Most San Francisco hotels are located down. This is especially true of the major business-oriented chains and also a fairly huge selection of more intimate boutique properties that range from budget-oriented to ritzy. The majority of the city's notable downtown lodgings are within a few blocks of either Union Square or Nob Hill, but for the purposes of this online guide, we're including pretty much any lodging options on or north of Turk Street and Market Street (see the SoMa Hotels Guide for recommendations south of Market), east of Van Ness Avenue, and north and east to the bay (that includes some more far-flung areas like Fishermans Wharf and Russian Hill, but most of the recommendations in this guide are right downtown).
There's a lot to be said for staying downtown - it's the heart of the city's upscale retail district, and also where you'll find many of San Francisco's top attractions. Many of the area's hotels, especially skyscrapers and those atop Nob Hill, have stunning views of the skyline and surrounding San Francisco Bay. The neighborhood is well-served by public transit, and it's also easy to hail cabs in this part of town. The drawback, particularly for LGBT visitors and really anybody wanting to be close to the city's hottest indie dining and retail districts, is that cool neighborhoods like the Mission, Castro, Hayes Valley, Noe Valley, NoPa (North of the Panhandle), and others aren't especially close by. You can walk to Hayes Valley, the outer reaches of SoMa, and even the Mission in anywhere from about 30 to 45 minutes, and all of these areas are pretty well served by MUNI and buses, but if you're hitting the gay bars in the Castro and coming home late at night, you'll probably want to take a taxi back downtown, and that'll run you $15 or $20. If being in the heart of the Castro or some other more diverting neighborhood matters to you, check out the San Francisco Castro, Mission & Hayes Valley Gay Hotels Guide, and also the San Francisco SoMa Gay Hotels Guide, which has some listings fairly close both to downtown and the fun and hip area of lower or outer SoMa, close to the Mission, which has a bunch of cool gay bars and hipster-flavored cafes and restaurants.
Car or No Car?
If you're staying downtown or even nearby in SoMa, a car is expensive hindrance - it's not unusual to pay $50 nightly or more at hotels with prime locations around Union Square and Nob Hill, and that's on top of whatever you're paying if this is a car you've rented. Furthermore, it's easy to get to downtown hotels via Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) from SFO and, with just a little more time and effort, Oakland - here's a guide to airport transit via BART into San Francisco. From the BART stations on Market Street downtown, many hotels are within a 5- to 15-minute walk. If you are planning a day trip or two outside of the city - maybe a quick hop over the Marin Headlands or around the East Bay - you can always rent a car just for the day from a downtown rental agency (virtually all of the major car-rental companies have downtown locations, and at these branches, you'll usually save money since you're not charged airport taxes and surcharges). If you're staying in one of the outlying San Francisco neighborhoods, such as the Castro or Hayes Valley, a car might make more sense, and some B&Bs and inns out this way do offer free or very affordable parking, but even in these areas, you can probably make due just as well using cabs and public transit.
For comfortable, clean, and stylish accommodations that won't break your budget, the gay-welcoming Hotel Bijou (111 Mason St., 415-771-1200) is a terrific option. This cozy and whimsically decorated 65-room is dedicated to films shot in San Francisco (photographs from films and of historic local theaters adorn the walls), and just off the lobby, there's even a fun, tiny cinema - the Petit Theater - that shows films twice nightly (at 7 and 9:30). Rooms are simple and uncluttered, with comfy beds, irons and boards, writing desks, two-line phones with voicemail, and other useful perks. Bathrooms aren't huge, but they're fine, especially given the reasonable rates, and the staff is helpful and welcoming. There are pros and cons regarding the hotel's location. On the plus side, the hotel is just steps from the Powell Street BART and MUNI station, three blocks from Union Square, and less than a 20-minute walk from the hip dining/nightlife area of SoMa. If you approach the hotel from the east, you'll feel as though you're right in the heart of downtown. One drawback, which accounts in part for the reasonable rates, are that the hotel is on the border of the down-on-the-heels Tenderloin neighborhood - walk west or south, and you'll be in one of the rougher parts of town. But there's not really much reason for you to venture in that direction, and there are plenty of other quite good hotels with this same location straddling downtown and the Tenderloin.
There are plenty of reasons the Hotel Triton (342 Grant Ave., 415-394-0500) has long been a favorite roost of LGBT visitors staying downtown. It's one of the more affordable boutique properties downtown, and it's well-regarded for having one of the friendliest staffs in the city - they really go out of their way here to provide advice and help guests get where they're going. The hotel has relatively compact rooms but good-size windows and upbeat (yellow-green) colors, with high-quality linens, eco-friendly bath amenities, free morning coffee and newspaper, free Wi-Fi, and minibars from which you can purchase all sorts of tasty snacks; there are a handful of over-the-top fun celeb and specialty suites (Haagen-Dazs, Kathy Griffin D List, Jerry Garcia, King Triton), which are worth checking out if you're looking for a memorable stay (the D List is, of course, a favorite with gay guests). There's also a complimentary wine hour each evening, and adjacent Cafe de la Press serves delish French food. The 140-room Triton is pet-friendly, can arrange in-room spa services, provides yoga mats for use in each room, has a small but decent basement exercise room, and has a pretty sensational location - a few blocks from the crowds of Market Street, directly across from the Chinatown Gate, and at the foot of Nob Hill.
There are few settings more romantic and magical in San Francisco than that of the stylish Scarlet Huntington (1075 California St., 415-474-5400), which rises high atop prestigious Nob Hill, directly across from neatly manicured Huntington Park and diagonally across the street from iconic Grace Cathedral (famous for its Keith Haring altarpiece in the AIDS chapel and its amusing role in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City). Built in the early '20s and named for one the Big Four railroad titans of California, Collis P. Huntington, the 12-story Georgia-style building exudes history, and its original construction as an apartment building results in unusually spacious and livable rooms and suites - just 134 in total. After its purchase and rebranding as the Scarlet Huntington, the hotel completed an impressive $15 million makeover in 2014 - the building has kept its best historical elements, including the dark paneling and vintage photographs in the clubby and retro-cool Big 4 Restaurant as well as the absolutely stunning three-level Nob Hill Spa, complete with an indoor infinity pool and a large outdoor balcony with skyline views.
But rooms now have a decidedly swanky and sexy contemporary vibe reflected by the bold color schemes, judicious mix of Asian-inspired furnishings, and such eye-catching details as faux-snakeskin headboards and black-oak cabinetry. Huge windows are a big plus here - these rooms are light and airy, and many have unsurpassed views of the city and surrounding San Francisco Bay. Intimate, personal service is a hallmark at the Scarlet Huntington - spend just a night here, and staff will already have begun greeting you by name and offering helpful restaurant suggestions. And if you need a quick lift somewhere close by, you can enjoy a free ride in the complimentary hotel limo. Rates are on the upper end here, but compared with the size of the rooms and level of service, the Scarlet Huntington is a terrific luxury value.
It weathered the 1906 earthquake and the 1920s Fatty Arbuckle scandal, and an assassination attempt on Gerald Ford, and it's hosted such dignitaries and celebs as Charlie Chaplin, Teddy Roosevelt, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Queen Elizabeth II, Salvador Dali, and Barack Obama, plus quite a few LGBT figures, such as Liberace, Alan Cummings, B.D. Wong, Charles Nelson Reilly, Jim Nabors, Johnny Mathis, Lily Tomlin, Melissa Etheridge, Raymond Burr, Truman Capote, and the cast of the film Milk. The Westin St. Francis (335 Powell St., 415-397-7000) also overlooks one of the most famous city blocks in the country, Union Square, Built in 1904, the original wing of the hotel rises 13 stories and comprises three stately wings; in 1971, the 32-story Pacific Tower was added to the hotel's west side. Between these two buildings, guests can choose from among 1,195 rooms and suites.
If you're keen on history, book a room in the original Landmark Building, whose accommodations come in a wide range of configurations and styles and retain many original details, such as elaborate moldings and high ceilings. This wing is undergoing a major renovation in 2016 that will add some modern touches, but you can expect these rooms to keep their classic aesthetic. In the Pacific Tower, huge bay windows offer stunning downtown skyline views, especially from upper floors, and rooms tend to be a bit larger but also more uniform - a plus or a minus, depending on what you're looking for. Note that atop the tower, the Imperial Floor is home to one of the most stunning event and wedding spaces in the city - it's hosted many LGBT ceremonies. The Westin guest amenities include the below-ground, 4,600-square-foot St. Francis Renewal Spa and its 24/7 workout facility plus several notable dining venues, including a casual coffeebar and cafe Caruso's (check out the delicious and colorful macarons); the venerable Clock Bar, a favorite spot to meet friends, enjoy cocktails, and nosh tasty bar snacks; the elegant Oak Room, long a top destination for power breakfasts and lunches and classic American dinner fare; and the San Francisco outpost of Michael Mina's swank eatery, Bourbon Steak.