2 Days at the Historic Palace Hotel in the Heart of San Francisco

Like the two Phoenix birds that adorn its logo, the Palace Hotel rose from the ashes. Quite literally.

Upon its opening in 1875, it was the largest hotel in the world. Seven floors, 880 rooms, and bay windows to allow the most light from the famous San Francisco fog.

President William McKinley visits the original Palace Hotel 1901 (Unknown Photographer)

Keep in mind that only twenty-seven years prior in 1848, San Francisco had a mere 550 people living in the city. It became a boom town in the midst of the Gilded Age of America. Late in 1848, gold was discovered in the American River, north of Sacramento. “Forty-niners,” as they came to be known, flocked to the west in what became one of the largest peacetime mass migrations ever recorded. The rest was inevitable. By the end of 1949, San Francisco had grown to nearly 20,000.

The Grand Court entrance in the original Palace Hotel.

And, although the hotel was smartly designed to withstand major fires and earthquakes, a rather unfortunate series of events led to San Francisco’s historic fires after a 8.3 richter scale earthquake of 1906. Those fires lasted for 3 days. It’s tragic to think the first Palace Hotel has largely unscathed by the earthquake itself, and instead was left a shell because it eventually ran out of water in its water tanks.

When the earthquake hit, story has it that people fled while their breakfasts were still cooking on wood-burning stoves (not to mention candles and gas lanterns being overturned as well). Ruptured city gas lines combined with smaller fires to create one gigantic blaze. Water lines ruptured. It was devastating to the city. The city tapped into the hotel’s water source, and by the time the fires traveled down Market Street, the hotel was out of water and out of options.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection

The decision was made to rebuild the Palace Hotel from the ground up. The second (and present day) Palace Hotel was completed in 1909. It is nine stories high with 550 rooms, however it shares the same footprint as the original, about 2 acres.

There is so much history in this place that it’s impossible to share it all here. And, you’re not really here for just a history lesson, right? If and when you stay, check out Landmark 18 in the hotel. It’s a really lovely mini-museum with loads of artifacts, images, and information.

Also, pick up this book. Much of the information here was sourced from it.

As good fortune would have it, I discovered the Palace Hotel by gazing at it from… well, another hotel. That hotel had given me a gorgeous view of downtown San Francisco. It’d been years since I’d visited, and my love for the city re-sparked. And there in the heart of this view was a stout and strong stone facade with the giant sign a-top it: THE PALACE.

The iconic Palace Hotel in the heart of San Francisco.

Two months later, we arrived for a 2-night stay in partnership with the Palace Hotel and The Luxury Collection (Marriott Bonvoy).

Immediately we’re greeted by friendly valet doormen and a jovial front desk employee. The luxury hotel was closed during the Pandemic up until 2021. Instead of a hasty reopening, the hotel opted to take its time reopening. Instead of feeling lockdown-neglected, the hotel feels refreshed and incredibly safe. While its once bustling crowds are still slowly returning, we personally enjoyed the quieter atmosphere, as we stayed in January 2022, during the most recent Omicron variant. Vaccination proof was required to dine at The Garden Court, and plenty of social distancing and cleaning precautions were in full force. I highly recommend staying here if you’re just now feeling ready to dip your toes back into hotel life.

The shining glory of the Palace Hotel is The Garden Court. It’s the reason I was convinced I had to stay there. The huge glass ceiling was originally designed for sister hotel the US Grant in San Diego, but was shipped to San Francisco for the rebuild of the second Palace Hotel. It’s made appearances in several films, including The Game. Many of the employees that work there today worked there at the time of filming, and they’ll tell you the stories if you ask. They’re still excited by it today.

The Palace Hotel is one of the best maintained hotels we’ve stayed in. Most recently renovated in 2015, everything looks brand new. The hallways and elevators are immaculate. It looks like it was renovated last week.

Our first stop is our room: a seventh floor beauty overlooking Market Street. It’s the Palace Suite: complete with a huge living and dining room, a chess board, a walk in closet, and a king size bedroom with ensuite bathroom.

I didn’t take a photo of our marbled ensuite bathroom for whatever reason, but it was gorgeous and like new. A brief note: our suite had a shower only. Other suites have tubs and/or showers, so you can always request if you have a preference and they’ll do their best to accommodate. I love myself a bubble bath when we’re traveling, but it didn’t actually seem like a letdown that we didn’t end up with a tub. Over the years, we’ve learned to appreciate a good hotel shower as far as water pressure and temperature. This one didn’t disappoint, incase this is important to you (which for my significant other TJ, it is).

One of the first places we venture to is that mini-museum I mentioned earlier. Look for the gold sign marked “LANDMARK 18” at the end of the main corridor the hotel. It’s a great crash course in the long history of the Palace Hotel. This is a new feature at the hotel as of 2020, and you can see the time and sentimental effort that was taken to curate it.

Moving right along: Let’s talk about dining at The Palace. We had breakfast in The Garden Court and dinner at the Pied Piper bar on both days. We thought about going outside of the hotel to try somewhere else, but honestly we had such a good experience the first day, we wanted to go back.

What we’ve learned about the team here: they’re loyal. And they’re proud to work here. They go above and beyond to make sure you’re well looked after. When we struck up a conversation with Marlon, one of the valets, he was more than happy to chat about how much he loved working there. Even with his mask on, he couldn’t contain how grateful he was to the place. And, they are lucky to have employees like Marlon and the other team members we experienced. Good service is sometimes hard to find these days. But not here.

“They treat us really well here. I’ve worked here since I was 21 years old and I’m going on 26 years of being here. Most everyone working here has been here at least 10 years. We generally only lose people due to retirement.”

– Marlon, doorman at Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a Luxury Hotel collection hotel.

At the time of our stay, only the bar portion of the Pied Piper was open. It has since then reopened. We can’t wait to go back to eat at the full restaurant because even the “pub” food was incredible. The flatbread: we ate it both nights.

The Pied Piper is graced with a colorful mural of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, painted by Maxfield Parrish for the re-opening of the hotel in 1909.

We were too stuffed to eat dessert, so we ordered it for takeaway to our room. They even made that presentable and thoughtful. The first evening we were looked after by the manager Phillip. We went back the second night with none of the staff knowing we were there on trade, and we got just as good of service.

Breakfast: had the same smoothie each day. Portions were huge on every meal we ordered. Coffee and water was routinely checked-upon by our seasoned servers Maggie and Amado. Good conversations to be had both mornings. Amado offered to take photos of us, making sure he got all angles of The Garden Court in each one. It was delightful and endearing. Room service wasn’t operating during our stay, but I’m glad it gave us the opportunity for amazing service two days in a row. Consistency is always a great sign anywhere you go.

We took an evening dip in the pool. A well-equipped gym overlooks the pool. I’d love to say we were ambitious enough to use it, but…. we were not.

Evenings are magical here. We watched the sun set over Market street from our room. The Garden Court is quiet and dreamy, the darkened sky canopying overhead with the occasion sounds of cheerful parties coming and going from the Pied Piper or on their way out the lobby echoing through the grand corridor. It’s a place enriched by the residual energy of its long life of memories and events, floating through the hallways and in the air.

Throughout the years, we’ve done most of the major site-seeing in San Francisco. This trip was perfect to take it easy and do… well, less. But I’d never seen the Dutch Mill in the Golden Gate Park, so we ventured out mid-afternoon. It was one of those quintessential foggy San Francisco days, and personally, my favorite (in SoCal where we live, we rarely get moody days).

There’s much to see close to the hotel (and its proximity to the Bay Bridge is also super handy). The historic Golden Gate Bridge is easily accessible, Fisherman’s Wharf, Sutro Baths, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio, just to name a few. The Palace Hotel is in a prime area to explore a list of museums, Victorian neighborhoods, marketplaces and shops, restaurants, and historic sites.

The Palace Hotel felt like a romantic getaway that at times made us forget that we weren’t on a trip somewhere in Europe or the UK. The staff is top-notch. All are welcome here, there is no sense of elitist attitude.

I think it’s important to note that the same owners have been with the hotel since 1973, when Kyo-ya Hotels & Resorts, LP purchased the Palace Hotel from Sheraton Hotels of America. Kyo-ya’s dedication to preserving the hotel is on-going, with several major renovations and restorations throughout the decades. It’s obvious they love the hotel and care much about its integrity and guests’ experiences. This is a beautiful destination worthy of making a special trip to San Francisco.

BOOK HERE: https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/sfolc-palace-hotel-a-luxury-collection-hotel-san-francisco/

*While this was a partnership between myself and The Luxury Collection, Marriott Bonvoy, and the Palace Hotel, I do not receive any sort of commission by including a link to their site. I personally want it to be easy for you to book, because it’s absolutely worth it.

Thank you for your trust and this opportunity, Aimee and Renee.

TJ and I play a game of chess in our room (a very short game… I was too busy taking images and lost miserably).

Additional historic image sources:
http://www.ronhenggeler.com/Newsletters/2016/4.18/Newsletter.html
https://lostnewengland.com/2016/05/lost-new-england-goes-west-palace-hotel-san-francisco/
https://mlouisalocke.com/2012/05/24/the-victorian-san-francisco-palace-hotel-gone-but-not-forgotten/
https://www.kcbx.org/travel/2020-05-08/san-franciscos-palace-was-worlds-largest-hotel-when-it-opened-in-1875
https://thepalacehotel.org

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