Once in San Francisco one of the most popular tours in town is a visit to Alcatraz: a former prison on a tiny island, that is still notoriously famous. If you’ve been walking around the city or have been on a ferry, you’ve probably seen the island at some point, as it is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay Area.
Upon an almost unliveable ‘rock’, years ago the prisoners in here were able to see the city from the other side as well. And this was the biggest frustration for being sentenced to Alcatraz. Most of the prisoners knew they had to live for the rest of their miserable lives right across a place where they would have been able to live a perfect one. If the wind blew in the right direction they were even able to hear the music and laughter from the city.
Nowadays Alcatraz can be easily reached from San Francisco. Every hour a boat leaves from Pier 39 to the island. When we visited the place, on a sunny late September afternoon – there was an immense amount of people waiting for the tour. Moreover, a sign stated that future tours were sold out for the upcoming 6 weeks. So you get it: a tour is popular and you have to be in time with tickets. It was mainly my hubby who wanted to visit this place. I expected a horrible tourist trap, but -spoiler – I was pleasantly surprising.
Let’s start at the beginning. Despite the many people, the ride on the ultra-modern and green ferry towards the island was pretty. The captain steered us a bit around the rock so there were plenty of photo opportunities of both the island and the Golden Gate Bridge from different angles.
Once you set foot to land, a park ranger (the island is now a national park) will explain you where to go next – all the way up. The penitentiary sits atop a large rocky hill; the prison isn’t called the ‘rock’ for nothing. If you’ve been in San Francisco for any appreciable amount of time you’ll luckily be familiar with climbing hills :). Otherwise don’t worry, it’ll only take you some 10 minutes.
At the penitentiary, which is the main attraction, they have chosen to do all of the explanations by audio. On entry you’ll be handed some headphones – included in the price – and next you’re able to start your audio tour whenever you want. If you’re a non-native English speaker, but do quite grasp the language, then opt for the English version. In my opinion the stories sound so much butter when told by those typical American accents.
Although the building was busy, since everyone is doing the audio tour, it actually remains pretty silent and calm. All of the corridors and chambers are full of zombie-type people walking around, seemingly in a daze, under the instruction of the tour. And the tour is SUPER interesting.
While walking around you are directed to different spots along the way. Meanwhile prior guards, prisoners, and children that lived on the island recount the prison’s thrilling history along with intriguing anecdotes about Al Capone and other legendary figures that made a ‘home’ in here.
“Children?” you might think. Yes, indeed. There were entire families who lived out there on the island and actually really enjoyed their lives over there. I’d never realized that and therefore it was really something to hear their stories too. Apart from the prison stories the people on the audiotour talk about the origins of the island and how it helped shape history even after its closure.
I think Alcatraz is quite well covered in popular culture – we’ve probably all seen a movie or two about the prison – but to hear actual prisoners telling their stories was amazing, intense and sometimes even moving. Obviously you are there, but the guided tour gives you a good sense of what it was like when this was an active prison. You can even step into one of the punishment cells and experience how the system of opening and closing of the cell doors went.
After you’ve completed the tour you probably need a moment to recover of the stories before you set foot in the enormous and shiny gift shop – quite a switch. You can remain as long on the island as you please, as long as you catch the last ferry back. Funny enough, the island is bigger than it looks from the city shore, so allow yourself some time to get around. There are a couple of places where you have some decent vistas of the city, so you might want to check out those. Bring a coat as it is windy and much cooler than you’re used to in the city.
Although intimidated at first by the amount of people getting on the boat and on land, because of the audio tour we still got a pretty awesome experience. The atmosphere of the penitentiary whilst walking around really makes you think of how life would have been like in here. All in all a very worthwhile experience!