Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford built opulent mansions on Nob Hill to showcase their enormous wealth and to impress visitors. Known as the Big Four, the former merchants garnered their fortunes by building the Central Pacific Railroad, part of the Transcontinental Railroad completed on May 10, 1869. Alas, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed their lavish residences, and none of the railroad barons rebuilt their homes. But today Nob Hill maintains its upper-crust reputation with elegant hotels and posh apartments.
The Crocker family donated their property to the Episcopal Diocese of California. In 1927, construction began on Grace Cathedral. But the Depression delayed the work, and the cathedral was not consecrated until 1964. The French Gothic-style church features a replica of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” doors, stained-glass windows and an Aeolian-Skinner organ with 7,466 pipes. For an extraordinary experience, listen to its liturgical music — Evensong or Sunday Eucharist — sung by the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys.
Across from the cathedral, the 1.3-acre Huntington Park offers a lovely outdoor space with benches, trees, pathways and a playground. Originally the site of Huntington’s home, the land became a public park after his widow, Arabella, donated it to the city in 1915. At the center of the park is the Fountain of the Tortoises, adorned with sea nymphs, massive shells and turtles. The fountain is a copy of the La Fontana delle Tartarughe in Rome.
Arrive at the Mark Hopkins hotel at sunset, find a seat near the window at the chic lounge the Top of the Mark, and sip a cocktail while savoring the views. Open since 1939, it’s where servicemen stopped for a drink before shipping out during World War II. Cocktail service begins at 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday. You can even take a spin on the dance floor and enjoy live music at various times, Wednesday through Saturday (cover charges range from $5 to $15).
Another spot for a drink is the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at the Fairmont Hotel. Amid a faux tropical setting, have a Mai Tai or a Singapore Sling at the tiki bar or dine at one of the tables topped with thatched roofs — all surrounding the pool. What’s more, you can experience an indoor rainstorm and listen to the Island Groove band, which performs pop music from a decorative boat, Wednesday through Saturday evenings ($10 cover charge per person).