Cornell Hotel de France on Nob Hill: Best San Francisco boutique hotel
When visiting San Francisco, go for historic charm in one of the best San Francisco boutique hotels. The Cornell Hotel de France is a centrally located gem of a Nob Hill hotel that will transport you to France with its whimsical paintings and charming French décor.
Forget bland high-rise chains when selecting a hotel in San Francisco. The best San Francisco boutique hotel is a tiny French gem just a block down from Nob Hill. Step into the petit Cornell Hotel de France, and you will be whisked away on your own little escape to France – oh là là!
Tucked into a small 1910 Victorian building that is part of the Lower Nob Hill’s National Register of Historic Places listing, the Cornell Hotel de France was lovingly transformed from a boarding house into today’s island of Parisian charm by owners Claude and Micheline Lambert, who bought the hotel in 1978. The Lamberts arrived from France in 1966 from Orléans, France, in the Loire Valley. They lived in and managed the building, and Claude also taught at the Alliance Française French school as well as co-founded the Lycée Français de San Francisco.
Soon, the residence hotel at 715 Bush Street became Claude’s passion as he slowly redecorated every one of the 50 rooms – each one is different, manager Franck Legrand told us. Claude also collected, framed, and installed French art and sculptures on all the walls, as well as morphed the basement into a cellar restaurant in the true French style. The restaurant was named Jeanne D’Arc (Joan of Arc) after the French heroine who saved his hometown of Orléans in the 1400s; the restaurants was Claude’s “baby,” Legrand told us. He had a regular seat there where he could watch over patrons and flit about greeting and chatting with people. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic forced the cozy windowless space to close, with its future uncertain, we were told.
European boutique charm in the heart of San Francisco
No, the Cornell Hotel is not a luxury boutique hotel, but a European-style bed and breakfast, and really so refreshing in a world of character-less, cookie-cutter hotels in a big city. Rooms are not grandly spacious. There is no room service or concierge (although the cheery manger Franck will always have advice and suggestions for you). And you can’t call a bellhop or valet (but Franck will always help!). And that is what makes this hidden treasure such a charming gem. You will feel as if you are in a small Parisian hotel – seriously, this is not an exaggeration – as soon as you walk in the door. The walls are painted with many small, whimsical, colorful pieces of hand-designed art and you find little French touches everywhere you turn.
Some walls have huge hand-painted murals – get a tour of the basement restaurant if you can to truly appreciate these murals. And every floor of the inn honors a different French painting master with his name and art on the walls: 2nd floor, Henri de Toulouse-Latrec; 3rd, Paul Gaugin; 4th, Marc Chagall; 5th, Henri Matisse, with of course the ground floor dedicated to Jeanne D’Arc.
Travelers who want to stay in the heart of San Francisco often select chains or high-rise hotels. We say, move beyond the expected to find the extraordinary with the best San Francisco boutique hotel, centrally located on Nob Hill, steps from the cable car, Union Square, and so many other San Francisco attractions. The Cornell Hotel de France is not a walk-up, but you will still be encouraged to take the stairs.
Sadly, the eye-opening antique Otis elevator that dates back to before 1900 was to be removed in late 2021 since it could not be made ADA compliant. Such an addition to the hotel’s historic character will be direly missed.
Cornell Hotel boutique hotel where every room is different
Among its 50 rooms on four floors, you will not find any two alike, and Claude Lambert dreamt and designed every last one, picky down to the last dab of paint or color of pillow. You will find small cozy queens, larger queens, a triple, and a junior suite with an adjoining sitting room. We were told the most popular room is 501 – because it has an historic clawfoot tub – although a “premier King room” on the third floor is also spacious.
With its ideal location in “Lower Nob Hill” just around the corner from San Francisco’s famous cable car on Powell Street, you will hear the clanging of the cable car bells or the squealing of the cable brakes, we were told; that could be either a charming addition to this San Francisco boutique hotel experience or a bit disturbing since the cable cars normally run from about 6:30 a.m. to midnight. We can’t judge since they were sadly still not running due to COVID when we visited in 2021.
Breakfast is included in your stay (if you book on the hotel website) and normally has meant a buffet setup in the basement restaurant, which had to be replaced by a box guests can pick up in the lobby during COVID (and our stay). But that too was still done well, with fresh flakey croissants (well, of COURSE!), orange juice, seasonal fruit, and yogurt. Normally, guests could also order cooked-to-order breakfasts.
Each room in fact during COVID had a small table outside its door (if a guest did not want daily cleaning) so you didn’t have to go in search of replacements for room items. Each day, new towels, garbage bags, shampoos, and cups and coffee for the in-room coffee maker magically appeared at your door. It was like the hotel employed pixies to scamper about silently, delivering just what you needed to make up for the inconvenience of COVID.
The website may not state there is a happy hour but if you’re good and arrive at the right time, a glass of wine will likely be offered. Same with morning coffee downstairs: Franck will leap out of his chair in the morning when you appear to get you a nice hot cuppa (admittedly better than the in-room machine).
Of course, you still get all the typical amenities in the Cornell Hotel de France, a really great San Francisco boutique hotel, from good wifi and luggage storage, to private parking across the street (at a preferred rate). Plus, hotel safety is spot-on with keys needed to access the front door and an entrance hall that mandates passing the front office.
Long story short, with everything from Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf to great secret downtown parks, and the historic Chinatown and Italian North Beach neighborhoods within a half-mile to 1 ½ miles away, the Cornell Hotel de France remains a San Francisco hotel that should top your list of best places to stay.
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