When I told my friends I went to jail during my San Francisco trip, most of them thought I was joking. But I wasn’t. Because I went to Alcatraz.
To most Americans the name Alcatraz needs no elaborations. Alcatraz Island at San Francisco used to house one of America’s most notorious maximum high-security prison – Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary – which held the States’ most ruthless criminals. Now it is opened to the public and is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions. Me, staying true to my life motto “try everything once except murder,” of course jumped at the opportunity to visit one of the world’s most legendary prisons.
Located in the San Francisco Bay, the Alcatraz Island is accessible by a ferry ride at Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf. Visitors can get the cruise ticket online at http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/. There are essentially two types of tickets available: the Day Tour tickets ($30 for adults) and the Night Tour tickets ($37 for adults). You MUST book way in advance, especially for the extremely popular Night Tours (come on, you have to admit the experience of being in a prison at nighttime is one of a kind), so keep checking the site and plan early. The first Day-Tour ferry departs at 8:45 a.m. and service runs till 1:05 p.m. Night-Tour ferries leave at 3:20 p.m. and 3:50 p.m.
It is hard to find parking around Pier 33, especially during summer peak season, so it would be better for you to get there by public transportation. Take a BART train to Embarcadero Station and transfer to the MUNI’s F streetcar line (you can get a $.25 discount by getting a “BART to MUNI” transfer when you board the MUNI streetcar). Get off at Bay Street station and Pier 33 is just one block south. However, if you are in no hurry, you can take a 25-minute walk from the Embarcadero Station to the Pier along the coastline. You get to enjoy the view of San Francisco Bay and pass by famous tourist spots like the Ferry Building Marketplace and the Exploratorium on the way.
The ferry price includes pretty much everything you can do on the island and once you are there, you can spend as much time as you like on the island, as long as you catch the last ferry departing at 4:25 p.m (get down early because of long lines). And believe me, you can totally spend the whole afternoon there – I spent 3 hours on the island just briefly scanning in all the information.
The main highlight of the island is of course the Cellhouse tour itself. There is quite a lot of uphill walking before you reach the prison building, so wear comfortable walking shoes. However, there is also a shuttle that runs twice an hour to and fro the dock and the prison building available for those who prefer not to climb up the steep roads.
Once you are in the prison building, you are free to roam around the cells, the visiting room, the warden’s office and all other parts of a prison which you thought you could only see on TV. We were given headphones which give a 45 minute audio tour named “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour”. The self-guided audio presentation, featuring actual correctional officers and prisoners who lived and worked on the Island, will walk you through the prison area and tell you intriguing stories and detailed information you want to know about life in a prison. If for some reason you prefer not to take the tour, you can always ask a supervisor at the entrance of the Cellhouse for a refund for the audio tour ticket price. (But why?! Why wouldn’t you want to know more about the functioning of a prison?!)
For a person who was already thoroughly intrigued by all Alcatraz tales and history before visiting the place, the tour was still incredibly informative and intriguing. It was interesting to learn that the prison has its own “Time Square” and “Broadway”; chilling to learn that knives in the kitchen had to be put in a knife lock box with outlines of each to quickly determine if any are missing; weirdly impressed to know that inmates managed to escape (or not? FBI investigations still can’t determine if they succeed or died trying), using self-made dummy heads from soap-toilet paper mixture and real hair; and extremely terrifying to stay in a pitch-dark solitary confinement cell for just half a minute. For that one hour of my life, I felt how it is to be shut in Alcatraz. The biggest punishment is not the terrible food, boredom or even the lack of freedom; it is the isolation, when you could hear the hustle and bustle, the laughter and the joy of San Francisco every day, so close but so unattainable.
An unexpected bonus is the spectacular panoramic view of San Francisco just across the Bay. So bring your best camera, because I bet you would be snapping as much pictures as you possibly can in the cellhouse and of the beautiful city.
There are plenty of other things to do after you have completed the audio tour. For example, while I was there, the “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” exhibition was on (available till 26 April 2015), showcasing Ai Weiwei’s sculpture, sound, and mixed-media installations. Free no-reservations guided walking tours, lasting up to an hour, are also available throughout the day on topics ranging from famous inmates, escapes to 200 years of Alcatraz history. Some programs even take visitors into restricted areas of the island! You can check the Program Board when you arrive at the dock. Also the souvenirs there are also pretty cool.
If the prison does not intrigue you, Alcatraz Island is also a site of rich history and nature. It is the site of the first lighthouse and US built fort on the West Coast and also home to rare flowers, plants, marine wildlife and sea birds. Also on the island are Civil War-era buildings that give insight into the 19th century when the island served as both a harbor defense fort and a military prison, and visible reminders of the American Indian Occupation that started in 1969 after the prison closed. Alcatraz Island is a destination suitable for visitors of all age and you would definitely find something that interests you there.
Blogger: Frances Sit