The Hotel Monaco (501 Geary St., 415/292-0100, www.monaco-sf.com , $310–600) shows the vibrant side of San Francisco . Big guest rooms are whimsically decorated with bright colors, while baths are luxurious and feature cushy animal-print bathrobes. Friendly service comes from purple-velour coated staff, who know the hotel and the City and will cheerfully tell you all about both. Chair massage complements the free wine and cheese in the large, open guest lounge. Be sure to check out the Grand Café and the dining room as well. Because the Hotel Monaco is located a couple of blocks off the Union Square , you get more, and more fun, for your money.
A San Francisco  legend, the Clift (495 Geary St., 415/775-4700, www.clifthotel.com , $350) has a lobby worth walking into, whether you’re a guest of the hotel or not. The high-ceilinged, industrial gray space is devoted entirely to modern art. Yes, you really are supposed to sit on the antler sofa and the metal chairs, though most folks avoid the seriously oversized vintage seat. By contrast, the big Philippe Starke–designed guest rooms are almost Spartan in their simplicity, with colors meant to mimic the City skyline. Stop in for a drink at the Redwood Room, done in brown leather and popular with a younger crowd. For dinner, a branch of Jeffrey Chodorow’s Asia de Cuba restaurant is located inside the hotel. The Clift is perfectly located for theatergoers, and the Square is an easy walk away.
The opulence of the lobby at the Westin St. Francis (335 Powell St., 415/397-7000, www.westinstfrancis.com , $390–490) matches its elegant address. With more than a century of history as San Francisco ’s great gathering spot, the St. Francis still garners great prestige. Rooms are attractive but small. The price of admission pays mainly for the decadent fixtures of the common areas, the four eateries (including Michael Mina, the executive chef’s signature restaurant), the state-of-the-art gym, top-quality meeting and banquet spaces, and the address on Union Square .
Certain names just mean luxury in the hotel world. The Fairmont San Francisco (950 Mason St., 415/772-5000, www.fairmont.com , $460) is among the best of these. With a rich history, above-and-beyond service, and spectacular views, the Fairmont makes any stay in the City memorable. Check online for package specials or to book a tee time or spa treatment, and note that some of the rooms in this rarified hostelry actually allow smoking.
Another Nob Hill  contender with a top name, the Ritz-Carlton (600 Stockton St., 415/296-7465, www.ritzcarlton.com , $490) provides patrons with ultimate pampering. From the high-thread-count sheets to the five-star dining room to the full-service spa, guests at the Ritz all but drown in sumptuous amenities. Even the “standard” rooms are exceptional, but if you’ve got the bread, spring for the Club Floors, where they’ll give you an iPod, a personal concierge, and possibly the kitchen sink if you ask for it.