Hotels in San Francisco - Guide to Finding the Best Place to Stay

  • 01 of 09

    Hotels in San Francisco: Where to Stay

    ••• San Francisco Area Map. © 2005 by Betsy Malloy. All rights reserved.

    There's a lot more to finding the perfect hotel in San Francisco than just going to a travel website and searching for places that get good reviews. There's more to it than asking your friends where they stayed. And there's more to it than picking a place at random because it's cheap.

    If you want to find the perfect San Francisco hotel for your trip — not your neighbor's trip, your mother's trip or some stranger's trip — you need to know about the city's major areas, their pros and cons and what you can see and do in each of them.

    The following pages will give you an idea of what each part of the city is like, with the pros and cons of staying there. Browse around, and when you find an area you like, I'll tell you how to find the best hotels in that area.

    Tips About Where to Stay

    Resist the urge to stay outside the city because of lower hotel prices. You'll have to fight traffic and find a parking place once you get in town. Even if you save a few...MORE dollars, you'll lose your temper.

    Street parking is impossible in most areas, and many San Francisco hotels charge up to  $60 a day for parking. You can get around most of the tourist area without an automobile, so consider skipping the rental car and applying the money toward a nice, more convenient hotel.

    Learn about hidden hotel costs and how to avoid them.

    Rent a car for the day when you want to drive around outside the city and return it in the evening. Most car rental companies have pick-up locations in the city.

    San Francisco's Victorian bed and breakfasts cluster around Alamo Square and Golden Gate Park. They're charming, but because they're not centrally located, you'll have to hassle with a car or take a bus or taxi. Any other area in San Francisco besides the ones we mention is much less convenient, including the airport, so be sure you have a good reason for staying there.

    Some hotel chains guarantee that you'll find the lowest published online rates at their websites. With them, you can save time in your search by going directly to their websites. 

    Continue to 2 of 9 below.
  • 02 of 09

    Hotels in San Francisco: Union Square

    San Francisco, St Francis Hotel at Union Square
    ••• St Francis Hotel at Union Square. P. Eoche / Getty Images

    Union Square is a favorite place to go in San Francisco. It's centered on a lively public space and surrounded by the city's top-named shops, restaurants, and hotels. Side streets lead to interesting boutiques, art galleries, and the theatre district. Discover more in the Union Square Visitor Guide

    What You May Not Know That Some Hotels Take Advantage Of

    Upscale Union Square borders on The Tenderloin, an area that some call "seedy," with a reputation for crime. The borders are blurred, but most streets leading west from Union Square begin a gradual decline after they cross Mason Street.

    Hotels on the edges of the Tenderloin sometimes try to hype their connection with Union Square, ignoring their surroundings. They may be nice inside, and some are well-rated, but the walk from their door to the main tourist areas could take you through some uncomfortable spots.

    A map is a better ally than the hotel website when you're trying to figure out whether it's the right place...MORE for you. Take special care when considering a place west of Mason. Reading lots of reader reviews at Tripadvisor may also help.

    Pluses and Minuses

    ++++ Union Square is as centrally located as you can get, with lots of public transportation nearly at your doorstep. From the nearby BART station, you can connect directly to the San Francisco Airport. Use our guide to BART from SFO to find out how. Cable cars run from Powell and Market to Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square and the historic trolley line can take you to the Ferry Building and Pier 39.

    + Union Square has lots of hotels. When we last counted, almost 40 within the area shown above, and about one-fifth of them are well-rated and offer affordable rates. This is also the area of town with the most boutique hotels.

    ++ Union Square is one of the best places in town to use our strategies for getting a nice hotel for a lower rate. Using them, we've gotten rooms in some of the best hotels in the area for little more than you'd pay for a cheap motel, especially on weekends.

    - - - - Parking is limited in the Union Square area, and hotels charge up to $40 or more per night for it. You can lower that cost somewhat by choosing a nearby city-operated lot, but parking will still add a lot to the cost of your stay.

    - - Union Square is one of the city's oldest areas, and most hotels were built in the early twentieth century. By modern standards, their rooms are small, and their bathrooms can seem minuscule. In some, rooms may have windows - but they face into a ventilation shaft. Many have undergone beautiful, stylish renovations, but their footprints remain unchanged. If you're looking for a spacious, modern room, you'll be better off in the South of Market area.

    Mapping Union Square

    We think of Union Square as the area a few blocks around the square. Others use different definitions, something to be keenly aware of when researching hotels online:

    • Tripadvisor classifies Union Square as "Downtown," but that covers a much wider area which could include hotels in the Tenderloin or up a long, steep climb on Nob Hill.
    • Priceline divides Union Square into two parts, East and West, but both are essentially within the area above.
    • Expedia puts Union Square and South of Market in the same category. It's easy to tell which is which if you look at a map (Hint: Look for Market Street).

    Finding the Perfect Union Square Hotel for You

    We use Tripadvisor as an important tool in planning most of our trips, and we're happy to share our secrets: How to use the same process we do to choose your hotel. Or just go straight to Tripadvisor and click on Downtown to start your research.

    Continue to 3 of 9 below.
  • 03 of 09

    Hotels in San Francisco: Fisherman's Wharf

    San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf
    ••• San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf. P. Eoche / Getty Images

    Fisherman's Wharf is perhaps the tourist center of San Francisco, the place everyone seems to want to go, with a busy tourist scene. Hotel-wise, it's the place every major hotel chain wants to be. You'll find Hyatt, Marriott, Best Western, Holiday Inn, Radisson, Sheraton, and Hilton, but few privately-owned or boutique hotels.

    Discover more about visiting in the Fisherman's Wharf Visitor Guide. Nearby attractions include: Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square.

    Near Fisherman's Wharf is where you can also catch Bay Cruises and Alcatraz Tours.

    What You May Not Know That Some Hotels Take Advantage Of

    No matter what hotels around Fisherman's Wharf may try to tell you, none of them are on the waterfront. At best, they're a couple of blocks away.

    Some may have a limited view, but most are only a few stories high, and that view will be far from panoramic.

    Pluses and Minuses

    ++ You'll notice from the list above that Fisherman's Wharf is close to a lot of...MORE attractions, but in San Francisco, nothing is very far apart and other areas are also convenient.

    +++ Fisherman's Wharf is close to the trolley and cable car lines, making it easy to get to Chinatown, Union Square and other spots.

    - - - - Room rates at Fisherman's Wharf are higher than in other areas of the city, and occupancy is high, so you'll seldom find a discount. Also, Fisherman's Wharf hotels tend to cost more and get lower ratings than comparable lodging elsewhere in town.

    - - - Only one hotel at Fisherman's Wharf offers free parking (Wharf Inn). Everywhere else, parking fees will add even more expense to your stay - and street parking or city-owned lots are not viable alternatives.

    - - - If you want to get into San Francisco from the airport using public transportation, Fisherman's Wharf is a hard area to reach, requiring several changes to get there.

    - - Nearby restaurants tend to be expensive, catering to tourists with advertisements and gimmicks while serving mediocre meals. People also complain that everything closes early in this part of town.

    Mapping Fisherman's Wharf

    We think of Fisherman's Wharf as the area centered around Jefferson and Taylor Streets, within a couple of blocks from the waterfront. Others use different definitions, something to be keenly aware of when researching hotels online:

    • Priceline and Tripadvisor define Fisherman's Wharf very much like the map above.
    • Expedia extends Fisherman's Wharf to include lodging along Lombard Street, so far from the wharf that you couldn't hear even the noisiest sea lion barking.
    • Kayak doesn't categorize hotels by area, but you can use their map-based search to find ones in the right area.
    Continue to 4 of 9 below.
  • 04 of 09

    Hotels in San Francisco: Waterfront and Financial District

    View from Hotel Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco, California, USA
    ••• View from Hotel Mandarin Oriental. Christian Heeb / Getty Images

    The San Francisco Financial District is small by some city's standards, a cluster of skyscrapers near the end of Market Street. It ends at the waterfront.

    This is the city's business district, and except for the area immediately next to the water, there's little for tourists to see or do. Put a couple of facts together: San Francisco is a small city and hotels get few business travelers on the weekends. Because of that, this area turns out to be a great place to get an excellent hotel for a scandalously low rate if you know how.

    You'll find less than a dozen hotels in this area, three facing the waterfront and the rest located in the business district.

    What You May Not Know That Some Hotels Take Advantage Of

    There are views of San Francisco - and then there are views. Just because a room has a view, it doesn't mean that you'll be looking at the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. Instead, you might be facing the baseball park or looking inland.

    The waterfront hotels...MORE (Harbor Court, Hotel Vitale, and Hotel Griffon) have views (some great ones, especially of the Bay Bridge), but only from rooms on the water side of their building.

    The bottom line here is that the best way to get what you want is to pick up the phone and talk to someone.

    Pluses and Minuses

    +++ There's a BART station nearby, where you can connect directly to the San Francisco Airport. The historic trolley line can take you to Union Square, Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39. Or take the cable car up California to Chinatown and Nob Hill.

    +++ Many of the hotels here are newer than those around Union Square. They're built for comfort and to provide excellent views from as many rooms as possible.

    +++ This is the best area in town to find a hotel with a great view. We think the Mandarin Oriental offers the tops in that department, but it's not the only one with high floors and lots of big windows.

    ++ The Financial District can be the best place in town to get a nice hotel at a lower rate. In fact, people have reported online getting four-star financial district hotels for as little as $90 to $100 per night on the weekend using strategies like these. The three hotels that face the waterfront are exceptions because of their popularity with tourists.

    - - - - Full-price, weekday rates are the highest in the city. All the hotels in this area charge for parking, but there are some city-operated lots in the area where you might pay less.

    - - If you came to San Francisco because of its unique architecture and look, you may be surprised to find that the middle of the financial district looks much like the center of any large city, with towering buildings shading the streets and making them feel like concrete canyons. If you want to stay in an area that looks like the San Francisco you imagined, this may not be the place for you.

    Mapping the Waterfront and Financial District

    We think of the Waterfront and Financial District as the area where all the tallest buildings are and the adjacent section of the waterfront along The Embarcadero (which is the name of a street). 

    Others use different definitions, something to be keenly aware of when researching hotels online:

    • Tripadvisor divides this area into two parts: Financial District and Embarcadero (which is what we're calling the waterfront).
    • Priceline combines both those areas into Financial District - Embarcadero
    • Expedia calls it Financial District - Ferry Building, but choose that option and you'll also get hotels at Union Square and in Chinatown.
    • Kayak doesn't categorize hotels by area, but you can use their map-based search to find ones in the right area.
    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Hotels in San Francisco: Convention Center, South of Market (SOMA)

    Marriott Marquis from Yerba Buena Center
    ••• Marriott Marquis from Yerba Buena Center. Premium UIG/Getty Images

    South of Market Street, you'll find the Moscone Convention Center, the baseball park, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena arts center.

    Keeping in mind San Francisco's small size, the difference between Union Square and South of Market may be a few blocks.

    Pluses and Minuses

    +++ Hotels in SOMA are some of San Francisco's newest, including the W, Marriott Marquis and Four Seasons. Older properties tend to be nicely renovated.

    +++ From nearby BART stations (Market/2nd or Market/Powell), you can connect directly to the San Francisco Airport. Use our guide to BART from SFO to find out how. Cable cars run from Powell and Market to Fisherman's Wharf and the historic trolley line can take you to the Ferry Building and Pier 39.

    ++ When the conventioneers go away, SOMA is a great place to get a nice hotel for a lower rate, especially at the Marriott Marquis, where we frequently see folks at biddingfortravel.com post low rates. The...MORE convention schedule changes constantly and the only easy way to find out how it's affecting prices is to check.

    - - - - In most cities, hotels near the convention center tend to be some of the most expensive, especially during large meetings. They tend to pile on extra charges and all charge for parking, too.

    - - - If you're looking for old-fashioned San Francisco style, this may not be where you want to stay.

    Mapping South of Market

    South of Market (SOMA) is... south of Market Street, but Market is long, and SOMA doesn't include its entire length. To find a SOMA hotel, look between 2nd and 5th Streets. The Moscone Convention Center is on Howard, between 3rd and 5th Streets.

    By this definition, the area is home to about 20 hotels.

    Others use different definitions, something to be keenly aware of when researching hotels online:

    • Tripadvisor extends SOMA to 9th Street). If you plan to walk from your hotel to the convention center, that's eight blocks or more, some of it through one of the city's seedier areas.
    • Priceline calls the area SOMA - Moscone Center and defines it much the same way we do.
    • Expedia groups SOMA with Union Square into Union Square-Convention Center.
    • Kayak doesn't categorize hotels by area, but you can use their map-based search to find the right area.
    Continue to 6 of 9 below.
  • 06 of 09

    Hotels in San Francisco: Nob Hill

    Nob Hill, San Francisco
    ••• Nob Hill, San Francisco. Ryan McGinnis / Getty Images

    You could easily include Nob Hill with Union Square when thinking about where to stay in San Francisco, but this hilltop spot has distinctive features that make it worth describing separately. You won't find a lot of tourist attractions, other then the wonderful Grace Cathedral and "Top of the Mark" bar at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel. But the neighborhoods' origins may give a clue to its appeal: This is where all the California railroad barons built their mansions, on a hilltop with nearly 360-degree views of city and Bay.

    What You May Not Know That Some Hotels Take Advantage Of

    If you see the phrase "lower" Nob Hill, don't be fooled. On a map, it looks like they're close, but in fact, the so-called lower part is not on the hill and may even be on the edge of the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood.

    Pluses and Minuses

    +++ Views, views, views. In all directions.

    ++ The California Cable Car line runs through the middle of Nob Hill. It...MORE can take you to Chinatown or connect with other lines that go to Union Square or the waterfront.

    +++ This posh neighborhood is where you'll find some of the most elegant, old-style San Francisco hotels.

    - - - - All those great views come with matching prices - and all the hotels charge for parking, too.

    - - On foot, the uphill climb from the waterfront or Union Square is a steep one.

    - - - There's little of tourist interest on Nob Hill, although tourist areas aren't all that far away.

    - - - If you're depending on public transportation to get you to Nob Hill from the airport, there's no direct connection.

    Mapping Nob Hill

    Nob Hill is small, just about 6 square blocks and with only a handful of hotels. 

    Others use different definitions, something to be keenly aware of when researching hotels online:

    • TripAdvisor oddly lists Nob Hill as an area of the city, but then puts some Nob Hill hotels into Downtown instead.
    • Priceline includes Nob Hill with Union Square West, but this may be of little concern since they seldom offer Nob Hill hotels.
    • Expedia includes Nob Hill with Union Square/Convention Center.
    • Kayak doesn't categorize hotels by area, but you can use their map-based search to find the right area.
    Continue to 7 of 9 below.
  • 07 of 09

    Interesting Hotels in San Francisco: Other Areas

    Low angle view of a hotel,North Beach,San Francisco,California,USA
    ••• Hotel in San Francisco. Glow Images, Inc / Getty Images

    Depending on what you're doing, where you're going and what your needs are, you might consider a few other areas in San Francisco for your hotel location.

    Pros and Cons of Staying in Other Areas of San Francisco

    Chinatown and North Beach: You'll only find a handful of hotels in these two popular tourist areas, but they include one of the few places in the middle of San Francisco that offers free parking (Royal Pacific) and one of the top-rated budget hotels (Columbus Motor Inn).  However, the Hotel des Arts, Baldwin and Triton Hotels are right outside the Chinatown gate. There's also a Hilton on Kearny that's just across the street from Portsmouth Square.

    Lombard and the Marina: It's a bit far from the most popular tourist areas, but you'll find some fairly inexpensive-yet-nice places, some with free parking. Our favorite in this area is the cute, clean Marina Motel.

    Van Ness: You'll find a few big hotels along this street, some of which are popular with...MORE tour bus companies and with groups holding small meetings.

    Japantown: A good base for exploring one of only two Japantowns in the United States. It's also close to the Fillmore shopping and dining area.

    Civic Center: Serves the city and state government offices and is also close to the public library, Asian Art Museum and Symphony Hall.

    West SOMA: We didn't include this area in South of Market because it's a bit far to walk to the convention center, but you'll find a cluster of well-priced hotels along 7th Street, just south of Market. How well you'll like staying here depends on your tolerance for a somewhat gritty street scene.

    Where We Stay

    When working on the west side of San Francisco, we've stayed at the Laurel Inn, a nice place on California Avenue and the Marina Motel, an excellent value on Lombard's motel row.

    In Japantown, we like both the Hotel Tomo and the Kabuki.

    Continue to 8 of 9 below.
  • 08 of 09

    Hotels Near San Francisco Airport

    Aerial View of San Francisco International Airport
    ••• San Francisco International Airport. Douglas Keister / Getty Images

    The first thing you need to know: San Francisco International Airport is not inside the San Francisco city limits. Instead, it's about 13 miles south of downtown, reached by a busy freeway. It takes at least 20 minutes to drive between the two places, but it can be much longer when traffic is busy (and it often is).

    Pluses and Minuses

    ++ Hotel prices are somewhat lower around the airport than in the main tourist areas - but that's partly because you'll find more budget-oriented chain hotels in this area. About two-thirds of hotels in the area offer free parking.

    +++ If you're flying in late or out early, an airport-area hotel will be close, and you won't have to worry about traffic jams. Many hotels offer airport shuttle service, too.

    - - - - As a base for touring San Francisco, the airport is too far away and not well-served by public transportation. What you save on room rates can easily be offset by transit costs. And in a vehicle, you could...MORE easily burn an hour per day of vacation time just driving back and forth.

    - - - - Other than restaurants in the hotels themselves, you'll find only a few places to eat nearby.

    Mapping SFO

    SFO is outside the San Francisco city limits. Nearby hotels are in South San Francisco, Burlingame, San Bruno or Millbrae. Here's how some of the most popular booking services categorize San Francisco airport hotels:

    • Tripadvisor doesn't include airport hotels on their San Francisco lodging page. To find hotels around the airport, choose one of the places listed above, then expand the map until you can see them all.
    • Priceline's San Francisco Airport hotels are divided into three areas: South San Francisco, SFO International Airport - Burlingame and SFO North - San Bruno.
    • Expedia groups them all together under San Francisco International Airport.
    • Kayak doesn't sort by location, but you can use their map-based search to zero in on the right area.
    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Other San Francisco Lodging

    Alamo Square at Night
    ••• Alamo Square at Night. ©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Hotels by Type

    If you're more concerned about the kind of place you stay in and its characteristics than you are about its location, these lists can help:

    Besides a traditional hotel or motel, you have lots of other options for a place to stay in San Francisco:

    Bed and Breakfasts

    Many are located outside the tourist areas, giving a better view of everyday life in San Francisco, but with the downside that you'll have to get yourself to the more popular sightseeing areas by public transportation or taxi. Use BedandBreakfast.com to explore your options.

    Camping

    You won't find a single place to pitch your tent or set up your RV in the city of San Francisco, but there are few options within a half hour's drive. Use this guide to find a place to camp nearby.

    Hostels

    They're cheap, and some may be nicer than you expect, with private rooms. Some are in very convenient locations, but others are outside the main...MORE tourist areas. Check the map if that's an issue - or just call and ask. Here's a list of all the San Francisco hostels.