Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
One of San Francisco's true grand old dames. Though some may find the vibe boring, the Fairmont is inarguably one of the city's finest hotels.
Built at the turn of the last century and opened in 1907, the Fairmont is one of the oldest hotels in the city. The similarly grand Palace and Westin St. Francis are the only two hotels older than the Fairmont in the city. A lot has happened since 1907, of course, and the Fairmont now caters largely to business travelers. Conventioneers often fill the hallways and lobby day and night. For leisure travelers, that adds up to some trade-offs. On the one hand, you get the quality and consistency of a luxury chain property; on the other, it's a less-than-leisurely atmosphere in a large (591 rooms), impersonal setting.
One thing that never changes, however, is location, and the Fairmont's still reigns supreme. The massive original building, neoclassical columns and all, holds court over ritzy Nob Hill -- and thus the rest of San Francisco -- like a castle atop a mountain. Stepping outside the stately entrance onto Mason Street, you can almost feel those poor saps at the Ritz gaze up in envy from two blocks down the hill. The perch provides more than a feeling of superiority. The views from the Crown Meeting Room on the 24th floor are among the best in the city. And if you book a room in the tower, you don't even have to leave your room -- check out the vista from this 21st-floor room.
The Fairmont's interior, meanwhile, virtually screams early 1900s. Even if you don't book a room, it's worth a trip up the hill to see the lobby's enormous marble Corinthian columns, vaulted ceilings, velvet chairs, and wraparound staircase. (The space was refreshed in 2012, boasting new carpets and upholstery, making the space feel fresh even after a century of grandeur.) Then there's the hotel's nods to everything that's happened since those early-1900s. Photos of the Fairmont's distinguished guests crowd the hallway walls. Known as the "White House of the West" (at least to the Fairmont's PR staff), the hotel has hosted every U.S. president since William Taft. Truman came here in 1945. Kennedy stayed here nearly two decades later, Clinton three decades after that. Movies filmed here include Vertigo, Dirty Harry, and The Rock.
All told, the Fairmont's present and future look as promising as its past. The hotel underwent a massive $100 million overhaul in 2000; the rooms, renovated in 2007, still look brand new. The result is a hotel that can compete with the best of 'em, including the city's few truly elite properties (the St. Regis, Mandarin Oriental, and Ritz) -- at rates that are often less.
Top-notch across the board, but not quite up there with the best of the best
Unlike a few of the city's five-pearl hotels (the St. Regis and Mandarin Oriental come to mind), the Fairmont doesn't offer over-the-top bonuses like 24-hour butlers or free limos. Still, the staff provides plenty, and they do it with class and efficiency.
On the top of the hill, in Nob Hill, one of the city's ritziest neighborhoods
The Fairmont sits perched atop Nob Hill -- both the hill and the neighborhood -- overlooking the city like a king surveying his kingdom. The upside for guests: awesome views and a temporarily overblown sense of self-worth. Check out this panorama from my 21st-floor room, and this one from the Crown Room on the 24th floor. Even the views from street-level are stunning. The downside? What goes down, must come up. If you're walking, the hike back to the Fairmont is positively thigh-burning, no matter what direction you're coming from (heavy are the quads that support the head that wears the crown...).
The area, Nob Hill, is jokingly -- okay, half-jokingly -- referred to by locals as "Snob Hill," and that tells you quite a bit about the neighborhood. It's primarily residential with a few luxury hotels mixed in (the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, the Ritz, and the Huntington are among its distinguished neighbors). Locals don't really hang out here, however; you'll need to head downhill to North Beach or the Marina, or over to Russian Hill or Pacific Heights, to find the best local restaurants, bars, and shops.
The Fairmont's rooms aren't quite up there with the best in the city -- notably at the St. Regis and the Mandarin Oriental -- but they surpass those at the Mark Hopkins, and even compare favorably with those at the Ritz, which tends to be far more expensive. A partial inventory: sumptuous two-poster beds; classy redwood furniture; top technology; and first-class bathrooms with separate walk-in showers and deep tubs. In short, classy all the way, from the big stuff (beds, bathrooms) to the little (artwork, bath products).
The most important thing you need to know about the Fairmont's amenities is that Wi-Fi (charged per day) and the gym (also charged per day) both cost extra unless you join the Fairmont's President's Club, but there's no reason not to join. It's free, and the only strings attached are the inevitable follow-up spam about Fairmont's deals and promotions. The other thing you should know is that most of the Fairmont's features cater to the largely corporate clientele: an enormous ballroom, perfect for key-note addresses; tens of thousands of square feet of meeting space; a UPS Store; Wi-Fi in public spaces; and a well-equipped 24-hour business center.
Fine, but not great, for kids
Because of its grand-old-dame atmosphere (turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, antiquish furniture, conservative decor) and large number of corporate guests, the Fairmont isn't ideal for families with young children. Still, there's no reason in particular not to take the kids.
Not a problem
The Fairmont underwent an enormous $100 million restoration in 2000, and the property has been extremely well maintained since then. The rooms, meanwhile, were redone in 2007, and they too have held up nicely -- this one was virtually spotless. There were a few minor infractions (inventoried below), but everything was functional and hygienic.
Two solid on-site options -- and good thing, too, since there's not much in the immediate area
The Fairmont's main restaurant, off the lobby, is a good notch or two above your typical hotel restaurant, and there's also a coffee shop, Caffe Cento, that serves snacks. But all conversation must begin with the iconic Tonga Room, the Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar that attracts locals and hotel guests alike. (As one local said, "You haven't reviewed the Fairmont until you've been to the Tonga Room.") Dating from the 1945 and popularized in the 1960s, when America became obsessed with anything and everything Hawaiian (an episode of Mad Men has Don Draper drinking at a tiki bar), the Tonga Room features faux straw huts, a floating band, and what it claims is the best mai tai in the city (served in a fake coconut, natch). Where it presumably took itself seriously 45 years ago, the Tonga Room now revels in its kitschyness, and has become city institution despite -- or maybe because of -- its anachronistic placement within the Fairmont. Unfortunately, cult status and profits don't often align, and the Fairmont has talked about closing the struggling restaurant in the past. But hundreds of locals rally in support of the place, so it doesn't look like it will be leaving any time soon.
The Fairmont combines the history, cachet, and decor of a turn-of-the-20th-century grand old dame with the amenities, technology, and corporate-dominated clientele of a large chain property. What separates it from its luxury competitors are its beautiful, well-appointed rooms, many with stunning views, and its location atop Nob Hill.