much of its cold, damp, bitter prison life, Alcatraz was a
place you’d kill to leave, and many an inmate tried.
They plotted elaborate escapes, took shivs to cell walls,
mapped routes through crawlspaces and risked bullets and
the icy brunt of the San Francisco Bay rather than bear
another day on The Rock.
days, it’s a different story. People kill (almost) to
the onetime home of Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone was
turned over to the National Park Service in 1972, Alcatraz
has been on the hot sheet of tourist attractions, and it’s
only getting hotter. As part of the Golden Gate National
Recreation Area, Alcatraz sees about 1.3 million visitors
— mostly out-of-town tourists — every year, making it
the No. 1 landmark destination in the U.S. and No. 8 in
the world on TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice
island’s main lure is its time served as a federal
penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. But, as the tour boat
announcer likes to say on your way over, "Alcatraz:
It’s so much more than a prison." Indeed, it was a
harbor defense port and military prison during the Civil
War years. It’s the site of the first lighthouse on the
West Coast, built in 1854. The American Indian Occupation
took over from 1969 to 1971, making a political stand. It’s
home to 30 species of birds. There are gardens and ghosts
(debunked by tour guides) and grisly stories galore.
while getting in isn’t as hard as getting out used to
be, it’s also not as spontaneous as "Hey guys, let’s
hop on a boat to Alcatraz!" Just give it a quick
Google and you’ll feel flummoxed by a flood of
ticket/tour sites. There’s really only one ferry service
that’s actually allowed to dock at the island (the
others take you around it).
sell out fast, especially in the summer months, and if you
want to take Aunt Ethel and Uncle Fred when they visit in
July, you need to lock down some dates and book weeks
ahead. Definitely book ahead. Did we mention book ahead?
with help from some pros in the know, we’ll guide you
through the whole process, tell you about the tour options
(daytime vs. night), advise you on parking, snacking,
souvenir shopping and even tell you what (and what not) to
be fine, if you just do the time (planning your visit,
of stuff comes up when you search online for Alcatraz
tours. Most will be general bay cruises that just float
close to the island. Others offer tickets to the official
cruise/tours, but typically, those tickets were purchased
from the official site and are now offered at a higher
price. Still others offer combo tours to Alcatraz and
various San Francisco attractions, which can be a good
deal if you’re really doing the town.
for straight-up Alcatraz tours, Alcatraz Cruises (www.alcatrazcruises.com)
is the place to go. It’s the only ferry service allowed
to dock at the island. So start there and book ahead. Did
we mention book ahead? Buy tickets online or at their
ticket booth at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero.
tickets exist, but they’re a bit like finding a shiv in
a stack of, well, shivs. In the summer, people line up at
the ticket booth in the wee hours, waiting for the booth
to open at 7:30 a.m.)
you’ve already bought tickets, it’s time to get
yourself ready. Alcatraz is on a rock, on a hard place to
reach in the middle of the fog/wind-prone bay, so dress in
layers and wear sturdy walking shoes — to get from the
dock to the cell blocks, you’ll be trudging up a steep
path, the vertical equivalent of climbing 13 stories. A
tram is available for visitors with limited mobility.
to Pier 33 a half hour before your boat departs. Even the
ferry trip through the brisk, salty spray is a treat. Most
people rush onto the boat and climb to the top deck for
the views. But if you want to disembark faster, stay on
the lower deck. You can still see plenty from the big
windows, and there’s a snack bar there if you want to
nibble on the 15-minute trip. Warning: You’ll be on
Alcatraz at least a couple of hours, there are no food
sales on the island (only water), and munching on snacks
you’ve brought is only permitted near the dock area.
are offered during the day, of course, but there are two
departures for "after hours" evening tours at
5:55 and 6:30 p.m.
and night tours are the same, sort of — but you really
can’t go wrong. Your selection depends on your schedule
and your mood. Whichever tour you choose, make sure you
take the 45-minute self-guided audio tour of the cell
blocks, the dining hall, the prison library and more, with
great information on history and lore, the famous inmates
and escape attempts. The tours are available in 11
different languages, and some of the narration —
recorded in 1985 — is from former inmates and guards.
tours make for an eerie scene as silent visitors — ears
covered with headphones — wander around like zombies.
guided tours and mini-lectures are also available,
provided by National Park rangers in the daytime and by
docents from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy at
night. Be sure to take advantage of the knowledgeable
guides. They love to answer questions. (Although they’re
a little tired of, "Are there any ghosts?" You’ll
be hard pressed to find a guide who admits to seeing one,
anything, there are pros and cons to the day/night
decision. During the day, you can explore more of the
island, because more areas are open in daylight. Con: It’s
a lot more crowded. Up to 1,500 people may be wandering
around at any given time during the midday peak.
night, the landmark is less crowded, with only about 600
visitors at a time. And "it’s different when it’s
dark," says history interpreter Jim Nelson, who’s
been working on Alcatraz for 18 years. "The
atmosphere, especially when the fog comes in, it feels
like a film noir out here." Indeed, moonlight filters
through the barred windows, peeling paint makes weird
shadows, fog horns moan in sorrow. Plus the hospital wing
is often open (it’s not usually open during the day),
and you can see the old X-ray and surgical rooms, eerily
lit with floor lanterns. Kids like to make spooky "oooeeeaaooo"
sounds. And every night at 8:45 p.m., they do a mock
lockdown, slamming the cell doors — the clang heard ‘round
Some areas of the island, where the terrain is rougher,
are closed off at night for safety reasons.
coolest thing about either day or night tours is you can
go where you want, when you want — you’re not locked
into a formal presentation, and you can wander around at
your leisure. "We have Alcatraz groupies who come and
stay all day long," says 25-year veteran ranger John
you can take a later boat back. The last one departs to
the sparkle of San Francisco at 9:25 p.m.
didn’t have that choice.
ahead! Tours sell out weeks in advance, especially during
the summer months.
Buying tickets: Alcatraz Cruises at Pier 33 on the
Embarcadero is the official concessionaire for Alcatraz
tours, and it’s the only ferry service allowed to dock
at Alcatraz Island. (Note: Other cruise offers you’ll
find online either buy tickets from Alcatraz Cruises and
resell them, usually at a higher price, or only take you
on a ferry ride around the island.)
tickets at www.alcatrazcruises.com or at the ticket booth
on Pier 33. Photo ID is required when picking up tickets.
Basic prices range from $33-$40 for adults, with discounts
for children and seniors.
procrastinators, some standby tickets come available at
the ticket booth, but it’s a roll of the dice, and
people start lining up around 5 a.m. for the booth to open
at 7:30 a.m., particularly in the summer.)
Parking: Street parking along the Embarcadero is metered
and abysmal, but there are several commercial parking lots
near Pier 33. Be advised, traffic along Embarcadero is
thick, especially in the summer. And a lot of construction
is going on throughout San Francisco right now, slowing
Public transportation: Take BART to the Embarcadero
station, then board the F-Line trolley toward the Ferry
Building, get off at the Bay Street stop, and walk back a
short distance to Pier 33. Or take the No. 10 Townsend
bus, which stops at Pier 33.
What (and what not) to wear: Even on a sunny day, it gets
cold and windy out on The Rock. Dress in layers, and bring
a jacket. Wear comfy walking shoes. No sandals, flip-flops
or high heels. You’ll be trudging a steep quarter-mile
path, climbing the vertical equivalent of a 13-story
building. There is an electric tram available for visitors
with mobility issues.
visit to Alcatraz is not complete without getting your pic
behind bars. And guess what? There’s even a special
Instagram and Twitter hashtag just for the occasion! It’s
grimace and say, "Welcome to The Rock!" at any
of these spots:
Step inside the cells in D Block, where they let you step
behind the bars, grab hold and glare.
Outside by the guardhouse, pose with the Golden Gate
Bridge in the background.
Stand near the ruins of the burned-out warden’s
residence, and claim you torched it yourself.
If you take the night tour, there may be no better view of
San Francisco — the glittering lights of Ghirardelli
Square, the Palace of Fine Arts — than the one from the
entry to the Administration Offices building. It’s a
sight of civilization that would have tortured the