Few rooftop lounges existed in San Francisco until recently, but they’re now sprouting like sunflowers atop the city’s bumper crop of new hotels. Add a few heat lamps and firepits, creative small plates, and signature cocktails, and you have the recipe for the latest hot spot—even on cold nights. But the main attraction is the view. City sights are now relished from modern hotel rooftop lounges and a recently unveiled rooftop park (think Manhattan’s High Line in miniature), which only add to the menu of “classic” scenes that have been San Francisco treats for travelers for generations. Here are five new and five vintage views.
Seventy feet above the Grand Hall of the just-opened $2.2 billion Salesforce Transit Center is a 5.4-acre, four-block-long rooftop park and botanical garden. Although surrounded by high-rises, it truly feels like a park, with paths, a “meadow,” botanical gardens, and 600 trees. Nowhere else can you marvel at the city’s glittering tech towers while doing yoga under a redwood tree.
Virgin Hotel San Francisco
San Francisco’s newest major hotel is the Virgin, but few will want to abstain from scoring tasty bites and adult beverages at the 12th-story Rooftop Bar once it opens this winter. The menu (by Adrian Garcia, a veteran of Michelin three-star restaurants) and near-panoramic vistas of downtown and the bay from the hotel’s location near SFMOMA will tempt and delight.
Cityscape San Francisco Lounge
Cityscape, a 46th-floor nightspot perched atop Hilton Union Square, the city's tallest hotel, offers magical tableaus. The bay, the bridges, and most of the metropolis are visible through 18-foot-high windows, with a killer view from every table. There’s no better place to see lights twinkle on as the sun sets while indulging in cheeses, charcuterie, and champagne.
Indoor/outdoor rooftop lounge Charmaine’s has been filled to its 200-person capacity almost nightly since it opened last fall atop the new San Francisco Proper hotel. Credit the dozens of properly stiff Scottish whiskies, stylish furniture and decor (with nine firepits to keep it cozy), and a luxuriant scene of Market Street from the bay to the hills.
Rooftop at Via
Across the street from AT&T Park, where the Giants play, is the chic Rooftop at Via, an indoor/outdoor lounge above the first South Beach hotel to open in 12 years. Expect bay views, private cabanas, firepits, baby back ribs, neighborhood brewpub beers, and, on game nights, roars from the crowd. Only hotel guests have access, giving it an air of exclusivity.
Take the California Street cable car if only for the vista of downtown and the bay from atop Nob Hill at Mason Street. It’s staggering—which is what you’ll do if you try to walk up the hill or drink too many Cable Car cocktails at the Top of the Mark, also located at California and Mason with an intoxicating view.
Bay Boat Rides
The best sights of San Francisco are from the bay, and tour boats are the easiest way to cruise out there. Most depart Pier 41 and ply the waters between AT&T Park and the Golden Gate Bridge while weaving among Alcatraz, Angel, and Treasure Islands. Blue and Gold and Red and White offer the most options.
This free-admission, National Park Service-operated, Civil War-era fort is literally in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, affording a unique look upward at the iconic span from its third-floor roof. Whales can sometimes be spotted cavorting beneath the bridge. You can also walk up to and across the bridge from the fort to gaze over the bay.
America’s pioneer in vegetarian fine dining, Greens boasts San Francisco's closest restaurant view of the Golden Gate Bridge through floor-to-ceiling windows. Cool off after sampling its fire-roasted stuffed poblano chiles by hiking toward the bridge or over the Fort Mason hill on shoreline paths.
De Young Museum Observation Tower
The price of admission to the de Young, the sprawling fine arts museum in Golden Gate Park, is well worth the trip. For those crunched on time, access to the elevator to the 130-foot-high tower is free. Through nine-foot-tall windows, you’ll see most of the park and western half of the city, all the way to the ocean.
Bob Cooper, a San Francisco-based travel and outdoors writer, is a past contributor to National Geographic Traveler magazine.