Alcatraz, the world's most famous prison

A small island in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz remained empty for thousands of years until the 19th century. First a fortress, then a notorious prison, Alcatraz has left its mark on the United States and on popular culture. Known as the prison from which there is no escape, it has played host to famous criminal figures such as Al Capone. Today, the island is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States and a must-see when visiting San Francisco.

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay

- © f11photo / Shutterstock

A little background

The history of Alcatraz began after the departure of the Spanish colonists, when the government of the young United States transformed the island into a fortress. During the Civil War, more than 100 cannons and 400 soldiers were stationed there. In 1909, it became a military prison for war deserters and "unfriendly" Amerindians. It changed function for the last time in 1934 to become a state penitentiary, a high-security prison for the most dangerous criminals.

Did you know that? Alcatraz was given its name during the period of Spanish colonisation. In fact, that's what the Spanish called the many pelicans in the bay! However, the word "alcatraz" refers to the gannet, a bird typical of the North Atlantic coastline.

© Jan Hanus / 123RF

The most famous of American prisons

Alcatraz prison is world-famous for a reason. The prisoners held there were among the country's most dangerous criminals. They included Al Capone, the famous gangster and drug baron whose life inspired the film Scarface, George Kelly, nicknamed 'Machine Gun', and Robert Straud. In all the years the prison was in operation, not a single prisoner escaped alive, despite 14 attempts by inmates with a sinister reputation.

Inside the prison, one of the main corridors with the cells on either side.

- © FilipPhotography / Shutterstock

Alcatraz closes its doors

The prison was definitively decommissioned in 1963 for safety reasons. Seawater had weakened the prison's structures, making it less safe. Keeping it in operation would have required major renovation work, and this represented too great an investment. Although it has never been officially confirmed, its closure may also have something to do with 11 June 1962. The day when three prisoners: Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin managed to escape and probably died in the cold waters of the Pacific. The film Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Easwood, recounts this extraordinary escape.

Garden and exterior of Alcatraz prison, San Francisco, California

- © Juan Pedro Vallejo / Shutterstock

Getting to the island

The adventure begins at Fisherman's Wharf pier 33. A boat will take you to the island in around 15 minutes, and the journey offers some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The journey and arrival on the island can be quite emotional when you think of the prisoners who made the same journey to be locked up there. The island is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region, so advance booking is highly recommended.The ticket includes a visit to the prison, an audio guide and the return journey.

Duration: approximately 2 hours

👛 Price: $49 per adult, and $59 for the night visit

Visit to Alcatraz prison San Francisco

Visit to Alcatraz prison

The ticket includes the tour, a walk around San Francisco Bay, an audio guide and other activities. Open to all
From
£92 / person
Book

Course of the visit

Once on the island, visitors are welcomed by a guide to the cell area inside. Here, audio guides are distributed and the tour can begin. Available in several languages, including French, you'll be guided along the way by people who lived on Alcatraz when it was still a prison. 4 guards and 4 prisoners tell stories, testimonies and anecdotes to immerse visitors in their former daily lives. The interior of the prison has been well preserved, allowing visitors to put themselves in the shoes of the former inmates and imagine what life was like in this austere place with its lined cells and impressive corridors. To get a better idea of what life was like for the inmates, you'll even have the chance to enter a cell - a photo opportunity is a must!

Classic Alcatraz prison cell

- © Miguel Sanchez Perez / Shutterstock

The tour continues in the dining room, the library and finally "Block D". The latter contains the punishment cells. As their name suggests, they were used to discipline prisoners whose behaviour was unsatisfactory. They were isolated in the cold and dark, sometimes to the point of insanity. The last stage of this visit is the courtyard. Dedicated to walks, it was one of the rare moments when prisoners could see the outside again and smell the fresh air. The view from the top of the steps is one of the most beautiful, and the silence can be surprising so close to the city, a great way to escape.

Prison dining room, night view without light

- © Mirco Gabriel / Shutterstock
by Jude JONES
Need a hand? take a look at our guide
San Francisco
San Francisco
Latest news
Lima
Huaca Pucllana, a pyramid in the centre of Lima that hides many secrets (the latest discovery is impressive!)
Montpellier
Delving into Montpellier's cultural life
Montpellier
Montpellier: an exotic weekend between city and nature
Read more articles
Best cities