Finding free places to sleep is not particularly easy. Around cities, you have the strong possibility of being woken in the middle of the night by the police if you’re on a park bench or camping, and Couchsurfing isn’t always reliable in getting a host on short notice. A possible final backup plan is finding a squat.
The act of squatting is occupying an abandoned or empty place like a factory or home. It is illegal in most cases as usually the property is owned by someone and is therefore trespassing. A squat is the place that these squatters are squatting.
Squats are not always safe as they are all different and often unpredictable. The places I mention are from my travels in central and eastern Europe, to give context, and every squat will be different, so take it with a grain of salt if you are looking into other places.
The reason squats are significant at all is because usually it involves people living and sleeping in an abandoned building that is, more often than not, a factory or industrial building. The fact that there are people squatting in these places means that police probably won’t bother you in the middle of the night.
In some cases, and most I’ve seen and heard of in major cities, squats end up being almost cultural centers filled with free-minded hippie individuals or people that like a bit of chaos and law-breaking. This isn’t to say that they all are, as I describe farther down.
The first squat that I stayed at was The Rog in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It’s an abandoned bicycle factory that got turned into a social and cultural center with graffiti, sculptures, music and all kinds of art. I’d suggest going to Ljubljana simply because of The Rog. There are actually two major squats in the city, but The Rog was my favorite.
At the Rog, people are kind and helpful. You can crash there without worry of someone giving you a problem and they also offer free soup/bread dinner each night since so many homeless also stay there.
When you do find a squat with a lot of people, don’t be afraid to walk in. Go where you see the most people, don’t go wandering into any rooms that look closed, be generally respectful. Say hello to someone, say you are traveling and looking for a place to stay, ask about the squat. I can’t imagine anyone reacting any worse than saying you can’t stay there.
Being in a city, you can generally find if there are any squats by asking the right people. Or rather, the right people may find you.
I found The Rog because a homeless kid about my age, 20 at the time, noticed my large backpack and disheveled and confused pacing around the city. He asked if I needed a place to sleep and brought me right there after buying me strawberries and drinking a bottle of wine together.
After Ljubljana, I started to specifically ask around for squats.
In Zagreb, Croatia I saw a girl wearing all black with a bunch of piercings and asked if she knew of any. My absolute stereotype assumption worked though as she gave me a name and pointed the way. I got lost and asked a guy working in a hostel and he helped me along as well. By sunset, I found a couple derelict buildings by a highway overpass and, sneaking around, I heard a couple voices and bottles.
Beyond all my talk about finding interesting places and people, it’s important that the place is safe and not structurally dangerous more than anything.
If you don’t feel safe, don’t go, especially at night. Being possibly in a foreign country where everything is new and unfamiliar too, it can be difficult to gauge intuition. Seeing as the area was surrounded by all broken glass and falling apart buildings, I kept walking and ended up Couchsurfing that night with my ride into the city.
This was only the second squat I’d found and it helped make a point to me that well-known ones aren’t all hippies and art. Always be cautious.
In Hamburg, I found a squat that stood out in the middle of the downtown area. It was all brick and grown over with a large entrance of graffiti and a rickety wooden table of people playing cards.
The building was full of people and there was a deck filled with more people playing cards. It seemed like a chill place, but I was going to a Couchsurfing party so I never stayed there or talked to anyone. I walked straight in and out without a second glance from anyone.
To make a guess, it was probably the same type of cultural/social environment as in Slovenia.
Asking around, and looking as you probably would if you are using this advice, you can find squats pretty easy. What I found the most useful is asking people at one squat if they know of any others in the next city you are going to. This is exactly how I found the ones in Hamburg and Croatia.
Just to elaborate, I’d say it’s important that you look like you’re traveling around and won’t cause trouble with the people in there. If I had a pristine button-up shirt and prim clothes rather than a 50L backpack and shorts with more patches than original material, I’m sure I would have gotten some concerned glares.
Don’t rely solely on squats as a place to sleep either, but keep it in your back pocket for something to check for. Couchsurfing or just camping will always be my first suggestion, but squats can sometimes be a good place to check out if you really don’t want to sleep in the park.
Be smart, listen to your gut, and have common sense, and you should be fine.