by Susan Derby
Sunbathing sea lions, awe-inspiring bay cruises, clam chowder in bread bowls, and sundaes dripping with chocolate. These are but a few of the more surface-level allures of the popular, historical Fisherman’s Wharf, on San Francisco waterfront boasting picture-postcard views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
For a family vacation among the area’s myriad attractions, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf is a good bet for those seeking a prime location without parting with a premium. With 252 rooms (including 36 suites) over four floors, this Holiday Inn Express lives up to its brand’s promise as an “uncomplicated hotel choice offering comfort, convenience and good value.”
The hotel has all the basics covered, but not much more — it’s not a full-service property, after all. The close proximity, however, of the much larger Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf, whose main entrance is one block away from the Holiday Inn Express entrance, helps make up for that, as HI Express users are welcome to use some of the services of its neighbor, including its pool, laundry facilities and concierge services.
While rates for comparable rooms at the neighboring Holiday Inn tend to go for a few dollars less, the draw of the Holiday Inn Express for many families is the free daily breakfast, which is not offered at the Holiday Inn. Also children under 19 stay free and there is complimentary Wi-Fi.
In a land (Fisherman’s Wharf) that pretty much revolves around families, this HI Express property does a superb job of being in the right place. It’s a no-frills, easy-to-navigate (around and from) home base and stepping-off point for area explorations.
Our Editor Loves
- Prime location, steps away from Fisherman's Wharf attractions
- No-fuss good value
- Free all-you-can-eat breakfast
- Water Sports
- Free Breakfast
- Free Wi-Fi
Find the Best Price for Your Stay
The Holiday Inn Express at Fisherman's Wharf features standard rooms, mini-suites and family suites.
The accommodations at this property, in general, are clean, simple and equipped with the usual necessities, including an in-room safe, hair dryer, desk, iron, coffeemaker and phone with voicemail and free local calls. We all slept well on our firm-enough bed, heads resting atop both feather and foam pillows.
But you won't be surprised by any fancy extras. The TVs provide regular cable and pay-per-view movies, videogames are nowhere to be found, and, needless to say, jars of cookies or other kid-tempting treats are not found laying about. For us, that was fine (and preferable).
Wi-Fi access is complimentary on the property and there are plenty of outlets in the rooms to charge all of your devices. Computers are available for use in the small business center off the lobby.
Every floor in the hotel has a vending machine with snacks and drinks, as well as an ice machine.
Standard rooms, which are about 290 square feet, come with one king bed, two double beds or one queen bed. Rates cover up to four people in a room; any additional adults are charged an additional fee per night (this doesn't apply to additional kids, who are free). In the double rooms, rollaways are not permitted due to fire hazard. For other rooms, rollaways are readily available for a small fee. Those in standard rooms who want a refrigerator or microwave can rent one or both appliances on a nightly basis. Pack N' Plays are available free of charge.
Adjoining rooms are unavailable, but, when possible, rooms can be reserved right next to one another (call in your reservation if you want to arrange this). When adjoining rooms are vital, guests are typically referred to the nearby Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf, which does offer adjoining rooms.
The mini-suite was comfortable and offered, over the standard room, more space (they span about 370 square feet total), a refrigerator and a microwave. Most of the mini-suites are equipped with two double beds, though there are two mini-suites available that have a king bed instead.
Family suites, which are about 550 square feet, can comfortably sleep five or six people. They are equipped with a kitchenette (with microwave and fridge), two TVs and a pull-out queen sleeper sofa.
Though the hotel doesn't offer much in the way of special areas for children, it is an environment where kids generally feel at ease. There's nothing fussy about the place, and the clientele in the high-season months are largely families visiting local attractions.
There are no shops in the hotel, though you'll find whatever you need -- from food and drinks to over-the-counter medications -- within just a couple minutes' walk around the neighborhood. The helpful front desk at the hotel can help point you in the right direction.
No special kids' programs are offered at the hotel and onsite childcare is not available, though the front desk can refer you to local resources.
Although you won't find a pool (or any common recreational space) at the Holiday Inn Express, the neighboring Holiday Inn has a pool that HI Express guests may use free of charge. A heated, outdoor, rectangular pool spanning in depth from 3 feet to 8 feet, it's nothing fancy, but will certainly do the trick for kids wanting to go swimming. Several deck chairs surround the pool, and the gated area is open from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sorry, no Jacuzzi.
You stay at this hotel to play outside of it. Step out to be greeted by the sea-salty air, and dive into the area's many attractions, which begin just a short walk from the property. Near the water, you'll see vendor after vendor serving up Dungeness crab and other seafood, as well as sourdough bread bowls filled with New England clam chowder. The other edible for which these parts are famous is none other than chocolate, thanks to the presence of Ghirardelli (pronounced "Gear-ar-delly"). Kids will clamor for sundaes, hot chocolate and more at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop at Ghirardelli Square.
Pier 39 is a historical landmark that doubles as a vast entertainment zone. One of its less-manufactured, and more sought-after draws, are the "Sea Lebrities" -- California sea lions that voluntarily laze and frolic at pier's end, as their cohorts have done for more than 20 years. Inside Pier 39's retail complex are restaurants, shops and an impressive two-level carousel (hand-crafted in Italy). Next-door is the Aquarium of the Bay, where you will find all kinds of sea creatures and touch tank.
A whole host of bay cruises can be booked from this area. Tours of Alcatraz Island, the infamous former site of a federal prison, depart from Pier 33. Other area attractions include the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum and the enchanting Musee Mecanique.
Don't miss out on the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where kids (and you) can explore a submarine museum, an 1886 square-rigged ship and more. Plus, it's a pleasant, low-key area that might just prove a nice breather after hours at more high-energy sites.
The property does not have an onsite restaurant, but complimentary breakfast is served at the Express Start Breakfast Bar on the ground floor to all hotel guests from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. daily. Though some offerings do change daily, you can expect items such as cold cereal, breads, pastries, bagels, fruit and yogurt, as well as eggs, biscuits and gravy, bacon and sausage. A pancake machine, which churns out hotcakes in less than a minute is a mainstay attraction and draws a line. For all of the food, in general, though, you are in for a line, and possibly even a short wait for a vacant table, if you arrive here after 8 a.m.
This place is abuzz with activity, and can feel a tad frantic. If you prefer a peaceful, seamless start to your morning, you might want to skip it altogether. The general quality of the food is mediocre, yet, you'll probably find something that works for you. You can get as much as you want, and -- this is the selling point for most -- it is included in the cost of your stay. High chairs are available.
Bristol Bar & Grill
The nearby Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf offers a Bristol Bar & Grill (serving breakfast and dinner) and a 24-hour Denny's.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
If you're seeking recommendations regarding babysitting services, other area offerings and amenities, or in booking tours, inquire at the front desk. If they can't assist, then you, as an HI Express guest, are also welcome to utilize the services of the concierge at the nearby Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf.
Free daytime luggage storage is available through the front desk. Dry-cleaning services are available. And, if you want to tackle laundry, you can use the coin-operated washers and dryers at the nearby Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf (at the garage level; open 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.).
Off of the lobby is a small business center, where you can find print brochures and digital information about area attractions. There's also a machine here that prints airline boarding passes, and two computers and printers are available for use (for adults only); copy and fax services are available through the front desk.
A small fitness room, with a few treadmills, is located off of the lobby and is open daily from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Guests of the HI Express may use the swimming pool at the neighboring Holiday Inn.
The Art of Smart Timing
The property is open and bustling year-round. San Francisco also draws tourists throughout the year, though the high season is typically from around April through October or November. During this period, the hotel is usually at 90 percent capacity, according to the management. The summer months bring the most tourists into town. The slowest period is from December through February (though the weeks surrounding the Christmas and New Year's holidays can be busy). Expect the best deals at this hotel in January and February.
Weather-wise, San Francisco, a.k.a. Fog City, is an anomaly, and what the skies will deliver in these parts is often unpredictable. Bring layers of clothing and, even if you don't think you'll need them, pack jackets for all -- even in the summer, which always has its share of foggy, chilly days. The most "summery" weather in San Francisco often occurs in September and October.
Fisherman's Wharf sits along the waterfront in the northeast part of San Francisco. The Holiday Inn Express is on North Point Street, just a few-minutes' drive from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Those flying in will likely use San Francisco International Airport or Oakland International Airport. South of the city, SFO is about 15 miles from the hotel; OAK, about 20 miles from the hotel, is on the other side of the Bay Bridge. Public transportation options from the airports include BART, though from OAK, you'll need to take a short shuttle to reach the nearby BART station.
Once in the city, you could take a bus, street car or cable car to reach the Wharf. A number of MUNI options exist. Perhaps your easiest option, though, is to disembark BART at Embarcadero Station and take a quick cab to the hotel.
The hotel does not provide complimentary shuttle services but recommends Lorrie's Airport Shuttle for service to/from SFO (you'll get a slight discount on the return trip to the airport if you go through the hotel to book).
If you're unsure about bringing a car, consider costs of parking. Both at this property and around San Francisco parking can be pricey, and the only option to parking at the HI Express is valet-parking. We were able to shave a little off of the price of parking by parking at a private garage a couple of blocks away. Elsewhere in San Francisco, parking is rarely easy and is often expensive. Public transportation, on the other hand, is ubiquitous, cheap, and fun, especially for kids unaccustomed to it.
For Mom and Dad
For moms and dad who can sneak away for a date night, the City by the Bay offers countless opportunities for unique and romantic outings. Close to the hotel, the Buena Vista Cafe, near Aquatic Park, is worth a visit for its famous Irish coffees. And, for those who book well ahead, Restaurant Gary Danko is a fine dining experience unlikely to disappoint.
A short walk, bus ride or cab away, the Italian district of North Beach offers restaurants aplenty to suit most budgets and a lively bar and cafe scene. Right alongside this neighborhood, Chinatown is a distinctly different feel, and is also packed with eateries.
But anywhere in this seven-by-seven square mile city is fair game for a night out, thanks to the easily navigable transit system. Use local resources like SF Weekly and Guardian to help you get a handle on the goings-on about town.