Published On: Thu, Oct 12th, 2017

Preserving History at San Francisco's Palace Hotel

PHOTO: The Garden Court at The Palace Hotel is the ideal spot for breakfast. (photo by Scott Laird)

Historic hotels often have their drawbacks.

Among younger travelers, the most common complaint I hear, (particularly in the luxury space), is that the hotel’s services and décor seem to be tailored to an older, dowdier clientele.

A traveler I recently spoke with was more direct: “I don’t want it to look like my grandma’s house.”

The Palace Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Francisco was established in 1875 and could easily have been one of those historic luxury hotels in constant danger of being hopelessly anachronistic. But hotels don’t survive for more than a century by being resistant to change.

The 1909 Beaux Arts building that replaced the original structure underwent a top-to-bottom refresh in 2015, and the result is a striking balance between heritage and contemporary design.

Gone are gold brocaded upholstery and floral prints. In are solid colors in calming, neutral tones like gray, plum and white. Design throughout the public spaces and guest rooms seems to perfectly blend periods—it wouldn’t be particularly out of place a hundred years ago, but it’s contemporary enough to satisfy today’s luxury guest.

While guests in the hotel’s first century would have been delighted by en-suite baths and a roomy carriage entrance, today’s guests get more utility out of conveniently placed outlets.

The renovators also seem to have avoided the trap of turning the building into the standardized, modern hotel layout. Well-appointed guest room baths are all slightly different, a nod to their not being part of the original building design—en-suite baths weren’t standard in even luxury hotels until the mid 20th century—evoking a rather eccentric charm.

Remaining, however, are the glories of yesteryear that guests have never tired of: soaring eleven-foot ceilings, windows that flood rooms with natural light and the heavy, crested, original 1909 door handles for that sought-after “nowhere but here” sense of arrival.

A recent change is the revision of the Pied Piper Bar to a more modern dining style.

Private dark-wood booths and linen tablecloths gave way to a more lounge-like atmosphere with couches and communal dining tables popular with the share plate set. What hasn’t changed here is the menu: California-fresh produce presented with a whimsical playfulness—roasted potatoes arrived topped with grated parmesan “snow”—and expert technique. Aging, seasoning and grilling a great cut of steak isn’t easy, but it’s done perfectly here.

The centerpiece of the hotel (perhaps even the entire city) is the magnificent glass cupola topping the former carriage entrance that’s now called the Garden Court.

The space has seen generations of San Francisco milestone events, in addition to banquets and conventions during 1919 and 1945 for diplomatic negotiations surrounding the end of two wars. Less momentous but similarly memorable was the invention of green goddess dressing, which remains on the menu today.

READ MORE: San Francisco’s Best Cafes for Art Lovers

Another point to haunt the imagination is the knowledge that the hotel—like many long-lived historic luxury siblings—has attracted its share of royals and heads of state. Unlike other hotels, they have a propensity to expire while in residence.

King Kalakaua of the then-Kingdom of Hawai‘i and sitting U.S. President Warren G H. Harding both met their ends in guest rooms here.

More happily celebrated is the hotel’s local flavor. The hotel’s retail mall was once the stalwart of ticketing offices for the transportation companies of the age. (Rail and telegraph company offices gave way to airline ticket offices and travel agents and today are retail outlets popular with San Francisco visitors.)

One corner of the block-sized building is given over to local chocolatier Ghirardelli, where aproned greeters beckon visitors in from the street with free samples. The samples also appear meticulously lined up in a small tray on the front desk for guests during check-in.

Also remodeled in 2015 were the hotel’s glass-topped pool and whirlpool spa, which allow naturally-lit daytime swims or early morning dips. Mood lighting gives way to sunlight as the dawn stretches across the sky. There are also 24-hour workout facilities accessible with a guest room key.

The original hotel was certainly built to underline the excesses of an optimistic age and a frontier city with boundless growth ahead. However, it’s unlikely that any of the original architects envisioned The Palace remaining a treasured landmark in the hearts of visitors and residents more than a century after the first cornerstones were set.

READ MORE: How to Experience San Francisco Solo

The Takeaway

Centrally located—with a charm unique to the city that’s supported it for more than a century—The Palace Hotel is a must for any visitor seeking the trifecta of luxury, heritage and convenience.

The Math

I’ve seen prepaid SPG Member rates as low as $214 per night on lower-demand, off-season weekends.

Instagrammable Moment

The Garden Court should wow you in person and your followers on Instagram.


Starwood Preferred Guest

Good To Know

—The hotel sits atop the Montgomery Street BART Station, so it’s a convenient option to and from San Francisco or Oakland airports.

—The Garden Court does lavish breakfast buffets and high-powered lunches—they’re expensive, but the scenery is worth it.

—The pool is topped with a glass dome and is just as impressive as the hotel’s other spaces.

Accommodations were furnished by The Palace Hotel in preparation for this story.

Some Hawaiian language diacritical marks such as the kahako (macron) have been omitted for web browser compatibility.

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