Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Making the Most of Hostel Territory

Part I: San Francisco

Not just “youth hostels” anymore, California’s classy low-rent accommodations welcome travelers of all ages, and certainly anyone with a mild sense of adventure plus a willingness to toss sleeping bags onto bunks.

But these days, fresh linens and towels are the rule rather than the exception (no need to BYO bedding anymore) along with the option of couples’ and family rooms. Hostels typically offer living space to share, with TV, computers, free wifi, and endless other communications or entertainment options. Most also include laundry facilities and a full kitchen, so travelers can keep it clean for free as well as prepare their own meals, other cost savings. Best of all, hostels offer the opportunity to meet a great variety of fellow travelers, of all ages and backgrounds, from around the world. And many are located within easy reach of some of the most stunning scenery or lively city scenes in the state.

How can you beat all that for less than $30 per night? It costs more, of course, for hotel-style rooms, and for ocean- or bay-view couples’ or family accommodations. But still. Such a deal.

A guest at the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel (Fort Mason) in Golden Gate National Park, taking the path from the hostel to the municipal pier (photo courtesy of docentjoyce)

A guest at the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel (Fort Mason) in Golden Gate National Park, on the path from the hostel to the municipal pier (photo courtesy of docentjoyce)


Say you’re pining for some time in San Francisco but can barely pay your cell bill. You can plan a sublime time for next to nothing.

Consider starting along the waterfront in Golden Gate National Park with a stay at Hostelling International’s San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel in Fort Mason, looking out onto San Francisco Bay. Housed in historic buildings (the main building used to be the infirmary) the Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel offers right-there views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention easy access to some of the city’s prettiest parklands.

Step out the hostel’s back door onto paved paths that run right along the water, heading either east to Fisherman’s Wharf or west to the Marina Green, Crissy Field, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s also an easy stroll from the hostel to North Beach and the Marina District.

Mural across from the reception desk at Fisherman's Wharf Hostel (photo by glennbphoto)

Mural across from the reception desk at Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel (photo by glennbphoto)

The range of accommodations at Fort Mason including both shared dorm rooms and private rooms, with rates in the $30 to $42 range for dorm beds and $75 to 100 for private rooms. Families with kids under 12 need a private room or an entire dorm room. Other restrictions apply to U.S. citizens under 18 who are traveling without a legal guardian.

There’s a nice kitchen to DIY at meal time (free continental breakfast) but also an onsite, three-meals-a-day cafe, Cafe Franco, for great bay vistas. Bring in your breakfast to drink in the view. Other common areas include a spacious lounge, theater-style TV room, rec room (billiards, anyone?), and outdoor deck. Staff members organize all kinds of daily activities, too, from history walks to pub crawls.

If for you downtown is where the action is, HI’s San Francisco Downtown Hostel is the place, just one block from Union Square shopping, near China Town, an easy amble through the city’s museum district, and close to all public transit systems (including BART).

HI's Downtown San Francisco Hostel (photo by Osbornb)

HI’s San Francisco Downtown Hostel (photo by Osbornb)

Recently renovated guest rooms include four-bed dorms (55 of them) and private rooms, available with or without private bathroom. Rates are $29 to $49 for dorm beds, $89 to $149 for private rooms. (Lower group rates are also available, for eight people or more.) On the second floor there’s a well-equipped shared kitchen (free continental breakfast) plus guest lounge/media room. Staff offer organized San Francisco-style fun almost daily here also.

At home in a 1920s boutique hotel near the Civic Center and Little Saigon, the San Francisco City Center Hostel is also newly renovated. This is a great “affordable foodie” stay, located as it is near excellent inexpensive restaurants and non-touristy nightlife.

The hostel offers shared four- or five-bed dorm rooms as well as private and “premium” private rooms. All City Center guest rooms have private bathrooms, a big plus for many folks. The onsite Ivy’s Place cafe serves free continental breakfast in the morning, and snacks plus beer and wine in the evenings. Other pluses include the City Center’s big, well-equipped kitchen, multiple guest lounges, and full roster of urban activities. Free tea tastings, anyone?

Looking down (way down) the staircase at HI's City Center Hostel (photo by Rachel)

Looking down (way down) the staircase at HI’s City Center Hostel (photo by Rachel)

The ever popular and award-winning USA Hostels San Francisco on Post Street is also near the city’s center and a few blocks from Union Square. It offers the usual amenities and many, many more, including a 45-seat TV/movie theater, “privacy pods” in dorm rooms, and private rooms (some have private baths) with duvet, MP3 player, cable TV, in-room frig, and microwave. Big kitchen with eight cooking stations, not to mention a very generous free breakfast. Dorm beds start at about $30, private rooms around $50.

San Francisco hostels popular with a broader traveling public include the family-owned, kid-friendly Mayflower Hotel at 975 Bush Street, with comfy private rooms with bathrooms, in-room frig, microwaves that start at about $55.

Many cater to the younger set, of course, including the lively Green Tortoise Hostel (“San Francisco’s #1 Party Hostel”), which also books adventure tours aboard the famous Green Tortoise bus. There’s a newer Green Tortoise hostel in Seattle.

For other San Francisco hostel ideas try hostel-booking umbrella sites such as hostels.com, which list just about everything and typically offer traveler reviews.

Next Thursday Up the Road will explore hostels in the greater Bay Area.

Up the Road’s Editor Kim Weir has been scribbling away at one thing or another for a shocking number of years. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) since 1991, as a nonfiction writers she specializes in California and the West. Weir wrote most of Moon Publications’ original California travel guides, including the ever popular Northern California Handbook.


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