So, you finally come out to California for your sun-filled, beach-tastic vacation, and what happens? It decides to rain. It's nothing personal: the Northern California weather can be indecisive, with warm snaps in the winter and rain storms pretty much any time. The good news is, the rain isn't always here to stay. And the better news is, even when it's cats and dogs outside, there are still plenty of ways to experience everything that makes Northern California special.
Whichever one of our NorCal locations you're visiting – from San Francisco's urban City Center to Pigeon Point's secluded beaches – here are our favorite ways to stay warm, dry, and entertained while you wait out the storm.
HI-SF City Center
Slurp some Pho: Nothing warms you up on a rainy day like a steaming-hot bowl of Pho, the Vietnamese soup laden with meats, spices, and heaping tangles of skinny noodles. And the neighborhood surrounding HI-SF City Center, known locally as Little Saigon, has the best places in the city to get it. Try Turtle Tower or Pho2000, both just across the street from the hostel, or Mangosteen, about a block away.
Take a Tour: The War Memorial Opera House, home to both San Francisco's opera and its ballet, was built in the 1930s in a classic beaux-arts style. Outside, it's all clean lines and towering columns; inside, it's gilded, elegant opulence on par with the interiors of the world's great opera houses. Guided tours are offered for $7 on Mondays, every hour on the hour between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. (If your tour inspires you to take in a performance at the opera or ballet, check out our guide to getting cultured on the cheap).
Go Indie: Seeing a movie at the Opera Plaza Cinemas, a stone's throw from the Opera House, is a unique experience. With just four screens and a miniscule number of seats, an afternoon here is like watching a movie in your living room. The cinema specializes in last-call runs of popular indie and foreign movies. General admission tickets are just $10, and all shows before 2:00 p.m. are knocked down to $6.
Expand Your Horizons: The Asian Art Museum, just a few blocks from the hostel, showcases an expansive array of art from all across Asia, featuring everything from ancient pieces to modern works. General admission to the museum is $12, with free admission on the first Sunday of every month.
Stay Put: From Macabre Movie Nights, to Chinese Tea Tastings, to homemade Indian feasts, there's always an on-site activity going on at the City Center hostel. Take a look at the hostel's events calendar, or ask about upcoming activities when you check in!
Ride the Rails: Hop a cable car up Powell Street to Washington Street, or grab an umbrella and make a dash 9 blocks up Mason to the Cable Car Museum. The museum's the best place in the city to learn all about one of San Francisco's most iconic symbols. It's also free to visit.
Go Bowling: Yerba Buena Skating and Bowling Center is located right on the rooftop of the Moscone Convention Center at Yerba Buena Gardens. Games here start at as little as $5 per person per game, or $25 per lane per hour, making it a super-cheap way to spend a rainy afternoon with some new hostel friends.
Get Artsy: Also a part of the Yerba Buena Gardens area, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is a sleek Mecca of contemporary visual, performance, and video art. Admission is $10 ($8 for students), but is free on the first Tuesday of each month.
Step Back in Time: What's your best chance of staying dry when conditions get wet? Our money's on "hiding out in a submarine." And believe it or not, that's a legitimate option when you're staying at HI-Fisherman's Wharf. Not far from the hostel, the USS Pampanito is a World War II submarine that now operates as a museum. General admission is $12, or $8 for students.
Get Your Game On: The Musée Mécanique, located at Pier 45 at Fisherman's Wharf, is way more than a museum: it's a history lesson in fun. From the kind of mechanical games once found on early-20th-century boardwalks to more modern video games, there are endless opportunities here to release your inner kid. Admission is free, but remember to bring your stash of quarters (or a few bills for the on-site change machines).
Get Cozy: Don't feel like leaving the hostel? No problem. Grab a book and curl up by the fire in the lounge, or stop by the hostel's on-site Café Franco for a meal and a cappuccino, beer, or glass of wine. You can also head downstairs for a movie in the hostel's cinema room, complete with movie-theatre-style seating.
Stretch it Out: HI-Marin Headlands may be the only hostel you've ever stayed in that features a dedicated, on-site yoga room. The yoga room's open to guests from 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily, and features blankets, blocks, and yoga mats to help you make the most of your own practice.
Play Around: HI-Marin Headlands also has an on-site game room, where you can play foosball, pool, or ping-pong with fellow hostellers until the sun comes back out.
Get an Eyeful: The Headlands Center for the Arts is an inter-disciplinary haven for art lovers of all kinds. A rotating cast of artists live and create on-site, making the center a constant "work in progress." Make sure you stop by Sunday through Thursday, from noon to 5:00 p.m., when you can to meet an artist in residence at "Project Open Space." The best part? Admission's totally free.
Flip Out: The Marine Mammal Center, a refuge for sick and injured seals and sea lions, is part-hospital and part-interactive learning center. Located within the Marin Headlands, the center houses special exhibits, tours, and chances to view its cuddly animal "patients." Admission is free, and though docent-led tours cost $9, the fee goes to helping the animals being rehabilitated on site.
Roll Away: Sea Bowl in the nearby town of Pacifica is a hostel staff favorite. Rent lanes by the hour during the day, or stop by on Friday nights for "Astro Bowling," complete with music and laser-light effects.
Stay and Play: HI-Point Montara has a huge collection of board games for guests to borrow whenever they'd like. Put on a pot of tea in the hostel's fully equipped guest kitchen, then sit at the dining table overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a friend for a game of Scrabble, Monopoly, or Clue.
Get Zen: Every Wednesday from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Coastside Vipassana leads a meditation session inside the hostel's fog signal building. Listen to the rain on the roof while you calm your body and mind. This weekly activity is free, though donations are appreciated.
Shoot Some Pool: Or challenge a fellow hostel guest to a round of darts. Or play some foosball. Whatever your game of choice, head downstairs to the hostel's new game room and get social.
Tour the Capitol: See where the wheels of California government turn with a tour of the ornate State Capitol building. Construction of the Capitol began in 1860 and took over a decade to complete; you won't be surprised when you take in its stunning architectural touches. You can visit the Capitol on your own on weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and weekends 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., or take advantage of free docent-led tours every hour.
Eat Your Heart Out: You don't need perfect weather to enjoy Point Reyes' exploding foodie scene. Check out our guide to tasting the best West Marin County has to offer, no matter what your budget.
Get Wet: Why not embrace the water-fest with a dip in HI-Pigeon Point's famous hot tub? Depending on just how bad the weather is, the hot tub is sometimes still open when it's raining, and a wet-weather soak lets you watch the ocean get tumultuous while you stay warm.
Learn Something New: The lounge in the hostel's main building has a large selection of books for guests to borrow. Pick up a title you've never heard of, then relax on one of the lounge's comfy couches while raindrops tap on the windows.
Be Social: There's also a shelf full of board games in the hostel's main lounge so you can recruit some new friends for a game of Sorry! You can also borrow cues at the front desk to have a go on the miniature pool table.
Want even more insider tips for keeping busy on a cold and blustery day? Check out our favorite places to warm up near each of our hostels. You'll be wishing for more rainy days before you know it!