Updated: Mar 23
A few months ago, we went away on a six-week trip around America for our honeymoon! Now that we’re back, I’m doing a pretty thorough job of documenting it on my blog. I wrote one BIG post about the trip already, but as I’m the sort of person who likes surprises, and because it was already pretty long, I decided to take one thing from each place we went to – except for Chicago and Canada because we weren’t there for long – and talk about it in detail for those that want to know bits about it before they go or are just interested in our experience.
If you don't want to read about this particular activity in depth, but just want a general overview of our trip, look to the original post here. I will be going into a bit of detail – not too much – here, so just keep that in mind!
We started our trip in San Francisco, which was a dream come true! I’ve always wanted go there, and it was the perfect place to start! Other than the fact that it is really beautiful and filled with things to do and sights to see, its also quite relaxed, which was a good way to adjust to a new place!
We did some wonderful things whilst we were there including walking over the Golden Gate Bridge, going to Golden Gate Park Golden Gate Park and so much more. It was hard to pick a favorite thing we did, but I managed.
Golden Gate Bridge. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole.
What comes to mind when you think of San Francisco? The iconic Golden Gate Bridge… Yep! Hills… Definitely! Cable Cars… Of course! What about a small island with an old building on it?… I would imagine that a great deal of people also think of the famous prison, Alcatraz.
A hill sign in the Hilliest City We’ve ever been in. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole
Here is an excerpt from the diary I kept whilst we were away, on the day that we visited Alcatraz –
” Alcatraz is really something else, it’s pretty surreal and a little bit creepy. It was so strange to imagine people actually living there, and to hear real accounts of both the prisoners and the people who worked and lived on the island. It was also fascinating to see all of the wildlife, it’s really quite beautiful.”
Located 1.25 miles off the shore, it has a fascinating history, and is famous, among other things, of never having a prisoner successfully escape. It has been culturally referenced time and time again in films, TV, books and is an iconic part of San Francisco! Naturally it was top our list when we were planning our trip!
All of the guides recommend booking your tickets at least two weeks in advance, so we booked ours two weeks before we left the country. I’m pleased we did but also wish we had booked them a sooner. We originally wanted to do the nighttime tour. This guided tour is supposed to be the best one, and includes a narrated boat tour around the island, guided tours, and special programs and presentations that are only available on the night tour. The views from the island are fantastic as well, so it would be a great place to see the sunset. It’s $40 pp and runs 5.55pm-8.40pm and 6.30pm-9.25pm.
The problem was that it runs Thursday to Monday. We arrived Monday night-time, and left Friday morning, but there were no available spaces for Thursday night. So if you want an evening tour, plan ahead and book as early as you can! Instead we went for the early bird your. I know, it’s the total opposite but it’s supposed to be the next best one because it’s not as busy at that time in the morning. This departs from Pier 33 at 8.45am. It’s exactly the same as the normal day visit, and includes an audio tour and ranger tours among other things. This one costs $33 pp and it’s totally worth the early start!
The morning we went, we walked about 25 minutes from our hotel to the lovely Pier 33, and waited in line for about 20 minute before boarding the boat to the island. It’s quite a nice journey, and you get some fantastic views.
Alcatraz. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole
Once you’re on the island, you are given a quick introduction then you basically get to go off and explore at your leisure.
We chose to do the cell house audio tour first. I’ve been on my fair share of audio tours and this one is quite possibly the best one I’ve ever done. It’s voiced by several inmates and correctional officers, and walks you around the building – inside and out – making the prison come to life. The tour takes you through the cell blocks, dining hall, library, warden’s office and outside where you’ll see the prison yard, and the buildings that housed the staff of the prison, plus much more!
It is pretty cool to be inside the prison, until what you’re looking at and listening to sinks in, at which point it becomes quite eerie. While the whole museum is very interesting, I think I enjoyed the cell blocks the most. Here you’ll see where some pretty notorious criminals were housed – Al Capone and The Birdman among others – but you’ll also see the different kinds of cells and find out some of the most important pieces of the prisons history.
Cells. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole
One of the most haunting, surreal experiences in the museum is solitary confinement. Whilst there are some standard cells in the confinement bloc that would be used for smaller crimes and sometimes the inmates safety don’t seem too bad, “the hole” is in my opinion terrifying. They are essentially a cold, unfurnished black hole, secured by bars and six-inch steel doors. Everyone steps into a standard cell, it’s just one of the things people do, it’s part of the fun. Stepping into “the hole” is not fun, it’s chilling.
The Hole. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole
The inmates and officers on the headset will talk you through so many different aspects of prison life, and they have some mind-blowing stories, but there are a couple that really stick out. One is the “Battle of Alcatraz” which took place over two days, after an escape attempt turned into a riot. Two officers and three prisoners died, and many more were injured. Outside forces were brought in an attempt to defuse the situation, as things just went from bad to worse. You can find out more about the Battle of Alcatraz here.You can still see the damage around the cell blocks including bullet holes, and one of the cells stands as a memorial to the fallen guards.
Bullet Holes. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole
Whilst this has been named by some as the most important piece of the prisons history, there is another story that stands out, one that is possibly more widely known than that of the “Battle of Alcatraz”.
It’s well-known that there have been no successful escape attempts from the federal prison, but for me that depends on how you define successful. What became known as the “Great Escape from Alcatraz” has been portrayed on the big screen, and is possibly one of the most famous escape attempts in history.
Frank Lee Morris came to Alcatraz after a series of attempted escapes from other prisons, the idea being that it would be impossible for him to escape a rock in the middle of ocean. Over several months, he and three other inmates devised a complex escape plan, and finally made it out of the prison but were never seen again. No one knows what happened to them, and although it has been determined that they had failed, the fact that they actually made it out of the prison is small success. You can read more the Great Escape of Alcatraz here.
You can still see the evidence of the escape in the prison today, including the dummy heads placed in their beds as a decoy and discovered the morning of the escape. It’s quite unsettling.
As well as seeing inside of the prison, you’ll also get a good explore of the outside, which brings us to one of my favorite aspects of the trip – seeing how the island itself has developed since it was closed in 1963 when it was deemed to expensive to run. In 1964 it was occupied by Native American Activists on and off until 1969. This started with a 6 hour occupation, and was followed by two more in 1969, with the second one lasting 19 months.
As we approached the island, we saw the first bit of evidence of this. Painted on the side of the building in big red letters you will see “INDIANS WELCOME” Many things happened during the occupation, including a fire which destroyed several buildings, and today you will see this red paint all over the island, including on the water tower which says “Peace and Freedom Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.” If you would like to know more about the occupation, I’ve found a pretty good website here.
Water Tower. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole
In 1972, the island was opened to the public. In the prison grounds, you’ll see various derelict buildings and the exorcise yard. What we really loved about them was seeing how nature has taken over them, sort of like it’s taking back the island. It’s really beautiful. It’s not all out of control though, as there are also gardens that are kept by volunteers.
Nature taking over a derelict building. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole.
Once we had finished the audio tour, we had a look around the gift shop and came back to the dock to eat lunch with a fantastic view of the city and the ocean. Then we joined a guided tour but after the first couple of minutes we decided not to do it because we were worried that a lot of the things we had already learned would be repeated.
San Francisco Skyline from the rock. Photo Credit – Ashleigh Nicole
There are many reasons to go to Alcatraz. Whether it’s to learn its colourful history, to satisfy your morbid curiosity or just to tick it off your bucket list, it’s a great day out, we really enjoyed ourselves.
Top Tips For The Rock
Book in advance – As already mentioned, book at least two weeks in advance if not sooner, and if you can’t get on a nighttime tour, do the early bird tour.
Be prepared to walk – Wear comfy shoes, it’s quite a walk up to the entrance of the museum, not to mention the walk around the island.
Take a camera – not just for the really interesting things you’ll see inside, but for beautiful views of the city.
Stand in a cell – It’s quite an eerie feeling, but it’s also part of the experience!
Be respectful – Remember that this isn’t just a museum, it isn’t just an old prison, it’s a place where people lived and died, and it’s also part of the National Park Service.
It’s not all it – I’ve only talked about the years it was a prison, and the years after it closed down, but there is so much more to it. You’ll also have the chance to learn about its life prior to being a prison!