LOCATION: San Francisco, California
GETTING THERE: As the name implies, Alcatraz is an island, and therefore only accessible via boat. Especially if you plan on taking the tour during the summer or on a weekend, you’ll want to book ahead to guarantee your ticket. In fact, pre-purchasing your ticket generally makes for a good travel practice, and you can do so here. The National Parks Service actually contracts out to a private company called Alcatraz Cruises – I know, talk about monopolizing the market, but it’s the only option that visitors have. If you don’t book your Alcatraz boat tickets through Alcatraz Cruises, you’re purchasing a knockoff ticket that the tour company won’t accept. Go straight to the source and book ahead of time.
I wouldn’t recommend driving to Pier 39 unless absolutely necessary – parking is a nightmare and the limited street parking available typically only lasts for two hours. Luckily, public transit options abound. The Powell/Hyde cable car turnaround is nearby, and the pier is accessible via the less touristy MUNI F-line street car. The 8X, 8BX, 39, and 47 buses also service Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf.
TOP STOP: The Alcatraz Recreation Yard, a somber reminder that life at a prison is far from romantic, which is often how it’s portrayed in era-appropriate films. The contrast between the concrete-laden yard and the spectacular view of downtown San Francisco (this is the photo opportunity of travelers’ dreams) is striking. Here, it’s easy to understand why so many attempted escape, even if so few succeeded. San Francisco looks deceptively close to the island, and its slick, urban appeal must have tempted the inmates on a daily basis. Perhaps most surprisingly, this prison has a better city view than your hotel room.
WHAT TO DO: If you purchase a day or early bird ticket, your ticket automatically comes with a Cellhouse Audio Tour ticket. I didn’t find the audio tour to be worthwhile, but walking through the Cellhouse cannot be missed. There are rangers stationed throughout to answer any of your questions, and a self-guided walking tour offers a stellar look at life on “the Rock.” While you can’t climb to the top of the guard tower, it’s a sight certainly worth scoping out, as are the guards’ barracks. There are also some small, skippable exhibits near the gift shops, which sells typical tourist kitsch. If you traveled to San Francisco thinking that California ought to be warm in July, only to be met with sixty-degree highs, this is the place to pick up that sweatshirt souvenir that you’ll put to practical use.
YOU SHOULD VISIT BECAUSE… Alcatraz plays a central role in Prohibition-era folklore. If nothing else, the boat ride to and from the island on a blue-sky day is simply spectacular and offers wonderful views of the entire Bay Area.
Home Base: Even if you decide to tour Alcatraz after dark, you won’t be able to spend the night on the island. Thanks to San Francisco’s fairly extensive public transportation network, especially by West Coast standards, visitors interested in touring the famous prison can find a hotel anywhere in the city but arrive at Pier 39 with ease.
Nearby Activities and Sights: Pier 39, where visitors board the boat to Alcatraz, neighbors the popular Fisherman’s Wharf, the perfect place to view California sea lions and visit the underrated gem Musee Mecanique. For all you chocolate lovers or shopaholics out there, Ghirardelli Square makes for a perfect stop. There, you’ll find ice cream available year-round – it might be pricey but it’s certainly worth it. For those who don’t mind a little walking, a stroll to Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill can be lovely, especially on days with blue skies.
Insider Tips: Upon arriving at Alcatraz, be sure to note the departure times for the boat back to the mainland. You won’t want to finish your tour of the prison moments after a boat leaves, forcing you to wait forty-five more minutes.
The evening tour of Alcatraz has its undeniable benefits – first, it offers a unique way to discover the “haunted” island prison, and second, it allows travelers to devote their precious daylight hours to exploring more exciting, off-the-beaten-path parts of the city. However, the downside is that some parts of the prison are closed after sundown for safety reasons and self-guided tours are not permitted. When selecting a tour time, consider you and your party’s needs. If you want open-ended exploration and don’t mind devoting half a day to the excursion, visit Alcatraz during the day. If you’d prefer to wander the city’s neighborhoods while it’s light out and prefer a guided tour of the island, select a night trip.