Alcatraz. I didn’t know much about it. It’s a prison out at sea based on a rock, and Al Capone was sent there. I never watched the movies like The Rock, or Escape From Alcatraz so didn’t have any expectations of the place. But still, I knew I wanted to go. I love places which have been abandoned, it fact it’s a hobby of mine to visit such places. One of my favourite places I visited was Angkor Wat, and I knew Alcatraz could turn into a favourite too.
The boat trip over offers great views of San Francisco and adds value to the whole trip in itself. It’s not worth trying to grab a seat if you like to take photos. On a clear day like when I went, the trip offers great views although I guess less so on the typical SF foggy day the city is famous for. It also became apparent just how popular the rock is once I boarded the boat. The boats are quite large and there is a queue for them and that’s just the people with tickets. Fortunately Alcatraz is quite big and self-guides people around, so the number of people becomes less of an issue when there, it’s actually quite well managed and people generally have enough time to see it all.
There are plenty of small supporting buildings to go alongside the man penitentiary, including staff lodge, watch tower, water supply, etc to see, all seem to have decayed at around the same speed. The lack of flora on the rock (even though there was a period when prisoners were encouraged to plant flowers to take away with rocks unappealing look to SF residents) means that the main buildings are largely identifiable still and nature hasn’t taken them away like it usually does in abandoned urban areas.
In fact a lot of Alcatraz is not available for public access still. It is still in dire need of refurbishment, and not to it’s original state, but to something which will preserve how it was when it was abandoned. Part of the appeal (at least to me) is seeing the decay and ageing of such structures. Considering it’s unique location (surrounded by sea in a often foggy area) water damage is going to be a big part of the buildings structure, much like a forest hut is going to be taken over by trees and plants, Alcatraz has a different attack from nature to deal with.
Once navigated to the top, it does however great views of all directions of the bay. Something not even a boat or a bridge can match. My wife pointed out it’s not exactly a romantic dating spot (note gentlemen: A concrete prison at sea isn’t most girls dream date) but if one can ignore those facts, then the views are in themselves worthy of the boat ride over too.
Once inside the main penitentiary (where everyone is guided too after arriving) the self-guide tour starts. There are a number of languages to choose from, although English features speakers including prison guards and in-mates, so adds a little extra to the experience. The whole tour can take around an hour, but you can drag it out longer if you wish to slow down and take in the atmosphere a bit. Rather than spoil the history or repeat it here (you can always go visit or buy a book for more details) I’ll just put up a few photos I took from the tour. Remember to mouse-over the images for extra notes, which I do in all my blog posts.
Lastly I should remind you to book early, this is even more important for the night tour. As you can see I went during the day, but the night-tour is even more popular, and I guess more atmospheric. You really do need to be booking at least 6 weeks early for the night tour to have a safe chance of getting in, and 8-10 weeks ahead if you happen to choose an American national holiday to visit as more visitors have the time to visit then.