Most visitors to San Francisco stay in the hotel-packed area around Union Square, a pleasant, palm-flecked area surrounded by grand buildings and the theatre district. It’s the perfect location if you’re here to shop and, as a transport hub, it’s a good base from which to see the city. Cable cars will whisk you up and over Nob Hill, vintage trams trundle up to The Castro, and the subway will take you everywhere else. The area crouching at the bottom of Nob Hill and next to the edgy Tenderloin district may not be the prettiest, but it’s a great location for night owls — not so for families!
We recommend: Sir Francis Drake
How to find the Drake? Stand in Union Square and look for the most incongruous thing you can see (doormen dressed as beefeaters). Eurotrash meets the House of Windsor is the wacky theme at this hotel, which opened to guests in 1928. A spectacular marble and gold lobby with chaise longues and high, coffered ceilings leads, via a wrought iron staircase, to an equally palatial mezzanine lounge. Upstairs, the 417 ‘regal and retro’ rooms’ ornate headboards are straight out of a Jane Austen novel — only lacquered and leathered. There are also florid curtains, velvet chairs and historical portraits. Elsewhere, Scala’s Bistro is run by two TV chefs, while views from nightclub Harry Denton’s 21st-floor Starlight Room are almost as epic as the ‘Sunday’s a Drag’ brunch, where you can enjoy bespoke omelettes while sequined drag queens perform cabaret.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $189 (£120), room only. 450 Powell Street. T: 00 1 415 392 7755. sirfrancisdrake.com
■ X Factor: Free nightly ‘wine hour’, bikes for hire, and a $10 (£6.59) voucher if you forgo housekeeping for a day.
Best for bar: Clift Hotel
No, you haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole; the throne, oversized lamp and antler-covered chair in the lobby are the work of Philippe Starck. He also designed the rooms’ cream-on-cream palette and orange perspex furniture. The star, though, is the Redwood Room — a drinking hole for smart San Franciscans since 1933.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $299 (£190), room only. 495 Geary Street. T: 00 1 415 775 4700. clifthotel.com
Best for singles: Hotel Adagio
Three blocks from Union Square, with Nob Hill’s cable car on the corner, it’s impossible to miss the vast, Moorish ground-floor windows and huge, carved-wood door of this Spanish-colonial-style skyscraper. Inside, beyond the high ceilings and towering wooden columns of the lobby, 171 recently refurbished rooms feature claret walls and lime furnishings. ■ Rooms: Doubles from $189 (£120), room only. 550 Geary Street. T: 00 1 415 775 5000. hoteladagiosf.com
Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito
To many people, the Golden Gate Bridge — whether shrowded in early-morning fog or glowing red at sunset — is San Francisco. Surrounded by protected land — the glorious Marin Headlands on one side, Presidio National Park the other — it used to be impossible to stay near the bridge. Recently, though, military barracks on both sides have been converted into hotels, meaning you can now sleep in its shadow and wake up to the foghorns of ships passing beneath its elegant double-cantilever spans. Across the bridge is Sausalito, a gorgeous little town with a laid-back vibe and breathtaking views of the San Francisco skyline.
We recommend: Cavallo Point
It may be a five-mile drive from here into the centre of town, but Cavallo Point has one killer advantage: its position, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, peeking across the bay at downtown San Francisco. A former military base, it’s been transformed into a spectacular resort. Rooms are spacious, and the sprawling grounds include a chapel and a path to the Golden Gate, navigable on foot or by golf cart. Rooms in the former officers’ quarters feature original pressed-tin ceilings and sunny porches. But, perhaps surprisingly, it’s the contemporary rooms — in unobtrusive blocks tumbling down the headland to the rear — that are the real draw here, with floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces, often pointing towards the bridge (the upgrade is more than worth it). Romance aside, use the earplugs by the bed — or risk being rudely awoken by foghorns during the night.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $309 (£196), room only. 601 Murray Circle, Fort Baker. T: 00 1 415 339 4700. cavallopoint.com
■ X Factor: The spa, or Healing Arts Centre, as it styles itself. Acupuncture, herbal medicine consultations and ‘shamanic journeys’ are on the treatment menu here; there’s even a small meditation pool set into the hillside.
Best for outdoors: Inn At The Presidio
Nestled in verdant national parkland at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Inn at the Presidio is a former military base, reflected in its swarthy brick exterior, lofty public areas and airy rooms that mix a spartan feel (iron bedsteads and minimal decoration in the cheaper rooms) with creature comforts, like the squashy beds and sofas in larger rooms. Views are of the Golden Gate Bridge or soaring eucalyptus trees, while a forest hiking trail starts at the back door.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $195 (£123), B&B. 42 Moraga Avenue, San Francisco. T: 00 1 415 800 7356. innatthepresidio.com
Best for couples: Inn Above Tide
Many San Francisco hotels have bay views, but Inn Above Tide is right on the bay — cantilevered over the water on the Sausalito seafront, squaring off against the Downtown skyline, Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge. All 29 rooms have panoramic views; Queen Deluxe and above feature private decks, sitting above the water and the seals below. Breakfast is free (even via room service), there’s cheese and wine at sunset, and, with its location next to the ferry dock, you’ll get door-to-door service across the water to Fisherman’s Wharf.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $320 (£203), B&B. 30 El Portal, Sausalito. T: 00 1 415 332 8433. innabovetide.com
A wide, palm-lined boulevard winding around the east coast of Downtown, and antique trams trundling back and forth — over the past few years the Embarcadero has gone from tourist central to a chic neighbourhood. By day, it’s all about foraging in the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, then hopping on a boat to Alcatraz, Sausalito, or for a Golden Gate loop. By night, join the beautiful people in the trendy restaurants underneath the twinkling Bay Bridge. It’s all about the views, here — whether of the San Francisco Bay, the Downtown skyline or the sea lions at Pier 39.
We Recommend: Hotel Vitale
On the Embarcadero, overlooking the shimmering San Francisco Bay, Hotel Vitale is all about the views. The iconic Ferry Building stands directly opposite; Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge hover either side. Tech-friendly rooms are comfortable enough to wallow in, yet understated, with neutral colours, icy blue drapes and limestone-clad bathrooms putting the focus on what’s outside. Not all rooms have waterfront views, but it’s definitely worth the upgrade: you’ll fall asleep with the Bay Bridge twinkling like a string of pearls and wake up to vintage trams bustling past the Embarcadero’s palms. Italian restaurant Americano — a major player in the renaissance of the Embarcadero — sources ingredients from the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, and packs in 180-degree views from its circular cocktail lounge. Meanwhile, the penthouse spa has a pair of giant bath tubs on the roof, and offers a ‘bathing ritual’ overlooking the water.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $256 (£162), room only. 8 Mission Street. T: 00 1 415 278 3700. hotelvitale.com
■ X Factor: The healthy, holistic vibe running through the hotel — from the sprigs of lavender on your pillow to the free yoga classes and Spa Vitale on the penthouse level.
Best for local sights: Harbor Court Hotel
Minimalists will hate the outlandish decor at Harbor Court Hotel — a historic building in the heart of the Embarcadero that gazes out across at the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. The lounge — which hosts a free tasting of local wines and beers every evening — pits checked wallpaper against striped carpet and patterned chairs. The rooms have mustard walls, leopard-print blinds, and multicolour bed canopies. But with comfy beds, luxury Frette linen and excellent customer service, you’ll quickly become colour blind.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $143 (£90), room only. 165 Steuart Street. T: 00 1 415 882 1300. harborcourthotel.com
Best for views: Mandarin Oriental san francisco
‘Bridge-to-bridge views’ are promised at Mandarin Oriental’s first US property, just inland from the Embarcardero. Occupying the top 10 floors of the 345 California Center, San Francisco’s third tallest building, it takes in the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate, and everything – Alcatraz, Telegraph Hill, the Transamerica Pyramid skyscraper — in between. Rooms, restyled last year, feature neutral colours, blue chaise longues, leather headboards and matching chairs. New restaurant Brasserie S&P features heavenly views from its floor-to-ceiling windows.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $395 (£251), room only. 222 Sansome Street. T: 00 1 415 276 9888. mandarinoriental.com/sanfrancisco
Flower power lives on in the hilly epicentre of 1967’s Summer of Love. Back then, rockers flocked to the steep rows of Victorian houses, and hippies congregated in nearby Golden Gate Park to work on their karma while watching the likes of the Grateful Dead and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Nearly 50 years later, Haight-Ashbury is more vintage clothing shops and record stores than hippy commune, but a lively, non-conformist spirit remains, while neighbouring Lower Haight is nightlife central, with wall-to-wall bars.
We Recommend: The Red Victorian
It sounds like a pub, and looks like one from the outside, but ‘The Red Vic’ is actually a shrine to the Summer of Love. Two blocks from Golden Gate Park, this New Age hippy hangout is home to artist Sami Sunchild’s Peaceful World Center. Above the ‘living museum’ and Peaceful World Cafe are 18 themed rooms, including the Japanese Tea Garden Room, above a Zen garden, and the Flower Child Room, with colourful murals and gig posters. The (shared) bathrooms are equally kooky (one has a fishbowl as a toilet cistern).
■ Rooms: Doubles from $89 (£57), B&B. 1665 Haight Street. T: 00 1 415 864 1978. redvic.com
■ X Factor: ‘Breakfast peace talks’, where staff get ‘deep’ with you over a bagel and coffee.
Best for food: Sleep Over Sauce
In trendy Hayes Valley, these eight bedrooms are located over posh Sauce restaurant, which room service will gladly plunder for you. Once a haunt of Janis Joplin, its colourful rooms are chic, its bathrooms swish, and breakfast is served around the communal living room fireplace.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $129 (£82), B&B. 135 Gough Street. T: 00 1 415 621 0896. sleepsf.com
Best for budget: Metro Hotel
Giving you a whiff of how things used to be back in the day with a fan-shaped decoration over the Victorian windows and a carefree, neon-wrapped sign, family-owned Metro Hotel, in the Lower Haight, has 28 small but simple rooms. Neat and light-flooded, they’re the best kind of blast from the past.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $76 (£48), room only. 319 Divisadero Street. T: 00 1 415 861 5364. metrohotelsf.com
Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)