No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Alcatraz Prison. This travel guide will help you plan your trip. Find out how to book, how to get there and what to expect on a visit to Alcatraz. Discover key facts about Alcatraz and the history of the rock.
We visited Alcatraz Prison during our 3 day stay in San Francisco on our road trip to California. I’d heard of the movie “Escape from Alcatraz”, but needed to see if the legend of The Rock was really worth the hype. It met all my expectations and I would highly recommend that you take a trip there too.
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How to get to Alcatraz
We travelled across to Alcatraz Island by ferry from Pier 33 in San Francisco. We had a great view of the prison as we approached and also of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The ferry to Alcatraz takes about 15 minutes and runs about every half hour, but you usually need to book well in advance. We bought our tickets online with Alcatraz Cruises, which is the official vendor for the trip.
Facts about Alcatraz
For many years Alcatraz was just a lonely rock in the freezing waters of San Francisco Bay. The Gold Rush spurred the building of Alcatraz Lighthouse and the fortification of the island. It then became a Civil War Fort.
From 1859 Alcatraz was a military prison and by the 1930s it was a maximum-security federal prison. It’s over 2 km from the mainland and the water is rough and cold, so apparently it would be impossible to escape. They intended the prison for the hardest criminals and amongst the first inmates at Alcatraz were Al Capone and George (Machie Gun) Kelly.
Alcatraz closed as a prison in 1963. However, it was later occupied for 19 months by a group of native Americans civil right activists. Since 1973 Alcatraz has been open to the public and nowadays is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco.
Inside Alcatraz Prison
On arrival at Alcatraz Island, there is an introductory talk and then you are free to explore the inside of the prison with an audio tour. This fantastic tour informed us where we should be going and what we were looking at. We got to see where the inmates worked and the watch posts for the armed warders.
Best of all, it gave us all the gory details of the notorious Alcatraz prisoners of days gone by – Al “Scarface” Capone, “Doc” Barker, George “Machine Gun” Kelley and Robert “the Birdman” Stroud.
Touring the Alcatraz cells
The tour led us in and out of Alcatraz prison cells and the sound effects on the tape gave you the feeling the prisoners were really still there.
In total, Alcatraz prisoners attempted 14 escapes, but we wondered about the 3 who left in 1962. Did they ever survive the escape from Alcatraz? We suspect not!
Outside Alcatraz Prison
Outside we learnt details of the Alcatraz governors and the wardens’ families, who lived and worked on the island too.
Nature on the rock
Outside Alcatraz Prison there are many birds who choose to nest on the island. Local volunteer crews maintain the ornamental gardens and you are free to wander round.
Apparently the first gardeners at Alcatraz Prison were the children of the Alcatraz wardens. The Captain set them to work in the gardens, as he thought they had too much free time. This was clearly in the days before screen time!
Escape from Alcatraz
You can escape from Alcatraz whenever you are ready. A visit to Alcatraz takes about 3 hours and we enjoyed every minute. It’s a fascinating place, with an astonishing history. Definitely worth the hype! We even came home and watched the movie.