“Should we book the night tour, or the day one?”

This is a question we pondered for a long time when researching San Francisco and Alcatraz.

In the end, we decided to book onto the first boat of the night tour.

A little bit about Alcatraz

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to, arguably, the world’s most famous prison. ‘The Rock’ held inmates from 1934 till it was shut down in 1963, after the Attorney General discovered it would be cheaper to put all the prisoners up in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. I bet the beds would have been comfier too!

In it’s short time serving as a prison, it’s held notorious criminals such as Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and “the Birdman” Robert Stroud. Before that, Alcatraz island was a military garrison, and later a military prison.

The boat trip

We were the first in the queue for the boat (of course we were, us Brits love a queue). We climbed on board and headed straight for the prime position at the back of the vessel.

Making our way towards Alcatraz, we saw the most gorgeous sunset you’ve ever seen.

“Wow” was the words that gasped around the boat, before we all pulled out our cameras and took our own snaps.

The audio tour

Arriving at the island, we walked up a few steep banks to get to the entrance to the main block. Once there, we were given headsets with our chosen language and we were set for our audio tour.

The tour takes you round the main areas of interests, including the cell blocks, dining hall and administration block. I’m not usually a huge fan of audio tours, as they can be long and boring. But this one was absolutely fascinating. It tells the stories of what happened in this prison, including interviews with retired wardens and ex-prisoners.

Some inmates actually requested to move here from other prisons. The prison’s one-man-per-cell policy, as well as access to a library with 15,000 books and 75 popular magazines, Alcatraz was seen as an attractive option. 

Added to that, the fact that Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston, believed poor food was often the root cause of prison riots, so he insisted they served good food, and inmates could have as many helpings as they wanted.

The grounds

After the audio tour, we had the chance to explore a little by ourselves. Leaving cell block B by the administration offices, we caught a glimpse of the glittering San Francisco across the bay.

“I never thought I’d say this at a prison, but that view is beautiful!” I gasped.

We could see right across to the San Francisco/Oakland Bridge and the skyscrapers of the financial district.

The city is only 1.25 miles off the coast, and apparently if the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can even hear the sounds of the city from here. I bet that was tormenting for the prisoners, all that city buzz just out of reach.

We didn’t get chance to explore the rest of the grounds, including the recreational area, clothing stores and guardhouse. And in any case, it was too cold and probably too dark to wander off and see them (plus we didn’t want to spend the night trapped!)

Cell Block A

One of the special openings on this night tour was cell block A. This cell house was originally designed to house military prisoners. But when the prison became a federal penitentiary, this was the only block not to be remodelled with things such as tool-proof bars and remotely operated doors. So this block really gives a sense of what it would have been like before the maximum security inmates moved in.

Afterwards, cell block A was rarely used to house inmates, and instead was used as offices and storage. I’m not sure about you, but I wouldn’t fancy working 9-5 in a cold, creepy cell block! Some prisoners did come here, but to work on the typewriters and read legal reference books.

Our escape

No one has ever escaped the island. Of the 39 that have attempted, 27 were caught, 7 were killed and 5 have never been found, but presumed drowned in the icy waters.

Not liking our odds, and suffering with rumbling tummies and cold feet, we hopped on the boat back to the mainland.

Pros of the night tour
  • You get that stunning sunset across the bay
  • The island is a lot quieter than during the day – all the day guests have to to leave before the night tour ferries land
  • Some parts of the prison are open that aren’t usually on the day tours
  • The view back over at San Fransico’s twinkling lights
  • The spooky and mysterious atmosphere
Cons of the night tour
  • You are limited to the time you can spend on the island (you don’t want to spend the night on Alcatraz)
  • It gets cold on the island as soon as the sunsets
  • The ferries are at an awkward time for eating – do you eat before the tour, or after? We opted for a hotdog on the ferry back
  • It’s harder to take good photographs of the outside in the dark
Top tip
  • The tours book up quickly, so make sure you get your place early. You can book 90 days before you visit and always use the official site, Alcatraz Cruises. 
San Francisco
Muir Woods

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