Alcatraz (in San Francisco) is not how you might imagine it to be. The Alcatraz audio night tour isn’t one big scare-fest, full of actors jumping out from cells. If you’re expecting some sort of theme park attraction you’re going to be disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s eerie, especially when it comes to leaving the prison in small groups rather than one big, excited mass. However, it’s strangely rather inviting and that’s probably one of the things that will surprise you most.
Where is Alcatraz?
Some of you will be familiar with Alcatraz, or The Rock as it’s often know as, possibly from one of the many movies it’s featured in or perhaps from your own visit. However, for those of you who don’t know too much about it – Alcatraz is the name given to the small island in the Bay Area of San Francisco. The tiny island was used as a prison for criminals who were deemed to be some of the worst. Prisoners ranged from murderers to thieves, and all the inbetween.
The Audio Night Tour
Starting at Pier 33 in San Francisco, the queue is full of people swapping ideas of how they would escape if they were in the prison, with most firmly saying “I could easily swim back to the city!”.
The short ferry ride over is a choppy, but a beautiful one. During winter the latest tour is around 3pm/3.30pm, which means you usually get to enjoy stunning dusky skies against a backdrop of the equally famous Golden Gate Bridge. After taking a million pictures of the gorgeous views, most people can be heard laughing and joking about just how close the island is to San Francisco.
However, it isn’t until you’re stood on the island looking out to the pretty lights of San Fran that you realise just how hard it would be. The water is very rarely still, acting almost as its own deterrent to wannabe escapists. I’m not the best swimmer, but even I was adamant I could do it before we reached the island. I soon had a change of mind and decided I’d be better off avoiding landing in Alcatraz altogether.
Once on the island you’re casually formed into groups without even realising it. The guide sets the scene for the tour, letting you know a bit about the island in a fun and relaxed way. The local birds even help out by perching right next to him when he talks about them. You learn the term for a group of crows, and for ravens – a murder, and an unkindness – and where the name Alcatraz derives. It isn’t until he tells you the answers that you realise it’s a little creepy that the birds arrive exactly on cue (or perhaps it was just a spooky coincidence on my visit).
A short walk up the steep hill leads you to the prison site and from here you’re handed a set of headphones so you can enjoy the audio tour at your own pace and in whatever language you like. The audio guides you throughout the prison, explaining the different sections as well as giving you the lowdown on some of the more famous guests, like Al “Scarface” Capone. Some of the audio is by former guards, so it feels interesting and exciting, rather than too educational. The attempted escape stories are gripping and it’s fascinating (and sad) seeing the resulting scars and wounds from gunshots and grenades.
You can pause and skip whichever parts you like, which is helpful when you want to take a photo or to step inside one of the cells. If you’re feeling brave you can even step into the extreme cell (used as a further punishment). Once locked, it has no windows or bars to peer through, so it’s completely dark and silent. If you’re feeling really brave you can even get locked inside for a minute. Just make sure someone doesn’t distract the guide so that you end up in there for a few extra minutes (like one group during my visit). Even in a group every second feels like an eternity, so you can imagine being locked in there on your own for hours. Grim.
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz
Up until 26 April 2015 you get a little bonus with your Alcatraz Cruises ticket. You can view the (onsite) @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibition. Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned Chinese artist. His work is known for defying the distinction between art and activism. He creates modern, unique visual and sound installations that grab your attention. He believes that the purpose of art is the fight for freedom.
Ai was secretly detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011, and is still not permitted to travel outside China. As a result, he was unable to visit Alcatraz during the planning of this exhibition. It’s incredible to see what he’s managed to achieve with such limitations. Even if you’re not into art, it’s worth having a peep (especially as it’s included in your ticket with Alcatraz Cruises).
Planning a Visit
The best time to visit Alcatraz is January-March because ticket availability is better, even for last minute travellers. If you can though, book ahead online to avoid disappointment. The official website for tickets is Alcatraz Cruises. You’ll need two-three hours to enjoy the tour at a relaxed pace. If you visit during winter, especially on the night tour, wrap up warm as it can get very chilly.