As you board the boat for Alcatraz there’s an air of excitement, yet also one of eerie trepidation. And as you approach the island it’s easy to see why Alcatraz was one of the most feared penitentiaries in the USA. The most hardened criminals were sent here and it was reputed that you couldn’t escape, even though several tried. If you didn’t get smashed against the rocks surrounding the island, you probably would have died of hypothermia in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz was closed in 1963 and even though it had only operated as a maximum high security Federal prison for less than thirty years, it was legendary. Today the legend lives on as one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco, California, and one that should appeal (on one level or another) to visitors of all ages.
Arriving on The Rock
For me Alcatraz is several attractions in one: it’s a boat cruise, it’s a chance to enjoy some great views of San Francisco, and of course it’s the opportunity to walk along the eerie hallways of one of the best known prisons in the world. I really enjoy all three aspects of visiting Alcatraz.
There is only one way to get to Alcatraz as a tourist today and that’s on a boat operated by Alcatraz Cruises, so if you want to actually get off and explore the island make sure you buy your tickets with them. Boats depart from Pier 33 and a round trip including the tour of Alcatraz usually takes around 2.5 hours. During peak summer season you should definitely buy your tickets in advance.
As you leave San Francisco you may be lucky enough to watch the city grow smaller behind you and Alcatraz looming ever closer in front of you. I say ‘may be’ because you never know if that infamous San Francisco fog will be rolling in, enveloping everything around you and really adding to the creepy atmosphere!
When the boat docks you’ll walk up a pathway that takes you to the main penitentiary buildings and it’s soon easy to see the effect that all that fog and damp weather has on the aging buildings. There are signs of crumbling decay and rust, and the fact that the prison was beginning to fall apart was one of the reasons that they decided to close it.
The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour
If you do nothing else on Alcatraz be sure to make use of the audio tour, named ‘Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour’. I clearly remember many aspects of this tour (which is included in your admission ticket by the way) and it’s been several decades since I last visited! The tour is very cleverly done, weaving interesting facts in with actual sounds from its days as a prison, so you really get a good feel for the place.
You will wander past a number of cells and get to see how sparsely furnished they were – basically there was a bed with a blanket, plus a small desk, a basin and a toilet, which inmates had to use with zero privacy. The cells are so small as well, typically measuring 9 feet by 5 feet, though some were even smaller.
Seeing the cells is just one part of the tour as you can also see the library, the dining hall, and the recreation yard, as well as passing a number of other rooms along your way. The tour was definitely the most memorable part of my visit to Alcatraz.
Once you’ve done the tour there’s still more to see around the island including the historic gardens that were originally planted by family members of the US Army who were stationed here from 1853, long before it became a prison. The gardens are being restored by volunteers to the condition they would have once been.
I love to sit and admire the views from Alcatraz. You get excellent views of the city skyline, while the Golden Gate Bridge is close enough to see too. I also like the fact that you’re not confined to a specific timescale – you can choose whichever boat you like to head back to the city, so long as you don’t miss the last one of the day!
Have you visited San Francisco? If so, which other attractions in the City by the Bay would you recommend?