It is a must-see attraction when visiting San Francisco. There seems to be a common desire among visitors to visit Alcatraz.
Nearly ten years ago, my brother visited San Francisco and brought me a shot glass. No pictures, no other information, just a shot glass. At the time, this was cool since I collected shot glasses, and I had no interest in traveling to San Francisco or elsewhere. I would have thought it strange to hear about his tour at the time. What’s the point of telling me about your crapy Alcatraz tour, dude? Having watched the movie, The Rock, I know everything I need to know. The fire had almost extinguished San Francisco. Since we were brothers, no details were necessary.
San Francisco Travel
After arriving at my buddy’s apartment in San Francisco, he recommended that we take an Alcatraz tour.” Really?” I said. Locals support Alcatraz as well. OK. I am adding it to our San Francisco itinerary.
We still hadn’t left at the end of the week. You know, the Fisherman’s Wharf, tourist central, was right down the street from the launch pier. For those unfamiliar with San Francisco, this is Grand Central Station for all tours available in the city. When an electric streetcar or cable car passes, tourists rush to get their cameras out of their pockets. I did the same thing. Gotta take pictures for the blog, you know. Anyhow, we bought our tickets online for Thursday afternoon.
We’re headed to Alcatraz.
The voice was menacing and evil. I can’t convey that with words…
We didn’t necessarily feel the hype of that heading as we stood in line at will call to obtain our tickets. Don’t forget to buy your tickets at Hornblower Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 the day before, or even better, order them online a few days beforehand. They were already sold out for the entire day as we stood in line. The tour is too crowded.
When we picked up our tickets, we looked for some waiting area seats among the few available. We waited outside. As your boarding time approaches, you stand in the zigzag of lines, half of which are under a tent, which was nice considering it was hot. Before boarding the ferry, they take pictures of everyone individually against a backdrop of Alcatraz. This picture can be purchased for half the price of the tour. Forget it.
Ferry decks are crowded with people competing for the best views of San Francisco Bay. We ride the breeze as seagulls circle the boat. There is a food stand inside that sells snacks, hotdogs, and alcohol. About the same time, we both asked, “How long is this ferry ride?” It’s no longer at all, don’t worry, don’t get comfortable.
Alcatraz awaits us
I’m not being sarcastic this time. It was exciting, curious, and that feeling of… crap, and am I going to find out more horrible things that we Americans have done to one another? Surely you understand. Killing off the Indians, enslaving African Americans, and now brutally beating criminals who didn’t deserve it. OK, so maybe not at that level.
After disembarking the ferry, we follow the masses to a park ranger speaking near the entrance to Alcatraz. He explains the “Indians Welcome” graffiti around the main entrance sign, as well as some housekeeping rules. There is only one dock on Alcatraz Island, so this is the only entrance.
Following the crowd, we make our way to the movie rooms to learn more about Alcatraz Island. It’s not a movie room; it’s an Alcatraz hall with TVs and chairs for us to watch this Discovery special. This entire island is Alcatraz-style. I like it. There may be better lighting and railings for safety, but Alcatraz remains. This is not a stadium-style history lesson. It’s a short and essential introduction to Alcatraz, so don’t miss it.
Alcatraz Audio Tours
Then we pick up our audio units, which will also serve as tour guides. Here is where it all begins. From the prison entrance, we enter the shower room. Select your audio device based on your language preference here. Even though not much has changed, we are forming a line around the shower stalls. At this point, start to imagine the past. Did 50 men shower in the same room as armed guards? Was this only for bathing when you first entered the prison? A little to the side, we could see where your new prison clothes, blanket, and pillow had been distributed. The feeling is creepy. There is silence, letting your imagination run wild.
Alcatraz prison is at the center of the tour, the heart of the island. As instructed, we walked over to a red sign that hung above the entrance to a long row of cells stacked one on top of the other. We played the audio as the sign instructed. Although the isle was heavily crowded, no one spoke. The silence made the situation even more awkward. Despite the creepy atmosphere, I find myself more intrigued by the suspense.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz)
During America’s history, Alcatraz was home to some of the most notorious criminals. Explore their cells to learn more about them.
There are a lot of tourists in the prison, but it does not appear crowded during the tour. We think it is a brilliant idea to let each visitor start their audio tour at any time. It seems like everyone is at least 30 seconds apart, allowing you to hear everything the narrators say up close. When your audio narrator asks, walk to cell 13. People will be standing in front of you. In the meantime, those in front of you will have finished and walked away. Get a feel for what life was like in the cell, D Block, for those in solitary confinement. In addition to feeling that, you will hear it from an inmate who experienced it. On Alcatraz Island, the narrators were prisoners, workers, and residents.
Take a look out the windows of the few cells that had natural light. You could see and hear the city, but you couldn’t grasp it.
Battle of ’46
There is a great deal of detail about attempted escapes and The Battle of ’46. They make the tour more enjoyable. You listen attentively to the narrator’s next instructions as if you’re taking part in a thriller novel. Several of the cells are decorated to recreate the breakout, providing tourists with an experience they will never forget.
It’s not my intention to spoil the tour; you’ll have to experience it independently, but I assure you, it won’t disappoint.
Alcatraz Island’s history
Alcatraz tours generally cover the events that occurred while the prison was a federal prison, which is another reason to watch the opening movie.
Originally a military post to guard San Francisco’s Bay, Alcatraz later became a military prison in the 1860s. The military relinquished the island to the Bureau of Prisons in 1933. It would house the most wanted criminals for 29 years, witness numerous escape attempts, and create stories that would lift its notoriety for generations to come.
Comparatively to other prisons, maintaining the prison in the harsh environment of San Francisco Bay was extremely expensive. As the concrete walls deteriorated, Alcatraz closed in 1963.
Occupation by the Indians
Approximately six years later, Native Americans occupied the site to protest the United States government’s policy towards them. Some remained on the harsh island for as much as two years, relying on boat supplies such as food and water. The protest inspired native American organizations around the country to stand up for what they believed in, and US policies began to shift deservedly. Graffiti remains on the island from that period.
Alcatraz National Park
The National Park Service manages Alcatraz today as a National Historic Landmark. Alcatraz Island is not only home to a historic prison; it is also home to unique wildlife. Tours of the gardens are available on the island. Bringing back nature to its natural state is the aim, as well as encouraging seabird nesting.
Alcatraz was not only home to criminals; it was also home to the families of prisoners, guards, and other staff. Children grew up here, taking the ferry every day to school on the mainland. After the tour, take a walk outside. Admire the cityscape, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the sailboats on the water. Growing up here, those children felt peaceful in this environment. The contrast between inside and outside the jail is astounding. No matter how cheesy it appears, it’s something every visitor to San Francisco should experience.