Alcatraz San Francisco

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 find the infamous Alcatraz Island. This was the site of the first ever lighthouse built along the Pacific Coast, but as you probably know, this isn’t what the isle is most famous for.

Instead, it’s best known for the notorious maximum-security prison that once housed some of America’s most dangerous criminals. Today, it’s no longer a functioning prison; instead, it’s one of San Francisco’s most-visited tourist attractions. While you’re here, it’s worth exploring the island’s fascinating history. You’ll get a real feel for what daily life was like for the prisoners who served their time in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

A rich (and slightly gory) history

Alcatraz federal penitentiary housed prisoners from 1934, and the last inmates were transferred in 1963. One of the more notable convicts imprisoned here was the gangster, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone.

He served four and a half years back in the 1930s. His transfer to the prison was huge news across America at the time because in his previous incarceration he had managed to continue his criminal operation from behind bars.

The island was the ideal location for a maximum-security prison. Located out in the bay, people thought it would be impossible for prisoners to escape, and they were right. Even if they did break free, most escapees perished trying to swim in the icy waters and terrifyingly strong currents that swirl around the island. Over the years, a total of 36 prisoners tried to make their escape but none of them were  successful: each of them was either caught, shot, or drowned.

James A. Johnston (1874-1954) was the first warden employed here, and he hired roughly one guard to every three prisoners. Each prisoner lived in his own small cell. The unruliest inmates in the country were sent here to learn how to live by prison rules. They endured tough conditions and enjoyed very few privileges.

Alcatraz’s role in the Civil War 

The history of the island predates the prison. In the 19th century the island served as a harbour defence fort and a military prison. When you dock, you’ll see the Civil War-era buildings and canons. You also get the opportunity to take a look at the hidden war rooms as well.

The island was also home to the very first lighthouse constructed along the Pacific Coast. It’s since been restored to its former glory, making it quite a popular tourist attraction in its own right.

From 1969, 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 occurring across the US at the time. It came to an end in 1971, and in 1972 the island was transformed into a national recreation area, which means it enjoys protected status.

Explore the island with a tour

Our top tip: book a guided tour. This is the best way to experience this eerie place. You’ll be taken back in time to explore the old prison, and you can see for yourself where the prisoners used to live.

If you opt for an audio tour, you’ll hear first-hand accounts from a few of the prisoners who lived there, as well as the guards and their families. You can also book special tours like the ‘Night Tour’ or the ‘Behind the Scenes Tour’.

Many parts of the original prison are still intact, including the central prison block complete with steel bars, claustrophobic cells, the mess hall, and a library. If you look closely, you’ll also see where a few of the inmates tried to dig holes in the walls in an attempt to escape.

Be sure to keep an eye out for ‘dark holes’; this was a term used to describe where some of the most troublesome prisoners were kept.

Watch your step…

Bear in mind the roads and walkways across the island are steep, and there’s lots of walking involved (that’s if you want to cover the whole island). The distance from the dock to the Cellhouse is around a quarter of a mile uphill. Although it’s a lot of effort, you’ll enjoy fantastic views across the Bay and back towards San Francisco.

We recommend allowing yourself at least three hours to explore the island. However, there really is enough to fill a whole day if you fancy staying longer.

Booking tour tickets

To avoid disappointment, book tickets in advance as early as you possibly can. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed on the island each day. Some of the tickets for the more popular tours sell out a few weeks in advance, so be sure to book ahead to avoid disappointment.

Getting to the island

If you fancy seeing the prison for yourself, hop on a 15-minute ferry ride from Pier 33 (this lies between the San Francisco Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf). The queues for the ferry can be long, so it’s recommended you line up around half an hour before your scheduled departure time, this helps to ensure you don’t miss your ferry.

Bag searches are in operation and backpacks larger than 16 by 20 inches aren’t permitted onto the island for security reasons. The same goes for bikes, as unfortunately, this isn’t an island you can cycle around.

Practical info

Don’t forget the weather here is unpredictable and as you’ll probably spend the whole day on the island, you should consider wearing layers.

It’s also worth bringing a light jacket or a jumper, as even if it’s a warm day when you set off, the temperature can quickly change.

When it comes to footwear, comfortable shoes with a good grip are highly recommended. The paths on Alcatraz are pretty steep, and depending on where you go, you could encounter stairways and gravel walkways. There is  lots to explore, so  make sure your clothing and shoes are suitable.