Visiting Alcatraz

The Night Tour of Alcatraz

Want to know the strangest thing about visiting Alcatraz?

Right before you get on the boat, they make you stand in front of this giant photo of the island, and have your photo taken. Then, on the way back, they try to sell you the photo for $20. This struck us a a little, you know, weird, because why would you want to stand in front of a PHOTO of Alcatraz, when you can stand in front of the real thing?

Of course, when we got back, there was a huge line of people, all patiently waiting to pay their $20 for a photo of themselves standing in front of a photo of the place they’d just visited. (The taxi drivers we met would approve of this, although would probably argue that once you’ve had the photo taken, there’s no need to go to the island itself…) I tried to convince Terry to take a photo of the photo of us standing in front of a photo, to see if we could perhaps make the universe implode or something, but there were signs everywhere saying “ABSOLUTELY NO PHOTOS OF THE PHOTOS OF THE PHOTO!” so he didn’t dare.

“What are they going to do,” I quipped, “Send us to Alcatraz? Oh…”

(Except I didn’t, obviously, because I only ever think of these things later. Let’s just pretend, though.)

Anyway. We chose to take the night tour to Alcatraz, because we figured it would be good and spooky there at night, and as you know, I love me some spookiness. I’m also fairly obsessed with abandoned places, and although Alcatraz isn’t strictly “abandoned”, on account of the hundreds of tourists who visit it every day, I think it still counts. The boat leaves in daylight, so you get plenty of time to see things before the sun sets, and it also circles the island before docking, which the daytime tour doesn’t do, so we thought it was well worth it.

(Word to the wise: we had to book the tour three months in advance, so if you’re thinking of visiting, BOOK FIRST.)

After dutifully having our photo taken, we boarded the ferry and were on our way.

Alcatraz guard towerRuins on Alcatraz, San FranciscoRuins on Alcatraz, San Francisco

It. Was. Amazing.

Alcatraz was one of the things I was most excited about seeing on this trip, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Most of the jailhouse tour is an audio one, which worked out quite well because although there were a lot of other people there, we were able to wander around at our own pace, and wait for the crowds to disappear, while listening to the narration of the former prisoners and guards.

Alcatraz jail cell

The jailhouse itself is one of those places you’ve seen so much on TV, and in movies, that it’s hard to believe it’s real, and that you’re actually there. Or that people actually used to be locked up there, in those tiny little cells, for hours and hours of every day. Every so often the crowds would clear from a particular area and I would just stand there and try to imagine what it must have been like, but it’s almost inconceivable, especially when we looked at the cells which served as solitary confinement, and which were absolutely pitch dark inside, and totally terrifying.

After we’d wandered around for a while, we decided to try to escape the crowds, so we all paused our audio tour and walked outside, where we found that the island was surprisingly beautiful: I’d somehow imagined that everything about it would be grey and austere, but it’s absolutely teeming with wildlife, and covered in flowers. And, of course, the views of the city are spectacular, and must have been particularly galling for those stuck on The Rock…

flowers on Alcatraz islandpurple flowers on Alcatraz island

We did a bit more wandering, and then discovered a set of stairs leading to who knew where:

stairs on Alcatraz island

I mean, I say “Who knew where”. This should really have given us a clue:

Sign on Alctatraz

Yes, it was the restrooms! And they were AWESOME!

No, I’m kidding. (And they weren’t, by the way. They were just OK.) It was the recreation yard, and it was completely empty: or, at least, it was until we arrived…
alone on Alcatraz islandin the rec yard at Alcatraz
visit to Alcatraz
The night trip to Acatraz

This was my favourite part of the tour, and actually one of my best memories of the trip. The whole island was so evocative – one of the most atmospheric places I’ve ever been, for sure – but the emptiness of the recreation yard, the setting sun and the huge building towering behind it made me stop in my tracks. My family had all gone on up the steps, but I stood there for a moment in the yard, and felt the history of the place surround me. I swear I could almost feel the ghosts of the various people who’d been there before me: and who weren’t all lucky enough to be able to turn around and take the ferry back to the mainland.

And, of course, once we did get back to the mainland… we tracked down that taxi driver and told him he was WRONG.*

* We didn’t.**

** He was, though.

Visiting Alcatraz: a must-see on a trip to San Francisco

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  • I’d LOVE to visit Alcatraz. And does look eerily beautiful, which I didn’t expect.

    San Fran should have paid for your trip, you’re the best advert!

    I can’t wait to hear more about your adventure.

    p.s. You’re my ‘Blog of the Month’! I’ve added a button for your blog to my sidebar, but as you don’t have a button per say (or I can’t see one anyway) I’ve used one of the photos from your sidebar. I hope you don’t mind but if you do just tell me and I’ll take it down! The post naming you is going live at 6pm 🙂

    July 1, 2011
  • lila


    totally awesome, one of my favourite films is The Rock,and another is Escape to Alcatraz, one day I will go there..

    July 1, 2011
  • Amazing. I’ve never really thought to myself ‘hey, do you know where I’d like to visit one day..? Alcatraz’. But after reading this, I’m putting it on my travel wishlist.

    July 1, 2011
  • It was totally cool, and I didn’t really understand the photo in front of the photo either, not when the island is right there! We refused to have our photo taken and you would have think we’d declared nuclear war on San Francisco, they were that outraged.

    July 2, 2011
  • Wow – what a place. One day I’ll get there. One day.

    Our broadband is going slow at the moment (thanks to a certain 12YO Boy who exceeded our monthly cap) so the pictures took ages to load. As I was scrolling down the page I came across the photo of you behind bars, but because it hadn’t fully loaded all I could see of it was your face from the eyes up. And it scared the proverbial out of me, with the bars and the dark background and your wide eyes half obscured. So I’m probably going to have nightmares about you tonight. That’s possibly a first for both of us! 😀

    July 2, 2011
  • Nikki G


    I LOVED Alcatraz! I have this thing for abandoned buildings as well, and just getting to walk around that blustry, desolate island was a treat. If I ever get to go back to San Francisco, I would want to visit Alcatraz again.

    July 2, 2011
  • wow,this visit must have been really exited.being in a place like this and thinking all the ppl that have been in there,the long history of the jails!lovely post.really like ur blog dear.i am following now.hope u’ll follow me back 🙂

    July 3, 2011
  • I’ve wanted to go to Alcatraz for years! My parents went last year and I was jealous then. And I’m jealous again now, it looks amazing! Beautiful photos!

    July 4, 2011
  • SJ


    The photo in front of a photo thing happens at the Empire State Building as well. We tried to refuse but they made us have our photo taken. As it turned out it was aparticularly nice shot of we with my Dad so, not wanting to pay twenty dollars, I took a photo of the photo of a photo. At which point I got yelled at by a very scary security guard who tried to confiscated my camera. I deleted it and showed her whilst she was trying to grab it from me. Thank god it wasn’t a 35mm camera or I’d have no doubt she’d have taken the film out and ruined the entire roll!

    I can look back and laugh now but at the time I was pretty shaken up!

    July 7, 2011
  • Natasha


    I’m so glad you enjoyed your trip. I’ve never been to Alcatraz (just spent days gazing at it from my sister’s balcony0 but my sister has just volunteered with a project that is restoring the gardens there.

    July 7, 2011