The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission. 

What it’s like to stay in a backpacker hostel in one of the most expensive cities in the world

Has hostel culture survived the pandemic, or has this type of affordable accommodation morphed into co-working space for digital nomads? A decade after first backpacking in the city, Anna Richards checks in to investigate

Saturday 27 April 2024 12:18 BST
A complimentary drink token helps keep the hostel’s bar sociable
A complimentary drink token helps keep the hostel’s bar sociable (The People Belleville)

There’s snoring in my room – an almost melodic, low rumble. It’s not the kind of snore that has you launching pillows at the culprit, but enough to keep you hanging on waiting for the next one. Usually there’d only be my boyfriend to blame, and I’d roll him over (if feeling charitable), or give him a hard kick (if feeling less so). But I’m in a hostel dormitory room in Paris, and climbing into the next bunk to roll or kick the snorer doesn’t seem socially acceptable.

The French capital has never been a cheap destination, and hotels routinely offering rooms at costs of over €1,000 (£850) a night are becoming more and more common. This isn’t helped by the Olympics coming to town this summer, although there is evidence that rates are falling. While I struggle to understand spending so much anywhere, doing so in a city like Paris, where surely you spend very little time in your room, seems even more incomprehensible.

So this time I checked into a hostel. It was partially motivated by price, and partially curiosity. I used to be a prolific hostel-hopper, and I’d spend months on end going from dorm room to dorm room, sharing my space with strangers who’d become friends without a second thought. But this was pre-Covid, and before my 30th birthday.

The pandemic threatened to destroy hostel culture. In 2020, France’s hostels lost 50 per cent of their revenue, and many were forced to close their doors for good. Those that survived raised their prices, and the entry price for a dorm bed is now between €18–30, or closer to €50 in Paris. When I first backpacked France in 2013, you could get a dorm bed for as little as €10, so it doesn’t surprise me that many opt for Airbnbs instead, particularly when travelling with friends or as a couple, often finding it more economical.

Anna and a view of Paris from the hostel
Anna and a view of Paris from the hostel (supplied)

Read more on France travel:

I checked into The People Hostel, Belleville, in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. It’s my favourite part of the city; the sticky smell of hot baklava mingles with dumplings and croissants. There’s no gold-gilded domes, except from afar, but the former quarry turned park, Buttes-Chaumont, uses its elevated vantage point to give one of the best panoramas over the Parisian skyline: the Eiffel Tower, Invalides, Sacre Cœur, the distant skyscrapers of La Défense.

Arriving was like walking through the looking glass. A painting class was in full swing in the lobby, men and women alike in drag. I crossed the rooftop to reach my dormitory, the row of terracotta chimney pots framing the same Parisian sights I’d seen from Buttes-Chaumont, and a chaotic street below, food stalls outside every épicerie, too much trash, and cherry trees in full bloom.

There’s no escaping the occasional snorer in a dorm room
There’s no escaping the occasional snorer in a dorm room (The People Belleville)

The free drink token I was given at check-in was enough of an incentive to encourage me to face my fears. I remembered this feeling well from my backpacking days: the awful moment when you arrive at a hostel knowing no one and you have to put yourself out there to talk to a stranger, feeling like a predator with a bad chat-up line. Fortunately a smile and a “bonjour” was all it took to get chatting. I’d had a knot in my stomach before leaving the dorm. Everyone in a hostel looks like they’re already friends, but you forget that this camaraderie was often formed mere minutes before.

Scott, an American living in Zurich, used to live in Paris. He bemoaned the fact that he’s “so much older” this time around, and saw the city in “such a different way”. He was 26 years old.

We took our drinks up to the rooftop, and I’d forgotten the ease with which perfect strangers can communicate. We were joined by Tyson, a Japanese man who spoke neither French nor English, and decided to take a job in a Parisian cafe after seeing paintings by Vincent van Gogh (Scott spoke Japanese, and acted as our mediator). Another American joined us next, just 19 years old and on his first European trip, wide-eyed in wonder at the Eiffel Tower crackling to life on the horizon, and the fact that everyone here takes the “subway” rather than driving. Then there was a Turkish girl, a couple of Brazilians and an Australian.

Hostels are still a place where friendships are formed
Hostels are still a place where friendships are formed (The People Belleville)

Everyone talked at breakfast too, the mix of languages and accents almost like a choir. Two girls commandeered the piano and guitar and sang City of Stars from the film La La Land, and they weren’t bad. There’s barely a laptop in sight.

We spoke about day plans, and a man from my dormitory asked the rest of us for an off-piste suggestion for the day.

“Have you seen the Eiffel Tower yet?” asks the Texan, with a deadly serious face.

I left with plenty of new contacts in my phone (not one of them a tech bro) and the feeling that I’d seen Paris through fresh eyes. And while Paris might not be as polished, or clean, as they’d expected, not one of the backpackers I met seemed disappointed by it.

How to do it

A dormitory bed at The People Belleville starts from €34.

Read more: The best hotels in Paris

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in