AlcatrazAlcatraz—the very name conjures dark images of impregnable prisons, infamous criminals, and daring escape attempts. But the island is not all murder and mayhem. “The Rock,” set a few kilometers offshore in the San Francisco Bay, is designated a National Historic Landmark and managed by the National Park Service. It’s an important area for nesting seabirds and the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse, and has hosted a military garrison and been occupied by American Indian activists. The main draw for visitors, of course, is the abandoned maximum-security state penitentiary. Between 1934 and 1963 this almost-mythical prison housed some of the country’s most dangerous and troublesome criminals, including Al Capone. The audio tour is fascinating. Narrated by former inmates and guards, the tour ushers you down dank corridors, into cramped cells, and through common areas and staff quarters. You hear stories about the prisoners’ daily routines, escape attempts, and riots, all set to an atmospheric prison life soundtrack of echoing footfalls, clanging doors, and jangling keys. The only way to reach the island is via an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance booking is recommended; during peak times tickets can sell out weeks in advance. By day you can explore the island, or combine it with a trip to Angel Island; by night you get more broody views of the Rock.
the prisoners' soft side
In 1859, Alcatraz Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, began hosting a garrison of troops that would be charged with defending the city in the event of an attack by the Confederacy during the Civil War. While the attack never came, the island remained a military base until 1934, when the island's most famous chapter began: It became home to a maximum-security prison. Among those incarcerated here were Al Capone and Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud; no prisoner ever escaped. While the penitentiary closed in 1963, more than 50 years later it remains one of San Francisco's most visited sites.