Mark Hopkins Hotel San Francisco: historic luxury with a view

by Jan 17, 2022California

Mark Hopkins Nob Hill Entrance

San Francisco’s InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel is a must-see in the city. Whether you stay in its historic luxury, take in views from the Top of The Mark sky bar, or just enjoy the Mark Hopkins’ history exhibits, travelers to San Francisco should make the trek to Nob Hill.

I can’t say I wandered around swanky Nob Hill much as a poor college student in San Francisco. I spent more time in the dusty vintage stores of North Beach and searching for cheap dim sum in Chinatown. But there were those days when I’d hop the cable car up the steep hill (that’s when the cable cars cost a quarter, mind you) to gawk at historic luxury hotels with doormen in tailcoats. The Mark Hopkins Hotel was one of my favorites with its eclectic mix of towers, turrets, gables, and gargoyles.

Mark Hopkins Nob Hill Night

Sometimes, when I dared, I’d stride in, trying to look like I belonged, head for the elevator, and ride up to the Top of the Mark bar and restaurant on the 19th floor. I’d usually head into the bathroom to look like I was there for a reason, then wander out and peek past the maître d’ into the seating area to catch a glimpse out the nearly 360-degree windows – some of the highest and best views in San Francisco.


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Today — nearly 150 years after railroad baron Mark Hopkins built the original mansion — the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco still represents a must-see for travelers in San Francisco. Whether you stay a night (or more), have a meal or drink at the Top of the Mark with its expansive views, or just wander the hotel for a little history tour, you will be welcomed graciously. Yes, even if you are a poor but well-behaved college student seeking a quick skyline view of San Francisco.

Intercontinental Mark Hopkins

A stay at the historic InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco

We had the opportunity to stay at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins recently — meaning for the first time since my college days I could walk in and not have to pretend I belonged there. I felt a bit giddy, to be honest, since so many global luminaries of music, politics, arts, and literature have walked the halls–Barack Obama, Shaquille O’Neal, Elvis Presley, and Julia Child to name but a few. Our stay was lovely, the views spectacular, the bed and bedding divine, and the sleep peaceful – isn’t that what makes a great hotel in the end?

Historic San Francisco Hotel Room

But you don’t have to actually stay at the historic InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel to enjoy it–although it is certainly worth the indulgence and it is a great base for many San Francisco adventures, such as touring the Presidio urban park, biking the Golden Gate Bridge, or enjoying a sunset sail from Pier 39. Even without a stay, any traveler can walk in and learn more about the hotel, its history, Nob Hill’s founding fathers, and San Francisco legends, as well as the traditions that are a long part of the hotel and its penthouse Top of the Mark bar. Just a history walk through small museum-like alcoves and past photo galleries should be a must-do on any traveler’s list in San Francisco.

“We’re on a hill, and it’s a good-looking tall building,” and you have great views, hotel manager Jaap Boelens told us. “All those memories the hotel has created, and people can come back here and relive them. It’s special.”

During the first months of the pandemic in 2020, Boelens lived at the hotel when it was closed (a tad reminiscent of “The Shining” movie, don’t you think?). There, as a kind of watchman/caretaker, he had free rein to nestle into sheltered terraces high in the sky to read, to cook one-person meals in a gargantuan kitchen, and to take in architectural details on the roof – ones that guests can’t even see. So, Boelens knows the nooks and crannies to show off in the hotel with 383 rooms and 34 suites.

A history tour of the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

>> Any history tour starts outside the building. Enjoy the posh entrance, look up at the façade and the two wings outstretched like arms. Don’t miss admiring the circular courtyard entrance that allows cars to easily park.

Exterior Historic Mark Hopkins

>> Still outside, take note of the gray stone wall along Mason Street that is one of few sections remaining of the original mansion after the 1906 post-earthquake fire that destroyed the rest of the building — along with most of the city.

Original Wall Mark Hopkins

>> Look up to spy the turrets on the 15th and 16th floors where you see sections of glass walls. These are the six Terrace Suites (one at each corner of the wings) that used to have open patios. They were closed for many years until the terraces were glassed in. If you have the splurge in you, these are each an amazing little oasis tucked away on a corner. One day, we hope to stay in one!

Mark Hopkins Terrace Suite

>> You’re ready to head inside now to continue your history tour. On the opposite side of the lobby from the reception (i.e. to the right when you walk in) are several alcoves and glass cases filled with old photos, historic menus, and other memorabilia. Spend a little time in this area to appreciate the history of the hotel and city. You will enjoy the restaurant prices on the historic menus: How about coffee for 40 cents or an extravagant holiday four-course menu for $8?

Museum At The Mark Hopkins

Nob Hill History Museum

>> Down the hall from this mini-museum is the “Room of the Dons.” It is a private ballroom and not left open for sightseeing, but you can ask to schedule an appointment for a visit. Inside, you will see nine murals that depict early California. These seven-foot-high panels were painted by two of California’s most famous Western artists, Maynard Dixon and Frank Van Sloun, whose works are in art galleries around the country. These nine murals were completed in time for the Dec. 3, 1926, grand opening of the hotel that was built where the Hopkins mansion once stood.

Historic Murals Room Of The Dons

>> In the lobby is just a “taste” of the Squadron Bottle tradition in a tall glass case. (When we were there, this case was near the reception at a corner of the lobby but may move, so just ask for its whereabouts.) What is a Squadron Bottle, you ask? During WWII, service personnel who were shipping out would buy a bottle (then, usually whiskey) and leave it in the care of the bartender for others from his squadron to have a free drink. When soldiers returned from the war, they would head up to the Top of the Mark. There, they would ask for “their” unit’s squadron bottle. Any serviceman taking a drink would sign his name on the bottle and could have free drinks. The only catch was that whoever took the last drink had to replace the bottle for those to come.

Lobby Squadron Bottles Nob Hill

That tradition has continued today. There are so many bottles they can’t all be displayed. When your tour takes you up to the Top of the Mark later, you will see a much larger case in the foyer to the restaurant. Spend some time reading the bottles and notes.

Top Of The Mark Squadron Bottles

>> Still downstairs, however, walk past the reception desks to the stairs to “C” level (which, in case you are wondering, stands for California Street. Remember, the hotel is on a hill so C Level exits will take you out to a different level.) This stairway area shows off photos and historical information about the “Big 4” railroad barons who transformed what had been called California Hill to Nob Hill. “Nob” means a person of great wealth or high social position, and this was not meant at the time in a complimentary fashion.) The hill became dotted with grand mansions from the four known as the railroad barons who funded the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s–Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford who went on to found Stanford University.

Mark Hopkins Big 4 Exhibit

Top of the Mark for more history and views

Now that you’ve perused the Nob Hill lobby area exhibits, head up the elevator to the 19th floor and the iconic Top of the Mark bar and restaurant for the grandest of the grand. We highly recommend having at least a drink in the Nob Hill’s sky bar although a meal will always be a memorable event, in part because the views of the San Francisco skyline and bay are endless.

Top Of The Mark Bay Views

Weeper’s Corner may not be where a lot of weeping happens these days — unless the view simply brings tears to your eyes.


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HITT Tips: The most popular and frankly best table at the Top of the Mark is the one in the far back right nestled by the bar. You have nearly your own private 180-degree views. We can personally vouch for it! Also, if you are inclined to enjoy a sunset, then choose the side facing the Golden Gate Bridge, which is west and will offer the best views of the sun as it sets.

You may want to have a seat and a drink in the so-called “Weeper’s Corner.” There are of course grand views over the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge — although you may cry tears of pleasure over a sunset that is not the reason for the name! It is where sailors shipping out would come to say goodbye to their sweethearts when they headed off to war. And the sweetheart could stay there and “wave goodbye” to the ship as it headed under the bridge. One other thing in this side room: If you are planning a proposal, head for the far back corner table, which is private and thus conducive to such personal occasions. And it is the table where the most proposals happen, Boelens said.

Now is the best time to end your history tour since now you are likely nestled in with a glass of a Piper-Heidsieck bubbly from France, perhaps in the new Champagne Lounge with its champagne and caviar cart service.

Top Of The Mark Drinks

About the hotel rooms at the historic Mark Hopkins

Deciding for a stay at the iconic Mark Hopkins hotel is not a difficult choice. There are rooms available for a variety of budgets, from standard rooms to executive rooms to penthouse suites. The higher and larger you go, of course, the more it will cost, with the best views above the 14th floor. We were upgraded to a one-bedroom suite that had a very spacious living area and a dining nook as well as a separate bedroom and well-equipped bathroom. On a high floor, we had little or no urban traffic noise, and the sleep was divine – the hallmark of a hotel we would go back to.

Mark Hopkins One Bedroom Suite

Amenities run the gamut from bathrobes and coffee machines to mini-fridges and good Wi-Fi. Of note is the number of plugs available for today’s high-tech world, but a lack in USBs. We also loved that the window in our room could be opened a couple of inches for much-needed fresh air.

What is somewhat quaint about the rooms is that there are so many differences in their shape and sizes since this is nearly a century-old building.

Although the Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco is indeed a luxury hotel, that doesn’t mean sleek, modern furnishings and glamorous crème-colored hallways. The goal of the Mark Hopkins is to retain its old-world elegance and historic flair, from furniture, light fixtures, and bathroom tile to vintage carpet and hallway mail chutes (yes, they work).

That means you may find a little wear-and-tear here and there – such as the vintage vinyl on the couch in our dining nook that was cracking a bit. Don’t expect high-tech perfection, but comfortable, classic luxury. As hotel manager Boelens explained, repairs are time-consuming and expensive since all renovations and repairs must be historically accurate and getting ahold of historically appropriate décor is sometimes difficult.

Mark Hopkins Hotel Room View Sunrise Therese Iknoian

What makes the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill perfection is its history and its perch on (nearly) the top of Nob Hill surrounded by some great San Francisco views. The Top of the Mark on the 19th floor is 537 feet above sea level. The InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel maintains swanky style with historic charm, an unbeatable sky bar in the Top of the Mark, and views every traveler to San Francisco seeks.

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Disclosure: Our stay was fully hosted at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. The review, opinions and ratings here are our own, and are not approved, provided, or otherwise endorsed or influenced by the hotel.

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Rating the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel

85%

Our Rating Our hotel ratings will tell you what we think of an individual property and are not a comparison to other hotels in the area. They are valid at the time of our visit, which in this case was during the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant no daily housekeeping and some limitations on meal service. Things can – and will -- change, of course, but we hope only back to pre-pandemic operations and not overall with properties like this that we love! We frequently pay for our hotel stays and will disclose whenever we receive discounts or comped room nights as a part of a hotel stay. Our ratings are a percent, with 100% being perfect and 0% someplace not even a rat would stay. We rate cleanliness/upkeep (e.g. dust on the windows, dirt under the beds, unclean bathroom fixtures, need of repairs/maintenance, etc.), comfort (e.g. taking into account quiet, how comfy the bed is, if there is a nice robe, a comfy chair, etc.), amenities (e.g. free parking, breakfast included and its quality, free Wi-Fi, free bikes, fitness gear, workout room, pool, etc. -- and we are not fans of hotels that say they include things, but then charge a facilities fee!), location (e.g. how easy is it to get around by foot, bike, and car), and value (e.g. how much we feel we got in return for the amount charged).

Cleanliness/Upkeep
80%
Comfort
90%
Amenities
84%
Location
95%
Value
80%

1 Comment

  1. OMG this hotel looks so good. I love its design on the outside. I would love to stay in this hotel when I go to San Francisco too!

    Reply

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