From regal stone and timber lodges visited by kings, queens, and presidents, to kitsch-perfect settings where you can play caveman, California’s most unforgettable hotels aren’t just places to sleep—they're destinations in their own right. Many have restaurants, spas, or public spaces where all are welcome, so you don’t have to be a guest to see these eye-poppers for yourself.
It costs a bundle to spend the night, but there’s no charge for wandering inside, taking in the splendour of this 1920s-era hotel. This National Historic Landmark in Yosemite Valley has several “public rooms” where visitors can soak up its 1927 architecture, designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood. Everything in The Ahwahnee (formerly Majestic Yosemite Hotel) is built on a grand scale, from the massive hand-stencilled timber beams to sandstone fireplaces so large you could hold a tea party inside. Adorning this hefty structure are colourful stained-glass windows, Native American tapestries and baskets, Turkish kilim rugs, and Yosemite-inspired 19th-century paintings depicting the park’s waterfalls and giant sequoia trees.
Many famous people have slept in The Ahwahnee, including John F. Kennedy, Greta Garbo, Queen Elizabeth II, and Winston Churchill. It’s a worthy splurge to stay in one of its 123 rooms, suites, or cottages, but even if you don’t, you can still book a table for the sumptuous Sunday brunch at The Ahwhanee Dining Room, or simply sit by the fireplace in the Great Lounge, look up at the wrought-iron chandeliers dropping from the dining room’s 10-metre, richly painted ceilings, or enjoy a cocktail at the bar. Free one-hour guided tours of The Ahwhanee are offered throughout the year; check with the hotel's concierge desk for a current schedule.
Opened in 1907, this grand lodging perched above bustling downtown harkens back to an opulent era in San Francisco history. But stodgy? Not a chance. With its commanding views of the city and bay and restored lobby, uncovering original marble floors and other details created by famed architect Julia Morgan, it’s still an unforgettable luxury lodging—the kind of place where dressing up makes sense.
Things didn’t start so smoothly for the hotel. When the 1906 earthquake struck, construction was already finished but the hotel hadn’t quite opened. The building survived yet suffered considerable damage in the inferno that consumed much of the city. Repairs were made, and, from those fiery beginnings, the Fairmont emerged as a hub of posh city life, and hosted a string of American Presidents and other A-list guests. For a retro-hip diversion, hang out with tiki statues and Mai Tais at the hotel’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar.
Lavish and elegant, Riverside’s Mission Inn Hotel & Spa combines Old World romance with the splendour of Southern California’s citrus-growing era. From its modest start in 1876 as an adobe guesthouse, the Mission Inn grew into a veritable castle of turrets and ornate tile domes, archways, and lush garden courtyards. For more than a century, its grandeur has drawn glitterati and big names, from Hollywood royalty (Cary Grant and Barbra Streisand) to Albert Einstein and American presidents. In fact, Richard and Patricia Nixon were married at the inn and Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned there.
For all of its grand architecture and history (which you can learn about on walking tours), the Mission Inn has plenty of contemporary comforts too, with a full-service spa and several restaurants. And its downtown Riverside location puts you within easy reach of art museums, galleries, and events at the Fox Performing Arts Center, located in a restored 1929 theatre.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community feels like a private enclave wrapped with perfect beaches, including ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. Besides those soft sands, the island’s crown jewel is the Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Explore the lobby and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; docents share tidbits on the Del’s remarkable history and guest list (including Marilyn Monroe, who starred—alongside the hotel—in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot). The Del also serves a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and the Babcock & Story bar is fine for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Rent one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, or visit Orange Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theatres. More shops and art galleries are located at Ferry Landing, and restaurants like Candelas on the Bay and Peohe’s have expansive views of San Diego’s downtown skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: Traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can get thick, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay to Seaport Village. Water taxis are available too.
The historic Inn at Death Valley (formerly known as the Inn at Furnace Creek Resort) was built for roundabout reasons—the Pacific Coast Borax Company financed its construction as a means to save the company’s Death Valley Railroad after the borax business slowed. In the days before cars were common in the desert, many Hollywood stars rode the train to this desert getaway. The railroad didn’t survive the changing times, but this lovely hotel has aged gracefully since 1927. Designed by a Los Angeles architect who took his inspiration from California’s Spanish missions, the 66-room inn is perched on a hill facing west, its stone patios offering views of Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains. Red tile roofs and stucco walls glow in the afternoon sun; palm trees sway and water fountains burble. Outdoor fireplaces flicker and glow around the edges of the spring-fed swimming pool. Splurges don’t feel much more special than this. If you’re just visiting on a day visit in the park, relax over lunch or afternoon tea in the inn’s restful dining room.
The Inn is fully open only from mid-October through mid-May. The Oasis at Death Valley also offers a budget-minded 244-room property, The Ranch at Death Valley, just down the road.
When the St. Francis Hotel opened on March 21, 1904, a line of cars and carriages stretched for three blocks as San Franciscans flocked to Union Square to see the city’s newest landmark. Built by the family of famous San Francisco railroad magnate Charles Crocker after studying Europe’s grandest hotels, the $2.5 million St. Francis quickly became a hub for the city’s social and artistic elite. The St. Francis has survived changing times, not to mention the 1906 earthquake, and remains a regal symbol of elegance to this day.
The hotel now has nearly 1,200 rooms offering contemporary amenities in two buildings. But some things haven’t changed. The famous Magneta grandfather clock stands in the historic lobby with its ornate balcony and marble columns. And clanging cable cars still run along Powell Street, right in front of the hotel. Soak it all in with a warmly lit seat in the Clock Bar, created by acclaimed chef Michael Mina, where you can nibble on gourmet cheeses and sip a craft cocktail, or peruse a wine list featuring some 300 labels.
Since 1958, this San Luis Obispo landmark has drawn Central Coast travelers eager to experience its 110 one-of-a-kind rooms. Feel girly in rooms like American Beauty and Rose Room (Mrs. Madonna—yes, there really was one—was allegedly a big fan of pink), go Neanderthal in the solid-rock confines of the Caveman room (complete with “Stone Age clubs,” in case you need them), or practice your “Tally-ho!” in the expansive Fox & Hound suite. Though it can be tough to leave these spectacular and sometimes eccentric rooms, the Madonna Inn also features over 1,000 acres/404 hectares of surrounding hills, with trails for hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding (guided trail rides are offered. You can also while away the hours in the onsite spa, enjoy on-site wine tasting, and dine at Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House.
Built in 1926 as one of Sacramento’s earliest high rises, this one-time insurance building has been reborn as the Citizen Hotel. An extensive renovation gave the building a second life as a stylish 198 room boutique hotel, part of the Joie de Vivre chain. With handsome dark woods and clever political cartoons hanging from the walls, the Citizen gives a savvy nod to its distinguished location just a quick stroll from the cupola topped State Capitol, and there’s even a lending library with politically themed films.
The hotel is also home to Grange, where outstanding dishes focusing on ultra-fresh and seasonal local ingredients are prepared.
Built for $1.9 million—an unimaginable fortune when the hotel opened in 1910, the 437-room US Grant Hotel was the opulent vision of the late president’s son, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., who believed that this Southern California city needed a fine hotel. The hotel debuted with an all-day ceremony that drew the cream of California society, who marvelled at the Italian marble lobby, balustrades of alabaster, and sweeping views out to Coronado Island from the hotel’s Palm Court.
But over the decades, the US Grant went through tough times. Thankfully, a major restoration by a Native American tribe, which bought the hotel in 2003, removed decades of modifications and renovations to show off the hotel’s original finery. In-room details include original drip-painting headboards by artist Yves Clement as well as authentic Native American art. For a craft cocktail and a little something to nibble—perhaps a ready-for-grownups grownup grilled-cheese sandwich (aged fontina, rosemary bread, speck ham, and balsamic tomatoes)—relax in the Art-Deco sleekness of the Grant Grill Lounge.
When the Beverly Hills Hotel opened in 1912, it was surrounded by lima bean fields. The hotel’s namesake city wouldn’t even be founded for another two years. Now the Mission Revival “Pink Palace,” with its fabled bungalows (where Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned—with six of her eight husbands—and Marilyn Monroe slipped into bed) has become synonymous with city and its dazzling image of movie-star glamour.
The hotel is also known for its discretion, making it a favourite site for secret rendezvous. The legendary Polo Lounge, once a hangout for Frank Sinatra and the legendary Rat Pack, remains a watering hole for entertainment industry notables and celebrities—so order a Manhattan and keep your eyes peeled. And hidden away in the basement, the tiny 19-seat Fountain Coffee Room dates to 1949 and is still a local favourite for breakfast.
Spend the night and enjoy some decadent extras, especially around the pool, where guests get complimentary “pop-up refreshments” and services throughout the day—think frozen peanut butter cups, mini soft serve cones, sunglass cleaning, and a cooling spritz of (how perfect) Evian mist.