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Best hotels in San Francisco: Where to stay in Downtown, the Bay and more

From sky-high scenes to luxe stays, the Golden Gate city has it all

Julia Buckley,Ali Wunderman
Wednesday 15 March 2023 11:20 GMT
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Forget the Golden Gate, where are you going to stay?
Forget the Golden Gate, where are you going to stay? (iStock)

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 across 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 the USA’s oldest Japantown, or on Market Street – the “new” Union Square (it’s handy to get around, though doesn’t have much going on). There’s something for everyone in California’s most individual city.

To help you decide where will be best suited to your budget range and stylistic leanings, here, we’ll be touring the very best hotels the Golden Gate city has to offer.

The best hotels in San Francisco are:

Best hotel for sustainability: 1 Hotel

Neighbourhood: Financial District

(Aubrie Pick)

Almost directly across the street from San Francisco’s Ferry Building on the Embarcadero is 1 Hotel, offering carbon-neutral accommodation that pulls off environmental friendliness without sacrificing luxury touches. The houseplant-filled lobby is a nod to the hotel’s green practices, including incorporating reclaimed building materials, buying carbon offsets, and having a rooftop garden – including beehives – that supplies the on-site restaurant, Terrene. The hotel includes 200 rooms and suites, all dog-friendly, and is centrally located for exploring the waterfront and the rest of the city. Some rooms feature incredible views of the Bay Bridge with its night-time light show, and the Ferry Building, where guests might spy the city’s top chefs gathering ingredients at the Saturday morning farmers’ market.

Best hotel for history: Fairmont

Neighbourhood: Nob Hill

(iStock)

It doesn’t get more classically San Francisco than the Fairmont, perched at the top of Nob Hill. More than 600 elegantly appointed rooms are afforded panoramic views of the city, from the downtown skyline to the lighthouse of Alcatraz Island. The hotel’s architect was none other than Julia Morgan, and today its storied history and grandeur are obvious in every detail, including the opulent lobby. Walking the steep hills that surround the Fairmont’s hilltop location is a true San Francisco experience, but so is riding the cable car, which runs right next to the hotel on California Street. Be sure to go downstairs and grab a mai tai at The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a San Francisco institution that honours tiki roots in the city.

Best hotel for top attractions: Argonaut Hotel

Neighbourhood: Fisherman’s Wharf

(Booking.com)

Many of San Francisco’s main tourist attractions are collected in Fisherman’s Wharf. While locals may avoid it for this reason, it’s an excellent place to stay if seeing sea lions, eating Ghirardelli sundaes, or trying freshly caught crab are on your to-do list. The Argonaut Hotel is ideally situated for such adventures, with 252 nautical-themed guest rooms boasting blue and white decor, and a brick facade that stands out among the surrounding buildings. The hotel’s view of the waterfront – including Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge – serves as another reminder that San Francisco is, in fact, a port city. Enjoy a bowl of the renowned crab and corn chowder at the Blue Mermaid Restaurant to really taste what the Bay has to offer.

Best hotel for LGBT+ friendliness: The Hotel Castro

Neighbourhood: The Castro

(Booking.com)

Basically every San Francisco hotel is going to be LGBT+ friendly, but The Hotel Castro puts guests right in the heart of the history and culture. This boutique, 12-room lodge opened in the last few days of 2021, featuring the Lobby Bar that serves as a gathering place and check-in area, and a rooftop terrace called The Nest atop the building’s four floors. Each room has its own outdoor seating area, and is stylishly and individually decorated in honour of LGBT+ heroes. With no front desk, The Hotel Castro is not staffed 24/7, but a web app system ensures guests can always check in or have other needs met.

Best hotel for atmosphere: Cavallo Point

Neighbourhood: Marin Headlands

Cross the bridge and get back to nature at Cavallo Point
Cross the bridge and get back to nature at Cavallo Point (Kodiak Greenwood)

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.

Best value hotel: Kimpton Buchanan

Neighbourhood: Japantown

A King Room at Kimpton Buchanan
A King Room at Kimpton Buchanan (Laure Joliet)

Fifteen minutes, and yet what feels like a world away, from Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco’s Japantown – the USA’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 such as 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.

Best for the Bay: Inn Above Tide

Neighbourhood: Sausalito

Inn Above Tide
Inn Above Tide (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 rooms have fireplaces, others decks 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.

Price: Doubles from $465 (£385)

Book now

Best hotel for views: Four Seasons Hotel at Embarcadero

Neighbourhood: Financial District

The Golden Gate King room at Loews Regency
The Golden Gate King room at Loews Regency (Loews Regency)

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, before being refurbished and reopened as a Four Seasons. While the owners and decor may have changed over the years, the views have remained just as impressive – taking in the city, the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Oakland. There’s no need to upgrade for the view here – they’re all superb.

Best hotel for peace and quiet: Inn at the Presidio

Neighbourhood: Presidio Park

Relax with a fireside tipple at the Inn at the Presidio
Relax with a fireside tipple at the Inn at the Presidio (Paul Dyer)

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 hotel with 22 rooms (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.

Price: Doubles from $330 (£273)

Book now

Best boutique hotel: Proper Hotel

Neighbourhood: Mid-Market

The rooftop bar, Charmaine's at Proper Hotel
The rooftop bar, Charmaine's at Proper Hotel (Proper Hotel)

A surprising 131 rooms have been squished into this slender, early 20th-century, flatiron building on Market Street – the tram-lined main thoroughfare that slices through the city (but doesn’t have a huge amount going for it, sightseeing-wise). When the hotel opened in 2017, much fanfare was made regarding 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.

Best budget hotel: Yotel

Neighbourhood: Mid-Market

The Yotel is ideal for those looking to keep costs down
The Yotel is ideal for those looking to keep costs down (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.

Best hotel for bling: Beacon Grand

Neighbourhood: Union Square

The opulent staircase at Sir Francis Drake
The opulent staircase at Sir Francis Drake (Delcan McKerr)

This is unexpected for San Francisco: an unashamedly sumptuous hotel – built in the roaring 1920s – that harks back to the glory years of ye olde England. The public areas are wonderfully OTT, stuffed with marble and gold leafed to within an inch of their lives, while hand-painted murals and Beefeater-dressed doormen 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. 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.

Best hotel for a local feel: Hotel Via

Neighbourhood: South Beach

Laze back and look at the view in room 1205 at Hotel Via
Laze back and look at the view in room 1205 at Hotel Via (Hotel Via)

Down on South Beach – near nightlife area SoMa and en route to the trendy Mission district – 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 3,000sq ft 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. Front-facing rooms have views across the water towards Oakland, too.

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