While major chains like Hyatt and Hilton have a presence here, boutique hotels and historic properties define the city's lodging scene. Most hotels in San Francisco are located downtown, near the main shopping district Union Square, or along the northern waterfront at Fisherman's Wharf. Downtown hotels are centrally located and cater to both business and leisure travelers, but those at the Wharf are removed from many major sights and cater almost exclusively to tourists. The high season runs from April to November, and rates fluctuate wildly. Demand often exceeds supply and prices can double, even triple, during major conference and events, such as the annual Oracle convention or Gay Pride weekend, so to get the best rate it’s a good idea to do some research and avoid these periods if you can. To find out if there's a convention scheduled, do an Internet search for "San Francisco Travel Convention Calendar," and plug in your prospective dates.
It's hard to believe one of San Francisco's best bets for a view is actually a hostel. Perched on cliffs above the Bay, with the Golden Gate and Alcatraz rising in the background, the HI Fisherman's Wharf sits on a former military base turned national park. Built as Civil War barracks, the 1863 building is now a spiffy 180-bed hostel, flooded with natural light. Private rooms are a steal, but share a bath. Dorms vary in size, with between four to 22 wooden bunk beds. Breakfast is included in the rate, and there's an onsite café that serves three meals a day, plus beer and wine. Extras include a giant kitchen, a 25-seat movie theater, spacious common areas with a fireplace, laundry facilities, internet kiosks, nearby hiking trails and bragging rights to the city's best real estate.
Built in 1906 to house dockworkers displaced by the Great Fire, the San Remo Hotel is one of the city's best bargains, but you'll have to share a bath. The spotless Edwardian-era property has 64 simple rooms, with brass or iron-framed beds, pinewood furniture, Oriental-style rug and optional sink. Be forewarned that some rooms face interior hallways: If you value fresh air, book an exterior room (all rooms with sinks face the outdoors). The decor skews Victoriana, and though some pieces are old, everything is scrupulously maintained. For a splurge, book the Penthouse Room, a freestanding hideaway rooftop shack with ensuite bath and knockout views. There are no TVs and no elevator—plan to climb stairs.
This humble 25-room Edwardian B&B hotel is a real charmer, complete with a 100-year-old birdcage elevator, freshly baked afternoon cookies and a tabby cat asleep on the lobby's Victorian sofa. The building dates from 1913, and the floors sometimes creak, but the kindly owners scrupulously maintain everything—even the windows are clean. Playing to middle-agers not party kids, rooms are decorated with white wicker, Colonial-American wood furniture, and French-provincial prints. Beds are better than you'd expect at this price point, with both feather and foam pillows. Some rooms have ensuite baths with claw-foot tubs; others have showers or just in-room sinks. Light sleepers: Request a room not facing busy Bush Street.
A woodsy alternative to downtown hotels, Inn at the Presidio is a National Park Service lodge on a former military base at the Golden Gate Bridge. The red-brick inn was originally built 1903 to house bachelor officers, and in 2010 was converted to a boutique B&B. Seventeen of the 22 oversized rooms are 530-square-foot one-bedroom suites, but even standard rooms are gigantic, and all look like a catalogue spread from Restoration Hardware, with distressed leather furniture and white-on-white damask sheets. Note: Ground-floor rooms may front on a rocking-chair veranda; if you prefer total privacy, book the third floor, though there's no elevator. Outside are 24 miles of hiking trails. The obvious drawback is the proximity to downtown: A taxi costs about $35, but free daytime shuttles get you there in 30 minutes.
One of the city's best-value mid-range hotels, the Carlton got a total makeover in 2013, but because it's just beyond the usual tourist path, rates are lower than at comparable Union Square-area hotels. This is an older building, built in the 1920, with fire-sprinkler pipes running along the hallway ceilings, but there's nothing old-fashioned about the finishes in the rooms, which include iPod docks, multiple surge-protected outlets, and Keurig coffeemakers. The design aesthetic draws inspiration from Morocco, with lush jewel tones playing off white-on-white bed linens. The subway-tile bathrooms are compact, but have enough room to unpack your things. If you're a light sleeper, request a high floor and a room without a connecting door.
The flagship of Kimpton hotels, the Monaco exemplifies the brand's playful spirit and exceptional service, with eye-popping design elements, unexpected amenities, and a welcoming staff eager to help. The grand lobby of the 1915 building is dominated by a sweeping marble staircase, rising beside a walk-in fireplace of comic-book proportions. Guest rooms are a riot of color and textures, with stripy wallpaper in bold primary colors, filigree prints, red-lacquered side tables, white plantation shutters, and indigo-blue walls. Long desks, copious outlets, and swiveling leather task chairs appeal to business travelers, but cheetah-print bathrobes, in-room yoga kits and goldfish bowls complement functionality with fun. The on-site fitness center is better than average, and adjoins a small spa with sauna, steam and Jacuzzi available to guests for no additional charge.
Named for Kenneth Rexroth, emcee of the fabled Six Gallery reading series that launched the Beat Generation, the Hotel Rex draws design inspiration from literary salons. Bookshelves and paintings of famous writers line the walls of the lobby bar, which frequently hosts readings and cabarets, and pages from 1950s editions of the San Francisco Social Register paper the elevator walls. The 94 rooms are long on character, styled in moody browns and purples, complemented by dark wood furniture and lampshades stenciled with Impressionistic figures. Extras include good linens, quality bath amenities, iPod docks and mini fridges. Beds are a mix of kings and queens (if you care, voice your preference). Some rooms are dark, in part because of window air-conditioners, so request a high floor for more light—or plan to sleep in.
This simple hotel plays to an under-30 demographic, with a dorm-room aesthetic and an emphasis on green—salvaged-wood bed frames, fleece bedspreads made from recycled soda bottles, and repurposed-glass chandeliers. The look is playful, fun and decidedly non-generic. Most rooms are in a five-story 1911 building, converted in 2008, with multiple bed configurations, perfect for groups of friends traveling together. An adjoining two-story 1950s-era motel has rooms with air-conditioning; these are best if you have a car and want easy access to onsite parking. The in-between neighborhood can be sketchy, but it's generally safe, close to the Muni metro, and walkable to Union Square.
Built after the 1906 earthquake, and transformed into a boutique hotel in 1995, the Hotel Bohčme brims with North Beach history. Hallways are lined with black-and-white photos from the Beat era, and fragments of poetry and sheet music are découpaged onto lampshades. You may even sleep in Allen Ginsberg's room (no.204): In his last years he often sat in his bay window, tapping away on a keyboard. Rooms are small, but smartly decorated in vintage color schemes, and beds have iron frames and gingham bedspreads that match the draperies. Though correct and colorful, this is a simple place—you stay here for the location. The quietest rooms face a light well, but those on Columbus Avenue overlook a colorful street scene including sidewalk cafés. Parking is a nightmare; take taxis or public transit.
High atop Nob Hill, the Fairmont is the grand dame of San Francisco hotels, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The main building was built in 1908, and the grand lobby reveals traces of the Gilded Age in polished marble floors that reflect the glow of century-old crystal chandeliers, and rows of yellow-marble Corinthian columns soaring two stories high. Tony Bennett debuted "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" at the Fairmont in 1961. The 1920s-designed Presidential Suite is the most opulent hotel room in all SF, covering the entire 8th floor; it even has a movable bookcase for secret escapes to the rooftop's former helipad. Service is high-end business class, and guest rooms got a total makeover in 2014. Choose between the original main building or the 1960s tower. Main-building rooms have high ceilings and crown moldings, and feel grand for their proportions. Tower rooms are boxy with lower ceilings, but have incredible bay and city views, especially from high floors. All are furnished with sumptuous beds and marble baths. At the tiki-themed Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, drinks come with little umbrellas, a dance band plays standards, and artificial thunderstorms rain down hourly on the floating bandstand. A classic SF experience.
San Francisco has only a handful of five-star hotels, a ranking dependent upon a long list of amenities, facilities and services that few can deliver. And then there's Taj Campton Place, officially a four-star for its lack of a spa and swimming pool, but in every other way a bona fide luxury hotel, with service on par with the city's best. Elegant and correct in their restrained design, all 110 rooms are done in soothing shades of neutral ecru, with walls of pear wood and high-end furnishings, including leather-top writing desks. Beds are dressed in silky-soft Frette linens, and the limestone bathrooms are stocked with high-end products and chenille robes. Entry-level "California rooms" have the same finishes and fixtures as larger rooms, but because of their compact size feel a bit crammed; consider upgrading to a larger room. Downstairs the eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant, Campton Place, serves three meals daily, and the same kitchen provides room service to guests.
The top hotel at Fisherman's Wharf occupies a behemoth former Del Monte cannery, built in 1908 of giant timbers and red brick salvaged from the 1906 earthquake. It sits smack on the bay and overlooks the tall ships moored at the Hyde Street Pier and the San Francisco National Maritime Park. Geared toward families and ready made for a game of hide-and-seek, the 252-room hotel has an enormous lobby adjoining a Parks Service visitor center, with glorious displays of model yachts, lighthouse lenses and a recreation of the Gold Rush-era San Francisco waterfront. Rooms are fittingly decorated in a nautical theme, with anchor prints, porthole-shaped mirrors, and plush indigo carpets that evoke the deep blue of the sea. Standard rooms face a quiet interior courtyard and get lots of light, but it's worth splurging on a bay-view room for views of either Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge. Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30am, National Park Service rangers guide free tours of the park and wharf, beginning in the hotel's lobby.
Built from the ground up in 2005, the five-story Vitale overlooks the city's magnificent eastern waterfront and the Bay Bridge's dazzling light display. The aesthetic is hip and sexy, a play on midcentury modern design, with swoop-back chairs and low-slung sofas in a lobby of limestone and wood. Rooms are styled in soothing shades of periwinkle and gray, with low-slung platform beds dressed with custom high-thread-count Italian linens. Bedside tables are like light-up dioramas: Beneath their glass tops, a layer of inset stones glows when you turn on the light inside the cabinet. The least-expensive rooms face an interior courtyard—whisper-quiet for their lack of street noise, they're ideal if you're here for work. But if you're here for fun, definitely book a bay-view room. Or splurge on a top-end "circular suite," with walls of windows and gadgets like remote-controlled blinds. The small rooftop spa offers massages, facials and two rooftop soaking tubs for aromatherapy bathing rituals. Downstairs, the ever-happening bar Americano gets overrun at cocktail hour with twentysomethings on the make; if you're noise-sensitive, book an upper floor.
A giant Plinko board rises in the lobby of this art-filled downtowner, whose mezzanine games room befits the overworked Silicon Valley techies who are its target market. Built in 1903 and completely gutted in 2013 by the Viceroy Group, the 116-room hotel is up to date with all the latest gadgets. The design theme plays off salvage and rescue (which is also the name of the lobby bar), and repurposed materials are everywhere, as in the lobby's tiered chandelier of cast-off eye glasses. Rooms are bigger than average, uncluttered and whisper-quiet, with giant butcher-block architect's desks, plush beds with 500-thread-count sheets, and Bluetooth pairing to link your electronics with the 47-inch TV and Jambox speaker. The onsite Cavalier gastropub serves stick-to-your-ribs cooking that will keep you working all night.
The city's most storied hotel opened in 1909, and has hosted multiple presidents, including Woodrow Wilson, who gave his League of Nations speech here in 1919, and President Warren Harding, who died upstairs in 1923. Presidents no longer stay here (there's no underground security access), but still the Palace remains one of the city's grandest addresses—and one of few with an indoor swimming pool. The Garden Court dining room is among the most beautiful in all California, an 8000-square-foot space with domed glass ceiling, 16 Ionic columns of Italian marble, and 20 Austrian crystal chandeliers weighing 750 pounds each. Walls of mahogany rise behind the reception desk, and an original Maxfield Parrish mural adorns the Pied Piper Bar. Guest rooms have high ceilings, crown moldings, and sumptuous beds, but the mass-market furniture and poly-blend upholstery are decidedly business class. Still, for a glimpse of San Francisco history, you can't beat the Palace.
The hotel equivalent of Xanax, everything about Inn Above The Tide seems designed to make you relax. All the rooms boast balconies that hang over the bay offering wonderful views of the sea lions, paddleboarders and dipping pelicans while San Francisco glistens behind. The suites also offer fireplaces, deep sofas and standalone tubs behind floor to ceiling windows. There are cheese and wine evenings where you can mix with your fellow guests, but the temptation to grab a plate, fill a glass and head back up to your balcony to soak in the sunset may prove irresistible. Highly recommended.