Last week I spent the day on Alcatraz island. I went with a friend and his cousin who was visiting from Pennsylvania. Although I went to Alcatraz as a child (when I was seven my parents took a group of kids to the prison to celebrate my older brother’s tenth birthday. How cool was my mom to plan a trip to Alcatraz for her son’s birthday?!), I don’t remember much about the experience. As a San Franciscan, Alcatraz is a constant part of life, but while everyone admires the island from afar and enjoys it as a symbol of the city by the Bay, not too many residents have actually been there. It’s a shame because Alcatraz is amazing! After my visit, I’ve become the Rock’s biggest advocate. From Machu Picchi to the Alhambra, I’ve checked out many of the world’s historic hot spots, so it’s about time I went to the one in my own backyard. I highly recommend you do too; the prison has a fascinating history and it’s a wonderful cultural experience.
While it may be tempting to wake up on a gorgeous day and think, “I’m going to Alcatraz,” in reality, it’s best to plan a trip in advance. The same day ticket line is long, but if you purchase the $26 tickets ahead of time online, you can avoid the line completely. Boats leave every half hour, daily, and you can even register for a night tour — which would probably be very scary.
The purchase of a ticket includes round trip boat rides to-and-from the island and headphones with an informative audio tour. If you can, head to Alcatraz during the week and somewhat early in the day. We spent about 3.5 hours on the island, walked everywhere, listened to the entire tour, and took a ton of pictures.
The narrative of the audio tour is super easy to follow and you can pause it whenever you want. It’s also completely captivating because the tour guides are ex-guards and former inmates. You get a very real portrait of what life at the prison was like for both the officers and the conmen. The tour shows the cells, recreation area, and library.
It provides details about the famous inmates and their infamous attempts to escape. The accounts are dotted with fun facts: Did you know Alcatraz originally housed Civil War prisoners? Or that the families of the guards, including about 300 children, cohabited the island with the inmates? Or that over 40 movies about Alcatraz have been made? Or that in 1970 American Indians occupied the island in protest? Me neither! This isn’t the sort of stuff you learn about in history class.
Although it was a sunny day, there’s a coldness to the Rock; even when I was standing in the direct sun, I felt chilly. This is what makes Alcatraz a thrilling place to visit. Mystery hangs thickly in the air and there’s an emotional errieness to the space. There is an obvious juxtaposition between freedom and confinement.
The buildings are demolished and heavily eroded, but the gardens and greenery are lush and tropical. The view is stunning, but not visible from inside the prison walls. Alcatraz was the equivalent to a death sentence to the prisoners, but now the jail is full of memories and stories — essentially it is full of life. That’s what’s special about Alcatraz: it’s a place that once housed so much darkness and it’s finally found the light.