Sutro Baths, dramatically set against the rocky cliffs of the Gulf of the Farallones, looks out of place in San Francisco, California. The city of the Golden Gate Bridge, Transamerica Pyramid, and largest Chinatown in the Americas feels too industrial for the ruins that look like they would be more at home in Rome or Athens. And yet, just a twenty-minute bus ride from the uber-touristy Union Square, the Sutro Baths remind visitors San Francisco has long been infused with a certain ambition that can only result from new money and a desire to transcend the present-day.
I was not exaggerating when I said Sutro Baths looks like a relic from a lost, ancient civilization, and I had a hard time believing construction only started on the pools in the late nineteenth century. Adolph Sutro, an eccentric and wildly wealthy San Franciscan who can best be described as a visionary aimed to design a massive indoor bathing house in order to make swimming affordable and accessible for those living in his beloved city. Unlike the pools of today, Sutro Baths relied on the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean, making its location both practical and scenic. According to the National Parks Service, the pools were designed to accommodate ten thousand people at once – I did say Mr. Sutro was something of an eccentric visionary, right? Furthermore, Sutro Baths also showcased an array of artififacts from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America in addition to hosting a number of concerts and other performances.
Of course, the fact Sutro Baths are now in ruins hints at its tragic demise. Sutro passed away in 1898, and the Baths (along with the neighboring Cliff House) failed to sustain long-term success, even when they were converted into an ice rink. In the 1960’s, developers began demolition on Sutro Baths in order to construct high-rise luxury apartments, but a fire destroyed the site and the developers jumped ship, so to speak. In the early 1970s, Sutro Baths and the Cliff House were incorporated in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. For more in-depth history, please visit the National Parks Service website here.
Today, Sutro Baths remains a beloved, off-the-beaten-path attraction in San Francisco. Free to visit, travelers can enjoy stellar views of the ocean and one of my favorite Instagram-worthy photo opportunities in the entire city. I recommend purchasing a snack or beverage at the nearby Lookout Cafe, as one of my favorite memories from my most recent trek to San Francisco involves me relaxing on a bench, staring down at Sutro Baths while sipping a much-needed lemonade on an unseasonably hot February afternoon.
San Francisco is one of those cities where visitors might start to feel rushed from one attraction to another, and I love Sutro Baths precisely because there isn’t much to do besides take one hundred thousand photographs and soak up the salty Pacific air.
The Cliff House, shown above, offers splendid views of the water and Sutro Baths and sells an array of souvenirs. I bought a collection of vintage postcards at the Cliff House to send back to my family, and amazingly enough, Kevin and I actually remembered to drop them in a post office box before heading home. Impressive, right?
One of my favorite ways to approach Sutro Baths is by way of Lands End, a collection of trails northeast of the Baths that begins near China Beach. Lands End is also a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, meaning its paths are completely free to enjoy and also pass through a series of historic batteries constructed by the United States military before World War II.