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Where to Stay in San Francisco: Best Areas & Hotels

Written by Lisa Alexander
Sep 9, 2019

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the bay, San Francisco is surprisingly small for its sophistication. Tourist brochures showcase the iconic images of the city but rarely mention the practical considerations of where to stay in San Francisco, such as urban grit, congestion, difficult parking, and pedestrian routes that are not for the faint of heart. Choosing the best place to stay can alleviate these challenges.

There are two main areas of tourist accommodations: downtown and Fisherman's Wharf and the nearby Marina district. 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 Fisherman's Wharf area offers a pleasant escape from the urban bustle. This waterfront neighborhood includes top attractions such as Ghirardelli Square and Aquatic Park, with its lovely outlook onto the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

Neighboring Fisherman's Wharf, the residential Marina district gives tourists a chance to experience the local way of life. People who live in this neighborhood spend time at the Marina Green, a waterfront recreational area overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Chestnut Street in the Marina is a favorite San Francisco spot for dining at gourmet restaurants.

Whatever your sightseeing itinerary, this guide will help you find the best hotels and areas for you.

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Where to Stay in San Francisco for Sightseeing

Nob Hill

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, making it a great place to stay, particularly for first-time visitors. In this quintessential location, the InterContinental Mark Hopkins provides easy access to must-see sights.

In Nob Hill, it's possible to hop on a cable car right in front of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco hotel or head up to the Top of the Mark restaurant to take in sweeping views. For sightseeing by foot, tourists can 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 San Francisco. 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.

Attractions of the Embarcadero area 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), the best place to stay is Fisherman's Wharf, which dates back to the Gold Rush and is still the city's most emblematic neighborhood. With historic boats in the harbor and a working fishing port, 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 in San Francisco for Luxury

Photo Copyright: Fairmont San Francisco

San Francisco has a wide range of choices in the luxury hotel category, but the ultimate is the Fairmont San Francisco. A Parthenon-like icon on Nob Hill with an impressive Neoclassical facade, this magnificent hotel is perched high above the bay. The 360-degree views are incomparable.

Built in the early 1900s, the Fairmont withstood the 1906 earthquake. In 1907, famous architect Julia Morgan designed the dazzling Main Lobby with marble floors and gilded Corinthian columns. The Fairmont is located at the corner of Mason and California streets, near two cable car stops.

Guests of the Fairmont Hotel swoon over the opulent lobby, with its gilded ceiling and velvet furniture recalling Victorian-era grandeur. The lavish rooms have pillow-top beds and plush comforters, which adds to the feeling of being pampered. For an upscale dining experience, the hotel's Laurel Court Restaurant serves afternoon tea, breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner.

Another high-end Nob Hill hotel is The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco on a quiet side street, just steps away from the California Street cable car. Exquisitely decorated in contemporary 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 Parallel 37, the hotel's stylish restaurant that serves refined farm-to-table cuisine.

In downtown San Francisco, the landmark Palace Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Francisco 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 Gilded Age, 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 SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and the MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora).

For a high-end boutique hotel in Fisherman's Wharf, the best choice is the Argonaut Hotel, A Noble House Hotel overlooking Aquatic Park, just steps away from Ghirardelli Square and the old Cannery. The hotel's historic brick building (formerly the Haslett Warehouse) 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. This family-friendly hotel offers board games in the lobby, chests of toys, and scavenger hunts for children, and discounts at the National Park Store and Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop.

Where to Stay in San Francisco for the Best Value

Photo Copyright: The Marker San Francisco

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 in downtown San Francisco, The Marker offers affordable rates considering its luxurious accommodations. This four-star boutique hotel, with bright, fashionable guest rooms and a sumptuous lobby, reveals the influence of Beaux-Arts design. Because of its central location, The Marker 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 Fisherman's Wharf waterfront, the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf Hotel is within walking distance of Pier 39 shopping and restaurants, Fisherman's Wharf tourist attractions, and Ghirardelli Square. The hotel has spacious rooms, an outdoor patio, and heated outdoor pool.

Where to Stay in San Francisco on a Budget

Crissy Field

Although San Francisco is notoriously expensive, it is still possible to visit on a budget. Several hotels 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 Presidio recreational area and park, the Travelodge by Wyndham Presidio San Francisco 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. San Francisco's largest green space, Golden Gate Park, is just a short drive from the hotel.

For a relaxing hotel stay in the Marina district, the Super 8 by Wyndham 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. Accommodations include a complimentary breakfast.

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 Filmore and Chestnut streets are lined with enticing fashion boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.

Where to Stay in San Francisco with a Family

Photo Copyright: Hotel del Sol

Deciding where to stay in San Francisco with kids can be challenging. 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 in 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.

In the ideal location for families with kids, the Hyatt Centric Fisherman's Wharf is just steps away from the fish and chips shacks of Fisherman's Wharf. A few blocks farther is Ghirardelli Square and Aquatic Park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Several blocks in the other direction is Pier 39, with many attractions for children: 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 cuisine prepared from local ingredients and sustainable seafood.

Another excellent choice at Fisherman's Wharf is the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, right on the waterfront and two blocks from the cable car stop at Hyde and Beach streets. 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. Accommodations include a continental breakfast, free of charge.

Occupying one of the historic brick buildings of Ghirardelli Square, the Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square 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.

Where to Stay in San Francisco for Couples

Photo Copyright: White Swan Inn

With its dreamy scenery and quaint neighborhoods, San Francisco invites romance. Several hotels in the city cater to couples, with luxurious rooms, spas, fine-dining restaurants, and spectacular bay views.

The Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill blends historic charm with contemporary style and modern amenities. This four-star hotel 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 elegant restaurant that specializes in classic American cuisine. Decorated in a sophisticated style, the guest rooms and suites feature fine bed linens and gorgeous updated bathrooms. The hotel's spa is an urban oasis, with its infinity pool, saunas, steam rooms, and pampering treatments.

At the heart of Nob Hill, the White Swan Inn charms guests with décor that channels an English country cottage. There's also a surprising touch of 1960s London mod style that accents each room. 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. Accommodations include a complimentary full breakfast buffet, complete with egg dishes, quiches, freshly baked scones, morning pastries, fruit, and coffee or tea.

Combining an intimate ambience with a happening location, the four-star Hotel Emblem has it all. This appealing spot is steps away from Union Square shops; excellent restaurants; and art galleries on Sutter, Post, and Geary streets. Inspired by the eclectic, edgy style of the Beat Generation, the Hotel Emblem has spacious guest rooms adorned with creative flair. The hotel also has an inviting library and a restaurant/jazz lounge that presents live music performances nightly. In keeping with its literary theme, the hotel hosts poetry readings on occasion.

For more entertainment options, visitors may walk from the Union Square area to the nearby Theater District to enjoy a play or musical. One of the best places to stay in the Theater District is The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel. Many locals can be found at the hotel's glamorous Redwood Room restaurant, adorned with Art Deco detailed redwood paneling that gives the space a subdued and romantic ambience. Another lounge of the hotel was inspired by an English gentlemen's club. Guest rooms are exquisitely appointed with soothing minimalist decor and fine bedding.

Where to Stay near San Francisco

Photo Source: Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport

Travelers searching for ideas of where to stay outside of San Francisco should look at the hotels near SFO airport. This area (15 miles south of San Francisco), including the cities of Millbrae and Burlingame, is just a 30-minute BART train ride or drive into downtown San Francisco.

The main advantages of staying outside the city include easier parking and convenient proximity to the airport, especially if arriving late or departing early. With the exception of hotels that cater to business travelers, most accommodations outside of San Francisco tend to be less expensive than similar-category hotels in the city.

For those who appreciate plush accommodations and modern amenities, the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport in Burlingame (a five-minute drive to the airport) is the best choice. This four-star hotel has a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, and fitness center. The contemporary-style guest rooms feature plush bedding and double-paned, sound-proofed windows to ensure a good night's sleep. The hotel also offers complimentary shuttle service to SFO airport, as well as a free trolley service to downtown Burlingame.

The downtown of Burlingame delights visitors with its pleasant tree-lined streets and wide selection of restaurants, cafés, and boutiques on and around Burlingame Avenue (the town's main street). From springtime through the fall, colorful potted flowers bloom on Burlingame Avenue, while the shaded sidewalk cafés and outdoor restaurant terraces are buzzing with activity.

Also a short drive from the airport and downtown Burlingame, the Hilton Garden Inn San Francisco Airport provides comfortable 3-star accommodations at a reasonable price. The hotel has a restaurant, indoor swimming pool, and fitness center. Amenities include room service, free parking, and complimentary airport transportation service. Guest rooms feature mini refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee machines.

Just minutes away from the SFO airport, the Bay Landing Hotel in Burlingame is a great value in the mid-range category. This 3-star boutique hotel provides free parking and complimentary shuttle service to and from the airport. Guest rooms are equipped with mini refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee machines. Accommodations also include a complimentary continental breakfast, served in a dining room or on an outdoor terrace overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

Another affordable place to stay near SFO airport (less than one mile away) is the Aloft San Francisco Airport in the town of Millbrae. This hotel is the best choice for travelers without a car because it's within walking distance of the BART station where trains run every half hour to downtown San Francisco. The Aloft Hotel also provides a complimentary airport shuttle service. This 3-star hotel has a trendy restaurant, an indoor swimming pool, fitness center, and paid parking lot. Guest rooms feature minimalistic decor, modern artworks, and updated bathrooms.

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San Francisco Highlights: Depending on the type of trip you are planning, there are many ways to enjoy San Francisco. Families traveling with children should begin by having a read through our article on Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids. If you want to explore the city on foot at your own leisurely pace, see our San Francisco Walking Tour. For general sightseeing and guided tour ideas, refer to our guide to the Top Tourist Attractions in San Francisco.

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