It’s a must see attraction during San Francisco travel. All visitors seem to possess that eerie desire for Alcatraz tours.
My brother visited San Francisco almost 10 years ago and brought me back a shot glass. No pictures, no other details, just a shot glass. Which was cool at the time considering I collected shot glasses and I really had no interest in traveling to San Francisco or traveling at all. A story of his tour would have seemed strange at the time. ”Dude, why are you telling me about your crapy tour of Alcatraz? I have watched the movie, The Rock, I know all I need to know. San Francisco was almost extinguished.” We are brothers, there wasn’t a need to tell details.
San Francisco Travel
We arrived to my buddy’s apartment in San Francisco, and sure enough Samit advised that we partake in an Alcatraz tour. ”Really?”, I said. I guess locals support their most visited attraction too, an old jail. Fine. I added it to our list of things to do in San Francisco.
The week was coming to an end and we still hadn’t gone. The launch pier was down at the Fisherman’s Wharf, ya know, tourist central. If you aren’t familiar with San Francisco, this area is Grand Central Station for all tours available in San Francisco. Tourists rush to get their camera’s out of their pockets every time an electric streetcar or cable car passes by. Yup, I did that too. C’mon, I have to take pictures for the blog! Anyways, we finally bought our tickets online for a Thursday afternoon.
We’re going to Alcatraz
That was said with a menacing evil voice. Okay, I will never be able to convey that through print… here ya go –> Alcatraz Tour
The hype of that heading didn’t necessarily apply to our mood as we stood in line at will call to obtain our tickets. Make sure you purchase your tickets at Hornblower Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 the day before, or even easier, purchase them online a few days in advance. Even as we stood in line, they were already selling out for the entire day. It’s an overcrowded tour.
After picking up our tickets we searched for some waiting area seats amongst the few. The waiting area is outside. As your boarding time approaches you go stand in the zig zag of lines, half of which are under a tent, which was good considering it was hot as hell. They snap a picture of everybody individually in front of a big backdrop of Alcatraz before boarding the ferry. You can later buy that picture for half the price of the tour. I’ll pass.
Everyone crowds the edges of the ferry decks scuffling for the best views of the San Francisco Bay. Seagulls take turns circling the boat as we cool off in the breeze. A food stand is inside selling some snacks, hotdogs, and alcohol. At almost the same time we asked each other, “How long is this ferry ride?” It’s no long at all, don’t worry, don’t get comfortable.
We are at Alcatraz
This time, there is no sarcasm. We began to feel some excitement, curiosity and that feeling like… crap, and I am going to find out more horrible things that we Americans have done to each other? C’mon, you know what I mean. Killing off the Indians, enslaving African Americans, now brutally beating criminals that didn’t deserve it. Okay, maybe not on the same level with that one.
We disembark the ferry and follow the masses to a park ranger speaking near the entrance to the Alcatraz compound. We get some housekeeping rules, island tour suggestions and he explains the “Indians Welcome” graffiti around the main entrance sign. By the way, this is the only entrance, since Alcatraz Island has only one dock.
Again, following the crowd we head towards the movie rooms to learn the history of Alcatraz Island. It’s not an actual movie room, it’s an Alcatraz hall with a bunch of TVs and chairs for us to watch this Discovery special. Everything on this island is Alcatraz style. I preferred this. Rooms might be outfitted with better lighting and rails added for safety, but it remains Alcatraz. No stadium style seats during this history lesson. Don’t miss this introduction to Alcatraz, it’s short and important.
Audio Tours of Alcatraz
Next we pick up our audio units that will also act as our tour guide. This is where it all begins. We walk through the prison entrance and are directed into the shower room. This is where you choose your audio device based on language. Emphasizing the fact that there is little that has changed here, we are actually forming a line around open shower stalls. When you arrive to this point, start to envision the past. Were there 50 men showering in this room while armed guards surrounded them? Or was this only for bathing when you first entered the prison? Off to the side we could see where new prison clothes and your blanket and pillow were issued. A creepy feeling sets in. The room is silent, allowing you to imagine.
The tour begins in the Alcatraz prison, the heart of the island. We followed instructions and walked over to a red sign that hung above the entrance to a long row of cells stacked on top of each other. We pressed play on our audio device as the sign told us to. The isle was heavily crowded, but no one spoke a peep. This silence added to the awkwardness of the situation. This place is creepy, yet I find myself more interested with great suspense.
Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger
Alcatraz was home to some of the most notorious criminals in America’s history. Learn a little about each one as you visit their cells.
The prison is crowded with tourists, but the tour doesn’t seem crowded. The ingenious idea of having every visitor start their own personal audio tour at their own time works perfectly. Everyone appears to be at least 30 seconds apart, allowing you to get up close to everything the narrators talk about. Walk up to cell 13, when your audio narrator asks. People will be in front of you. As the narrator continues their story, those in front of you will have finished and walked off. Step into the cell, it’s now your turn to get a feeling of what life was like for those in solitary confinement, D Block. Not only will you get that feeling, you will hear it from the voice of an actual inmate who experienced it. The narrators are those that were imprisoned, worked and lived on Alcatraz Island.
Peer out the windows near the few cells that had the privilege of natural light. An inmate could see and hear the city, but never grasp it.
The Battle of ’46
Much time is spent detailing attempted escapes and The Battle of ’46. These add perfect entertainment for the tour. Almost as if taking part in a thriller novel, you listen attentively for your next direction from the narrator. Cells are dressed up to recreate the breakout, providing tourists the most real experience beyond most expectations.
I don’t want to spoil the tour, it’s something you have to experience on your own, but I assure you, it won’t disappoint.
History of Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz tours generally cover the events while Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, which is another reason to watch the introduction movie in the beginning.
Originally a military post to protect San Francisco’s Bay, Alcatraz later became a military prison during the 1860s. In 1933 the island was relinquished by the military and the Bureau of Prisons took over. For the next 29 years Alcatraz would house the most sought after criminals, be witness to several escape attempts and create stories that lifted it’s notoriety enough to last for generations to come.
The cost of maintaining the prison from he harsh environment of the San Francisco Bay was astronomical compared to other prisions. Concrete walls began to deteriorate and shortly thereafter, in 1963, Alcatraz closed.
Only 6 years later, the site became occupied by Native Americans in protest of policies towards them by the United States government. Some had stayed for as long as 2 years on the harsh island, relying on supplies such as food and water to be brought by boat. The protest inspired many other Native American organizations around the country to stand up for what they believed in, and deservedly, US policies began to change. Graffiti still exists on the island from that time period.
Alcatraz National Park
Today, Alcatraz is a National Historic Landmark managed by the National Park Service. Alcatraz Island is not only home to a historic prison, it’s home to unique wildlife. Gardens surround the island and are available to tour. The aim is restore the fauna to it’s native state, and encourage nesting by sea birds.
Alcatraz was not only home to criminals it was home to the families of the prison guards and other personnel. Children grew up hear, taking the ferry to the mainland everyday for school. After the tour ends take a walk outside. Enjoy beautiful views of the cityscape, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge and all the sailboats resting in the waters. It’s peaceful and it’s how those children felt growing up here. That contrast between being inside the jail and outside the jail is tremendous. It’s something that every visitor to San Francisco should experience, no matter how cheesy it appears to be.
View larger images or purchase photos from our Alcatraz Tour in San Francisco.