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Sutro Baths and Cliff House, San Francisco, California

Updated on October 4, 2010
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One million bucks was a lot of moolah back in 1896 but it wasn't too much for former San Francisco City Mayor Adolph Sutro to spend on an extravagant creation. There on the coast of the Pacific Ocean he built one of the most memorable landmarks in the history of San Francisco.The place, named after himself, was the Sutro Baths. It was a set of public baths that was absolutely over-the-top in terms of its design. The ruins of this bathhouse are a popular place for visitors to the area and are also enjoyed by residents when they trek out to the coast.

What is a public bath house (or what was it at that time any way)? The simple description is that the Sutro Baths were a public swimming pool where people could enjoy swimming together with their friends and neighbors. However this description doesn't do the Sutro Baths any kind of justice because they were so much more grandiose than just a public pool. This swimming pool area was not just one big pool but was actually made up of 7 different swimming pools. These pools were built in the fashion of the Old Greek bathhouses, encased within glass walls that looked out over the water. Fun diversions and entertainment for the swimmers included slides, swings, diving boards and even trapezes. These amazing pools could hold up to 10,000 people at one time! It must have been a grand spectacle to see in its heydey!

For those people who wanted a break from the luxury of swimming in glass-encased magic, the Sutro Baths were also designed to be a place of leisure in other ways. There were three different restaurants located there so that visitors could ease the pangs of hunger worked up during swimming exercise. There was also an area where live stage performances could be executed and enjoyed. The art that covered the walls made this practically a gallery of its own. The place was fabulous to a degree that was certainly not matched at that time and may still not be matched in San Francisco today.

Unfortunately the entire thing ended up costing more than it was taking in and eventually had to close. Maybe the expense of creating and maintaining the building was just simply too high to be offset by the income it took in. Perhaps the inconvenience of getting to the baths was problematic; San Francisco was not built up at the time and so train travel was required to get out to Sutro Baths. Or maybe the Sutro Baths were just not right for their times, too modern for the turn of the century and too long since the Greek bathhouse days to work. Whatever the reason, the Sutro location went through a number of incarnations after being a bathhouse. Ice skaters spent their time here for awhile. Later the general area became home to Playland at the Beach, a magnificent amusement park that drew in crowds in droves for quite awhile but then shut down a couple of decades back.

All of this history makes the Sutro Baths a potential haven for ghosts.  Indeed, many people say that this place is haunted. A lot of people interested in ghosts head out to this region of the city to see if they can have a ghostly experience. The setting is perfect for having such an experience.The ruins of the baths are there to this day, situated starkly beneath the Cliff House Restaurant, perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Just north of the Sutro Bath ruins is a series of cave tunnels that lead out to a precarious perch on the water. Waves crash violently against the rocks at the end of these tunnels. One misstep, and you could easily find yourself cascading into lost waters below. It’s definitely creepy.

But, if you brave the waves and the windy weather that accompany them, and head out to the end of the tunnel with a candle, you may find spirits welcoming your presence. It is rumored that if you light the candle and place it at the end of the tunnel, then you begin to walk away, you will see a figure come along, pick up the candle and toss it in to the water. Maybe it’s the depressed spirit of Adolph Sutro whose wild dream was realized only to be crushed by reality. Perhaps it is the spirit of a swimmer who never wanted to leave the ruins behind. Or maybe it is more than one presence from different parts of the history of the area who find the blurring of time and the beauty of nature here too irresistible to leave behind.

Of course, even if you don’t end up seeing spirits at this spot it’s still a terrific tourist attraction to visit on a trip to San Francisco. The ruins themselves are fascinating. The ocean view is stunning. It’s a great picture spot. From here you can walk to Golden Gate Park, hike a natural trail along the ocean or check out the old military batteries that were once active here on the coast.

The Sutro Baths are located at Ocean Beach, which is itself a popular attraction. The weather in San Francisco is not typically conducive to a great beach experience but some days still find this beach busy. People come out here to go surfing and kitesurfing. It’s a cool thing to see if you’re there when a lot of people are there enjoying these activities. If you wear a wetsuit you can go into the water yourself.

Stop at the Cliff House Restaurant while you’re at the Baths. The food is a bit pricey but the restaurant has a terrific view. Plus it’s rich with history. It burned down three different times over the course of its history and there is a lot of historical information about its different incarnations inside of the restaurant. Even if you just grab a drink at the bar it’s worth it to take a look at all of the history that is held there.

Learn more from The Presidio Visitor Center.


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  • profile image

    Robert 5 years ago

    Stopped by the bath ruins over thirty years ago... Just foundations and rocks leading to the ocean.

    Cliff House on the south end of the baths.

    My first visit to the Cliff House Restaurant was fifty years ago with family.

    That place was creepy... Downstairs was a fully functional miniature circus from the turn of the century.... the clowns were most alarming and the place had a haunting feeling with its darkness and dampness....

  • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

    Susan Haze 7 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Beautiful. Someday i hope to get out there to visit the ruins. It has quite a history. Thanks for sharing.

  • Hello, hello, profile image

    Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

    Thank you for your tour of the Sutro Baths. Very interesting.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 7 years ago from Oakley, CA

    This title grabbed me. I was born and raised in SF. What memories you've brought back! I started to write a detailed comment, until I realized it was going to turn into something much too long for a comment.

    So, I'm going to write a personal memoir about my experiences there, with a link to your hub as the inspiration.

    I had not, however, heard about the ghostly encounters. Very interesting. The paranormal fascinates me.

    Great Hub!

  • fundamentallife profile image

    fundamentallife 7 years ago

    Thank you Kathryn, I love this 'oldy worldy' stuff.


  • FGual profile image

    FGual 7 years ago from USA

    Thank you for letting us know about this hauntingly beautiful place, perhaps it will make a comeback someday