San Francisco's Sutro Baths on a Sunny Day

City Gem: San Francisco’s Sutro Baths

San Francisco has been on glossy postcards for over a century.  Dreams of the Golden Gate Bridge up close shrouded in fog, Alcatraz in all its Al Capone crime glory, and trolley cars chugging up rolling hills lined in candy-colored houses bring tourists into the city.

These are all incredible sights to be sure, and I can’t recommend enough taking a ferry to the prison that housed the infamous mob boss as well as Sean Connery’s character in “The Rock” or driving across the Golden Gate and watching its rust colored beams pass outside the window, but let’s not forget the lesser known destinations.  These, like San Francisco’s Sutro Baths, can make memories just as vivid as the top spots.

The city is #blessed with national parks, monuments and recreation areas, and The Golden Gate National Recreation area alone hosts a ton of sights: The Muir Woods, The Presidio, Alcatraz, and the city’s National Cemetery to name just one of dozens.  Also included are the Sutro Baths near Land’s End Lookout, located along the Northwest corner of the city between the ocean and the bay.

The morning of our adventure we stopped into the famed Tartine Bakery where cappuccinos are served in fishbowl sized mugs and croissants have 1,000 layers. With caffeinated heads and butter coated bellies we dabbled along the mosaic steps of 16th Avenue, trekked upward to grab the best view of Golden Gate Heights, passed through Golden Gate Park where I witnessed my first game of bubble football (being played by elementary schoolers mind you) and watched butterflies forming in cocoons in the conservatory.

All throughout the morning I was waylaid by the city’s houses.  I could spend days taking in the homes of San Francisco, from those precious Queen Annes (think the Painted Ladies in the Full House intro) to the Mission style adobe facades (think ultra-rich pueblo).  Houses are cuddled next to one another, each more ornate and brighter than the last — like Matryoshka dolls perched along the streets.

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Just after noon the day had contained a not insignificant amount of walking, so instead of going on foot all the way to the Pacific à la Louis & Clark (but on 1/9000th of the scale) we hopped on a bus. This bus, upon the happiest of happenstance, dropped us off in front of the Java Beach Cafe where I had one of the more important firsts of my life: a slice of Pullman loaf.  Similar to the shokupan of Japan, the Pullman is a semi-sweet white bread.  It may not sound like much, but cut into thick slices, toasted and topped with a half inch of nutella, this was a carb experience.

We pulled ourselves together from a state of bread drunkenness long enough to meet with a few friends in the area and walk up the coast towards the Sutro Baths.  Prior to moving west I thought that all beaches were created equal. I assumed the Pacific and the Atlantic were made of the same waters and had the same spirit; this could not be less true.  In the east, summer means swimming in the ocean. Summer means packing up the van and taking the kids to the beach, diving into the waters by day and walking along the boardwalks at night.

Out West and North of Big Sur, summer means taking your kids to the shore to build sandcastles and chase waves. Summer means putting on a hoodie or a cardigan, but not actually going into the water, whose temperatures seldom rise past 60.  While the waters may be a tad inhospitable, the Pacific is gorgeous in ways the Atlantic can’t even compete with.  Sea Stacks dot the coast and the water is actually blue — not that hazy gray-green of Jersey that’s coated with a film of spray-on-tanner.

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We walk along the coast grabbing sea specimens and pointing out curios like dehydrated fish and 3-legged dogs chasing tennis balls.  One moment we’re enveloped in cloud and fog which casts a gray pallor onto the ocean water, then almost immediately the sky and sea are picture perfect blue.

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With an unbeatable view of the Pacific is the most Wes Anderson thing I’ve seen in the wild: the Camera Obscura, aka “Giant Camera”.  A tiny structure in shades of butter yellow and baby blue that takes in light via an angled mirror, then projects the nearby ocean scenery onto a screen in a tiny darkened room for the visitors viewing pleasure. Adorable to look at but not very interesting within, we spend about 60 seconds inside.

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Here is where the real magic happens — taking into account how camera obscuras work, Carl stepped outside and turned this knowledge towards the humble fifty cent tourist telescope. Using a blank page in a book we were able to locate sunspots, turning the camera obscura information presented to us in a different direction to see something completely different. (Carl’s joy upon finding this was equivalent to a kid in the 90’s getting a PlayStation at Christmas.)

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Arrival at the Sutro Baths does not culminate in a boardwalk or a boat ride.  There’s nothing to “do”. The Baths had an early twentieth century heyday, and once upon a time visitors could swim in one of seven pools, change in one of 500+ dressing rooms and even lace up some ice skates and hit the ice rink. In the second half of the century the complex fell upon hard times, struggled for years, closed in the 60’s, then burned down while in the process of being demolished.  Insurance money was claimed, and in the end arson was determined to be the cause of the fire. When I say there’s nothing to do it’s because there’s no longer anything there. Just ruins.

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The remains of the baths rest off the ocean.  It’s the perfect spot for a picnic, or in our case, for a bottle of wine split into plastic cups.  In my early twenties my group of friends and I were stationed in Philadelphia. Within just a couple of years that circle disbanded, with one person moving to San Francisco (for the tech scene, naturally), followed by another, then another…then Carl and I moved west to Seattle.  Since this East Coast flight began it’s been hard to come together, but sitting on the beach drinking a $9.00 bottle of wine and talking about nothing for hours with old friends, it’s easy to feel like a college student again.

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Camped out on our blanket we watched the sky somersault once more.  The clear sky clouded and the fog rolled in from the ocean, as happens on a near-daily basis in the city. The seastacks became obscured, seagulls were nearly lost overhead and windbreakers were zipped high. Sitting still you can watch the fog move in.  Karl (the name the city has given the fog) could lap me in a race. I can start strong but it’s Karl, slowly and surely and steadily, which would continue to the finish line, starting miles off the coast and finishing in the Mission district, never stopping for a break.

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