Where to stay in the City by the Bay
It has one of the most spectacular urban settings in the world, fantastic food and a mindset all of its own – no wonder everyone wants to come to San Francisco. The hotel scene had long been lacking, though, with properties clustered around the soulless Union Square and slightly grubby Tenderloin district – but in the last decade, a series of new openings spread around the city have livened it up considerably.
Today, you can stay in historic buildings in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, in a new build opposite San Francisco’s baseball stadium, in the midst of America’s oldest Japantown, or on Market Street – the “new” Union Square (it’s handy to get around, though doesn’t have much going on). Whether you prefer to be disturbed by foghorns or drag brunches, there’s something for everyone in California’s most individual city.
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Best for atmosphere: Cavallo Point
Neighbourhood: Marins Headlands
Light sleepers, be warned – this converted military base at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge can get pretty noisy at night with foghorns blaring as ships pass under the bridge. Luckily, earplugs are provided, and the atmosphere – as the bridge sporadically emerges from the fog that swaddles it – is Hitchcockian enough to forgive the disturbance. On a clear day, the views are superb from the rooms in modern blocks scattered up the hillside (there are also rooms in original buildings, though they don’t enjoy the panoramic views). In keeping with its Marin Headlands location (the pristine land opposite the city), this is a seriously green resort, with specially designed window flows in place of air conditioning, eco toiletries, and wild deer gadding about the marram grass-filled grounds.
Doubles from $450 (£360), room only
Best value: Kimpton Buchanan
Fifteen minutes, and yet what feels like a world, away from Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco’s Japantown – America’s largest and oldest – is quiet, authentic and tourist-free. The last bit explains why you get so much bang for your buck here – this gorgeous hotel is about half the price of anything around Union Square (and the environs are considerably nicer). It’s beautifully understated with calm modern rooms enlivened with Japanese touches like guest kimonos, calligraphy art on the walls and in-room easels. The in-house restaurant, Mums, has been going strong for nearly four decades with its Japanese-American menu.
Doubles from $179 (£143), room only
Best for the Bay: Inn Above Tide
There’s a lot to keep you at this luxe B&B, floating on the opposite side of the San Francisco Bay in Sausalito. First, there are the views – every room overlooks the water, whether that’s towards Alcatraz, Angel Island, the city, or all three. Then there’s the comfort – some have fireplaces, others decks’ lap by the water, but all have the kind of swoonably plush beds that only American B&Bs seem to get. Finally, there’s the food – trays stacked high with everything from pastries to eggs served to your room in the morning, and evening sessions of California cheese and wine. You’re just minutes away from the ferry to the city, but you may find yourself on it less than you’d expect.
Doubles from $515 (£337), B&B
Best for views: Loews Regency (soon to be Four Seasons)
Neighbourhood: Financial District
Not many hotels in San Francisco have a setting like this, namely, the top 11 floors of one of the city’s highest buildings, in the heart of the Financial District. Perhaps that’s why so many hotel groups have wanted a piece of it – it opened as a Mandarin Oriental, then switched to Loews, and at the start of 2020 it’ll be refurbished and reopened as a Four Seasons. The rooms might change – though they’re already slick and marble-drenched – but the 40th-floor bar is going nowhere, and neither are the views – of the city, the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Oakland. There’s no need to upgrade for the view here – they’re all superb.
Doubles from $333 (£260), room only
Best vibes: The Red Victorian
Neighbourhood: Haight Ashbury
The Summer of Love centred around Haight Ashbury, bordering Golden Gate Park, and while the neighbourhood has moved on (though it’s still a bit alternative), the Red Vic is a time capsule of that era. Founded by hippie Sammy Sunchild as a hotel and peace cafe, it’s now a community-run “experimental hostel” with 22 ensuite and shared bathroom rooms, all roughly hippie- or San Francisco-themed (think “flower child” and “Japanese tea garden” after the garden in the park), plus small dorms. The cafe is gone but regular lectures and group meetups downstairs keep the community involved.
Doubles from $60 (£49), ensuites from $80 (£65), room only
Best for peace and quiet: Inn at the Presidio
Neighbourhood: Presidio Park
On the city side of the Golden Gate Bridge in the thickly wooded Presidio Park, this Georgian Revival-style former military barrack has been transformed into a peaceful 22-room hotel (17 of which are fireplace-equipped suites). An annexe, the Funston House – a former officer’s home – has a further four rooms, which can be rented individually or as a whole. The rooms, all different, range from retro military cast-iron bedsteads to tasteful modern affairs of leather furniture and plush high headboards, while views range from the surrounding forest to glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge from the top floor. Although it shares elements with Cavallo Point, it’s a much smaller, more B&B-like affair – there’s no restaurant, but they lay on breakfast and Californian wine and cheese every night.
Doubles from $310 (£251), room only
Best boutique: Proper Hotel
A surprising 131 rooms have been squished into this slender flatiron building from the early 20th century on Market Street, the tram-lined main thoroughfare which slices through the city (but doesn’t have a huge lot going for it, sightseeing-wise). Much fanfare was made when it opened in 2017 for its design credentials: there’s a mid-century feel as patterned wallpapers clash with the patterned blinds, patterned bedspreads, patterned pillows and patterned rugs. This is hipster central – toiletries are by Aesop, bikes by cult Detroit brand Shinola are available to guests, and the entry-level rooms feature oh-so-cool walnut bunk beds. But the real draw is the v-shaped rooftop bar, Charmaine’s.
Doubles from $215 (£172), B&B
Best for budget: Yotel
Another one on Market Street, this 2019 opening sits in a building dating back to 1904, overlooking the tramlines. Yotel is of course known for its pod-style rooms and although this is more “hotelly”, space is still kept to a minimum – the beds flip up into a seated position to provide more space. Rain showers and smart TVs are par for the course, and while the entry-level rooms are windowless, the other categories range from bi-level, loft-style spaces to premium and corner rooms, which are more traditional hotel rooms overlooking other heritage buildings. If you’re set on sightseeing and don’t intend to laze around back at base, this is great value. A rooftop bar is on the way, too.
Doubles from $150 (£120), room only
Best for bling: Sir Francis Drake
Neighbourhood: Union Square
This is unexpected for San Francisco: an unashamedly sumptuous hotel, built in the roaring 1920s, which harks back to the glory years of ye olde England. The public areas are wonderfully OTT, stuffed with marble and gold leafed within an inch of their lives, while hand-painted murals and Beefeater-dressed doormen give the nod to the British theme. Up the grand wrought-iron staircase are the bedrooms – modern, but still with a hint of glam, from the scarlet chests of drawers to the rococo-style headboards. On Sundays, this is home to the city’s best brunch: Sunday’s a Drag, where your food is accompanied by a superb drag show. The only issue with this hotel? Its location, near hotel hub Union Square, which has chain stores but little of the San Francisco atmosphere you’ve travelled for.
Doubles from $179 (£143), room only
Best for a local feel: Hotel Via
Neighbourhood: South Beach
Down on South Beach – near nightlife area SoMa and en route to the trendy Mission – this new-build hotel sits opposite Oracle Park, the baseball stadium that’s home to the San Francisco Giants. Not that you’ll be bothered by the fans here – the swanky 3,000 square foot rooftop lounge, complete with firepits and cabanas, is for guests only. The bar downstairs is open to the public – and appreciated by them on game days. Rooms are chic boutique – think crisp white colours and neat stools instead of desk chairs – and front-facing ones have views across the water towards Oakland.
Doubles from $229 (£183), room only