Photo of Alcatraz
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

San Francisco and Alcatraz Prison are almost synonymous. If you are in the San Francisco Bay area, it is almost a given someone will suggest you must absolutely make the time to visit Alcatraz Island during your stay. I was glad I took the suggestion from a friend. Even if you are pressed for time, if you save a few hours in your schedule to visit the notorious island, the time is well worth the effort invested.

Alcatraz is often cited as San Francisco's number one landmark and is one of the most frequently visited. It is best known for housing the famed federal prison, "The Rock" from the early to mid-20th century. Every year tourists flock to see the once mighty prison which housed those prisoners considered the most dangerous or deemed most likely to try to escape.

The history of Alcatraz is intriguing and, when you visit the island, you'll truly get a distinct feeling of how it must have been for those who worked or were imprisoned on the island in isolation from the rest of the world. This in itself makes the experience a remarkable one.

History of Alcatraz

Did you know this island was more than a prison? Over the years it has been occupied for many different reasons - the National Park Service (NPS) 3 states Alcatraz has been a -

"Civil War fortress, infamous federal prison, bird sanctuary, first lighthouse on the West Coast, and the birthplace of the American Indian Red Power movement"

The U.S. Army had occupation of the Island from 1850 to 1933 and, while it was a defense location, it also served as a military prison during part of this time. In 1934, the island was given to the U.S. Department of Justice for use by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This is the time period the island is most famous because it was a maximum-security, minimum-privilege facility. Many infamous names (Al Capone and George "Machine-Gun" Kelly to name two) passed through its walls over the course of about 30 years. Capacity of the prison was 336, but there were, on average, less than 275 prisoners housed at most times. In 1963, the U.S. Government closed Alcatraz Prison, saying it was too expensive to run. 4

During the mid to late 1960s, Native Americans (three separate times) claimed Alcatraz and occupied it with the hope of establishing a Native American cultural center and education complex. However, over time other groups began to come to the island and the situation got out of control, and the small group of Native Americans occupying the island couldn't control it. Graffiti and vandalism occurred and fires broke out in some of the buildings. Everyone on the island was removed by federal officials in 1971. 4, 5 Within 2 years the island became a part of the National Park System and opened to the public.

Exterior of Alcatraz
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved


Purchasing Tickets

In order to get to Alcatraz Island you'll have to buy a ferry ride ticket to get across the San Francisco Bay. It is best if you can decide which day in your trip you want to visit the island ahead of time. Depending on when you visit, tickets may be in high demand and sell out quickly. That being the case, it is a good idea to purchase tickets ahead of time; you can do this online if you know exactly when you want to visit (tickets are available 90 days in advance). There are both day and evening tours available.

Alternately, you can go by Pier 33 when you arrive in San Francisco and see what the open time slots are for the time frame you plan to visit. NPS "strongly" recommends purchasing ahead of time. 1 These days I keep reading tickets sell out more than a week in advance. Back in 2006, we had to wait 2-3 days when we purchased at the pier, so it could be a longer wait now. If you really want to see this when visiting, I recommend you reserve early - the tour is worth it.

Ferry to Alcatraz
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The ferry company that takes visitors from San Francisco proper to Alcatraz Island has changed over the years. This is one of the ferries we took on our trip.

Boarding and Traveling to Alcatraz Island

Once your designated time arrives, it is a good idea to plan to leave a little early to allow yourself sufficient time to board the ferry because the lines tend to be long. It's also suggested you dress warmly and bring a jacket; even in the summer months the Bay area is very breezy and this brings temperatures down (I ended up having to buy a jacket from a street vendor because I didn't plan for it to be cold - I thought "Hey, it's California right?" - Wrong!)

Additionally, comfortable shoes are a must because the Alcatraz tour is a walking tour and there is a hill to climb to reach the prison itself; there is mobile assistance for those who have difficulty with this walk.

After the ferry drops you off at the island there is plenty to explore. You are greeted by a Park Ranger who provides a few welcome comments and offers a brief narrative about the island. After this greeting, you are free to start exploring.

Exploring Alcatraz Island

A worthwhile experience is to walk around the museum which offers many interesting details about the history of Alcatraz. These rooms also house artifacts from previous years. The pictorial and written accounts are fascinating. To further enhance your visit there is also a theatre where you can sit and view short movies. As you watch these accounts you'll discover just how Alcatraz was far more than a prison. 

Once you reach the top of the hill you are free to enter and wander the prison sections and view the surrounding buildings. Even the famed "D" Block is open to the public. This row of prison cells housed the prisoners who were placed in isolation. Many buildings, such as the warden's housing, are not fit to walk inside due to damage, along with erosion from the winds and salty sea. However, they are so decayed you can see right in.

Looking inside the warden's house
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Several of the buildings on Alcatraz Island are heavily weathered. I believe this one was the Warden's House. Here you can see how decayed some of the buildings are (and this photograph was taken almost 10 years ago). This structure is listed by the DOJ website as being one of the ones being destroyed by fire.

There are also garden tours available (we somehow missed these on our trip).

A Remarkable and Memorable Experience

As you enter the prison doors prepare yourself for a remarkable experience. At least I found it to be. Many of the cells are set up to look exactly the way many of the infamous prisoners had them arranged. The audio headphone set really enhances the tour in my opinion. You used to have to buy this separately, but it seems to come with the ferry ticket nowadays (I recommend you double-check when purchasing your ticket).2 The tour comes in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

This recording provides you with both stories and testimonies of those who lived on the island during the prison days. The audio contains pivotal conversations and descriptions which really augments your experience and gives you the distinctive feeling of how life was living in Alcatraz.

History of Alcatraz Island, 1853-2008 (Images of America: California)
Amazon Price: $21.99 $12.21 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 14, 2015)

Alcatraz is an interesting tour to consider during your visit to San Francisco. While you can see the prison from the shores of San Francisco, it is truly worth the time to go see it close-up and personal yourself—you won't regret it. 


Other articles you may be interested in:

Great Tours in the San Francisco Bay Area

5 N0t to Be Missed Sights in San Francisco