The Nob Hill neighborhood lives up to its “hill” moniker . The neighborhood climbs from Van Ness on one side and then back down to Powell Street on the other, and up from Bush Street down to Broadway. This is one of San Francisco’s most historic neighborhoods, full of gorgeous sites and fabulous hotels and restaurants to luxuriate in.
Things to do and see in (and from) Nob Hill
Nob Hill’s center point is at the top of the neighborhood’s and very much worth the climb: one square block of beauty with the unforgettable Grace Cathedral at one end and the luxurious Fairmont San Francisco and InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotels at the other. The intersection of California and Mason streets may not be the highest point in San Francisco — Mount Davidson holds that honor at 938 feet — but it definitely feels that way when you find yourself looking down at the rest of the city. It’s easy to see why the “Big Four” railway magnates — Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford — called the neighborhood home, prompting writer Robert Louis Stevenson to dub it ” the hill of palaces ” in 1879. 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire . One of the few that survived belonged to silver baron James Flood; today, it’s home to the ultra-exclusive Pacific-Union Club. Unfortunately, there's no way to get inside the club if you aren't a member.
But don’t despair: the brownstone ( the first one built west of the Mississippi) is still pretty to look at, and adjacent to it is Huntington Park , a 1.3-acre neighborhood beauty that’s actually open to the public. Philanthropist Arabella Huntington , widow of railroad baron Collis Huntington, donated the land to the city in 1915. It is a lovely spot for a picnic, featuring ornate fountains, a playground and manicured grass areas. At sunset and after, the park takes on a magical hue with hundreds of lights strung in its many trees.
In that same block is the aforementioned Grace Cathedral, an English Gothic-style cathedral famous for its stained-glass windows, labyrinths, extensive art collection, Interfaith AIDS Chapel and a massive Aeolian-Skinner organ with 7,466 pipes. There is a fee for visiting the cathedral as a sightseer, but those, in the words of the church, “seeking a private place for prayer or meditation” can visit for no charge during sightseeing hours. If taking a yoga class on a labyrinth in a cathedral is on your bucket list, then you’ve come to the right place — Grace Cathedral offers this and other events. Just make sure to register in advance as the yoga class often sells out.
Where to stay and where to enjoy a cocktail in Nob Hill
If decadence is what you want, then you have come to the right neighborhood, as Nob Hill is home to some of the city's most opulent hotels. The Fairmont, the Mark Hopkins and the Ritz-Carlton, each have stately entrances and views — and two of them offer their very own nightlife on site.
Take the elevator to the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins and you’ll find yourself at the Top of the Mark , a cocktail bar with 360-degree views of the city skyline and the bay. Originally a penthouse suite, it was transformed into its current state in 1939 by hotelier George D. Smith. The sweeping views alone make the tourist vibe and exorbitant price of the signature martinis a little easier to swallow.
Housed inside the Fairmont Hotel's basement is the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar , a massive tiki–themed lounge that opened in 1945. Because of its unusual location in the basement of the hotel, there are no views, but there is a 75-foot lagoon (just for atmosphere) complete with a floating barge for nightly live music and tropical rainstorms every half hour (dancing is encouraged, while jumping in the lagoon is not allowed and subject to a $1,000 fine). The Tonga Room, with its kitschy character and strong tropical drinks, has had many fans, Anthony Bourdain among them, as well as many detractors.
Other Nob Hill can’t-miss sites
Less controversial is the tiny and easy to miss (but worth a visit) San Francisco Cable Car Museum , which houses a collection of cable cars from over the decades (including three from the 1870s), photos, mechanical displays, and a gift shop. Conveniently, the museum is located on Mason Street, just steps from both the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines, which both have stops out front. Maybe you’ll even get a taste of what celebrated poet Maya Angelou felt when she became one of San Francisco’s first Black streetcar conductors in the 1940s.
“The thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark blue uniform, with a money changer at my belt, caught my fancy … I became dauntless and free of fears, intoxicated by the physical fact of San Francisco,” she wrote in her 1969 autobiography ” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings . ”
This story was edited by Hearst Newspapers Managing Editor Kristina Moy; you can contact her at [email protected] .
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