Alcatraz Island: Experiencing Decades of History

View from Alcatraz Island

I’m always a little hesitant to visit one of the top attractions in a city. The more of a household name that an attraction is, the more I am skeptical about its quality as a place to visit. For one thing, I find that many of these places simply don’t live up to the hype. I’ve been to many “must-see” attractions only to be greeted by huge crowds of people taking snapshots of the attraction in question. And, to be fair to these tourists, some of these attractions don’t merit much beyond that snapshot. Plymouth Rock, for instance, is not much to look at. Sure, you can learn about the history of the site, but at the rock itself, there is not much information to provide context. Visiting this attraction largely consisted of a group of people staring at a rock.

So, with experiences like that in mind, I was hesitant to visit Alcatraz Island. I figured the island probably contained little more than one building with some jail cells. Furthermore, at $37.25 per person, it’s not exactly a low-cost addition to a trip. (Though I speak negatively about Plymouth Rock, at least it was free and I didn’t lose much by visiting.) But, with little more than a day in San Francisco, it only made sense to stop by the highlights.

We signed up for one of earlier ferries, having heard that the island gets increasingly crowded during the day. Once you’ve arrived on the island, you can take any of the ferries back to the mainland. This allows visitors the chance to determine the length of time they want to spend on the island. As expected, it did mean the total number of people on the island grew over time. I was certainly glad we got an early start.

When we first approached the island, I was surprised at how large it is. At around 22 acres, it certainly isn’t enormous, but it was considerably larger than the mental image I previously held of a tiny island with one building. Instead, the island was a whole community, with housing and community buildings for officers in addition to, of course, the prison.

Visitors are permitted to roam the grounds, cellhouse, and several other buildings with or without a tour, but no visit to Alcatraz would be complete without taking the audio tour around the cellhouse. As we waited in line to receive the headsets that would guide us around points of interest in the building, I questioned whether the soundtrack was worth the wait. After beginning the tour, however, I quickly saw that the audio tour was the best (and sometimes only) way to understand what I was seeing. Often, little or no information was posted about the significance behind noteworthy stops. More than a simple explanation of sites, the audio guide told stories of events in the cellhouse, escape attempts, and more, truly bringing the building to life. I did see a few individuals wondering the building without a headset and with confused expressions. Having the headset gave me the feeling of being “in the know” and having the full story instead of having to speculate about the stories behind the numbers.


Though the cellhouse tour will most likely be the central feature of a trip to Alcatraz, it certainly shouldn’t be the only point of interest visited. Exploring the rest of the island reveals the ruins of the former Social Hall, the New Industries Building where prisoners labored, and more.

Ruins of the Social Hall

Rather than a tourist trap, Alcatraz Island is an extensive site that reflects decades of history. From its first governmental use as a military base in the 19th century to its well-known reputation as a federal penitentiary to the occupation of the island by Native Americans from 1969 to 1971, the island has seen its share of history. Visitors to Alcatraz get the chance to learn about all of these events in a setting that truly allows them to picture the happenings.


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