I remember the time when I was 5 and my dad would do bedtime stories which I always look forward because it lulled me to sleep. He’s a really great storyteller, by the way. There is one exception, and that was when he would tell me stories of Alcatraz prison, this maximum security prison in the US where they locked up worst of the worst and it was located on an island. On an island! It must be haunted, no? It was after all, the era where the local nighttime TV program that includes hunting for haunted places became extremely popular. People that tried to escape, they were either recaptured or never to be seen again! Suffice to say, I refused bedtime story of Alcatraz ever since. And of course, my dad always likes to tease me every now and then of my Alcatrazphobia.

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Fast forward to 16 years later, I would stand in front of Pier 33 in San Francisco, where the ferry for Alcatraz departs. The bedtime story was not forgotten, but curiosity prevailed. Winter time means fewer crowd, so I was able to score a ticket, a tour to the temporary residence of Al Capone, Mickey Cohen and the likes. Upon arrival, I was greeted by this big sign that indicates this place is no ordinary prison, it’s THE Alcatraz. Above it in fading red grafitti, that it welcomes Indians. Then just below, a friendly park ranger welcomed us properly. Wait what? What does Alcatraz, Indians and park rangers have in common?

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One of the older building on the island, I think it’s the Officer’s Club.

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I walked uphill to find out to the main prison. Now, I don’t usually like audio tour because it is sometimes boring and very one-way but for some reason, the Alcatraz audio tour is comprehensive and interesting, keeping me entertained and in wonder for its 45 minutes run. It is incredible to see the first maximum security prison in the US, where and how they lived. Whoever they were on the island, inmates, guards, wardens, you are in a sense, prisoners. Some more than the others, but prisoners nonetheless. You could hear the waves and currents, sometimes the blue sky and glimpses of San Francisco no more than few minutes away, yet it is frustratingly unreachable. The prisoners, well some of them, stayed sane with few ways they knew how. Card games, painting, getting jobs in prison, reading many many books, and for some…plotting an escape from this island.

With this prison closing its doors in 1963, there were talks on what the Alcatraz was going to be. What is it going to be, a resort? Amusement park? Before any of them were realized, the Indians occupied the island for 19 months from 1969 to 1971. They made a stand for their rights and the land that was taken from them, it was a huge stepping stone. Gifted with one of the most beautiful view of San Francisco and an empty prison that holds too much untold stories, it is unsurprising that Alcatraz became a part of Golden Gate National Park, hence the park rangers we see around the island.

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One of the cells in Alcatraz.

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When you break the Alcatraz’s prison rules, you go to isolation cells. Pay a visit inside!

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Nobody lives in the cells anymore, the head is actually a replica of a replica that resembles prisoner’s head made of soap and toilet paper. Their bodies were never found.

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Alcatraz is many things to many people. To me, it was overcoming a quite unreasonable childhood phobia and enjoyed it, more than I thought I would. As I sat on the ferry back to San Francisco, I sent a text to my dad. “I did it, I went to the Alcatraz. I must admit, it was incredible.” He will need to find another thing to tease me, not that he will ever be short of any!

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Tips on the Alcatraz Tour :

  • Book the ticket in advance. In the summer, it can be very crowded (I didn’t get tickets on my previous visit to SF) so try to book weeks before. The tour took me around 2-2,5 hours including the ferry ride, so plan your day.
  • Visit in the low season if you can, easier to get tickets and more pleasant since it won’t be too packed on the island.
  • There are free daily activities you can join, make sure to look up the schedule upon your arrival.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, the tour involves a lot of walking and there are few potholes and uneven ground.
  • Bring some food and do a picnic on the island! 
  • From Pier 33, afterwards you can take a short walk down to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf where there are shops and restaurants (a bit touristy, but pay a visit if it’s your first time in SF) and walk further down to the Cable Car, take the Powell/Hyde route. It is as touristy as it gets, but I loved the ride! If the line is too long, walk uphill (just follow the route) to the first/second cable car stop to skip the line. Best done around sunset time!


Until next time,