Touring the lobbies of iconic hotels in San Francisco may not be on a visitor’s itinerary, but I accidentally discovered this is fun and free and makes for a memorable morning.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, we stayed at the Hilton on Union Square and enjoyed this sunrise view of the city and bay in the background. Then we headed out for a full day of sightseeing in the sun.
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A friendly local told us the day before that we would likely see Karl on our visit. “That’s our name for the fog.” Sure enough, Karl came to greet us. So we scrapped our outdoor plans and decided to walk around and go inside famous hotel lobbies. It turned out to be a perfect activity when fog blankets the city. Here are my three favorites.
Westin St. Francis on Union Square
My favorite hotel to visit is the St. Francis on Union Square. Decorated in 20-century European style, the hotel is a showcase of marble floors and pillars and dark oak-paneled walls. It’s described as “timeless yet modern.” Now under the Westin umbrella, the St. Francis has lost none of its stately appeal.
Opening in 1904, it survived the big earthquake and was refinished in time to become known as the Jazz Hotel in the 1920s. Hollywood stars headed for the St. Francis, along with jazz musicians. Glamorous guests included Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. You can just imagine the party scene here!
A display tells the story of the role of the hotel in the tragic 1906 earthquake. Portions of the buildings survived, and the hotel set up long tables and served meals to those in need. A tiny dog lived through quake and was dug out of the rubble. Francis became a mascot of the hotel and a symbol of hope in that dark time. Today there’s a picture book telling the story of Francis.
This historic hotel on the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco was built and almost ready to open when the 1906 earthquake hit. It was then rebuilt and opened its doors to welcome dignitaries and stars including Teddy Roosevelt, President Taft, and Rudolph Valentino. Suffering neglect during the Depression, the Fairmont sprung back to life at the end of World War II when it hosted delegates to the international conference to found the United Nations. And it’s at this hotel that Tony Bennett premiered his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
We were just in time to enjoy holiday decorations.
The Fairmont Hotel carries a pricey nightly rate, but there’s no charge for hanging out in the lobby!
The Mark Hopkins
The Mark Hopkins sits on Nob Hill across the street from the Fairmont Hotel. It’s run by Intercontinental Hotels now, but it retains its early history feel.
The hotel opened in 1926 on the site of the mansion lived in by railroad magnate Mark Hopkins. The mansion, though not toppled the day of the 1906 earthquake, fell victim to the fires that then ravaged the city. Today, a high-rise hotel occupies this coveted spot in San Francisco. A banquet celebrating the new hotel featured fancy china and silver. The next day, 50 silver spoons had gone missing, appropriated as mementos by the guests.
The hotel is famous for it’s bar on the 19th floor, the Top of the Mark. During World War II, the Top Of The Mark lounge was the scene of tender goodbyes as servicemen met their sweethearts here before being deployed. Today, you can grab a drink at the Top of the Mark and enjoy a fabulous view of the city (unless Karl is visiting).
If you are in San Francisco and you’re looking for something a little different to fill out your itinerary, a visit to iconic hotels will be fascinating. Bask in the elegance, enjoy a latte or glass of wine, and learn about the history and famous folks who’ve walked the same lobby. You may find on leaving that you, too, have left your heart in San Francisco.
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