Day 21 – Alcatraz

After a good breakfast in our Hotel Zoe’s Pescadore Restarant, we made our way for what we hoped was another highlight of our tour.  It was a short walk from our hotel onto North Point to Pier 39 to board the boat that would take us to the Island.  For anyone going on the island in the morning, I would recommend having a good breakfast, there are no facilities for food or drinks on the island.

Alcatraz Island

The boat trip takes only 12 minutes from San Francisco Bay to the island. It was a really scenic journey although as is often the case with San Francisco, the “Golden Gate Bridge’ was covered in a foggy mist.  It did make it look atmospheric, especially given where we were headed!

We arrived at Alcatraz, which was originally built as a military fort in the 1860s.  The old military aspects of the ‘Rock’, as Alcatraz is known, reminded me of Gibraltar.  The original prison block was built in the 1910s as a military prison and in 1934 Alcatraz became a penitentiary federal prison, a maximum high security prison.

Alcatraz housed famous criminals including Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”.  As well as ‘housing’ prisoners, the island was home for some of the prison staff and their families.  We heard about how the children of staff played and attended school just outside the prison walls.

This high secure prison was where prisoners who had escaped other prisons were sent to. A bit like a peace-time, American version of Colditz!!

At first sight I thought the prison block didn’t look that large, but I didn’t realise how the prisoners were ‘packed in like sardines!’  Also, the cell block is the equivalent of 13 storeys above sea level so you don’t quite realise the scale from the boat, or the landing stage. Each cell was only around 9′ long by 5′ wide – just enough for a small single bed (well a metal base with a mattress on), a toilet and small washbasin, plus a shelf and very uncomfortable looking seat (not chair!)  The prisoners were allowed to personalise their cells with musical instruments and paintings.

Three storey high, there were rows of cells ‘back to back’ housing around 280 prisoners in 4 blocks – A, B, C & D (although all in one structure).  Blacks were segregated from all the other prisoners, reflecting, in the Wardens’ own words, the outside world in the United States at that time.

You need to pre-book well in advance for the tour. You cannot ‘just turn up’ and buy a ticket and expect availability. Our tour was on a Friday and a sign showed next availability was Monday, so if we hadn’t pre-booked we would have missed this ‘must do’ attraction in San Francisco.

Once you have paid for your ticket there is nothing else you need to pay for once there – everything is covered in your ticket price including: an excellent audio tour, and talks about escape attempts, or experiences of living on the island.

Interesting things we learned on the best Audio tour I have ever experienced included:

  • Prisoners were served three meals a day and it was felt very important they had good food, the prison staff ate the same food.
  • They exercised once a day in a large concrete open space, from which they could overlook the bay, in certain places. Prisoners played a game of ‘bridge’ which occupied them for hours.
  • In 1962 three prisoners escaped, there has been much ‘mythology’ and ‘incorrect reporting’ over whether they died or escaped.  The theory these days is that two of the escapees, the England brothers, are in their eighties and still alive living in Brazil.
  • Corridors were named after famous US streets, like Broadway.
  • In the 60s and the days of segregation, the ‘blacks’ were kept separate from the other prisoners.
  • Faced with high maintenance costs and a poor reputation Alcatraz closed in 1963.
  • Three guards died during their duty on Alcatraz, two of which was during a prisoners’ riot, known as the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’.

As part of the tour, as well as seeing the cell blocks, we went into the dining room, the visitor’s area, the library and the recreation area.  These different ‘communal’ areas were only a ‘stones throw’ from the cells, to minimise any opportunity for escapes or riots.  We visited other sections such as the solitary confinement area which was even more grim than the normal cells.

We saw the areas occupied by the staff including the Warden’s office and the admin offices.

Having watched the excellent film, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ starring Clint Eastwood, I was fascinated to see this place.  The audio tour, with the real voices of past inmates, guards and wardens, really brought this place back to life – in a very graphic way.

I am glad I visited, it was very, very interesting.  I cannot say a visit to an old prison was a ‘happy highlight’ of this tour, but it was a day I will never forget.

Then on to more recreational activities . . .

After visiting Alcatraz, we needed to have lunch and have some lighthearted fun.  So we made our way to Pier 39, the tourist area of Fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco and were lucky enough to secure a table right on the sea front.  Being lovers of the Otis Reading song, ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ I kept annoying the family trying to sing (very badly) the song! (From Chris: it was really, really, bad!!)

We passed a few more hours away, initially Chris and I sorted out the next leg of our journey and where we would stay the next night and then met up with one of Jo’s friends from London, who happened to be visiting San Francisco at the same time.  I asked for a coffee at the bar, to be told that they only served it with alcohol in it.  So we asked could we have it without the alcohol, or even separately, to be told – No!!! (Great customer service – not)  So I had an Irish coffee, which was very enjoyable – but meant another day starting drinking early since the ‘kids’ had arrived in SF.

We asked some locals where would be a good place for dinner, and were recommended to visit the Italian district.  It would take us away from the tourist area (always a good thing from a culture and budget perspective).  After a 15 minute walk from Pier 39 we found ourselves surrounded by some lovely Italian restaurants, and bars – although they were on a road called ‘Filbert Street’.  This caused some surprise to us this street name is famous to anyone from Leicester (Chris’ home city in the UK) as the original home to the Leicester football club – the soccer team (from Chris: Home of the Mighty Foxes!).

We had an excellent meal in the Italian restaurant called Piazza Pelligrini and anyone travelling to San Francisco, looking for Italian food should check this place out,  The menu offered a wide range of food, friendly helpful staff and good prices.

Then, a final nightcap back at our hotel with the ‘kids’ before we turned in for the night.

Tomorrow we leave San Francisco, and head out south on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway.


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