I have never stayed in a hostel like Sydney Harbour's YHA "The Rocks".
As a solo female backpacker in my early 20s on my first trip through Europe, hostels were an invaluable component of my budget travel strategy. I was studying in England and I would use learning breaks before my trip to read and re-read Let’s Go Europe’s hostel reviews. This was back in the dark ages, before there were online booking sites or many travel blogs, so I accepted Let’s Go’s information as the gospel truth. They never once steered me wrong and, despite having a minuscule budget, I always had a clean, safe, friendly place to stay.
Fast forward 10 years and I was no longer solo but part of a couple. I had slowly drifted away from the hostel world and focused on shorter road trips. We embraced emerging travel tools, like hotel bidding sites, and we often found gorgeous rooms whose prices rivaled the cost of two hostel dorm beds. In Honolulu, for instance, we successfully blind bid on a 4 star hotel and were thrilled to get a Hilton for $90 a night – not too shabby when dorm beds would cost us about $30 each.
Can you ever "go back" to hostels?
But between the private balconies and plush beds, I found myself missing the hostel community. I missed meeting new friends and the endless resources for budget minded travelers. I missed the funky properties – some heritage buildings, some coated in creative murals – and I was craving a bit more personality in my accommodations. But I’m now in my 30s. I have to admit I like some more privacy and comfort than I did 10 years ago. I’ve been deterred a bit by hostel horror stories of wild roommates and hoards of school groups. And, frankly, no one wants to be the weird old person, boring everyone with tales from your glory days. I wanted to reconnect with the hostel world but I needed the right place and the right hostel.
A hostel like no other
I got that opportunity in Sydney, Australia. I was eager to soak up the beauty and energy of downtown but I knew harbour front hotels cost a small fortune. Actually, make that a large fortune – some were advertised for over $1000! If there was ever a time to see if hostels could work for a couple in their 30s, this was it!
I hadn’t even made it to the reception desk of the Sydney Harbor YHA (Youth Hostel Association) when I knew this was going to be a hostel unlike any I’d ever experienced. The hostel is located in the historic downtown neighbourhood of “The Rocks”, just 500 meters from where the first fleet of Europeans settlers landed in 1788. As we approached the front door, we passed UNDER the hostel (which is elevated on stilts) and THROUGH an active archaeological dig. The hostel was built over the sight of former bakeries, hotels, and even an illegal alcohol still and many of the fascinating artifacts that have been unearthed are on display at throughout the hostel.
Kind on budgets and the environment
If that wasn’t enough to make Sydney Harbour YHA stand out, it is also one of the most environmentally friendly hostels in the world. It features solar hot water, rain water retention, a green air conditioning system, and low VOC building materials. Its commitment to the environment - and to keeping guests happy – has won countless regional, national, and international awards for its design, its environmental sustainability, its heritage conservation, and its comfort. Their appeal reaches far beyond the typical backpackers and we met all ages, nationalities and different kinds of travelers during our stay.
A "grown up" hostel room
We opted for a private room with ensuite bathroom. We were eager to be back in a hostel but we still wanted privacy and a space to call our own. Our room totally fit the bill – we had a double bed with a comfortable mattress and new bedding. There was also a wardrobe,a desk with a chair, and supplies to boil water and make instant coffee and tea. The bathroom was actually bigger than those we had in our European hotels. The entire set up was spotlessly clean and very comfortable. I would have liked to have a bedside table and it would have been nice to have something on the bedroom walls (maybe a reproduction map of the area). Overall, it reminded me of a very nice two star hotel – nothing fancy but utterly functional and exactly what we needed.
A million dollar view
While our room resembled a nice two star hotel, the view was nothing short of all five stars. We were able to watch ships coming and going in and out of port, from the Manly ferries to the largest cruise ship I’ve ever seen, and, best of all, we had an unhindered view of the Sydney Opera House. I can’t imagine how much this view would have cost at a traditional hotel! Not all of the hostel’s rooms have a view that’s this nice, but all guests have access to the roof top patio which offers breathtaking panoramas of the harbour and plays host to a lot of the hostel’s social events.
Everything you could possibly need
In addition to the roof top patio, the hostel also has a TV room, a laundry room, and plenty of bulletin boards advertising low cost travel activities and special events at the hostel (like international food night.) The main floor lounge featured glass coffee tables to display some of the archaeological collection and a huge, comprehensive kitchen. There were multiple ‘stations’, each with their sink, stove, microwave, prep area, and utensils, and large, well organized communal fridges and pantry shelves.
The best breakfast deal in town
You might think that you won’t take the time to use the kitchen, but breakfast will change that. The hostel offers three different breakfast options, which you can pre-purchase as part of a bed & breakfast rate or a la carte for $6 at the hostel. Two of the options are twists on continental breakfasts, with mix and match options including juice, yogurt, fruit, cereal, and pastries. You can also choose the “cook your own” breakfast and collect eggs, bacon, bread, and tinned beans or spaghetti to prepare yourself in the kitchen. One morning they even had complimentary pancake batter for enthusiastic chefs! All breakfasts come with your choice of coffee beverage, like a mocha, latte, or flat white. Food prices in Sydney are expensive and a full hot breakfast with toast, eggs, bacon, beans, and a latte could easily cost $15-$25 per person at a downtown café.
Fair prices, tons of value
Private double rooms (like ours pictured above) range from $155 - $172, which is comparable to the price of a 2-4 star hotel on sale much further away from the harbor. Dorm rooms start at $45.00, which is more expensive than other hostels in the city but you generally get what you pay for and this is certainly the case for Sydney Harbour YHA – the extra dollars definitely pay off! That being said, long term hostelers who are spending several weeks in Sydney might find their budget will stretch further at hostels that aren't in the downtown core.
History and hospitality always win
I think Sydney Harbour YHA is the best possible place for someone trying hostels for the first time, especially for couples or people in their 30s who are exploring alternatives to traditional accommodations. The room and location gave us everything we were looking for and the helpful, friendly staff were warm, welcoming, and truly hospitable. We never once felt that choosing a hostel compromised our comfort or enjoyment. In fact the YHA only enhanced it, making our time in Sydney even better!
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. Would you stay at a hostel? Why or why not?
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
Hotel Review: Sydney's The Best Western Hotel Stellar
Hostel Review: Sydney's BIG Hostel
Our Five Favourite Freebies in Sydney
Beauty and Budgets in Sydney: Days 17-24 of our Round The World Trip
Sponsored accommodations were provided in exchange for my review. This did not affect my article and all opinions are my own.