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Visiting Alcatraz is one of those experiences that stays with you long afterwards. Tourist destinations vary wildly in how much they meet your expectations, but Alcatraz can capture the imagination of even the most cynical traveller
Much of the reason for this is that you leave truly feeling that you’ve experienced the human side of the place. Visiting the infamous prison isn’t only about seeing the destination – there’s something about sharing the space the prisoners occupied that feels very real and very poignant.
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If you visit San Francisco, don’t miss out on Alcatraz because it’s such an integral part of the typical tourist itinerary. It’s truly an attraction not to be missed if you are in California.
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Alcatraz – The History of the Prison.
Alcatraz is one of those places everybody seems to have heard of, in part because of the famous 1979 movie, Escape from Alcatraz.
The institution often referred to as “The Rock,” was in operation as a federal prison for 29 years, between 1934 and 1963. In that time, it housed such well-known criminals as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”).
Despite Alcatraz’s relatively short stint as a federal prison, it had been used for incarceration previously. Between 1910 and 1912 it served as a military prison for the United States Army.
Alcatraz housed 1,576 prisoners in its years of operation. A popular misconception is that it closed as a result of the famous escape of three prisoners in 1962. In fact, the far less interesting reason is that it closed down due to being excessively expensive and impractical to run.
Visiting Alcatraz: The Audio Tour.
The award-winning audio tour for Alcatraz is included in the standard admission and is not to be missed. It’s a self-guided tour available in a host of languages(Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.), and it takes you around the various areas of the prison.
The audio tour is included when you purchase your ferry ticket.
This isn’t a dry and boring tour, by any means (and we’ve all done those!) The facts are interspersed with sections of interviews with ex-residents and real inmates of the island during its prison days. There are also very well-integrated sound effects.
The overall experience of taking in the sights, sounds and even smells of the prison, all at once, really elevates a trip to Alcatraz above a typical trek around a historic building.
The experience of Alcatraz begins as soon as you disembark from the boat.
The most striking thing is that it’s a beautiful place. Not only is the island rich in exotic flowers, but its location in San Francisco Bay is also stunning. From here you can see the city, neighbouring Marin County, Angel Island State Park, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
It’s impossible not to immediately realise how much this must have added to the prisoners’ punishments. It’s one thing to visit a place like this as a tourist, but imagine being incarcerated with all of that beauty in such sharp focus!
As you work your way through the tour, you realise that these views are exactly what prisoners see from the dining hall as well, and this truly serves to emphasise the torment.
Inside, you can walk into open cells and even sit down on the hard “beds” for a true experience of what living in the prison was like. The jangling of bars on your audio tour really adds to the atmosphere – fascinating and chilling in equal measure.
The cellblocks are definitely the parts of the prison that make most of an impression. They’re such a contrast after zooming across the open water of the bay on your way to the island. This just seems to add to the experience and make everything feel more immersive. As well as open cells, there are others you can peer into, complete with collections of fascinating exhibits.
Two particularly interesting cells you can see is two of one used for the famous escape by Franck Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin in 1962, complete with the hole used to escape, the escape is portrayed the famous Hollywood movie “Escape From Alcatraz” with Clint Eastwood playing Frank Morris.
The audio tour fills you in on various escape attempts, including the famously successful one that saw three prisoners find freedom.
However, nobody knows if that freedom was short-lived, as many assume that the prisoners would never have survived the cold waters of the bay.
It’s certainly fascinating to ponder whether those people escaped – and are possibly still alive today – or whether they drowned in the sparkling waters just metres away. There are plenty of conspiracy theories online for those curious to find out more!
Other Things to See on Alcatraz.
Although it’s only natural to find yourself fascinated by the cellblocks, dining hall and other inside areas, it’s well worth spending some time around the hilly exterior. It adds an extra dimension to the experience, and you can also enjoy stunning views back to San Francisco.
It’s also worth noting that the “behind the scenes” tour gives you access to places that are otherwise out of bounds. These include an underground communication tunnel, the chapel, and the creepy cells used for solitary confinement.
A visit to Alcatraz is the kind of thing you have dreams about in the nights to follow. Yes, it’s San Francisco’s main tourist attraction, so there’s no option but to follow the crowd. However, the US National Parks Service, who run Alcatraz, have done a great job in creating a unique and immersive experience.
How to Get to Alcatraz.
The journey to Alcatraz is an integral part of the experience. It’s a short 15-minute hop across San Francisco Bay on a ferry operated by Alcatraz Cruises.
You pick up the ferry from the city’s Pier 39, a short walk from the famous Fisherman’s Wharf.
Adult tickets start from $39.90 (at the time of writing), which includes entry to Alcatraz Island, and the audio tour we discuss below.
There are various other options available, including a (spooky) night tour, a “behind the scenes” option, which includes access to areas of the prison that are usually off-limits, and a combination ticket that also includes a trip to nearby Angel Island.
The first ferry leaves Pier 39 at 8.45 Am and after that every 30min until the last ferry at 15.30.
It’s worth noting that Alcatraz is a hugely popular attraction. You should book ahead, especially in summer, as it’s not unusual to find ferries fully booked.
PRO TIP: Use one of the standing areas of the boat for better views, as you won’t see much sitting inside!
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