The sunny seaside city of San Francisco is awash with things to do and see, but ironically, one of its most famous attractions isn’t even part of the city. Instead, it lies a couple of kilometers off the coast, looming large on the shoreline like the iconic slab of history it is.
Alcatraz was many things to many men, starting out as a lighthouse, then a military outpost, before transforming into a military prison in 1868. The U.S. Government decided this last job suited Alcatraz particularly well, and officially opened ‘The Rock’ as a federal prison in 1934. Despite lasting a mere twenty-nine years in this capacity, Alcatraz captured the public imagination like no prison before, and played host to some of America’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Creepy Karpis and the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’.
These days, Alcatraz is one of the West Coast’s premier tourist spots; the National Park Service runs the joint now, with ‘The Rock’ playing host to around 1.5 million visitors a year. If you happen to be in San Francisco, a ramble ’round the spooky old prison is an absolute must-see, as it combines a relaxing cruise with an informative (if unsettling) tour.
Hop on over to BUCKiTDREAM to see if any of your fellow ‘DREAMERS have cruised their way over to Alcatraz and successfully escaped in the process, then grip that BUCKiTDREAM planner tight as we take you through the ultimate guide to ‘The Rock’!
Breaking In (and Out) The National Parks Service has partnered with just one company to provide transport to and from the island; they are Alcatraz Cruises. Don’t buy your tickets from anywhere else, as they are likely to be overpriced or invalid. Because Alcatraz is such a popular attraction, tickets routinely sell out a couple of weeks in advance, so make sure to book well ahead for this one.
All the cruises depart from Pier 33 of the Fisherman’s Wharf district, and return to the same point. There are loads of sailings every day, starting at 8:45 a.m., and you can catch any boat back you want. Once you’re on ‘The Rock’, there’s no time limit to how long you stay!
Address: Pier 33, Alcatraz Cruises, LLC, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA
Hitting ‘The Rock’ Once you land on the Alcatraz, you’re largely left to your own devices, unless you’ve specifically booked a guided tour. Before you enter the prison, take a moment to enjoy the beautiful views of ‘Cisco Bay, and the pleasant surrounds of the little island. There’s also some interesting graffiti and slogans from when Alcatraz was commandeered in protest by Native Americans in 1964, shortly after it shut up shop as a federal penitentiary. Once you’ve got your fill of the sunny side of Alcatraz, head up the hill and prepare to descend into the darker side of the island.
Entering the Prison The penitentiary building is surprisingly bright, although it’s still bleak. Knowing San Francisco city is so close (you can see it from the prison yard) but yet so far, must’ve been an added layer of torment for the prisoners. You’ll see the main jail, the solitary confinement cells, the dining area and the Guard’s offices, all as they were when the prison was functioning.
As part of your ticket price with Alcatraz Cruises, you’ll also be given a comprehensive audio tour of the prison; you can take this at your own speed, activating the different sections as you reach the exhibits. This audio guide is crucial to understanding what the different sections of the prison were used for and why each was important. You’ll hear prisoners talk about life on Alcatraz in their own words, and experience the panic of a notorious breakout, which saw the prisoners try to take control of the island. It’s a fascinating and chilling experience, and one that will make you appreciate the San Francisco sun all the more once you finally emerge back into it.
Brave the Night Tour (If You Dare) If a daytime visit to ‘The Rock’ isn’t spooky enough for you, then why not brave a night tour? Alcatraz Cruises also run a selection of tours under the cover of darkness, adding an extra layer of unease to what is already a pretty loaded trip. The island has been cited as one of the most haunted places in America, so if you’re keen on ghosts, why not try to track some down? These night escapades also include an enlightening ferry tour of the island’s circumference, which points out the places where inmates attempted (and failed, apart from one single instance) to escape ‘The Rock’. Be warned though – almost every single guard ever to work on the island has reported some sort of supernatural activity; and the ghosts even scared the prisoners.
Alcatraz is an absolute must-see for any traveler visiting San Francisco, so make sure to make room on your bucket list for this one. It combines a pleasant cruise with a fascinating, morbid slice of American history, and stands in stark counterpoint to the rest of San Fran’s sunny disposition. So, what are you waiting for? If you think you’ve got what it takes to take on ‘The Rock’, start planning that ultimate BUCKiTDREAM adventure, and follow in the footsteps of your fellow ‘DREAMERS Al Capone and Creepy Karpis!