Starting with the Gold Rush in 1849, San Francisco is easily one of the United State’s most historic cities. From the world famous Golden Gate Bridge to the major earthquakes that rocked the city by the bay in the 20th century, the California coastal town has a history as vibrant as its architecture that has woven itself into that rich history.
Having lived in San Francisco for 21 years, hardly a day went by where I didn’t marvel at an old Victorian home or one of the historic hotels that were designed by world renowned architects. It’s no wonder why the city has been nicknamed ‘The Paris of the West.’
When I started to research some of the city’s most stunning hotels, it was evident with the historic importance of some of these hotels, their overall look and charm haven’t changed much since they were built. Expedia.com asked me to share some of my favorite hotels San Francisco has to offer.
So let’s take a tour of San Francisco’s most architecturally stunning and historic hotels. And when you are inspired to check one out yourself, head on over to San Francisco to experience the incredible history first hand.
The Fairmont Hotel
Located atop the posh Nob Hill neighborhood, the Fairmont hotel is not only historic but also is home to some of the best views in the city. Theresa Fair Oelrichs and Virginia Fair Vanderbilt began building the hotel in the early 20th century as a tribute to their father Senator James Graham Fair. They hired James and Merritt Reid as the lead architects and engineers to make their dream become a reality. The planned 1906 opening was delayed after a massive 7.8 earthquake rocked the city. While the building survived, the interior was heavily damaged. The hotel opened in 1907 and has had its rightful place in history ever since. In 1945, the United Nations was formed in the hotel, and the United Nations Charter was written in the Garden Room. Just 16 years later, Tony Bennett famously sang “I left my heart in San Francisco” for the first time to a giddy crowd in the Venetian Room.
The Palace Hotel on bustling Market Street is actually a tale of two hotels. The original Palace Hotel was built in 1875, and with 755 rooms was the largest hotel in the Western United States. The luxury building hosted politicians and wealthy bank owners for 31 years until the 1906 earthquake. Ironically, the building survived the earthquake, but the out of control fires that spread through the city would take the Palace Hotel to its demise. The remains were razed and the second installment of the Palace Hotel opened on December 19, 1909, with the stunning “Garden Court” becoming one of the most elegant dining rooms in the city. While many historic events happened in the Palace, most notable is the death of Warren G. Harding In 1923, where the 29th President of the United States died of a heart attack in room 8064.
Westin St. Francis
The 1,200 guest rooms make the Westin St. Francis one of the biggest hotels in San Francisco, but it wasn’t always that big. The original Bliss & Faville designed 12-story South Wing was built in 1904 as an investment property for railroad magnate Charles Crocker’s children. The building suffered almost no damage during the initial 1906 earthquake and somehow suffered little damage even as the 3-day fire that engulfed surrounding Union Square destroyed almost every building around it.
The north wing was finished in 1913 and soon was known for its constant stream of celebrities and politicians that would stay the night.
Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford have stayed at the hotel, with Ford surviving an assassination attempt outside by a woman named Sara Jane More.
The hotel is so historic, it has its own full-time historian on-site to answer questions for guests as well as historical artifacts laid out throughout the property, which also includes a 32-story tower that was completed in 1972.
The Scarlet Huntington
Originally built by the architects Weeks & Days as a 12 story, Georgian style apartment building, the property was soon bought by Eugene Fritz and converted to a hotel. It was the first steel and brick high rise west of the Mississippi. The 134 room building on Nob Hill underwent a 15 million dollar renovation in 2014, but even with the plush new interiors, the hotel still retains its nearly century old charm and character.
Intercontinental Mark Hopkins
The 1906 earthquake reshaped the entire city. Case in point, the famed Intercontinental Mark Hopkins hotel would not be on its high perch on top of Nob Hill if the fires that raged in the city after the quake hadn’t leveled Mark Hopkins’ beautiful mansion, which he had built for his wife Mary in 1878. The current hotel opened in 1926, after the firm Weeks & Day designed the hotel for the land’s new owner, George D. Smith. The hotel is maybe best known for its top floor bar, “Top of the Mark” which has sweeping panoramic views of San Francisco and the Bay.
Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel
When originally opened in October 1928, the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake was described as the ‘last word on hotels.’ The two-day open house event attracted over 10,000 people who were left in awe at the indoor golf course, cold ice water on tap and radios in each of the 416 guest rooms. The architects Weeks & Day took on a Renaissance angle when designing the hotel. The ceilings are vaulted and gold leafed embossed, and the grand marble staircase can turn anyone’s head.
The rooms also featured a Servidor which was a panel that let staff deliver items like laundered clothes without having to open the guest room doors. But this was widely rumored to be the slick way that staff could deliver alcohol to their exclusive group of guests during the Prohibition era. During World War II, the hotel became the one-night stop for military men who were either on their way to the Pacific or just returning home, causing many emotional family moments.
Sitting in one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist spots, Union Square, the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake continues to be the home of memories created by vacation seeking couples and families, especially if they enjoyed a cocktail filled night in the famous 70-plus-year-old Starlight room, one of the most popular nightlife locations in the city, thanks to its dramatic 180-degree views of the city skyline and San Francisco bay.
The Whitcomb is conveniently located on bustling Market Street in the theater district, which makes it a central point to explore all of San Francisco. The 100-plus-year-old building served as San Francisco City Hall after the 1906 earthquake leveled almost the entire city. In 1917, the building was officially transformed into a hotel and immediately was renowned for its Victorian architecture. Crystal chandeliers and marble columns greet guests as they turn their attention to a Tiffany stained glass in the piano bar.
Being listed with 110 hotels in the Historic Hotels of America list, the Whitcomb truly is a San Francisco historical treat. The hotel holds so much history, it’s even said to be haunted.
There is no denying San Francisco’s place in history, and the city and hotel management companies have gone to great lengths to keep these historic hotels old charm and beautiful architecture intact while at the same time redesigning them to live up to the expectations of modern day travelers. So next time you visit San Francisco, partake in the city’s rich history by staying in the hotels that have been a staple in the community for over a century.