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Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco's most iconic sights and if you can, you really should make the time to visit. Catching a ferry from Pier 33, the journey across the one mile stretch of water takes about ten minutes, and 'the Rock' looms up ahead, looking suitably ominous.
Around the dock area you'll find exhibits and there's a small theatre showing an introductory film, but the real highlight is the audio tour available up at the cellhouse itself. This takes about 45 minutes and is voiced by former prisoners and correctional officers. It takes you through the different rows in the cellhouse, including D-Block, the isolation unit where some of Alcatraz's most famous inmates were housed - Al Capone and Robert 'The Birdman' Stroud among them, and the cells from which three prisoners famously escaped in June 1962, later immortalised in the film Escape from Alcatraz. The tour also includes the bleak recreation yard with its view of the city across the water, painfully close for the inmates, and through the administration wing and Officer's Row. It's extremely eerie, particularly with everyone walking around in silence as they listen to their headphones. If you want an extra creep factor, Alcatraz Cruises also offer a nighttime tour for a couple more dollars.
It's an amazing experience as well as being a ticked box on your 'to-do' list and even travelers who want to do the lesser-known sites in San Francisco should try and get out there. Pier 39 with all its restaurants and gift shops is just a short walk away if you want to make a day of it. Tours with Alcatraz Cruises run 10 times a day (not including the night tour) and tickets cost $26.00. They book up several days in advance sometimes so plan ahead.