There isn't much trivia concerning Alcatraz that you don't already know. You've probably heard about Capone and "the Hole" and the Indian occupation. You've even seen Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage sneak onto "The Rock" against heavy artillery and VX gas rockets. Nevertheless, over one million people every year pay close to $40 for a short boat ride to the tiny, 22-acre island and a chance to confirm what they've already seen and heard...and it's worth every damn penny.
The Alcatraz tour begins and ends with the typical tourist attraction rigmarole which explains why most locals I've talked to have never been to Alcatraz. Most days, but especially during peak season in the summer and fall, you'll need to get tickets well in advance. If you're able to get to the ticket office at Pier 33 or book an Alcatraz tour ahead of time, you can take advantage of the best rates. Otherwise, there are many travel companies that resell tickets at a substantial mark-up. Tickets are good on any of the day's boats that depart every 30 minutes (9am to dusk), but you have to queue up early to claim a seat onboard.
Fortunately, you leave such hassles behind once you're on Alcatraz Island. Because Alcatraz is under the auspices of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area within the U.S. National Park Service, it has a friendlier feel and a hands-off approach that promotes leisurely discovery over scheduled interaction. There are guided tours available and even a few gift shops, but you're free to wander as you please for as long as you like.
To get oriented, a park ranger gives a quick rundown on the different points of interest. In addition, at the main dock you'll come across a movie theater featuring a Discovery Channel profile of Alcatraz that provides a nice introduction to the Island's folklore and a timeline to keep in mind while exploring. You can also pick up different brochures for just a dollar if you're the map-in-hand type.
There are several buildings that pique curiosity as you meander up the hill. Inside the Guardhouse a canon sits on a display that begs the question, were people really still using canons 150 years ago? Try to imagine gunpowder igniting a massive explosion, sending a huge steel cannonball hurtling through the air and crashing through the hull of an approaching ship. A sign indicates though that the canons were seldom used and quickly became outdated, ultimately leading Alcatraz to transition from military installation to federal prison.
Just beyond is the Officer's Club. Though it nearly burned down in 1970, this was the center of social activity on the Island during the prison's heyday. Initially a post office and general store, the Officer's Club eventually housed a bowling alley, gymnasium, and dance hall. Life appears to have been downright luxurious for the 70 families of prison guards who rode the ferry into San Francisco, returning to a secluded Island paradise for the evening. Even now, you can look through the windows of the second story to see sailboats cruising from Berkeley to Tiburon and feel like Alcatraz Island is a romantic Mediterranean escape.
Alcatraz also has a restored wilderness habitat that is an ornithological Mecca. At the end of the road below the cellhouse, you come to a large paved area that serves as a major breeding ground for shorebirds every summer. Western gulls, egrets, and cormorants flock to the Island to enjoy an abundance of food during the seasonal upwelling that brings ocean water teeming with plankton from the depths of the Pacific. There are a number of benches along the cliff facing San Francisco where you can sit in repose overlooking the beautiful downtown skyline and watch birds fly in and out of this haven.
Finally, at the top of the hill you arrive at the main cellhouse. In the shower room, visitors can pick up a headset and begin a 45-minute audio tour (available in English, German, Italian, French, Spanish, and Japanese) at no additional charge. Visitors might be reluctant to acquiesce to a narrated tour, but it has a number of delightful side effects. First, it keeps everyone quiet. The worst part about most major tourist attractions is enduring obnoxiously loud groups blathering on while you're trying to appreciate the finer points of a historical note. Not so when each person has their own headset on and is getting specific instructions on where to go and when.
The narrative is also cleverly told by the grave voices of former prison guards and inmates. In parts, it starts to sound like a long-winded old-timer grumbling about how things used to be until you're startled by gunshots and knife jabs and other sound effects spliced in to provide a violent counterpoint and jarring reminder of the grim realities of prison life. Several attempted escapes are well documented on the tour and give a gruesome account of the botched plans. But as the legend goes, no one ever made it out alive...
More than anything, the intimacy of the audio tour inspires a contemplative mood as everyone shuffles along in quiet meditation, and in the end you're left with a feeling of hope. Doing time at Alcatraz certainly wasn't easy. Yet, the prospect of a free life was so close you could almost taste it, hear it in the air when the wind was right. And for many men, proximity to a relative utopia helped them reform and start anew when released.
So as you leave Alcatraz, take an extra moment to ponder the plight of the prisoner and the ethics of our penal system. Existential questions of freedom are likely to crop up and you should tackle these with a newfound appreciation for patience and the perseverance of the human spirit.