The Great American Hotel

From poolside drinks and afternoon tea to beautifully ornamented guest rooms complete with crystal chandeliers, these are the country's swankiest, most dazzling hotels.

The Palace: Silver-Screen Glamour in the City

The Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

From $199 per night | 2 New Montgomery Street, San Francisco | 415-512-1111

I’ve always suspected I was born in the wrong century—or at least at the wrong end of it. Along with my love of all things vintage, I crave a certain level of sophistication—rules of social conduct, the idea that one does something a certain way simply because that’s how it’s done. Period.

My sensibilities felt right at home at the Palace Hotel, the grand one-square-block gem in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. It’s hard not to be impressed—and audibly gasp, if you’re me—when you walk through the front doors. This is what luxury looks like: soaring archways, rotunda ceilings, Italian-marble columns, Austrian- crystal chandeliers. It’s no wonder the hotel has hosted 10 U.S. presidents, countless royals, and the who’s who of sparkling Hollywood society over the years.

The first thing you’ll want to do is look up—beautifully ornamented ceilings drip with architectural detail—then march right by the check-in desk to gape at the Garden Court. Once an indoor turnaround for horse-drawn carriages, the space has been transformed into the hotel’s pièce de résistance, a five-story atrium filled with live foliage and topped with a nearly 70,000-pane stained glass ceiling. It’s here that society events like San Francisco’s Cotillion Debutante Ball and countless weddings take place each year. But the Court is also home to the city’s best Sunday brunch, a $75-a-plate affair (would you expect anything less?) with everything from sushi to waffles to oysters on the half shell, and live jazz to boot. Make a note to come back.

While it’s easy to picture mustachioed gents wooing corseted dames in secluded corners, the opulence here doesn’t tell the whole tale; it’s the hotel’s long and storied history that cements the Palace’s legendary status. Built in 1875, it was touted as the world’s largest hotel, the height of 19th-century luxury, with bathrooms and air conditioning in every room—a rarity—and a telegraph machine on each floor. Although the telegraphs have been replaced by wireless Internet and the bathrooms are upgraded with sleek marble countertops, the hotel retains much of its Victorian charm—from the lobby’s throne-like chairs to the old-fashioned locks on guest-room doors, which have been slyly retrofitted to accommodate modern key cards.

The convergence of past and present is everywhere you look—and it works. While fresh coats of paint and updated decor (not to mention the so-this-century fitness center and indoor pool) keep the place worthy of its Starwood Luxury designation, designers have not only managed to nod to the past; they’ve embraced it to the point that historical accuracy dictates modern comforts. Take the guest rooms: The hotel’s original 750 rooms have been converted into 553 rooms, including 34 spacious multi-room suites. No two are identical, with layouts, shapes and sizes varying according to the whim of the architecture.

Mine was a corner suite with a bedroom boasting a cozy king-size bed and a separate living room with a large desk, a comfortable couch, and an Art Deco sideboard housing a Keurig coffee machine. The best feature was the large, wide windows looking out over bustling Market Street.

One evening, coffee in hand, I perched on the bench-like sill and watched the sidewalk activity from above, picturing fine men in top hats and women in silk and chiffon. In the quiet of the moment, with the backdrop of this palatial piece of living history, it felt right to imagine myself as part of it, a traveler from a more sophisticated time, when extravagance and elegance existed just for their own sake.

But just as easily as I was transported, I was brought back to reality. “I want a burrito,” chirped my husband from the couch, breaking the silence. “Want to get dinner?”

“Sure,” I said, “but let me change into jeans first.” This is the 21st century, after all. –Emily Leaman