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Where to Stay in San Francisco: Best Areas & Hotels

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the bay, San Francisco is surprisingly small for its sophistication. This picturesque city of only seven square miles boasts 43 hills that are vantage points for the breathtaking views pictured in movies and guidebooks. Glossy tourist brochures showcase these iconic images but rarely mention the practical considerations of staying in the city, such as urban grit, congestion, difficult parking, and pedestrian routes that are not for the faint of heart. Choosing the right place to stay can alleviate these challenges.

There are two main areas of tourist accommodations: downtown and the Marina. Without a car, downtown is best because so many attractions are within walking distance: Union Square shopping, North Beach (Little Italy), Chinatown, and scenic Nob Hill. Although getting around is a workout, awe-inspiring panoramas reward the effort. For those with a car, the residential Marina district offers a pleasant escape from the urban bustle. This waterfront neighborhood includes top attractions such as Ghirardelli Square, the world-famous Fisherman's Wharf, and the Marina Green with its lovely outlook onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Whatever your sightseeing itinerary, this guide will help you decide which area and hotel is best for you.

Where to Stay for Sightseeing

Nob Hill
Nob Hill
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Of all the characteristic San Francisco neighborhoods, one of the most desirable is Nob Hill, with its stunning views of the bay and city skyline. This elegant area of downtown San Francisco is within walking distance to top attractions: Chinatown, North Beach (Little Italy), the Theater District, and Union Square shopping. In this quintessential location, the InterContinental Mark Hopkins provides easy access to must-see sights. You can hop on a cable car right in front of the hotel or head up to the Top of the Mark restaurant to take in sweeping views. Simply stroll down the hill to be dazzled by the fragrant cuisine and fascinating culture of Chinatown or to while away some time in the legendary coffeehouses and Italian restaurants of North Beach (the city's historic Little Italy neighborhood).

Downtown San Francisco encompasses several different neighborhoods besides Chinatown, North Beach, and Union Square. Another popular area is the Embarcadero along the waterfront, where the best choice of accommodation is the Hyatt Regency. This hotel boasts sleek modern architecture, a grand lobby, and proximity to the Embarcadero BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) that tourists can take to Berkeley and Oakland in the East Bay. Nearby attractions include The Embarcadero, a palm-fringed promenade overlooking the Bay Bridge, and the Ferry Building, a historic landmark that houses gourmet food boutiques and hosts the farmers market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The Ferry Building is also the terminal for the ferry that sails to the charming seaside towns of Sausalito and Tiburon in Marin.

In the bustling SoMa (south of Market Street) area of the downtown financial district is the W San Francisco, a trendy boutique hotel. Slightly further away (about a 20-minute walk) from the touristy areas of Chinatown, North Beach, and Union Square, this hotel has a modern, urban feel. Highlights nearby include the Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the Museum of the African Diaspora.

For many tourists (especially first-time visitors) a favorite attraction is Fisherman's Wharf, the original epicenter of San Francisco during the Gold Rush and still the city's most emblematic neighborhood. With historic boats in the harbor and sensational views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island, Fisherman's Wharf evokes the vibrant spirit of the Barbary Coast era. Nowadays, visitors are more likely to find souvenir shops and clam chowder stands rather than commercial fishermen, but the area pulses with a lively seaport ambience. Surrounded by Fisherman's Wharf tourist attractions, the Hotel Zephyr delights guests with picture-postcard views and comfortable recently refurbished rooms.

Where to Stay for Luxury

Photo Copyright: Fairmont San Francisco
Photo Copyright: Fairmont San Francisco
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San Francisco has a wide range of choices in the luxury hotel category, but the ultimate is the Fairmont San Francisco. An icon on Nob Hill with a colonnaded facade, this magnificent hotel stands proudly above the bay where two cable car lines meet, and the 360-degree views are incomparable. The city's bustling financial district, Union Square shopping and Fisherman's Wharf are a short cable car ride away. The hotel's interior is equally impressive. Visitors swoon over the opulent lobby, with its gilded ceiling and velvet furniture recalling Victorian-era grandeur. The lavish rooms have pillowtop beds and plush comforters, which adds to the feeling of being pampered. For an upscale dining experience, the hotel's Laurel Court Restaurant serves high tea, brunch, lunch, and dinner.

Another high-end Nob Hill hotel is The Ritz-Carlton on a quiet side street, just steps away from the California Street cable car. Exquisitely decorated in modern classic style, the hotel's guest rooms are outfitted with attention to detail, including luxurious bed linens, flat-screen TVs, and marble-paneled bathrooms. For an exceptional culinary experience, visitors may indulge in a gourmet meal at the hotel's award-winning restaurant.

In downtown San Francisco, the landmark Palace Hotel was built in 1875 and is listed by the National Trust as a Historic Hotel of America. The graceful architecture features a splendid porticoed entrance and Neoclassical elements throughout the lobby and reception areas. The gorgeous glass-domed Garden Court restaurant is known for its Signature Tea, a fancy affair with authentic English tea and assorted pastries served on dainty fine china.

Also downtown, in the heart of bustling SoMa (part of the financial district), is The St. Regis San Francisco. This sleek and sophisticated hotel features signature "butler" service, posh rooms, and a chic restaurant. The neighborhood is less touristy than Nob Hill and Union Square, but it's still near top attractions, including shopping and gourmet restaurants. Highlights within walking distance are the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Museum of African Diaspora.

For a high-end boutique hotel in Fisherman's Wharf, the best choice is the Argonaut, overlooking Aquatic Park just steps away from Ghirardelli Square and the old Cannery. The hotel's historic brick building recalls the neighborhood's storied Barbary Coast past. In keeping with the beautiful views of the bay and harbor, the hotel is decorated in contemporary nautical style.

Where to Stay for the Best Value

Photo Copyright: The Marker San Francisco
Photo Copyright: The Marker San Francisco
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Staying in downtown San Francisco can be pricey, but there are a few affordable alternatives to the high-end luxury hotels. Centrally located in the financial district on Kearny Street, near Chinatown and North Beach, the Hilton San Francisco Financial District is a great starting point to discover San Francisco's colorful multicultural neighborhoods. It's only a short walk to many top tourist attractions like the Transamerica Building, Chinese restaurants, North Beach cafés, and (further up a steep hill) Coit Tower with its splendid murals and majestic bay views.

Near Union Square downtown, The Marker San Francisco offers affordable rates considering its luxurious accommodations. This four-star boutique hotel, with bright, fashionable guest rooms, was designed in the Beaux Arts style inspired by France's Belle Epoque architecture. This hotel is a good choice for those traveling without a car. It's only a few blocks away from the Powell Street cable car line.

For those who prefer to stay by the waterfront, the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf Hotel is within walking distance to Pier 39 shopping and restaurants, Fisherman's Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square. The hotel has spacious rooms, an outdoor patio, and heated outdoor pool.

Where to Stay on a Budget

Crissy Field
Crissy Field
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Although San Francisco is notoriously expensive, it is still possible to visit on a budget. Below are hotels that offer a reasonable price as well as a convenient location for tourists. In the downtown area, the centrally located Post Hotel is best for travelers who prefer to sightsee without a car. From this spot, visitors can walk to the art galleries, boutiques, and department stores of Union Square. A superb selection of restaurants as well as the entertainment venues of the Theater District are also nearby.

Outside of downtown are other budget options. Well situated near the beautiful Golden Gate Park and the Presidio National Recreation Area, the Travel Lodge Presidio provides affordable lodging that includes breakfast and in-room refrigerators. Since this hotel is best for travelers with a car, the free on-site parking is helpful.

For a relaxing hotel stay in the Marina district, the Super 8 San Francisco on Lombard Street is several blocks away from the street's famous winding section and close to the top tourist attractions of Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. This budget-friendly motor lodge has a boutique feel and comfortable rooms featuring plush bedding. The hotel has limited parking. Also in the Marina, the Greenwich Inn is on a peaceful block of a residential neighborhood. This hotel is a short walk away from Crissy Field and the Marina Green, which boast dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Nearby Chestnut Street is lined with enticing fashion boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.

Where to Stay for Couples

Photo Copyright: White Swan Inn
Photo Copyright: White Swan Inn
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With its dreamy scenery and quaint neighborhoods, San Francisco invites romance. Several hotels in the city cater to couples, with luxurious rooms, spas, and breathtaking views. The Scarlet Huntington on Nob Hill is fashionable and recently renovated. It has an alluring and distinguished ambience that would be perfect for a romantic getaway or honeymoon. Guests will appreciate the warmth and character of the lobby as well as the restaurant that dishes out innovative fusion cuisine. Guest rooms are decorated in sleek style, with a Straits Chinese influence. The hotel's spa is an urban oasis, with its infinity pool, saunas, steam rooms, and pampering treatments.

Another charming hotel on Nob Hill is the White Swan Inn, with décor that channels an English country cottage with a touch of 1960s London mod style. This cozy, little boutique hotel feels like a home away from home. It's convenient for visitors traveling without a car because it lies within walking distance to cable cars, Union Square shops, Chinatown, and North Beach.

Combining an intimate ambience with a happening location, the Hotel Rex has it all. This appealing spot is steps away from Union Square shops, excellent restaurants, and Gallery Row with its weekly art receptions. The 1930s-style hotel has an inviting ambience, thanks to the displays of contemporary art and a wood-paneled library that doubles as a venue for literary readings, art shows, and music concerts. For more entertainment options, visitors may walk to the nearby Theater District to enjoy a play or musical. Also in the Theater District is the Clift Hotel. This upscale hotel has a sleek, modern style with exquisitely appointed guest rooms and a glamorous gourmet restaurant with a seductive ambience.

Where to Stay for Families

Photo Copyright: Hotel del Sol
Photo Copyright: Hotel del Sol
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San Francisco can be challenging for families, even though there are many fun things to do with kids. Urban congestion abounds, and dicey neighborhoods in the downtown are right next to the touristy areas. To alleviate these problems, it's best to stay at Fisherman's Wharf or the Marina because these areas are cleaner, safer, and easier to get around by car. Parking is more plentiful and less expensive here than downtown. The hotels in this area also offer more spacious accommodations and suites that are ideal for families.

Near several top tourist attractions, the Hyatt Centric Fisherman's Wharf is just steps away from the fish & chips shacks and fresh crab stands of Fisherman's Wharf. A few blocks further is Ghirardelli Square and Aquatic Park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Several blocks in the other direction is Pier 39, with favorite attractions for kids: the Aquarium of the Bay museum, sea lions, street performers, and an old-fashioned carousel. Kids will also love the Hyatt's heated swimming pool, and parents will enjoy the hotel's casual restaurant that serves California comfort food. Another excellent choice at Fisherman's Wharf is the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf, right on the waterfront and two blocks from the cable car lines. The hotel has many suites that are roomy enough for large families.

If you're looking for laid-back California beach house style accommodation, try the cheerful Hotel del Sol. In the Marina district, near the scenic Marina Green and Fort Mason Center (great places for picnics and for kids to play frisbee), the hotel is about a 20-minute walk to Ghirardelli Square and a 30-minute walk to Fisherman's Wharf. With its adjoining rooms and suites, this boutique hotel is well suited for families. Plus there's even a heated saltwater outdoor pool and affordable on-site parking. Occupying one of the historic brick buildings of Ghirardelli Square, the Fairmont Heritage Place is a residential-style hotel that's perfect for families. Each of the hotel's spacious one-bedroom, two-bedroom, or three-bedroom suites includes a well-equipped kitchen, dining room, and living room with a fireplace. An added bonus for parents, the hotel offers childcare services for an additional fee.

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