The buildings on Alcatraz Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, were originally an Army garrison, but the island is best known for its now-defunct Federal prison, 1934-1963. The prison was close enough for the prisoners to hear music and traffic noises from the city, but out of 14 attempted escapes, only 2 might possibly have been successful. The super-cold waters of the Bay are as effective as barbed wire.
Buy tickets in advance through Alcatraz Cruises (website below); the tours fill up weeks ahead of time. Wear warm clothing and comfortable walking shoes -- the hike from the dock to the prison is steep, and the prison is cold. Boats leave from Pier 33.
The cellhouse audio tour is a very good way to tour the prison, a sort of total immersion experience.
It's a must do, in San Francisco - the visit to Alcatraz.
For those acquainted to its history, the audio tour hits the purpose of, more than describing the place, to create a vivid sense of the old days, well reinforced by the opening and closing of the doors by the "guards". The views over the bay are great, but the best is that... it has a return trip included, and leaving such a place gives a sensation of relief.
Buy your tickets in advance, and be prepared for long lines, but without any chances to get bored, because animation in the pier never stops.
If you are a last minute guy like myself... Then this quick "get to know you" tour of the bay is for you. I normally chuckle at these touristy things but sometimes lack of time and uber convenience is the way to go! I lucked out after deciding to wander around the city admiring the regional architecture snapping photo after photo. A man on the harbor front hollering “once we close the GATE, then it’s too LATE”. There was a crowd pondering if they should or shouldn’t. I decided to shell out the $15.00 tour and see what it was about. I didn’t come all this way for nothing! I was pleasantly surprised! There are several operators vying for your cash willing to take you to various points in the bay. This upbeat lively narrated tour lasted an hour. The sites include Pier 39, a retired USS vessel, a pirate ship, a pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, and a loop around Alcatraz. That coupled with fantastic views of the city’s shoreline make it a must do!
The shining crown (besides the Golden Gate Bridge) is clearly Alcatraz island. The island was once a notorious prison holding the likes of Al Capone himself. The bay's fridgid waters made escape nearly impossible. If the guards didn't shoot you, the waters would have taken you. The prison suffered disrepair and is currently crumbling from exposure. The builders used sea water in the mixture to prepare the concrete, not a good mix due to high salt content. The island is reachable by prearranged tours and ubiquitous waiver forms :p
'Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prision rules and you go to Alcatraz'
This was an excellent trip and I highly recommend it.
You board the ferry from Pier 33 and head to the island. It's about a 15 minute journey. You exit the ferry at the same place the prisioners would have done when Alcatraz was open.
Like anything in San Francisco, you have to walk up a hill to get to the prison!
You are given earphones and an audio guide. This is great; very descriptive and well paced. You also get the option to pause the audio guide if you wish to stay in an area for longer and explore, or try and imagine what it was like being a prisioner here.
Went I went in September time, it was cold, so take a sweater with you if you're going around the same time.
I found the place really interesting. I bought two books from the giftshop (which were priced for tourists!) which I have now read. One being from a prisioners point of view of Alcatraz, and one from a warden's point of view. Really good reads.
Book early (preferably before you go) as this tour get full very quickly. If you go in peak season, some times it's booked-up from two weeks in advance.
Alcaztraz is one of the most interesting & most unusual attractions in San Francisco. I haven't done the night tour so can't recommend that, but do have a couple of tips on the island otherwise.
1. Book your tickets in advance. Well in advance. If you're going on a weekday, particularly in the offseason, it's not likely you'll run into trouble, but weekends and busy summer days sell out quickly.
2. This isn't a place where you want to skimp on the extras. I've done Alcatraz both with and without the audio tour, and if you're going to go, just pay the extra and get the tour. It's been a while since my last trip, but there weren't that many historical plaques or other information written on the tour. It's great because you get to see a more undisturbed atmosphere in the prison, but if you don't get the audio tour, you're going to miss out on most of the information, and this is a fascinating place.
Bring warm clothes for the boat ride and outdoor parts of the tour & consider some snacks or a picnic lunch to eat outside if it's nice, as you'll likely have some time to kill between the end of the tour and your boat ride back to the city.
On our most recent trip to San Francisco, we decided that Alcatraz was a must do. Reviews were mixed with many folks stating that it's not worth it, skip it, too much time involved, etc. We chose to push onward and we are glad we did.
We bought our tickets a month in advance for the 6:10pm launch to the island and it's a good thing we did. For as vocal as the naysayers are, this tour fills up quick and if you don't have your tickets pre-purchased, there's a good likelihood you won't be going. We chose the 6:10pm launch as the sun would be going down in the bay while on the boat going over. Very beautiful sight with the Golden Gate bridge in view. We also felt that Alcatraz would be neater in the dark rather than bright sunshine.
***TIP #1*** If you've got a camera and/or want some great views, head to the top deck of the boat. It will fill up quickly, so position yourself accordingly. If you are unable to get a rail spot, learn to shoot your camera by holding it over your head. Shoot with a wider angle so you can be sure to get all of the scene you want. You can crop and edit later.
After arrival, there's a couple of brief stops with your park guide, then it's on to the interior where you pick up your complimentary Audio Tour equipment. It's my understanding that this used to be a separate charge, but now it's included in your ticket price. It's a really nice audio tour with a lot of narrative and audio "interviews". The more you actually listen and pay attention, the more you'll get out of it.
*** TIP #2*** Try to be in the first group if you want to set your own pace. If you want to photograph the areas without other people in the shots (kinda ruins the ambiance otherwise), this is a must. My wife and I were the first two inside to pick up the Audio tour.
***WARNING*** This may no longer be applicable, but during our visit there was some kind of idiotic Performing Arts Troupe that was there. They were NOT supposed to be there when tours were going on, but apparently failed to comply. They were annoying, loud, constantly ran in and out of the areas we were trying to view and their actions ruined a good portion of our audio tour. If you see them, find their leader, find a ranger, and make enough fuss until they are kicked out. I didn't spend $33x2 so they could #$%@# up my Alcatraz experience.
The audio tour moves quick so after it's over, you can go back in for a more leisurely experience. There are also some really interesting areas outside that you can explore. There are programs held every 15-30 minutes by the rangers and I understand that happens more with the evening tours than the day tours. Once you get there, you can stay as long as you like.
***RECOMMENDATION*** If you want to do the evening tour, I would suggest trying to get the 6:10pm launch. Unless you just want to breeze through, I don't think you could have enough time to do it justice with the 6:45pm launch which is the last of the day. Night tours are $33.00 and day tours are $26.00. Night tour times change in November; starting at 4:20pm and 5:05pm.
***OTHER TIPS*** There is a backpack and cooler policy for Alcatraz. I took a standard backpack, loaded with camera gear with no problem. I did not try to take a monopad or tripod and did not see anyone else there with one. Get there early before your launch; at least 15 minutes and preferably 30. There's enough stuff to keep you busy. Once you get in line, you'll go through a line that takes you to a photographer who will take your picture against a backdrop in hopes that when you return you'll pay $15.00 for a 50 cent photo. M-u-s-t r-e-s-i-s-t....
With a little creativity, there are so really good photo ops. I'm attaching a few shots of my to this review.
All-in-all, this was a really good attraction, full of history. If you've ever watched anything on Alcatraz on television and it held your interest, seeing it in-person should be a real treat.
***WARNING*** There are a lot of places that offer "Alcatraz Tours" which will actually be nothing more than a Cruise around the island. The only way to do the real Alcatraz Tour is to purchase tickets from www.alcatrazcruises.com . Buy your tickets online through them, early enough in advance so you can get the day and time you want; then choose the option to print your tickets on your own printer. This will save you from having to get in line even earlier to get your tickets at will-call before you have to get in the real line.
Have your photo ID's handy. You can get more helpful tips here... https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/website/pyt-helpfultips.aspx
I hope this helps. I'm available for further questions if you need.
Alcatraz is now home to rare flowers and plants, marine wildlife, and thousands of roosting and nesting sea birds particularly Brandt's cormorant (pic 4) with their distintinctive blue throats. I was also lucky enough to see a pigeon guillemont just before we landed (pic 5).
In fact, the island gets its name from the birds. La Ilsa De Los Alcatraces was the name given by Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manual de Alaya which, translated, means Island of the Sea Birds.
Civil War-era buildings dotting the island give insight into the 19th century when the island served as both a harbor defense fort and a military prison. You can also see visible reminders of the American Indian Occupation that started in 1969 after the prison closed, highlighting an important milestone in the American Indian rights movement.
However, the thing that got me was the colour of the place. Because I visited in spring it was an opportune time to view the gardens that were once tended by the occupants but now are cared for by volunteers.
Of course, it's not all pretty. You can obtain an audio guide (recommended) and learn about much of the interesting history while you're out there. The following is taken from the excellent official site;
"The army transferred Alcatraz to the civilian Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1934. The BOP quickly converted the aging military prison in to a maximum-security, state-of-the-art civilian penitentiary. Alcatraz would shortly become the most famous federal prison in United States history.
Alcatraz was designed to serve as America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary, what is today referred to as a “super max” institution. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious offenders, escape artists, gang leaders and general trouble makers. They were held under the most secure and regimented conditions, in the virtually escape-proof environment on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. To the men sent there, Alcatraz was the end of the line.
Alcatraz was sometimes called the “prison within the prison system”, since the only inmates sent there were transferred from other federal prisons. Courts could not sentence anyone to Alcatraz. Instead, the Rock was where the BOP sent its most troublesome prisoners until it was decided they could be safely returned to a lower-security institution. Their average stay was five years.
During the period the Federal penitentiary operated, 36 prisoners were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three men were caught, six were shot and killed, and two drowned. Five convicts disappeared and were never seen again, but the overwhelming odds are that they drowned and that their bodies were never recovered.
In early 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the closing of Alcatraz Penitentiary citing increasing maintenance and operational costs. The last convicts were removed from the island on March 21, 1963. When the island closed, it was replaced by a new maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
Today, the government’s “super max” institution is located at Florence, Colorado. Its unofficial nickname is “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
For more information on U.S. Penitentiary on Alcatraz go to the official Bureau of Prisons web site at http://www.bop.gov/about/history/alcatraz.jsp
Alcatraz and history go hand in hand. Once home to some of America's most notorious criminals, the federal penitentiary that operated here from 1934 to 1963 brought a dark mystique and fascination to the Rock. The presence of infamous inmates like Al "Scarface" Capone and the "Birdman" Robert Stroud helped to establish the island's fame. To this day, Alcatraz is best known as one of the world's most legendary prisons.
Many people, though, are unaware of the wealth of other stories to be learned on the island.
One that fascinated me particularly was the Indian occupation.
Indian unity was a key focus of the Indian movement, and there were plans to establish an American Indian cultural center on Alcatraz. One of the most inspirational occupiers was Richard Oakes, a young Mohawk student described as handsome, charismatic, and a talented orator. The media often sought him out and identified Oakes as the leader, the Chief, or the mayor of Alcatraz. Tragedy struck in early 1970 when his young step-daughter Yvonne was killed in a fall on the island. Richard Oakes left shortly after and the Occupation began to loose momentum.
For eighteen months, American Indians and their families lived on the island. However, public interest in the occupation waned, and order among those living on the island began to deteriorate. Federal marshals removed the remaining occupiers from the island in June 1971
Everyone I spoke to said to go and see Alcatraz so I went. A warning, buy your ticket in advance if you're there in busy tourist times or you may well be disappointed. I bought two but, with Rosemarie ill, ended up selling one to some lucky guy at a discounted price.
The trip out is on a standard ferry and it's the only way to get there as casual tourist boats are not allowed.
This place reeks of history, not always the sort for the squeamish but nonetheless interesting. Some guides are dressed in historical costume and that makes for an interesting opening to your tour of this famous prison.
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