“What’s it like staying in a Youth Hostel for us oldies who’ve never been brave enough to do so?” asked a friend. A bit like my friend, I haven’t considered a YHA as an accommodation option. But to write about the different history of three Sydney YHAs, I should stay in each one.
I admit the idea is more than a little challenging.
The YHA Today
YHAs are not what they used to be. For one thing, the name has changed. Previously known as the Youth Hostel Association, in 2002 the organisation rebranded to become known as YHA. It caters to people of all ages.
Accommodation ranges from double rooms with private bathrooms to four, six and eight-bed rooms with bathrooms along the corridor.
As an older woman, used to certain creature comforts, I book a private room with bathroom. My sharing days are over and I don’t fancy a mid-night wander down the corridor when nature called.
Railway Square YHA
An inexperienced hosteller with grey hair, I feel self-conscious checking in at the Railway Square YHA. Nicole welcomes me warmly and I begin to relax.
A thin grey-haired man wearing pressed grey trousers and a carefully trimmed white moustache nods to me as he walks past on the way to his shared room. Feeling more at ease already, I climb the stairs up to my room.
Railway Square YHA started life as the inwards parcel shed at Central Station. Sometime in 2021, it will be closed and removed piece by numbered piece to make way for the redevelopment of Railway Square. It will be rebuilt when the development is complete.
The smaller of the three central Sydney YHAs, it only has a couple of private rooms. Nicole tells me they “prefer to encourage interaction” between guests who range from “young people up to seniors of 70 and over”.
My room is small and simple, but it’s all I need. The double bed with single bunk above takes up half the room and there’s a little desk and shelf with hanging space above. The bed is freshly made with towels provided.
The skylight (a heritage feature) lets in welcome natural light while a curtained window at floor level overlooks the hostel common area. There’s no TV.
In the morning, I realise I’ve forgotten my soap. Fortunately, the soap dispenser above the basin is within easy reach of the shower. Later, when I put on my glasses to read a card on the desk I realise there’s soap available at the front desk.
A little ‘hole in the wall’ café boasts an all-important espresso machine, but most guests self-cater. As in all hostels, shelves provide storage space for food and in fridges. A notice informs guests that the fridges are cleared regularly.
The lounge area is large and comfortable. Signs promoting social distancing unfortunately means that people keep more to themselves than they would under so-called normal circumstances. However, people chat in the kitchen as they prepare their evening meal or talk over breakfast at the dining tables.
Comfortable seating in little nooks and corners provides quiet reading or work spaces.
The shopping hub of Central Park Mall leads onto Chippendale Green from where you can admire the greenery growing down the side of the building and ‘Halo’, a slowly turning kinetic sculpture.
If you enjoy art, nearby White Rabbit Gallery offers insightful exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art.
Nearby Spice Alley, offers tasty Asian Street Food and the bar of the Old Clare Hotel with its art deco features in shades of yellow to brown is perfect for relaxing with a crisp glass of white wine.
Take a walk along The Goods Line and on to Darling Square and Darling Harbour or through the Devonshire Street Tunnel to access the happening suburb of Surry Hills.
Railway Square YHA, located adjacent to Central Station, provides inexpensive accommodation if you have an early flight out of Sydney or want to stay somewhere central. It’s comfortable and welcoming and solo travellers would find it easy to meet others.
Sydney Harbour YHA
Sydney Harbour YHA, with its rooftop views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House (when there are no cruise ships) is the most upmarket of the three central Sydney YHAs.
Built on stilts to avoid damaging the archaeological site over which it stands, this hostel is the newest of the three Sydney YHAs. Opened in 2009, the rooms are modern, bright and comfortable.
My private room has extensive views across the harbour to the Opera House and beyond. For those without a view, it’s a short ride in the lift to the rooftop where the outlook rivals that of the nearby five-star hotels. Lounges and relaxed seating make this a comfortable area to unwind.
My room has a double bed, TV, desk with tea and coffee making facilities and space to hang a few clothes. The window opens slightly for fresh air, but if I preferred air-conditioning, the front desk staff will oblige.
Shared rooms each have their own bathroom with separate toilet and shower.
Waking early, I draw the curtains to appreciate the sun rising behind the Opera House. Startled, I step back. Not far from my window, a man looks directly into my room. Seated in the cabin of a crane, high above the building site below, he’s as embarrassed as I am.
How will this new building impact the views from my room?
While eating breakfast, a woman offers her unused breakfast voucher to other guests. A retired woman from Melbourne chats to me. She regularly takes the train up to Sydney before travelling on to her timeshare up the coast. For her, the YHA is a convenient place to spend the night.
While Shares Café offers a simple continental breakfast and espresso coffee, many guests prefer to make use of one of the kitchen pods.
In the common area, low glass cabinets displaying artefacts from The Big Dig double up as coffee tables. Comfortable seating grouped around the tables facilitate conversation. A door from the kitchen leads to a small outside veranda.
The rooftop is an ideal place to relax. It leads onto a games room.
Each Monday (occasionally other days by arrangement), guests can join a free tour of The Big Dig. The tour steps back in time to early colonial days and provides a helpful background to exploring The Rocks.
The Sydney Harbour YHA provides easy access to Sydney’s main attractions. The Rocks, Barangaroo, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House are all within a short walking distance. Take a ferry to Manly or Watson’s Bay or hop on a train (or light rail) at Circular Quay Station to go further afield.
Nearby meal offerings ranging from fine dining to a simple burger and chips are all easily accessible. I eat dinner at the Glenmore Hotel. Unfortunately, the rooftop is at capacity. The Australian Hotel with its ‘Coat of Arms’ pizza is almost next door.
While Sydney Harbour YHA is pricier than the other central Sydney YHAs, its location and views are five star. This hostel with rooftop views of the fireworks is highly sought after for New Year’s Eve.
Tip: Ask for a room with a harbour view.
Sydney Central YHA
Loud piped music greets my arrival at Sydney Central YHA. The vibe here is quite different from the more sedate Sydney Harbour YHA and the smaller Railway Square YHA.
While the outside of the Sydney Central heritage building remains more or less intact, inside the building has had a makeover. Bright colours and bold artworks including a mural by the street artist Mulga in the common area, help the young and young at heart feel right at home.
My room is large with a double bed, desk, TV, place for my bag and tea and coffee making facilities. The window doesn’t open, but that’s not a concern as the room looks out onto busy street.
I’m told that a broad mix off people stay at this YHA. People visiting family members who are patients at St Vincent’s Hospital, travellers and school groups all stay here.
When I venture out for dinner it’s already dark. As an older woman setting out alone in the dark, I feel a little uncomfortable. However, staying on the main roads in well-lit areas, I soon arrive at Darling Square and wander around looking for a meal other than a pub offering.
Unusually, there’s no queue outside Mamak, the well-known Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown. I enjoy a delicious kebab meal finished off with the Emperor’s cream puffs sold for cash out of a hole in the wall in Dixon Street (adjacent to the Emperor’s Garden Restaurant on Hay Street).
Central Sydney YHA has a cinema with regular screenings for guests. There’s a small plunge pool on the rooftop. A narrow outside passage on the rooftop offers city views.
The large ground floor café offers a range of cooked meals. As a Sydney Greeter, I’ve happily eaten there before meeting up with guests wanting to see my favourite parts of Sydney.
There are about 40 private rooms in the Sydney Central YHA, but not all have a bathroom.
For those who wish to work or study, there’s a co-working space and little nooks which once housed public telephones also provide quiet works spaces.
The light rail stops right outside the Sydney Central YHA on its way to Chinatown, Paddy’s Market and The Powerhouse, Darling Harbour, Star City Casino and the Fish Market. For those who prefer to walk, most of these places are a walkable distance.
Town Hall, Queen Victoria Building and the city accessible by foot, but it’s possible to catch the train from Central to Town Hall, Wynyard or Circular Quay.
What to Expect at a YHA
I stayed at the YHAs during COVID and the hostels had a limited number of guests. In ‘normal’ times, the YHAs are full of travellers and school groups.
Rates at all the hostels differ according to day of week and time of year. Staying at a YHA when in Sydney for a festival or special event keeps accommodation costs down, leaving more for the festival itself.
Beds are pre-made in private rooms and towels provided. Guests in shared rooms are provided with linen and make their own beds. Towels are available. When leaving, guests are asked to return used linen to reception.
Guests are required to clean up after themselves. From what I saw, the kitchens in all three YHAs were clean and tidy.
Each one of the central Sydney YHAs has its own character, but as a staff member tells me “our thing is about bringing people together”, and that they all do very well.
Final thoughts on staying at a YHA
Two things stand out about staying at a YHA. The staff are welcoming and friendly. And YHAs are no longer the domain of young people. People of all ages are welcome and made to feel at home.
Links to the central Sydney YHAs
Note: I stayed at these properties as a guest of the YHA
Brilliant article, thanks Jo!
Thanks Mandi. Perhaps you’ll try one out?