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Is Alcatraz Worth Visiting?
“Is Alcatraz worth visiting?” is a big question to ask.
San Francisco isn’t a cheap destination with many attractions to see. And visiting Alcatraz is … tricky at times. For example, ferries are in limited supply and missing your boat ride means no fun trips to prison. The hassle might “turn off” some travelers or at the very least make them wonder if Alcatraz is even worth it.
In short: Yes, an Alcatraz tour is worth it. People flock to this former prison mainly because the infamous history is fascinating.
In college, I had a weird curiosity all about 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. Digging into the minds of criminals and wondering why they behaved so violently against societal norms intrigued me from both a psychological and sociological points of view.
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.
How do you Reach Alcatraz Island and is it Worth the Hassle?
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. So, while Alcatraz is worth it, logistics are a pain in the butt.
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.
Why do People Visit Alcatraz and What Tips should I Follow?
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. People not only visit Alcatraz for the historical significant, but you can see some incredible views of San Francisco’s skyline from the ferry.
Furthermore, 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. And we all know I want to visit each and every National Park in the United States. Life goals, my friends.
Upon entering Alcatraz prison itself, 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.
Read More: 2 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
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. Entering those cells made my skin crawl. I’m not sure if I believe in ghosts or not, but during those moments inside Alcatraz’s four walls, I certainly did!
Now can you go to Alcatraz without a tour? I don’t think you can, but trust me, the audio guide is very much worth your time. You learn so much.
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.
However, don’t worry about visiting Alcatraz if you’re alone in San Francisco! You can truly focus on the tour rather than your travel buddies. It’s a great solo activity.
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!
Oh, and please don’t litter. Use the trashcans. Again, I shouldn’t have to give this advice, but unfortunately, I saw some inconsiderate people waiting for the ferry. Don’t be them.
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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!
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4 thoughts on “Is Alcatraz Worth Visiting?”
We visited Alcatraz on our trip to California last summer and LOVED it. It was myself, my boyfriend and my 14 year old son and we all said it was definitely one of the best part of our week long road trip from San Francisco to San Diego.
I definitely agree about the audio guide- we thought it was probably the best one we’ve ever had for any place we’ve visited. It was so realistic in some parts that I actually had to remove the headphones to see if it was part of the tour or something going on in the building. And I loved the personal stories from the inmates. Truly one of the only audio guides that has had me completely engaged every moment.
You are also right about tickets being hard to get. Thankfully we learned that before our trip and it was the first thing we reserved and we did it months in advance.
Yep, Alcatraz is definitely worth visiting! 🙂
Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I agree with everything you said! You were smart by booking tickets months in advance. I was so lucky I was able to visit.
My family takes a summer vacation in California every year, but we never really go sightseeing. Like you, I think it would be fascinating to see Alcatraz. I don’t want to miss the opportunity, so I’ll take your advice and reserve a spot in advance. Thanks for the great review!
Wow! Thanks for the detailed overview – and great photographs. What on earth was going on in solitary?
I read a book about Alcatraz, years ago. Is it true that they kept machineguns manned inside the prison itself?