For much of its cold, damp, bitter prison life, Alcatraz was a place you’d kill to leave, and many an inmate tried. They plotted elaborate escapes, took shivs to cell walls, mapped routes through crawlspaces and risked bullets and the icy brunt of the San Francisco Bay rather than bear another day on The Rock.
These days, it’s a different story. People kill (almost) to get in.
Since the onetime home of Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone was turned over to the National Park Service in 1972, Alcatraz has been on the hot sheet of tourist attractions, and it’s only getting hotter. As part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz sees about 1.3 million visitors – mostly out-of-town tourists – every year, making it the No. 1 landmark destination in the US and No. 8 in the world on TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice list.
Visitors take photos while on the boat heading to the Alcatraz Night Tour on Alcatraz Island.
The island’s main lure is its time served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. But, as the tour boat announcer likes to say on your way over, “Alcatraz: It’s so much more than a prison.” Indeed, it was a harbour defense port and military prison during the Civil War years. It’s the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast, built in 1854. The American Indian Occupation took over from 1969 to 1971, making a political stand. It’s home to 30 species of birds. There are gardens and ghosts (debunked by tour guides) and grisly stories galore.
And while getting in isn’t as hard as getting out used to be, it’s also not as spontaneous as “Hey guys, let’s hop on a boat to Alcatraz!” Just give it a quick Google and you’ll feel flummoxed by a flood of ticket/tour sites. There’s really only one ferry service that’s actually allowed to dock at the island (the others take you around it).
Tours sell out fast, especially in the summer months, and you need to lock down some dates and book weeks ahead. Definitely book ahead. Did we mention book ahead?
So, with help from some pros in the know, we’ll guide you through the whole process, tell you about the tour options (daytime or night), advise you on parking, snacking, souvenir shopping and even tell you what (and what not) to wear.
ROCK AND ROLL
Tons of stuff comes up when you search online for Alcatraz tours. Most will be general bay cruises that just float close to the island. Others offer tickets to the official cruise/tours, but typically, those tickets were purchased from the official site and are now offered at a higher price. Still others offer combo tours to Alcatraz and various San Francisco attractions, which can be a good deal if you’re really doing the town.
But for straight-up Alcatraz tours, Alcatraz Cruises is the place to go. It’s the only ferry service allowed to dock at the island. So start there and book ahead. Did we mention book ahead? Buy tickets online or at their ticket booth at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero.
(Standby tickets exist, but they’re a bit like finding a shiv in a stack of, well, shivs. In the summer, people line up at the ticket booth in the wee hours, waiting for the booth to open at 7:30am)
READY TO GO?
If you’ve already bought tickets, it’s time to get yourself ready. Alcatraz is on a rock, on a hard place to reach in the middle of the fog/wind-prone bay, so dress in layers and wear sturdy walking shoes – to get from the dock to the cell blocks, you’ll be trudging up a steep path, the vertical equivalent of climbing 13 stories. A tram is available for visitors with limited mobility.
Get to Pier 33 a half hour before your boat departs. Even the ferry trip through the brisk, salty spray is a treat. Most people rush onto the boat and climb to the top deck for the views. But if you want to disembark faster, stay on the lower deck. You can still see plenty from the big windows, and there’s a snack bar there if you want to nibble on the 15-minute trip. Warning: You’ll be on Alcatraz at least a couple of hours, there are no food sales on the island (only water), and munching on snacks you’ve brought is only permitted near the dock area.
Tours are offered during the day, of course, but there are two departures for “after hours” evening tours at 5:55 and 6:30pm.
Day and night tours are the same, sort of – but you really can’t go wrong. Your selection depends on your schedule and your mood. Whichever tour you choose, make sure you take the 45-minute self-guided audio tour of the cell blocks, the dining hall, the prison library and more, with great information on history and lore, the famous inmates and escape attempts. The tours are available in 11 different languages, and some of the narration – recorded in 1985 – is from former inmates and guards.
Audio tours make for an eerie scene as silent visitors – ears covered with headphones – wander around like zombies.
Short guided tours and mini-lectures are also available, provided by National Park rangers in the daytime and by docents from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy at night. Be sure to take advantage of the knowledgeable guides. They love to answer questions. (Although they’re a little tired of, “Are there any ghosts?” You’ll be hard pressed to find a guide who admits to seeing one, darn it!)
Like anything, there are pros and cons to the day/night decision. During the day, you can explore more of the island, because more areas are open in daylight. Con: It’s a lot more crowded. Up to 1500 people may be wandering around at any given time during the midday peak.
At night, the landmark is less crowded, with only about 600 visitors at a time. And “it’s different when it’s dark,” says history interpreter Jim Nelson, who’s been working on Alcatraz for 18 years. “The atmosphere, especially when the fog comes in, it feels like a film noir out here.” Indeed, moonlight filters through the barred windows, peeling paint makes weird shadows, fog horns moan in sorrow. Plus the hospital wing is often open (it’s not usually open during the day), and you can see the old X-ray and surgical rooms, eerily lit with floor lanterns. And every night at 8:45pm, they do a mock lockdown, slamming the cell doors – the clang heard ’round the block.
Con: Some areas of the island, where the terrain is rougher, are closed off at night for safety reasons.
The coolest thing about either day or night tours is you can go where you want, when you want – you’re not locked into a formal presentation, and you can wander around at your leisure. “We have Alcatraz groupies who come and stay all day long,” says 25-year veteran ranger John Cantwell.
Then you can take a later boat back. The last one departs to the sparkle of San Francisco at 9:25pm. Inmates didn’t have that choice.
DID ANYONE ACTUALLY EVER ESCAPE?
Of the 14 attempted escapes from Alcatraz during its 29 years as a federal penitentiary, the best known, most detailed – and most successful – was in June of 1962, when inmates Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin broke out, never to be seen again.
They’d spent a year planning, chipping away at cell walls during lights-out with tools made from spoons swiped from the dining hall. They’d mapped out routes along service crawl spaces, obtained a tide schedule from a newspaper and glued together a makeshift raft made from stolen raincoats for the mile-and-a-quarter trip through treacherous currents across the bay. No bodies were ever found. But could they have made it?
“People swim it all the time, thousands of people in the annual Sharkfest Swim and various triathlon contests,” says National Park ranger John Cantwell, a day ranger on Alcatraz for the past 25 years. He and his wife have made the crossing themselves. “So if you knew the tides, the currents, and you were physically fit for it, it’s definitely possible.”
Indeed, hundreds of theories abound in books and documentaries. Some say the men might still be alive – they’d be around age 90 now – and still on the run. Some say they met their final sentence at the bottom of the bay.
“Personally, I don’t believe they made it,” Cantwell says. “They were career criminals. They would have gone back to work. One probably would have robbed a bank. After all these years, one of those guys would have turned up, dead or alive.”
Parking: Street parking along the Embarcadero is metered and abysmal, but there are several commercial parking lots near Pier 33. Be advised, traffic along Embarcadero is thick, especially in the summer. And a lot of construction is going on throughout San Francisco right now, slowing various routes.
Public transportation: Take BART to the Embarcadero station, then board the F-Line trolley toward the Ferry Building, get off at the Bay Street stop, and walk back a short distance to Pier 33. Or take the No. 10 Townsend bus, which stops at Pier 33.
What (and what not) to wear: Even on a sunny day, it gets cold and windy out on The Rock. Dress in layers, and bring a jacket. Wear comfy walking shoes. No sandals, flip-flops or high heels. You’ll be trudging a steep quarter-mile path, climbing the vertical equivalent of a 13-story building. There is an electric tram available for visitors with mobility issues.
So grimace and say, “Welcome to The Rock!” at any of these spots:
1. Step inside the cells in D Block, where they let you step behind the bars, grab hold and glare.
2. Outside by the guardhouse, pose with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
3. Stand near the ruins of the burned-out warden’s residence, and claim you torched it yourself.
4. If you take the night tour, there may be no better view of San Francisco – the glittering lights of Ghirardelli Square, the Palace of Fine Arts – than the one from the entry to the Administration Offices building. It’s a sight of civilisation that would have tortured the Rock-bound inmates.
WHERE TO EAT NEAR PIER 33
Most people spend two to three hours on Alcatraz Island, and there are no food concessions on the island itself, so you may want to think about snacks ahead of time. Here’s a sampling of possibilities for where to grab a bite, but first a warning about the island itself: Eating is allowed only on the ferry and at the picnic tables near the island’s dock. You may, however, tote bottled water in all other areas of the island.
– Alcatraz Landing Cafe, near the Alcatraz ticket booth on Pier 33: Before you head out on the ferry to The Rock, pick up a personal pizza, chicken sandwich, juices, yoghurts and more.
– Snack on the boat: A snack bar on the ferry offers pastries, sandwiches, coffee, tea and other items. (Tip: A hot chocolate on the return trip after a chilly night tour really hits the spot.)
– Bring your own: If it’s a nice day, pack your own sandwiches and munch at the dock on Alcatraz Island while enjoying the panoramic views of San Francisco Bay.
– Butterfly restaurant: For a more glamorous lunch or dinner before or after your tour, try the Vietnamese-inspired menu at Butterfly, on the Embarcadero just steps from the Pier 33 ticketing area;
– Hillstone restaurant: Grab a hickory burger before your tour or a dessert after a night tour. It’s open until 10 or 11pm most nights, just across the Embarcadero from Pier 33;
FIVE FAMOUS ALCATRAZ MOVIES
Alcatraz has been the subject and the site of many a Hollywood film, some portraying The Rock in relatively accurate ways and some complete fiction. Here are the top five – with a few myths debunked.
1. Escape from Alcatraz (1979): Starring Clint Eastwood, the movie dramatises the real-life 1962 escape of inmates Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin. The numbers you see today above the cell doors were added for the movie.
2. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962): Burt Lancaster plays real-life inmate Robert Stroud as a convicted murderer turned ornithologist, although Stroud never had birds at Alcatraz – he kept canaries when he was at Leavenworth.
3. The Rock (1996): Though set on, well, The Rock, very little of the movie was actually filmed on Alcatraz. “If you see that movie, it doesn’t look anything like this,” says Kelcie Taylor, historic interpreter for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which leads the evening tours. Starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, the movie tells a fictional tale of rogue commandos taking over the famous prison.
4. Point Blank (1967): This was the first film shot at Alcatraz after the prison was closed. Lee Marvin and John Vernon star in this stylish thriller involving marital affairs and a vengeful rampage.
5. Skidoo (1968): Yes, even Groucho Marx showed up on Alcatraz for this comic Otto Preminger romp, along with Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing. It has something to do with a retired gangster, a mob kingpin named God, a hit on a fellow mobster and hippies dropping acid. Who knew?