Perhaps one of the most storied legends of San Francisco and its bay is that of Alcatraz. Known for many years as “The Rock” Alcatraz is both an island and the sight of a former penetentry that sits in the center of San Francisco Bay. Visible from almost any hill in the city of San Francisco and from either the Golden Gate or Bay Bridges, Alcatraz was once home to hundreds of hard core criminals and reflected a time in San Francisco’s history when love, peace and progression were not top priorities but law, order and a nuts and bolts mentality instead. Today millions of people who visit San Francisco find a way to tour this now historic landmark. A visit to Alcatraz must be planned weeks in advance (tickets sale out quickly for a seat on the boats to the island) and includes up and close interactions with former prison cells and infrastructure of this abandoned prison.
Tourist trap? Maybe, some in San Francisco would say so. However a visit to Alcatraz will include a full education into San Francisco’s early history, the justice system and an insider’s view on prison life from back in the day. About 10 to 20 years ago visitors to Alcatraz upon exiting the ferry would be met by teams of guides that would take you on an intimate tour of the prison grounds that included locking visitors up (just for a minute) in solitary cells to guiding them through the prison’s kitchen and dining hall. Today a visit to Alcatraz is a do it yourself venture where you are given maps and a headset to receive information at different points. Visitors are free to roam about the island on their own accord and interact with the many exhibits as they see fit. The whole experience can last up to 4 hours or be as short as 2 or even an hour and a half.
Upon arriving at Alcatraz visitors can choose to watch a ten minute video in a make shift theater at the entrance to the prison that details the history of the island and its connection to San Francisco. The presentation is narrative in style and includes still photos and old news footage. This video is optional and about half the arriving groups skip it all together. When touring Alcatraz visitors will have access to the interior hall that is multi level and contains cells on all floors that open up out onto balconies. From the tour perspective, visitors are kept on the ground floor at all times but can look up at the various prison cells. During several points in the day on site staff will activate the opening and closing mechanisms of the prison cell doors allow visitors to witness first hand what it would look like when the prison cell doors slid open and closed.
All throughout the Alcatraz experience are exhibits that detail specific points of interest of the prison and island. Upon arrival you are given headsets that guide you through an audio tour where details of specific points of interest are narrated through the headsets, often by ex prisoners and officers who lived on the island themselves. These points include certain prison cells, the kitchens, dining halls, solitary cells, etc.
For those looking to explore the grounds of the island there are vast areas to roam. Most of these areas give visitors breath taking views of San Francisco, the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the best areas for a photo is the area at the end of the basketball courts the prisoners used to play outside the prison. Access to this area is through the actual prison. Upon entering the courts just proceed to the other side where it ends. Several native birds keep nests in this area. They are trusting to us people so be gentle-keep a distance, but enjoy the view and the photo opportunity.
Getting to Alcatraz:
There is only one way to get to Alcatraz and that is via boat. Only one boat company offers a roundtrip journey. That is the Horn Blower Yachts. Boats depart daily out of Pier 33 (to the south of Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf). The boat ride over to Alcatraz is about 15 to 20 minutes long. This section of San Francisco Bay is tranquil in nature so sea sickness should not be a problem. The Hornblower team make it a festive journey with a decorated doc and professional photographers taking group photos before boarding. Don’t be fooled by other Bay Cruises suggesting they sale tickets to Alcatraz. They do not. They may offer cruises that go up the side of the island but only the Alcatraz cruises through Hornblower yachts will actually “land” at the island.