Uncover the secrets of Alcatraz

Just off the coast of San Francisco Bay, around a mile and a half from Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll discover the famous Alcatraz Island. This was the site of the very first lighthouse ever built on the Pacific Coast, but that isn’t what this place is most famous for.

Alcatraz Island is in fact best known as the home of a once infamous maximum security prison for some of America’s most dangerous criminals. Today, it’s no longer in operation as a prison, and instead it has become one of San Francisco’s most-visited attractions. While you’re here, it’s well worth exploring the island’s fascinating history and seeing what life was like for the prisoners who were sent to serve their time out in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

A rich and fascinating history

Alcatraz federal penitentiary housed prisoners from 1934, and the last inmates were transferred away from here in 1963. Some of the most famous convicts imprisoned here include gangster Al
‘Scarface’ Capone and murderer Robert ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ Stroud.

The island was thought to be the ideal location for a maximum security prison; located out in the bay, people thought it would be impossible for prisoners to escape from here. And even if they did, they’d end up in the icy waters. Over the years, a total of 36 prisoners tried to make their escape. But none of them were successful, and every one of them was either caught, shot, or drowned.

The history of Alcatraz island predates this infamous maximum-security prison. In the 19th Century, the island served as a harbour defence fort and a military prison. When you dock, you’ll find Civil War-era buildings and canons, as you’ll be able to explore subterranean rooms, too. Alcatraz Island was also the home of the very first lighthouse to be constructed on the Pacific Coast, and you’ll see that it’s been restored to its former glory when you visit.

Explore the island with Alcatraz tours

From 1969, the Alcatraz Island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Native Americans from San Francisco (known as the American Indian Occupation), as part of a wave of Native activism taking place across the US at the time. It came to an end in 1971, and in 1972 is became a national recreation area, meaning it has protected status.

Today, Alcatraz prison is part of the Bay Area’s 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and it’s open for tours. Book a guided Alcatraz tour and you’ll be taken back in time to explore an old prison, and you’ll actually be able to see where prisoners used to live. And if you opt for the audio tour, you’ll hear first-hand stories from prisoners, guards and their families, too. You can also book special tours like the Night Tour and Behind the Scenes Tour if there’s something you’re particularly interested in doing or seeing.

Many parts of Alcatraz prison are still intact, including the main prison block, steel bars, claustrophobic cells, a mess hall and a library. Look closely and you’ll also be able to see where inmates dug holes in the walls in an attempt to escape. And keep an eye out for ‘dark holes’, where the most troublesome prisoners were placed.

Bear in mind that the roads and walkways over on Alcatraz are steep, and there’s lots of walking if you want to see the whole island. The distance from the dock to the Cellhouse is around a quarter of a mile uphill, and you can enjoy some fantastic views along the way. You should allow at least three hours for exploring the island, and there’s enough to fill a whole day if you’d like to stay longer.

Booking Alcatraz tickets

To avoid disappointment, booking Alcatraz tickets in advance is always recommended, as only a limited number of visitors are allowed on the island every day. With this in mind, make sure you get your tickets as early as possible. Certain Alcatraz Island tour tickets can sometimes sell out a few weeks in advance.
Getting to Alcatraz Island

If you want to visit Alcatraz Island and see Alcatraz prison for yourself, you can take a 15-minute ferry ride over from Pier 33 (it’s between the San Francisco Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf). Because queues for the ferry can be long, it’s recommended that you start lining up around half an hour before your scheduled departure time. That way you can make sure you don’t miss your ferry.

Don’t be surprised to find that your backpacks and handbags will be searched. And remember that bags bigger than 16 by 20 inches won’t be allowed on Alcatraz Island for security reasons. So make sure you don’t bring your luggage with you. Bikes aren’t permitted either.

Things you should know

Don’t forget that, just like elsewhere in San Francisco, the weather can be very unpredictable. And as you’ll probably be spending the whole day over on Alcatraz Island, you should consider wearing layers. It’s well worth bringing a light jacket or a jumper, even if it’s warm and sunny when you set off from the bay. And you won’t want to forget your sunglasses and sun cream either.

When it comes to footwear, comfortable shoes with good grip are highly recommended. That’s because the roads on Alcatraz are pretty steep, and depending on where you go you could encounter stairways and gravel walkways. There’s lots to explore, so you’ll want to make sure you’re wearing the right gear.