combination of hostel with a campground overlooked the Shenandoah River. Loretta, the humble and overly accommodating general manager, brought all the comforts of southern hospitality to this cabin retreat.
The first morning we woke up to a plate of blueberry pancakes, freshly brewed coffee and a cheery group of Appalachian hikers celebrating their 1,000-mile mark. We instantly bonded with the hostellers as we learned about each of their adventures. One of the hikers who went by his trail name, Pyro Moses, loved Loretta and his stay at the hostel so much that he decided to hang out a few extra days to build a brick oven for the campground.
As a richly significant Civil War town, Harpers Ferry invokes the essence of what life was like in the mid 1800s, especially during the summer months. It’s the perfect getaway for scenic hiking, river rafting, and tubing.
And if you are into ghost stories, we highly recommend the ghost tour that is led every evening. With eerie stops and heart-racing tales, the living historian tour guide certainly gave some spooky context that defined the town’s personality.
The Polooza Partiers
A big city with Midwestern charm, Chicago is home to some of the best food, music and architecture in the country. With its modern industrial layout, the newly renovated HI Chicago, The J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Hostel showcased an edgy aesthetic representing the heart of Downtown.
The communal space stretched throughout an entire open and large second floor with large windows facing the passing parallel L Train. It happened to be the week leading into Lollapalooza, Chicago’s claim-to-fame music festival, and together the city celebrated with pop-up music performances and art exhibitions on every corner.
HI Chicago joined the fun by hosting a pre-Lolla party, which brought together hostellers specifically in town for the festival as well as those simply passing through. A DJ played music as the hostel staff served snacks and drinks. As more hostellers joined the commemorative event, the spacious room quickly became crowded with enthusiastic socializers.
An intense match up of pool between two Australian best friends drew a crowd over to cheer them on as the challenger list grew. The popcorn machine was working overtime and permeated the room with an enticing aroma. The true essence of community was abundant, as complete strangers began to look like old friends.
The Adventure Hunters
The Big Apple is at the top of most travel lists, but what is often missed is finding the small town nuances within it. So we challenged ourselves to discover the gems that made New York feel a bit smaller. HI New York City was conveniently situated on the Upper West Side, which has a much quieter vibe than the rest of the city.
The pleasant outdoor garden patio was a popular hangout zone for the hostellers. It was there that we met four Colombian girls for breakfast who were interested in joining us on our mission. We turned to HI New York’s Community Engagement Manager, Ari, a Brooklyn native, for some tips on locations.
Our favorite discovery was the Highline in Chelsea located only 15 minutes south of HI NYC- a rail line recently converted into a linear city park above 11th avenue. With a variety of shrubs, trees and grasses that naturally grew over for the last 25 years, the park above the street was abundantly filled with young New Yorkers looking to escape the big city.
As the day waned, we made our way back to the hostel. More travelers had congregated in the lobby and out in the garden patio. Our new Colombian friends introduced us to a couple they had met the night before, and within minutes we were playing a friendly game of cards.
Later that evening, one of the hostellers decided to put on a show for us in the back garden. A hula-hoop performer with whimsical flare, he gracefully performed tricks with the hoop, drawing a crowd to watch his performance. What a great way to end our time in the city!
Which City is on Your Travel List?
The team at MiLLENNiAL had never experienced hostelling in the United States prior to this trip, and it was exciting to see the local perspective offered in each city. With a dialed in sense of community and welcoming nature, HI USA made us feel at home no matter where we were in the country.
Sometimes, it’s not necessarily the places we go but the people we encounter that have the greatest affect on us. Climb out of your box and discover some new locations within the United States. You’ll be amazed at who you might meet at any one of the Hostelling International USA locations. The adventures that await!