Visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco

Off the shore of San Francisco, in the middle of the bay lies Alcatraz.

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Famously known as a federal penitentiary that housed criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alcatraz held prisoners who caused trouble at other prisons. Troubled inmates were sent to Alcatraz because the cold waters and strong currents surrounding the prison deemed it inescapable.

Also known as “The Rock”, the island where Alcatraz is located has served as a lighthouse and military prison. Currently, it’s a National Historic Landmark, welcoming visitors who want a peek into former prison life. Alcatraz served as a prison for 29 years, closing in 1963 as a result of increasing costs to maintain the facility.

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The journey to the island offers great views of the city skyline.

Once there, you’ll walk to the top of a hill (~10 minutes) to the prison. There are shuttles that go back and forth from the base to the top, but they run infrequently so walking is recommended.

When you get to the prison, make sure you pick up an audio guide. The audio tour guides you through the prison with commentary from former officers and prisoners, offering first hand perspectives. Their stores really enhance the experience, they offer a glimpse inside life at Alcatraz.

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After your audio tour is over, you have the option of exploring the island’s gardens and other exhibitions. Interestingly, Alcatraz is home to rare flowers and plants, and marine wildlife. Whenever you’re ready, you can take a return boat to San Francisco.

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Alcatraz Cruises leave from Pier 33 throughout the morning, afternoon and evening. We opted for the first tour out because we figured it’d be less crowded, and we had a full day of activities planned in the city. The nighttime tours are a bit more expensive, but I’ve heard seeing the prison illuminated at night is special in its own right.

Whichever time you decide to visit, book in advance- tour slots are known to sell out 1-2 weeks in advance.

Also, make sure you dress warmly on your visit. The island is often cooler and windier than the mainland, so I’d recommend wearing layers you can adjust.

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