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Destination of the Week: San Francisco

by on March 7, 2014 · 27 comments

in Destination of the Week

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Known as the City by the Bay, San Francisco is a compact, seven-by-seven-mile collection of steep hills, panoramic views, cultural pursuits and farm-to-table cuisine. For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne and TPG contributor Brian Houtz take us to Northern California’s historic and progressive city of San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge glimpsed from Lincoln Park

Golden Gate Bridge glimpsed from Lincoln Park

WHAT TO DO

The heart of San Francisco is Golden Gate Park, largely created for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition and an ideal place to begin an exploration of the city.

Take a rowboat around the park’s largest  body of water, Stow Lake, and enjoy the elegant Japanese Tea Gardens, where Japanese tea ceremony demonstrations are held (and tea served) at a reproduction pavilion from spring through fall. Stroll amongst more than 8,000 varieties of plants from around the world in the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Gardens at Strybing Arborteum, where forest paths and open spaces lie adjacent to the California Academy of Sciences; this cutting-edge science center is home to an albino alligator, a planetarium, an indoor rainforest and an innovative living roof.

Living roof of the California Academy of Sciences

Living roof of the California Academy of Sciences

Beside the Academy is the M.H. de Young Museum, the oldest museum in the city, which, due to earthquake damage, has been housed in a modern, copper-sheathed building since 2005. The de Young’s main focus is on American art, but collections also include works from Central and South America, as well as Oceania. Nearby, the Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers includes elaborately landscaped outdoor gardens, as well as an aquatic section that features the world’s largest water lilies.

Conservatory of Flowers

Conservatory of Flowers

Other attractions at Golden Gate Park include a bison paddock, the peaceful AIDS Memorial Garden, a network of five marshy lakes, oak woodlands and wide-open recreational areas, making the park worth at least a day of your visit.

Looking over Golden Gate Park, the elegant 1923 California Palace of the Legion of Honor is perched on the highest point of Lincoln Park. The museum’s collections focus on European paintings, objects and decorative art, as well as works from ancient Greece and Egypt.

Monuments gracing the Legion of Honor's grounds at Lincoln Park

Monuments on the Legion of Honor grounds at Lincoln Park

Far to the east, the Embarcadero meanders beside the San Francisco Bay, offering peaceful views of the Bay Bridge and a flotilla’s worth of boats. At the Embarcadero’s Pier 15, the 330,000-square-foot Exploratorium (which used to be located by the Marina within the Palace of Fine Arts) is dedicated to science and creativity, with hundreds of interactive exhibits and “explainers” instead of docents.

San Francisco Bay from the Embarcadero

San Francisco Bay from the Embarcadero

At the other end of the Embarcadero lies the bustling Ferry Building Marketplace, a huge building packed with artisanal food and wine stores featuring foodstuffs made in Northern California. It’s a great place to shop for Golden Gate Park-picnic fixings or unique local souvenirs, or just to stop in for lunch. On Tuesdays and Thursdays (10am-2pm) and Saturdays (8am-2pm), you’ll also find the city’s liveliest farmers’ market here, sprawling along the building’s plaza.

Interior of the Ferry Marketplace Building

Interior of the Ferry Marketplace Building.

San Francisco’s historic Italian neighborhood, North Beach, is full of places to linger over a cappuccino and gelato, or rifle through the stacks at the Beat Generation’s still-popular City Lights Books, or catch the city’s longest-running musical, Beach Blanket Babylon, a mix of drag show, comedic theater and current events.

Atop North Beach’s highest point, Telegraph Hill,  the 210-foot-tall Coit Tower has provided some pretty spectacular views of the city since 1933. As it’s notoriously difficult to find parking up here, don some sturdy/comfortable shoes and climb the eastern slope of the hill via the Filbert Street stairs (passing through the Grace Marchant Garden) or the Greenwich Street stairs. Skip the cramped interior observation tower and opt instead for the view from the grounds.

North Beach is full of gelato bars and espresso cafes

North Beach is full of gelato bars and espresso cafes

Just north of North  Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf is the most heavily touristed neighborhood in San Francisco. Though it is strewn with tacky souvenir shops and gimmicky museums, the area does have its charms. The bay views are spectacular, cable cars and fishing boats provide good photo opportunities, and the barking of sun-basking sea lions can almost always be heard. The main commercial attractions here are two indoor-outdoor mall complexes: Ghiradelli Square (which includes the Ghiradelli Chocolate Marketplace, where there are always free samples) and the kid-friendly Pier 39, which includes a sea lion viewing area and a carousel.

Fisherman’s Wharf is the launch point for tours of the notorious former prison, Alcatraz Island, where a hidden underground fortress was just recently discovered. Offered by the National Park Service’s Alcatraz Cruises, these tours tend to sell out at least a week in advance, so be sure to book ahead.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

South of here in the Financial District, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)‘ building is closed for construction into 2016, but its collections are on display at different sites, including the adjacent Yerba Buena Center for Arts and the nearby Asian Art Museum. A few blocks away, Union Square is full of hotels and contains some of the city’s best shopping and the major streetcar turnaround, as well as a handful of Broadway theaters (like the beautiful 1909 Geary, home of the American Conservatory Theater), and brand-name shops like Anthropologie, Niketown and the flagship Williams-Sonoma. Many of San Francisco’s finest art galleries are also found in the Union Square area, including those at the multi-gallery complexes at 49 Geary and 77 Geary. For a fair deal on the work of emerging Bay Area artists, stop into Hang Art.

One of the many fine, historic office buildings in the Financial District

One of the many historic office buildings in the Financial District

Just north of Union Square and to the west of the Financial District, a dragon-topped, green-tiled gate at Grant Avenue and Bush Street marks the entrance to America’s oldest Chinatown. Saturday is the busiest day here, when locals shop for spices, produce and live animals. Wander in and out of bazaars, emporiums and herb shops along Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, explore Buddhist temples on Waverly Place, and be sure to pick up a $3 bag of eponymous treats at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, open seven days a week (56 Ross Alley).

The gateway to San Francisco's Chinatown

The gateway to San Francisco’s Chinatown

For a sweeping city view, hoof your way up and down Russian Hill‘s Lombard Street, known as the most crooked street in the world. Head north to Pacific Heights, an upscale neighborhood full of Victorian mansions, laid-back cafes and boutique shopping. While in the area, climb down the garden-lined steps at Broadway and Lyon for a view of the Bay and the Palace of Fine Arts, and take a tour of the Haas-Lilienthal House, a fully-preserved 1886 Queen Anne Victorian that serves as headquarters for San Francisco Architectural Heritage.

One of San Francisco's famous vintage cable cars

One of San Francisco’s vintage street cars

Just to the east of Golden Gate Park, stroll through still-groovy Haight-Ashbury to look at some of the city’s most colorfully painted Victorian houses. Southeast of the Haight you’ll find the Castro District, the most condensed LGBT neighborhood in the city, as well as the United States. During World War II, San Francisco was where the military released servicemen who were discharged for homosexuality, and many of these former soldiers and sailors stayed on in the city, settling in the Castro. With the rise of the Beat Generation, the Civil Rights Era and the Summer of Love, the Castro became famous as a gathering place for gay and lesbian people from across America. Now full of gay-owned and -friendly restaurants and bars , the area is especially hopping at night, centered around the neon marquee of the historic Castro Theatre. The last Sunday in June is San Francisco’s huge SF Pride Parade, the area’s biggest annual event.

Just east of the Castro is the Mission District, the city’s oldest Latino neighborhood and home to some of the city’s best casual Mexican restaurants. It’s also home to grassy, friendly and locally beloved Mission Delores Park, which is partially closing this month to undergo a 14-month renovation; fortunately, in addition to this and Golden Gate Park, there are 218 other parks to explore in San Francisco. Possible outdoor adventures include checking out SFMOMA’s enormous outdoor sculptures at the Presidio’s Crissy Field and hoofing your way around Mt. Davidson, a network of green space and trails criss-crossing the highest point in the city.

Redwood grove in Golden Gate Park

Redwood grove in Golden Gate Park

WHAT TO EAT

One of America’s greatest food destinations, San Francisco’s dining scene could keep a hungry visitor busy for months without repeating a a meal. No matter what other influences inspire a local restaurant’s cuisine, the ingredients are likely to be sourced  from local farmers, fishermen and purveyors. Here are just a few of the myriad fine restaurants the city has to offer.

Coi, the North Beach flagship of local celebrity chef Scott Patterson has two Michelin stars and a completely new dinner menu every night, based on what’s freshest that season/day/hour. Dinner runs about $200 per person. In the Castro, Frances is named for chef Melissa Perello’s grandmother and offers farm-fresh, comforting foods like applewood smoked bacon beignets and a garden’s worth of salads, as well as mostly-fruit desserts, a wine list hailing largely from Northern California, and locally made bread by Josey Baker.

Applewood smoked bacon beignets with creme fraiche at Frances

Applewood smoked bacon beignets with chive creme fraiche at Frances

Set just south of Pacific Heights in a neighborhood called the Western Addition, State Bird Provisions was the 2012 James Beard Award winner for best new restaurant, and it’s been hard to get a reservation ever since. The high-concept, extensive dinner menu of exotic small plates is served on dim sum carts, and is ideal for a group of four to maximize sampling. Now celebrating its 10th year, A16 in the Marina is named for a road that traverses Italy’s Campania region. Serving lunch and dinner, the kitchen specializes in wood-fired pizzas and rich pastas, as well as a wine list that skews heavily towards Southern Italy.

A16, in the Marina

A16, in the Marina

A more modern, streamlined version of a Cantonese restaurant, R&G Lounge in Chinatown specializes in salt & pepper crab, Peking Duck and fresh-fruit martinis. You’ll find fresh, complex Mexican flavors and killer cocktails at the casual Nopalito, which has two locations near Golden Gate Park – one on Broderick just east of the park’s panhandle in Fillmore, the other just south of the park in Inner Sunset.

If you’re a coffee drinker, be sure to sample locally roasted Blue Bottle Coffee (cafes are found in various locations, including the Ferry Building), and for a hearty breakfast, arrive early to beat the crowds at Dottie’s True Blue Cafe in SoMa for enormous omelettes and grilled chili-cheddar cornbread, or the signature fluffy pancakes.

The whimsical interior of Dottie's True Blue Cafe

The whimsical interior of Dottie’s True Blue Cafe.

Those are just a couple recent favorites, but feel free to suggest your own must-eats in the comments section of this post!

GETTING THERE

San Francisco can be reached via two nearby airports (we’re not including SJC here): San Francisco International (SFO) and Oakland International (OAK). Set just 10 miles south of the city, SFO is a hub for Virgin America and United, while OAK, a hub for Southwest, is set 30 minutes from downtown San Francisco.

The modern facade of SFO's Terminal 2

The modern facade of SFO’s Terminal 2

SFO is connected to the city via BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit. The SFO BART Station is located on the departures/ticketing level of the International Terminal (Boarding Area G), but is easily accessed from any terminal by riding SFO’s free AirTrain to the Garage G/BART Station stop. The four downtown San Francisco stations are Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street and Civic Center/UN Plaza.

A 15-minute AirBART shuttle bus runs between OAK and the Coliseum BART Station, with a pickup station set between Terminals 1 and 2. The fare is $3 per person, and exact change is required. Once you arrive at the Coliseum BART Station, board a San Francisco/Daly City-bound train and get off at any of the same four San Francisco stations listed above.

The BART station at SFO

The BART station at SFO

Renting a car in San Francisco is only advisable if you plan to explore destinations beyond the Bay Area; parking tends to be scarce and expensive. (Even Oakland and Berkeley, just across the Bay, are accessible by BART.) Some areas of San Francisco are especially walkable – such as Golden Gate Park, the Financial District, Embarcadero, Union Square, North Beach and the Marina – and though it has upwards of 40 hills and can involve steep stairs and inclines, the city is well served by street cars, light rail and buses, and taxis as well.

WHERE TO STAY

Club Carlson

Radisson Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf: Located just steps from Pier 39, this hotel has 355 recently updated rooms, some with courtyard-facing balconies. In-room features include complimentary high-speed wireless internet,  a 37-inch flatscreen TV, clock radio with iPod dock, work desk, ironing board and iron, and refrigerators in select rooms. The hotel offers a 24-hour fitness center, business center, heated outdoor pool, There is no restaurant in the hotel. Room rates start at $139 for nights in February. This is a category 5 hotel, requiring 44,000 Club Carlson points to book an award night.

Bay View King Room at the Radisson Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf

Bay View King at the Radisson Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf

 

There is another Club Carlson property near SFO airport, Radisson Hotel San Francisco Airport Bay Front.

Hilton

Hilton San Francisco Union Square: Located two blocks from Union Square, this enormous Hilton property has 1,908 guest rooms, including 152 suites, each with a 37-inch HDTV,  clock radio with iPod connectivity, work desk, wireless internet access (for a fee), mini-bar, and ironing board and iron. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and room service are provided by Urban Tavern, and there is a Starbucks in the lobby. A business center with FedEx, outdoor pool and whirlpool are available. At over 130,000 square feet, this Hilton has the most event space on the west coast, divided among their 73 ballrooms and meeting rooms. Rates for February start at $179. This is a category 7 hotel, and requires 50,000 Hilton Honors points for an award night.

Hilton San Francisco Union Square

Hilton San Francisco Union Square

Another Hilton option in San Francisco is the Hilton San Francisco Financial District.

Hyatt

Grand Hyatt San Francisco: Right in the heart of Union Square, this AAA Four Diamond Hyatt property underwent a $70 million renovation in 2012. The 660 guestrooms include 29 suites and 21 hypoallergenic Hyatt PURE rooms. Rooms include 37-inch LCD televisions, daily newspaper service, individual cup coffee makers, electronic blackout drapes, in-room safety deposit boxes, and mini-fridges in most rooms. The 24-hour Stay Fit gym is located on the 35th floor and, with floor-to-ceiling windows, has s breathtaking views of San Francisco. There is also a 24-hour business center. The OneUP Restaurant & Lounge offers farm-to-table California cuisine, and room service is available from “sunrise to midnight.” Rates for March start at $259/night, or 20,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for this Category 5 hotel.

King Grand Club Room at Grand Hyatt San Francisco

King Grand Club Room at Grand Hyatt San Francisco

Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf: Just steps from everything that Pier 39 has to offer, the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf has 313 guestrooms, including 8 suites. Each room features a 37-inch flatscreen TV, iHome alarm clock radio with iPod dock, and an oversized work station with an ergonomic chair. The cable car stops right across the street from the hotel, which also features a 24-hour business center, 24-hour fitness center, and Knuckles at the Wharf, an iconic San Francisco sports bar and restaurant. Enoteca Musto offers early morning coffee and grab-and-go breakfast. Room service is also available. Rates from $209, or 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for this Category 4 hotel.

Double City View Room at Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf

Double City View Room at Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf

Other Hyatt properties in San Francisco include the Hyatt Regency San Francisco.

IHG

InterContinental San Francisco: One of San Francisco’s newer hotels, this 32-story property is located in SoMA and has 550 guestrooms, including 41 suites. Each room features high-speed wireless internet for a fee, mini-bar, coffee and tea station, and in-room safe. The hotel has a 24-hour business center, a 24-hour fitness center, full service spa, 24-hour room service, and complimentary car service. The in-hotel restaurant, Luce, is one star Michelin-rated, and features fresh, seasonal offerings paired with meticulously chosen wines from a 350-label collection. Bar 888 specializes in grappa and grappa-based cocktails, as well as light fare from Luce’s kitchen, and is located in the lobby. Rates from $159, or 45,000 Rewards Club points.

Terrace Suite at the InterContinental San Francisco

Terrace Suite at the InterContinental San Francisco

Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf: Centrally located near Ghirardelli Square, Alcatraz, and Pier 39, this full-service Holiday Inn features 585 guestrooms and suites. Free wireless internet, a work desk with a lamp, coffee and tea maker, an in-room safe, and a hairdryer and iron/ironing board are in every room. The Bristol Bar and Grill serves breakfast and dinner, and kids eat free. Room service is available for breakfast and dinner. There is also a 24-hour Denny’s in the lobby. A 24-hour business center, fitness center, outdoor heated pool, and free weekday transportation to the financial district are available to all guests. Rooms from $136, or 35,000 Rewards Club points.

Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf

Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf

Guest Advisory: This Holiday Inn property began a cosmetic refresh in November 2013, and in January 2014 began upgrading The Bristol Bar and lobby. During renovations, Denny’s 24-hour restaurant will be available. There are two buildings on the property, ostensibly minimizing guest impact. For concerns about construction noise or availability, please contact the hotel directly.

Additional IHG hotels in San Francisco are: Holiday Inn – San Francisco Civic Center; Holiday Inn San Francisco – Golden Gateway; InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco; and Holiday Inn Express San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf.

Marriott

JW Marriott San Francisco, Union Square: Located near Union Square, this luxury Marriott property has 288 room and 49 suites. Each features a 42-inch HDTV, a workspace with a plug-in panel and a Herman Miller Aeron chair, Bose radio, high-speed wireless internet for a fee, and a recently renovated bathroom with a deep soaking tub. 24-hour butler service is available, along with a fitness center, full-service business center, and complimentary Town Car service within two miles. The Level III Restaurant and Bar is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and features California cuisine and hand crafted cocktails. Rooms from $249, or 40,000 points for this Category 8 hotel.

Lobby of the JW Marriott San Francisco, Union Square

Lobby of the JW Marriott San Francisco, Union Square

The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco: This AAA Five Diamond luxury hotel is housed in a Neoclassical landmark, dating back to 1909. The 336 guestrooms feature original artwork by local artists, 300-count Egyptian cotton Frette linens, LCD TVs, iPod docking stations, and Kohler Performance rain showerheads. The cable car stops right outside the entrance to the lobby, where afternoon tea is served. There is also a 24-hour fitness center, 24-hour business center, complimentary overnight shoeshine, and complimentary house car within two miles. Spa-De-Vie is a full-service spa within the hotel and is well known for its eucalyptus steam rooms and luxurious treatments. The Ritz-Carlton also boasts the largest club level in San Francisco, with constant food display, and a daily wine series. Parallel 37, the hotel’s restaurant, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and features contemporary California cuisine. Rooms from $395, or 60,000 points for this Ritz Carlton Tier 4 property.

The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco

The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco

Marriott San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf: Conveniently located near Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square, this Marriott is also just a few blocks from the famously windy Lombard Street. Its 274 rooms and 11 suites feature a pillow-top mattress, a coffee maker, a sitting area with a chair and ottoman, a work desk with a four outlet technology console, an in-room safe, and Bath and Body Works amenities. The lobby has been recently updated with lounge areas and splashes of bold color. The Red Fin Restaurant is open for breakfast, and becomes a lounge for lunch service.Rates from $159 a night, or 40,000 points for this Category 8 hotel.

Double Guest Room at Marriott San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf

Double Guest Room at Marriott San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf

Other Marriott properties include Hotel Adagio, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, San Francisco Marriott Union Square, Courtyard San Francisco Downtown, Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf.

Starwood

W San Francisco: With 404 rooms and 9 suites, this Starwood property boasts one of the best locations for art lovers; right next door to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Each room has the famous W signature bed, a pillow menu, a mini-bar, an oversized work desk, in-room safe, and high-speed wireless internet for a fee. iPod Shuffles can be borrowed from Whatever/Whenever, W’s concierge service, and 24-hour room service is available. The fitness center is under renovation, and a temporary gym has been set up on the forth floor. The pool is permanently closed. There is also a Bliss spa on the forth floor, with a full menu of treatments, including three “movie-while-you-manicure” nail stations. TRACE San Francisco serves locally-sourced sustainable California cuisine. The Living Room Bar, located in the lobby, specializes in craft cocktails and small bits prepared by TRACE, while Upstairs Drink Boutique pours top shelf and signature cocktails. From $199, or 12,000 Starwood points for this SPG Category 5 property.

Wonderful Room at the W San Francisco

Wonderful Room at the W San Francisco

The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square: Dating back to 1904, this hotel overlooks Union Square. Its 1,195 guestrooms, split between the landmark and tower buildings, recently underwent a $40 million renovation. Each room offers 24-hour room service, a coffee maker, a work desk, in-room safe, high-speed wireless internet for a fee, and Westin’s signature Heavenly Bed. A full service business center, fitness center, and spa are available. Bourbon Steak is Micheal Mina’s award-winning steakhouse inside the hotel. The Clock Bar features cocktails and California cuisine, also by Michael Mina. The Oak Room has a breakfast buffet, as well as lunch and dinner service. Caruso’s has coffee and lighter fare. From $169/weekends and $249/weekdays, or 12,000 points for this SPG Category 5 property.

The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square

The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square

The St. Regis San Francisco: The St. Regis is Starwood’s luxury property in San Francisco’s SoMA district. Each of its 214 guestrooms and 46 suites feature plasma screen tvs, luxurious bed and bath linens, beside digital assistants, Bose sound systems, soaking tubs and rainfall shower heads, mini bars, plush robes, and 24-hour room service. Butler service and turndown service are available. The Remede Spa features a full spa menu, whirlpool, steam room and sauna, with champagne, cheese, and hand-made truffles available before treatments. An indoor infinity pool is open 24-hours, and features a poolside menu. Ame restaurant is Michelin-stared and features dinner service with a Japanese influence. Breakfast and lunch can be taken at Vitrine, which highlights fresh, local ingredients. From $425, or 20,000 points for this SPG Category 6 hotel. Read TPG’s review of it here.

Superior Guest Room at The St. Regis San Francisco

Superior Guest Room at The St. Regis San Francisco

Palace Hotel: This landmark hotel in Starwood’s Luxury Collection, dates back to 1875. Its 553 guestrooms have 14-foot ceilings, marble bathtubs, and plush terry cloth robes, and mahogany furnishings. Hotel services include 24-hour fitness center, indoor, heated swimming pool with adjacent whirlpool and eucalyptus sauna, business center, and complimentary shoe shine. The real star of The Palace is the Garden Court Restaurant. Once the carriage entrance to the old building, destroyed by the earthquake of 1906, it reopened as the new building’s restaurant in 1909. The room shines under the light of Austrian crystal chandeliers and a stunning domed ceiling that filters in the natural light. The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, as well as afternoon tea. The Pied Piper Bar & Grill serves classic California cuisine in a relaxed, wood-paneled pub setting. From $166, or 16,000 points for this SPG Category 5 hotel.

The pool at the Palace Hotel

The pool at the Palace Hotel

The Westin San Francisco Market Street, Le Meridien San Francisco, and Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel are among the city’s Starwood properties.

Visa Signature Hotels 

When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.

Cavallo Point: Located just fifteen minutes from San Francisco’s Financial District, and thirty minutes from SFO at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, Cavallo Point is a luxury, full-service resort and spa. A former military post, the cluster of mostly south-facing buildings, many with views of the city, the bay or the Golden Gate Bridge, are a mix of renovated former military residences, and contemporary buildings. All are well appointed and gold certified LEED eco-friendly. Amenities include large flatscreen tvs, gas-burning fireplaces in most rooms, ceilings fans, luxury linens, and nightly turndown service. The top-rated spa and healing arts center offers an extensive treatment menu, and outdoor heated mediation pool, and a tea bar. The Murray Circle Restaurant serves California cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and there is a daily wine and cheese reception for all guests from 4-6. From $309/night.

Cavallo Point

Cavallo Point

Mandarin Oriental San Francisco: Stunning views are the big draw at this recently renovated Financial District hotel, which is close to both Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square. All 151 guestrooms and 7 suites are on the top eleven floors of this skyscraper and include amenities you’ve come to expect from a Mandarin Oriental property; goose down bedding and luxury linens, pillow menu, plush bathrobes, oversized work desks, iPod docking stations, and 24-hour room service. Twice daily housekeeping is available, as is complimentary use of the house car. There is a full-service spa, a 24-hour fitness center, and business center available. The Brasserie S&P specializes in Northern California cuisine, and boasts a comprehensive gin & tonic program. From $475/night.

Mandarin Bay Bridge Room at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco

Mandarin Bay Bridge Room at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco

The Clift: A historic hotel that was redesigned by Philippe Stark as part of the Morgan Hotel Group, The Clift boasts one of the most theatrical lobbies in San Francisco; moody lighting, pulsing music, and an eclectic furniture collection, including a massive Louis XVI armchair. Room amenities include high ceilings, Malin+Goetz bath products, and 24-hour room service. Complimentary bikes are available to rent, as is a 24-hour fitness center. The landmark Redwood Room bar serves craft cocktails, but the room, paneled with the oak of a single redwood tree, is the real attraction. The Living Room, just off the main lobby, also serves cocktails and has cozy lounge seating. Breakfast and dinner are served in the Velvet Room, which features seasonal, sustainable, and organic cuisine. From $249/night.

Redwood Room at the Clift

The Living Room at the Clift

The Hotel Vitale is also a Visa Signature Hotel in San Francisco.

American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts

Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.

Fine Hotels and Resorts is a hotel program specifically for American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cardholders. By booking through this portal, you receive added perks and benefits thrown in with your stay – sort of like you would with elite status or by booking through a travel agent with great contacts at a hotel.

Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square: Housed in what was once the old Ghirardelli chocolate factory, this property has been transformed into one, two, and three-bedroom apartment-like suites. Kitchens with Sub Zero and Wolf appliances, living rooms with fireplaces, iPads, and stunning views are just a few of the amenities. This is a full-service resort, with 24-hour concierge, business center, complimentary deluxe continental breakfast daily, and complimentary house car within two-mile radius. There is also a daily wine and cheese reception, perfect for enjoying the public terraces and game lounge. From $540/night.

Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square

Bedroom Suite at Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square

Four Seasons, San Francisco: With 277 luxurious guestrooms and suites, this SoMA Four Seasons is everything you’ve come to expect from this brand. Floor-to-ceiling windows, luxury linens, plush terrycloth robes, twice daily housekeeping, mini-bar, and large marble bathroom are just a few of the amenities. The hotel also offers 24-hour room service which includes a 15-minute menu, a business center, and access to Sports Club/LA, with over 10,000 square feet of fitness equipment and machines, a pool, and a full-service spa. MKT Restaurant serves California cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From $445/night.

Executive Suite at the Four Seasons, San Francisco

Executive Suite at the Four Seasons, San Francisco

Additional Amex FHR properties in San Francisco are the Mandarin Oriental San FranciscoThe St. Regis San Francisco, The Palace, The Ritz-Carlton San FranciscoTaj Campton Place and The Huntington Hotel. The latter is closed for renovation, but is set to re-open at the end of May.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • HP

    Nice write up. As a local, a minor correction: Your “cable car” picture is actually of a historic streetcar that runs on Market St. and the Embarcadero. Cable cars look like the pictures found on this page:
    http://www.sfmta.com/getting-around/transit/how-ride/how-to-cable-cars

  • melaniewynne

    You are right — thanks for catching that! I’ll make the correction to the caption.

  • Josh

    You mention that the W is next to the SFMOMA. Although this is correct, the actual museum is closed until 2016 for renovations. Although Third Street is fine, I would recommend that guests try to avoid Howard Street. I felt a little uncomfortable walking down Howard Street late at night. There’s also a Gentleman’s Club in same block as hotel on Howard Street.

  • melaniewynne

    I mentioned the SFMOMA closure in this write-up, and suggested a few other places to see the museum’s collections around town during the renovation. Thanks for the heads up about Howard Street.

  • melaniewynne

    Thank you — personally I’ve only ever driven down Lombard Street in a car, and it was so steep that I couldn’t relax for a second. It’s no wonder I remembered it incorrectly…I’ve made this correction and included your suggestion.

  • snessnyc

    Not even a passing mention of gays and lesbians? SF has a long, long close association with the LGBT community, and the community has had an outsized influence on SF culture and politics. It is home to the greatest population of LGBT people by percentage of any city in the US and probably the world. Even the most strait-laced travel guides include an LGBT section, and the community and its neighborhoods – not just the Castro but also Noe Valley, Duboce Triangle, SOMA, Hayes Valley and more – are integral to the vibrant fabric of San Francisco.

  • MaSaBeMama

    For Eats – Sears Fine Food, 439 Powell Street, is one of those throwback places that serves pancakes and sells pancake mix that’s a great and tasty souvenir. Worth checking out if you are in the Union Square area and much more reasonably priced than most of the hotel breakfasts! Delfina in the Mission District (3621 18th Street) has wonderful, fresh and authentic Tuscan food. The Chef trained at Da Delfina in Artemino, Tuscany just a little bit outside of Florence and this is a truly outstanding spot. Tadich Grill, 240 California Street, has been in business for 160+ years and has a certificate on the wall listing it as one of California’s original 100 businesses (I think!) – try the sand dabs if they have them. Finally Caffe Sport, 574 Green Street is a one of a kind Italian restaurant – some of the best pesto ever. Teeny, tiny spot. Have fun!

  • klvinci

    You might want to double check about BART and OAK. BART itself is not going to run to OAK, it will be a shuttle train, and it is not due to open for some time yet. At the moment it is now a shuttle bus (AirBART) that runs between the airport and the Coliseum BART Station. – The Shuttle pickup is between Terminals 1 and 2. http://www.bart.gov/guide/airport/outbound_oak

  • Michelle

    For eats: Nopa, Cafe Jacqueline (Soufflés), Dosa, Cha Cha Cha, SPQR, for State Bird (if no reservation, make sure to get there early to get in line. I was there on a weekday and had to get there 1hr before it opens to get in as the first batch. Weekends probably should prepare more time.)

  • Jacky

    What, no mention of Mission burritos? They’re such a classic SF food, and a perfect dinner after spending all day on your feet getting around the city.

  • Mike

    If you’re going marriott I would recommend against fisherman’s wharf, especially for that point amount. No lounge and breakfast is only continental unless you pay extra even with status. There’s a lot cheaper hotels in the area (literally across the street) for cheaper rates and points. If you drive a car and park there expect $50/night parking. It’s an average marriott at best.

  • tripswithtykes

    I second klvinci’s comment about BART from OAK. It is currently a shuttle bus to the BART station until the train eventually opens. Last time I took it, I seem to recall you have to have correct change too. It can be done, but not exactly super-convenient yet.

  • tivoboy

    How could you forget the main Fairmont?

  • JustSaying

    This is a great start, However, the center of nirvana is in Marin. So on a late Friday night you need to drive to the top of the Golden Gate overlooking the city

  • John Beeler

    +1 to this. OAK is WAY easier to fly in and out of. And much lower likelihood of fog delays. Restricted more to DL/WN flights, but worth it, and will be perfect when the BART is extended all the way.

  • melaniewynne

    What wonderful recommendations — thank you!

  • melaniewynne

    Thank you for these — I’d certainly suggest Nopa and SPQR, too.

  • melaniewynne

    I agree about OAK’s convenience — it’s my own airport of choice for the area, and I fly Southwest there. On a recent trip I flew Virgin America to SFO and it was delayed for an hour; have to say, though, that Terminal 2 is gorgeous.

  • melaniewynne

    Thank you — in my write-up, I consulted BART’s website and information from local Oakland/Berkeley friends, so felt confident about it at the time of publishing. I’ll be sure to look into it further.

  • melaniewynne

    Never had one — but thanks for sharing this!

  • melaniewynne

    Great suggestion — and yes, Marin County really is stunning.

  • melaniewynne

    Thank you!

  • melaniewynne

    Thanks again — I’ve made the appropriate changes to the OAK-to-SFO journey via AirBART and BART.

  • melaniewynne

    I had certainly planned to include a mention of the LGBT community in SF and the Castro, but this write-up was getting extremely long! I was neither able nor willing to overlook your comment, however, and have added mention of the community’s history and its particularly strong presence in the Castro. One of the nicest things about SF, though, is that you’ll meet gay people wherever you go in town.

  • snessnyc

    That’s great for an overview article like this – no more need to have been said! And I look forward to trying some of your recommendations on my next visit.
    Thanks for responding.

  • tivoboy

    The main Fairmont is definitely in the FHR list of hotels.

  • MaSaBeMama

    speaking of Marin – they have a GREAT farmer’s market, including a fabulous truck that has rotisserie chicken and DUCK (which sells out in an instant) plus awesome potatoes roasted in the awesome poultry fat. Bonus is that it’s held in the shadow of the Marin County Building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright so you get your architecture history points too!

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