The island of Alcatraz, off the bay, seems silent and yet charged with a tumultuous and black past. The island was the site of the first lighthouse built on the Pacific coast. It was originally called with a Spanish word “Alcatrace” which means pelicans and referred to the seabirds that populated the area and loved to take refuge on its rocks. It then became a military fortress and military prison to house the infamous maximum security prison in 1934.
The prison was effectively a model that offered maximum security and the inmates could not ask for any remission of guilt. Alcatraz has received as dangerous American inmates as Al Capone e George “Machine Gun” Kelly, among the most famous on the island. The prisoners were housed in this prison not for their crimes but for the risk of escape that they constituted in other prisons.
Some twenty-nine years later, Alcatraz was closed due to lack of financial means. After its closure, several ideas were proposed to transform the prison such as building a new Statue of Liberty or building a hotel complex on the island. To the delight of all tourists Alcatraz was named "National Historic LandmarkWhich allowed him to open his doors to the public. The island has also hosted the filming of many films made in the San Francisco area.
The visit of Alcatraz
Located 2,4 km from Fisherman's Wharf, this infamous prison island is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is one of the most famous attractions in the city. Visitors have already taken a look at the terrifying building from the mainland before embarking on Alcatraz Cruises al Pier 33. About 15 minutes after departure, tourists are greeted by the steep cliffs and the eerie enclosure.
The inmates have been the main residents of the island for nearly 30 years. Although the last inmates were moved off the island in 1963, the main building structure remains intact. Only the cracked concrete continues to crumble due to the significant exposure to the iodized and misty sea air. The building is equipped with steel bars, confined cells, a refectory, a library and the so-called "black holes", the solitary confinement cells where criminals languished in complete darkness.
For years, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was considered inviolable, a true fortress. Perched on a rocky island in San Francisco Bay Alcatraz is surrounded on all sides by icy water and bordered by jagged and dangerous rocks. The original builders of the prison were sure that the bay was the best guarantee that no one would be able to escape.
In addition, the geographical isolation, the 4,50 meter high barbed wire, the cold currents of the surrounding waters (10 to 12 degrees C) and the continuous monitoring of inmates, have made Alcatraz the safest prison in the world. The story goes that the prison staff made the inmates take hot showers, so as not to get them used to the low temperatures of the water around the island in case of escape.
During the existence of the prison there were no shortage of evasion attempts, 14 in all, even if all, except one attempt, proved unsuccessful. Only one was a successful escape, that of the Anglin brothers. It is not known whether the fugitives died while swimming across the dangerous icy waters of the bay. The two brothers were skilled swimmers and their bodies have never been found.
Alcatraz prison was spread over several buildings: the staff building, where the families of the prison staff lived, buildings B and C were reserved for inmates without any conduct problems, while block D housed the most dangerous inmates. 1,50 m wide, 3 m long and 2 m high, these are the dimensions of the dark prison cells. The most problematic were placed in solitary confinement cells, sometimes for more than 15 days, in complete darkness.
How to get to Alcatraz
The only way to get to Alcatraz Island is by ferry. Departures are frequent and the journey quite fast, but beware, it is advisable to book your tickets well in advance, because with 5.000 visitors a day, you will certainly not be the only ones queuing for boarding. The ferry also offers exceptional views over San Francisco and its Golden Gate.
The island tour includes an audio guided tour of the cells where the prisoners lived. Visitors can hear stories of the old guards and inmates who lived in Alcatraz, including the famous escape attempts. The audio guide is available in 11 languages, in Spanish, English, Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
Alcatraz Cruises is the official shipping company that travels back and forth between the city and the island. Departures start at 9am and run every 10 minutes, all day. Boats depart from Pier 33 on the San Francisco Embarcadero, the waterfront boulevard that runs from Fisherman's Wharf to the Ferry Building.
Tours in Alcatraz
Alcatraz Cruises offers four ways to visit Alcatraz:
- Alcatraz day tour
- Alcatraz night tour
- Behind the Scenes Tour
- Alcatraz and Angel Island tour
This type of horror museum can be visited on a guided tour for $ 38 - if it's during the day - or $ 45 - at night - and lasts two and a half hours. There are various proposals for programs and activities that you can choose to experience. On the official page of Alcatraz Cruises you can find all the necessary information.
Other bay cruises may include a trip around Alcatraz, but they cannot dock and therefore you cannot get off the island.
Daily tour prices
Adults (12 to 61 years old) - $ 38.00
Senior (ages 61 and up) - $ 35.75
Children (5 to 11 years old) - $ 23.25
Children aged 0-4 travel for free
- Open: all the year
- Phone: (415) 561-4900
- Closures: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. There are various areas on the island that are closed to the public at certain times of the year, due to the nesting of a variety of seabirds.
- Special programs: There are various ranger-led programs on Alcatraz every day. If you are interested in attending be sure to check out the ranger schedules at the dock as soon as you step off the boat.
- Trade shows: consult the official website for more information.
- Facilities available: There are limited toilets. They are located at the dock and at the top of the island. Food service is available on the ferry, there are no food services on the island. Picnic areas are designated at the dock only.
- Smoking is only allowed in designated areas on the dock.
- The visit lasts between 2 and 3 hours. Also take a sweater or something warm, because the wind blows all year round on the island.