Alcatraz Island is well-known as the once-infamous prison whose inmates included the worst criminals in US history and ranks high up on things to do in the San Francisco Bay area. Officially known as Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary it’s best known by its nickname ‘The Rock’ due to the island’s barren and precipitous appearance.

    Alcatraz held the reputation as ‘America’s toughest prison’ until its closure in 1963. Now, the prison island is a public museum and a must-visit for most visitors to San Francisco. The small rocky island lies north off the coast of North Beach in San Francisco – you can reach it by taking a 20-minute ferry ride from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing.

    History of Alcatraz Island

    Long before Alcatraz Island was the maximum-security penitentiary it came to be, it was the home of the first lighthouse built on the West Coast, dating back to 1854. The original lighthouse was replaced half a century later by a 95-ft-tall lighthouse, which continued to guide ships through the bay up until the present day. You can find the lighthouse near the entrance to the prison museum.

    Alcatraz also served as a citadel for the US Army known as ‘Fort Alcatraz’ at the time. The huge concrete prison block was later built around 1911, and through a series of improvements several decades later, it was to be known as the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

    Touring Alcatraz Island

    You can easily see Alcatraz Island, together with its lighthouse and prison block, from afar using the coin-operated binocular telescopes from Pier 39. However, nothing compares to experiencing the island on an actual tour. Visiting Alcatraz is well worth your time as you can get a true sense of this historical site that can be as insightful and educational as it is suspenseful and spine-tingling at times.

    There are several Alcatraz tour operators, but Alcatraz Cruises is the official concessioner to the Alcatraz Island U.S. National Park Service. The tours and the island itself are universally accessible, with everything from hearing aids and videos using American Sign Language to accessible parking, restrooms, and trams.

    After docking at the island, you enter the Cell House where an elevator takes you up to the 2nd storey for a guided tour around the site. You get to learn about the famous and unsolved escape of 1962, which involved island inmates and notorious bank robbers, Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin. Another notorious inmate that Alcatraz is known for is the kingpin, Alphonse Gabriel “Scarface” Capone.

    Some sections of the prison easily show you how grey the life of an inmate would be in the ‘inescapable prison’. There were over a dozen attempts to escape Alcatraz in between the 1930s and 1960s but none were officially recorded as being successful. Most who attempted were either captured or died by drowning. Some believed the inmates of the famous escape actually drowned.

    Add to those grim tales some eerie Native American legends about malevolent spirits inhabiting the island, and you’re in for a different kind of thrill on an Alcatraz Island tour. Note that centuries of mystery and mischief has helped the island earn its place among the most haunted places in California.

    Views around Alcatraz Island

    You can check out the barracks, known as Building 64, which houses a theatre that screens documentaries of the prison island and hosts various exhibits. There are several points around the island offering stunning coastal views. However, most of the walkways around the island tend to be steep, with some of the points set far and wide. Several trails lead you to panoramic viewpoints looking out to San Francisco from across the Bay.

    Alcatraz Island in San Francisco

    Location: Alcatraz Island Light, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

    Phone: +1 415-561-4900

    Ari Gunadi | Compulsive Traveler

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