Touring Alcatraz should be top of your list of what to do in San Francisco, even though it may seem strange to plan a visit to a former maximum security prison. You will find The Rock a fascinating place to explore, and the tour comes complete with a boat ride on the bay. Here’s an overview of what you’ll see on your tour, along with practical information to get the most from your valuable vacation time here.
Begin at Pier 33 in San Francisco
Your tour of Alcatraz begins on the wharf, at Pier 33. No private boats are allowed to dock at the island. The only way to arrive is by the Alcatraz tour boats. You can purchase tickets on the official website. These do sell out, so order up to three months ahead. The island itself is now maintained and run by the National Park Service.
Arrive on the Island
Alcatraz is most well known for its years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963. Many of the cell blocks today are exactly as they were left when the prison closed, except for the ravages of time. Peeling paint is everywhere inside and out, and nothing has been spruced up. This allows you to imagine what life was like for the “incorrigible” criminals who lived here in spartan conditions.
When you arrive on the island, you can see a short orientation film and then trudge up the steep hill to the main prison. When a prisoner arrived, clothes were issued, along with shaving equipment and other basics. Wind around the shower area to pick up an audio tour in your language.
Tour the Cell Block Rows
Listen to stories of daily life along the corridors of cells and marvel at tales of insurrections, lost keys, smuggled hacksaws, and grenades. Some of the cells are restored to show that prisoners painted, read, played checkers, and even crocheted in an effort to maintain a civilized existence.
Go Behind Bars
The shell of a large house sitting in a prime view spot on the island housed the warden and his family. It also burned in 1970, but at its heyday it was a mansion surrounded by ornamental gardens.
Wander Down the Hill
Down the hill from the main prison you’ll find several interesting sights. You may want to stop at these on the way up. We stopped on the way up to the cell blocks, then went down the hill, then later went back up to the cell blocks to see more. You are totally free to roam the island at your leisure (unlike some unlucky people who resided here).
A water tower rises above the north end of the island, and it tells of another era in the history of Alcatraz. American Indian activists occupied the island for 19 months, coming from the city in 1969. They claimed the land for “Indians of All Tribes.” They lived in the cells and spent time outside, too. The water tower declares Peace and Freedom. The occupiers ran out of money, food, and supplies and eventually left. Graffiti is still displayed, though the National Park Service has invited native Americans back to help paint over it.
The large ruined building just above the dock was at one time the Post Exchange and Officer’s Club. One amazing aspect of Alcatraz is that during its time as a federal prison, the families of the prison officials lived in close proximity to the prisoners. Children raised on Alcatraz remember it fondly. This Club featured a soda fountain and a bowling alley. Dances and parties took place. And the children would hop on a boat and go to San Francisco for school each weekday. They recall that they were almost unaware of the prison that stood a few yards away.
Wander Through Tunnels
Alcatraz was first the home of a fort. In the 1850s, this was the first line of defense in case of invasion on the west coast. During the Civil War, Confederate prisoners were housed here. You can wander through the tunnels of the early fort.
At the dock stands the symbol of Alcatraz – the guard tower. This is one of only a few guard towers. It’s notable that the prison lacks walls and fences, though the windows are barred. Guards believed that no one could escape, because it’s not possible to survive in the choppy, cold waters of the bay. Prisoners did attempt to escape anyway, of course. Only one escapee got off the island, and he was never found. He likely died in the water, but no one will ever know for sure.
The National Park Service offers informative free tours throughout the day. We took the tour on escapes from Alcatraz. We heard about the cell area where one escape attempt happened, and we went back up the hill to study the shape of the bars and cells. Some bars are flat, and some are rounded. Details like that make the tour so interesting.
As you stand on the island with the prison looming above and sailboats gliding by on the water, you’ll find yourself imagining what life behind bars here was like, knowing that beauty and freedom lie so close but are just out of reach.
Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online at Alcatraz Cruises. Some sites sell bay cruise tickets that include “seeing” Alcatraz from the boat but not landing there. Be careful and try to book through the official site only. You can choose from day cruises, night cruises, and behind-the-scenes tours. Only the day cruises were available when I booked.
Prices: Adults — $40, children 11 and under — $24. Audio guides are included with the ticket.
What to wear: It can be windy and cold, so take a windbreaker-type jacket even in summer.
Food: This seemed to be confusing. We were allowed to bring food in our backpacks, though we were first told we would have to eat the food at the dock or throw it away. Apparently as long as you don’t try to dine in the cell blocks, you can carry food. A picnic area is available on the dock. No food is for sale on the island. Water is allowed.
Tours: A daily schedule of tours led by National Park Service employees is posted. These are about a half hour long. The one we took was great!
More information about Alcatraz: For more information about touring Alcatraz as well as its history, check out the National Park Service website.
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