Twenty-seven years ago, my car broke down in the Mission District in San Francisco. It was awkward at the time – I had to find a place to stay while the car was being fixed – but fortuitous. Because if my car had not broken down there, in what was then a down-at-heel neighbourhood, I might never have discovered The Inn at San Francisco.
Twenty-seven years on, there is no other hotel in San Francisco I would consider staying in. I have returned there so many times, (I live only 400 miles away in Los Angeles) that I consider it my own, though Marty, its real owner might dispute this. And it remains an unchanged gem that I am cautious to write about for fear of making it too popular.
Number 943 is on a row of grand Victorian mansions on South Van Ness, the kind that San Francisco is famous for. Its Italianate exterior – ornate columns, high gables, pink weatherboard, and neat gold trim – is beautiful, but no different from the others. It’s when you step through the hotel’s front door, taking in the gloriously high ceilings, the dark wall papers, the furniture – oh gosh the furniture – the smell of wood polish, that you realise this place is seriously special.
Because to stay here is to step back in time. It is to live briefly as a Victorian might. It is to eat breakfast in a parlour lit by candle-light, it is to sleep in a feather bed, it is to marvel at the carved wood of a grand but creaking staircase. It is to appreciate an era when it was not a car that might break down, but a cart with a horse attached.
There has been a lot of love that has gone into creating this unique hotel, which does not stint on luxury. All of the interior fixtures – sculpted marble fireplaces, dark mahogany door frames, elaborate ceiling mouldings, stained and bevelled glass windows – have been restored to museum standard; while the furniture – claw footed spoon-backs, giant wardrobes where you might expect to find Narnia hidden in the back – are antique collectors’ dreams.
There is a garden, shaded by avocado and walnut trees, with flowering shrubs and trellises, filigree wrought iron chairs, and a gazebo sheltering a redwood hot tub. But even better is the roof deck at the very top of the house, reached by a tiny spiral staircase, where you get one of the best 360 views of the city.
In 1906, a major earthquake shook San Francisco, setting fires alight and destroying 80% of the buildings. The fires stopped one block away from the inn. From the roof deck, you get to see the extraordinary good fortune of that.
And for all of that history, the hotel now oddly sits in one of the hippest, most vibrant parts of town. The Mission, as it is known, is a magnet for young crowds. It’s where foodies flock to the latest pop-up restaurants, artists congregate, musicians draw crowds. The Latino populations who were here from the start remain at the nexus of this cultural hub, but they are in competition now with young urban professional who are pushing up rents. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently bought himself a house here.
Not that that should put you off. Even though young techies are jostling for space here, the area has not lost any of its colourful atmosphere. If anything, the juxtaposition of history alongside buzzing contemporary life and the merging of so many cultures make it more exciting. Every time I return to this area, it’s different. (Do not miss Urban Putt, an indoor mini golf bar created by artists. Nor any of the restaurants along Valencia). That fast-changing pace makes it fun every time. Even post-pandemic, which has meant restaurant seating is all on the street.
It reminds me how lucky I was my car broke down here and not at Fisherman’s Wharf, where I might never have got beyond the tourist trail or the nearest boring corporate hotel.
The Inn San Francisco: