Is Alcatraz Worth Visiting?
A big question, huh? Is Alcatraz worth visiting?
In college, I had a weird fascination with prisons. Let me clarify before you all run screaming in the opposite direction. I know it’s kinda weird to admit. Believe me.
When I attended good ol’ Rutgers University (was it really that long ago?), I majored in both English Literature and Sociology. The latter required me to take courses in the criminal justice field. Such as Criminology and Sociology of Deviant Behavior. These classes were incredibly interesting if not a bit dark.
Around this time, I was also a huge fan of the HBO drama Oz, which is set in an all-male maximum security prison. This show had lots of violence, sharp social critiques, and complex characters. For some people, a show like Oz would be too intense, but I found the dynamics interesting.
So, of course, when I visited San Francisco, I already knew I had to take the ferry to visit Alcatraz, the most infamous prison in United States history.
Most consider Alcatraz a “must see” for any San Francisco trip. When I told my classroom aide I planned to visit San Francisco, she immediately told me “I couldn’t miss Alcatraz.” My mom, who used to go to San Francisco a lot for business, also emphasized that I needed to make it out to the island and take a tour.
“It’s creepy,” she told me, “but you need to do it.”
However, unlike many major touristy sites, such as the Tower of London or the Louvre, you must plan for Alcatraz far in advance or else you may miss out.
The only way to reach Alcatraz is via ferry. To make things even more complicated, you can only purchase tickets from Alcatraz Cruises. These ferries sell out. Honestly, I wouldn’t even try to buy unauthorized tickets, because not only are those prices inflated, but if anything goes wrong, you have no recourse.
You want to book a hotel that’s easily accessible to the ferry. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress.
Like I already said, I visited San Francisco on my Spring Break. Meaning crowds. Meaning tickets for Alcatraz were a bit hard to find. Most ferries had been sold out for weeks. I was lucky, because I snagged one of two remaining tickets for an Alcatraz-Angel Island combination tour. The tour was scheduled for my last day.
Again: literally every other option was sold out. If I had waited even a few more hours to buy tickets, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Alcatraz at all.
Sure, you can try your luck on “stand by,” but trust me: it’s easier to reserve a spot in advance.
So, is Alcatraz worth visiting? You’re probably thinking, “Geez, Rachel, this seems like an awful lot of hassle to go to a prison. Why not go shopping near Union Square instead?”
Well. Alcatraz is popular for a reason. Because it’s bloody fantastic and worth visiting. This place lives up to its hype.
The journey to the prison gave me sweeping views of the Bay Area. Even though buying a ticket for the ferry is a pain in the neck, finding where to board the boat is pretty simple. Head down to Pier 33, near Fisherman’s Wharf, and arrive a half hour prior to your departure time. You’ll be told to line up, show your ticket, and then board.
Be. On. Time.
The cruises don’t wait for anyone. Once I was settled, I took a million pictures, because the views from the island itself were glorious. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. It’s cold, though. Bring a jacket.
So why else is Alcatraz worth it? Two more reasons. The audio tour itself was fantastic, and the island is a U.S. National Park.
When entering Alcatraz, you head through the showers and wait for your turn to receive an audio guide. There are no tickets. Entrance inside the prison’s main building is free. Well, not really since the cruises cost money, but whatever.
The audio takes you seamlessly throughout the prison – which is helpful given the crowds that visit Alcatraz every single day. Even if you normally hate audio tours, this guide is great, because everything is narrated by guards and prisoners who actually spent time inside Alcatraz’s walls. You’ve an insider’s view and hear lots of personal stories.
The audio takes you to all the main areas – Broadway, the kitchen, solitary confinement, etc. But it’s not a “broad overview” either. It took me awhile to see absolutely everything. Allot at least 3 hours for Alcatraz.
The guide stops you at a couple “unique” cells and tells you stories about the inmates who resided in them. For example, one of the more disturbing stories was about The Battle of Alcatraz, when a handful of prisoners escaped and rebelled against the guards. Two guards were locked into a cell on C Block, and one of them was killed on the spot. A memorial stands right behind the bars. I wouldn’t have known those details if I was walking past the cells without the audio.
You also visit the cells where the most infamous prisoners – like Al Capone and the Birdman – resided.
As incredible as Alcatraz is, though, I don’t know if I would 100% recommend it for the faint of heart. If you’re sensitive, there are some emotional moments on this tour, and they hit you when you least expect them.
I personally have a strong stomach for this sort of thing, but even I had times when I wanted to cry a little. For example, the audio guide talks about how on New Year’s Eve, the prisoners could hear laughter and fireworks coming from across the Bay, freedom within reach but impossible to grasp.
Staying in the area for awhile? Visit Muir Woods and Sausalito too!
But, ultimately, it would be EVEN MORE DEPRESSING if you went all the way to San Francisco and missed Alcatraz. I greatly enjoyed my time inside the prison’s walls (weird sentence, haha), but I loved wandering around the island itself too.
I mean, look at those views. On a sunny day, you can see sailboats, Sausalito’s colorful buildings, San Francisco’s skyline, the Bay Bridge, and much much more. There’s also a bit of wildlife since the island is a National Park, but behave like a good tourist and don’t feed random animals. I shouldn’t have to say it, but common sense isn’t always so common!
Have you ever visited Alcatraz? Do you think Alcatraz is worth visiting? Do you think we can benefit visiting “darker” places such as this infamous prison? Are you planning a trip to San Fransisco? Share in the comments!