Although we normally prefer to venture out to off-the-beaten-path destinations whenever possible, we’re not above seeing the main sites of a city. It’s true that San Francisco abounds with incredible sites that are off the typical tourist map, however, a trip to this beatiful city isn’t complete without exploring the mysterious Alcatraz prision. Today’s guest author and photographer, Noel Morata from behind Travel Photo Discovery, tells us how to best experience this unique landmark.
One of the most popular must do attractions in the city in San Francisco is the ferry ride and tour of Alcatraz prison and island. Once known as the prison that hosted the worse and most notorious criminals of US society, Alcatraz prison was the most isolated maximum penitentiary of its day. What is not well known is that before Alcatraz was a prison it was originally the first lighthouse and a civil war fortress built on the west coast of the United States from 1830 to 1934. It was not until 1934 that the federal penitentiary converted the base into a prison and it was used as such until 1963.
Even though some visitors to San Francisco may think this tour is a tacky tourist attraction it really is worth the effort. The national park service administers all the activities and tours on the island and you are free to participate on any tours or wander around at your own leisure. The short but scenic ferry ride to the island is a nice way to enjoy views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. If you go all the way to the top deck, you’ll have unobstructed views for taking photographs of the bay area.
The trip to Alcatraz island is a very short ferry ride from Pier 33 along the waterfront of San Francisco. It’s less than a 15 minute ferry ride to the island and you’ll be at the landing in no time. Once you disembark the ferry, there is a ranger that will greet you to give a quick orientation to the day’s events, tours and general rules if you decide to explore the island on your own. At the visitors desk and gift shop, there is a chalk board with current activities that are happening during the day so make sure you check that for anything interesting.
The main attraction in visiting the island is the actual penitentiary located at the top of the island. An inclined walkway leads uphill with scenic views of the entire bay area. When you enter the main door you’ll see this golden eagle with the 13 stars representing the original colonies of the United States. Once inside, the dark rooms open up quickly to the prison cells which looked like they are stacked up to the top of the building.
Alcatraz was known as the’ prison within the prison’ where the worst criminals were transferred from other federal prisons. Upon entering you can take a video tour (extra fee) with actual voices of correctional officers or inmates sharing stories of life on Alcatraz. You can also do a self tour and have access to all the floors and rooms that are open for viewing.
There are a few other decrepit buildings, the lighthouse and some adjunct buildings that are currently used for special exhibits. Outside on the grounds, you can also visit the gardens of Alcatraz which is a perennial and annual garden that was planted and cared for by the prisoners to soften the harsh elements of the island penitentiary. Today, local garden volunteers come regularly to work on the gardens and keep them fresh and beautiful for all the visitors to enjoy. There are plenty of trails and open areas to explore around the island especially for those who want to take some photographs from different vantage points.
Things to know before you to Alcatraz:
- Book your ticket in advance because tickets sell out several weeks in advance.
- There is no food service on the island and eating/drinking is only allowed around the dock area.
- No disturbance of birds or any wildlife is allowed on the island which is a sanctuary.
- The weather on the bay is unpredictable, so wear layers that you can easily put on or take off.
- Most of the walk areas are hilly, but there are shuttles that leave from the boat dock to the penitentiary and are available on a first come first serve basis.
- When arriving, note all the return schedules for departure.
To purchase tickets to Alcatraz island, you can purchase the tickets here.