The Cliff House, San Francisco

The Cliff House in San Francisco at Land's End
View of the historic Cliff House in San Francisco overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Guest post and photos contributed by Lisa Crovo Dion

The Cliff House, perched at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, is an iconic San Francisco landmark with a curious and, some say, haunted history.

In 1858, the first incarnation of the Cliff House was built high above Ocean Beach in San Francisco from lumber salvaged from a shipwreck. More than thirty ships have run aground on the southern shore of the Golden Gate below the Cliff House.

Hiking Land’s End

This spectacular location at the edge of the continent is appropriately called Land’s End. Just north of the Cliff House is San Francisco’s most amazing hiking trail that hugs the dramatic coastline from the Sutro Baths to Lincoln Park. Along this trail you will be enchanted by stellar views of the Golden Gate Bridge, secret coves, pocket beaches, and a hidden labyrinth made of carefully-placed stones.

Beautiful Pacific Ocean views from Sutro's in the Cliff House, San Francisco
The elegant Sutro’s at the Cliff House in San Francisco.

But back to the Cliff House’s tumultuous history. Originally a hotel, then a resort, now a restaurant, it has been rebuilt four times due to various catastrophes. In 1887, a schooner loaded with dynamite ran aground and exploded, demolishing the entire north wing of the tavern. It was repaired, but the building was consumed by flames in 1894 on Christmas Night.

In 1896, mining engineer Adolph Sutro built the third, and most photographed, incarnation of the Cliff House. This elaborate seven-story Victorian style mansion was called the “Gingerbread House.”

The Sutro Cliff House survived the 1906 earthquake with little damage, but burned to the ground on the evening of September 7, 1907.

Sutro’s daughter commissioned the rebuild in a neo-classical style in 1909. This is the basis of the structure seen today.

Camera Obscura, Cliff House, San Francisco
The Camera Obscura behind the Cliff House in San Francisco

Camera Obscura

The Cliff House became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1977 and an extensive renovation began in 2003. Today it features two restaurants, the casual dining Bistro Restaurant and the more formal Sutro’s. Additionally, the Terrace Room serves a Sunday Brunch buffet. There is a gift shop in the building, and the historic camera obscura is located on a deck behind the building overlooking the ocean.

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Cameras obscura are devices that project an image of the surroundings onto a surface using only existing exterior light sources, usually sunlight. They are important historically in the development of photography. Guests can enter and experience the one behind the Cliff House for $3.

Zinc Bar, Cliff House, San Francisco
The Zinc Bar & Balcony Lounge at the Cliff House in San Francisco

While the Cliff House is extremely touristy, you could do a lot worse than basking in the fantastic views of the mighty Pacific over a plate of oysters and a glass of champagne.

Insider Tip

While there are very few hotels near Ocean Beach, you can still book a room at the Seal Rock Inn that has been open since 1959. For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown and Cliff House on Instagram.

If You Go:

Cliff House (415) 386-3330

1090 Point Lobos

San Francisco, California 94121