USA Series: Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf – Pier 39 and Coit Tower

Welcome to Alcatraz

Welcome to Alcatraz

Today Alex and I are heading off to the hottest attraction in San Francisco – the decommissioned island federal penetentiary that is Alcatraz. 

After our visit to Alcatraz we will visit the sea lions at Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf and then walk to Coit Tower to look at the fantastic 360 degree views of San Francisco.

8:30am
We take a USD$12 taxi the 10 minute trip from our hotel to Pier 33.  We arrive at the suggested 30 minutes before our 9:30 am boarding for our ferry to Alcatraz.  The wharf area is busy but we have time to eat something from the cafe at the dock before joining the queue to board our allocated 9:30am ferry.

Get your Alcatraz ferry here

Get your Alcatraz ferry here

Alcatraz according to Wikitravel:

“Alcatraz is a decommissioned island federal penitentiary nestled beautifully in the bay. Before it was a prison it served first as a lighthouse (the West Coast’s first lighthouse), then a military outpost, and then a military prison. After this, it served as a federal prison for 29 years between 1934 and 1963. Its location was near perfect due to its isolation and the frigid waters and hazardous currents of the bay, which made escape attempts difficult to say the least. Known by it’s nickname “The Rock”, this prison was once home to some of the most notorious inmates in U.S. history. Famous inmates included Al Capone, who served four and a half years here, and Robert Stroud — “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” — who spent a long 17 years here. The notorious gangster and bootlegger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, also served time at the Rock. It was claimed (by the penitentiary) that no one ever escaped from the prison alive, despite 29 separate attempts.

Take a tour and listen to an audio tape in English, Japanese, Chinese, or other languages. The most interesting aspect of the tour is that you can go into the prison and see what it was like to be imprisoned. The tour takes you all around the interior of the prison, including into some of the tiny cells, the segregated cells, the old barber shop and mess hall, and then out into the parade grounds and exercise yard. It might be more interesting if you’ve watched the movie Escape from Alcatraz and seen what happened in Alcatraz when it was operating as a prison.”

Alex and I were able to secure our tickets by booking early online at the official and only ticket selling agency for Alcatraz.

Our online tickets cost USD$30 (each) and guarantee our ferry to the island on our nominated day and time.  Same day tickets are not always available to Alcatraz as it is one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions.

Leaving the pier with Coit Tower on the hill

Leaving the pier with Coit Tower on the hill

Approaching Alcatraz

Approaching Alcatraz

 

10:15am
We have reached the island of Alcatraz and are directed to gather on the dock area for a short commentary on the island and a summary of the features of the island. 

Welcome to Alcatraz - gather around

Welcome to Alcatraz – gather around

We are then given the option to go to the theatre for a short Discovery Channel documentary about Alcatraz and some of its inmates.

Alex and I go to the theatre for the documentary which gives us an understanding of the history of Alcatraz.  From the theatre, we are free to wander the island at our leisure or can pick up a self-guided audio tour.  We decide on the audio tour option and join the queue to pick up our headset.

The audio tour is really easy to follow and comprehensive.  It literally guides you through the main Alcatraz cellblock and gives you information and stories on areas including the cellblock, recreation yard, library, cells and the dining room.

Grab a headset - your self guided tour starts here

Grab a headset – your self guided tour starts here

Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz

Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz

Famous inmates

Famous inmates

Recreation yard looking back to cellblock

Recreation yard looking back to cellblock

The library....shhh

The library….shhh

Row of cells off Broadway

Row of cells off Broadway

Cells along Broadway

Cells along Broadway

Typical cell

Typical cell

Cell interior

Cell interior

While in the cellblock, Alex and I are given the opportunity to be locked in one of the cells with the door bolted shut.  Inside the locked cell is pitch black.  We can’t see a thing and, given there is another couple of people in the small cell with us, we need to keep our hands to ourselves… Alex!!

Alex and I are locked inside this cell

Alex and I are locked inside this cell

One person can’t handle the complete blackness and knocks on the door to be let out.  It is hard to image being in this small space for any long period of time without doing your head in.

Prison guard uniform back in the day

Prison guard uniform back in the day

Moving to the outside areas is a big relief, this is something the prisons never got to enjoy.

San Francisco - so close but so far away

San Francisco – so close but so far away

Looking back to San Francisco from Alcatraz island

Looking back to San Francisco from Alcatraz island

With our morning exploration of Alcatraz complete, we make our way back to the dock area and join the queue for the next ferry back to Pier 33.

Once back at the pier we walk the short 10 minutes further along Fisherman’s wharf to Pier 39.

Welcome to Pier 39

Welcome to Pier 39

Fisherman’s Wharf according to Wikitravel:

“Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most popular destination among travellers, with around 12 million visitors flocking here each year. For over a century its historic waterfront was the hub of the city’s fishing fleet and is still famous for the depth and variety of its harvest, as well as for having some of the best seafood restaurants in the city. Today, it’s also renowned for its numerous tourist attractions such as museums, souvenir stores, historical buildings and piers, and scenic vistas over the Bay. It is located at the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, along the San Francisco Bay. It runs all the way from Pier 39 through to Municipal Pier at the end of Aquatic Park.”

1:30pm
Fisherman’s Wharf has many eateries and restaurant options.  Alex and I choose the “Wipeout Bar and Grill” which is well positioned in the beautiful San Francisco sun.  We take our time to enjoy a rather generously sized hamburger and watch the passing parade of like minded tourists.

We walk off some of our lunch by wandering the various souvenir stores that line the wharf interior on-route to the other attraction located here at Fisherman’s Wharf – the sea lions that live on the barges at Pier 39.

Sea Lions according to Wikitravel:

“A short time after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck, these sea lions moved bag-and-baggage into the west marina at Pier 39. There can be as many as 900 sea lions there during the winter months. In the summertime many of them migrate but there is always a steady population at Pier 39’s K-Dock all year round.”

The sea lions are fascinating and fun to watch so we stay a while and enjoy the show as the sea lions fight for territory on the barges.  This involves much “barking” and pushing with their noses as they try and push each other off their given barge.   Other sea lions seem oblivious to the fights and are happy to sleep it off in the sun.

Two sea lions fighting nose to nose

Two sea lions fighting nose to nose

Sea lions at Pier 39

Sea lions at Pier 39

Sea lions living at Pier 39

Sea lions living at Pier 39

Fighting.. or kissing?

Fighting.. or kissing?

4:30pm
The sea lions have amused us enough and we leave Fisherman’s Wharf, heading up Stockton Street in the direction of Coit Tower from where there are excellent views.

Stockton Street is quite hilly but manageable and after about seven blocks of hills we take a left at Grant Street which leads us direct to Coit Tower. 

Looking back down Stockton Street to Fisherman's Wharf

Looking back down Stockton Street to Fisherman’s Wharf

Even the side streets are hilly... is that possible?

Even the side streets are hilly… is that possible?

Be warned, having conquered the hilly streets, there is a final set of stairs to conquer to get to Coit Tower carpark level.  Alex assures me I am making too much of a big deal about these last steps….hmm.

Coit Tower according to Wikipedia:

“Coit Tower, also known as the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, is a 210-foot (64 m) tower in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, California. The tower, in the city’s Pioneer Park, was built in 1933 using Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s bequest to beautify the city of San Francisco; at her death in 1929 Coit left one-third of her estate to the city for civic beautification. The tower was proposed in 1931 as an appropriate use of Coit’s gift. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 29, 2008.

The art deco tower, built of unpainted reinforced concrete, was designed by architects Arthur Brown Jr. and Henry Howard, with fresco murals by 27 different on-site artists and their numerous assistants, plus two additional paintings installed after creation off-site. Although an apocryphal story claims that the tower was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle due to Coit’s affinity with the San Francisco firefighters of the day, the resemblance is coincidental.”

On arrival, Alex and I firstly check out the views from the carpark area before heading into the tower proper.

Views from the parking area of Coit Tower

Views from the parking area of Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Inside the tower we buy our tickets from the souvenir shop before following the arrows to the quaint old lift which is operated by an actual lift person.  There is a short delay to board the lift as there is a queue of people to get through.  As we wait we enjoy the murals which adorn the walls of the interior.

Eventually our turn comes and we are delivered up to the top of the 210 foot tower and onto the viewing platform where we are rewarded with magnificent 360-degree views.

San Francisco city from Coit tower

San Francisco city from Coit tower

Coit tower top view of Fisherman's Wharf and Alcatraz

Walking back to Stockton Street, we continue heading away from Fisherman’s Wharf, towards the city centre. This also leads us through the heart of Chinatown and back to Union Square.

Once at Union Square we stop for a coffee at Emporio Rulli before returning to our reasonably priced hotel.

If we had walked direct from Pier 39 to our hotel in Union Square, it would have taken us about 45mins, even given the hilly streets.

6:30pm
Time to rest and think about dinner tonight and our day tomorrow.  Alex and I have decided to spend tomorrow exploring in and around Golden Gate Park. This will also give us access to Haight, a hippy/folky area which will be a good spot to enjoy dinner.[showmyads]

For previous USA series post see Las Vegas to San Francisco
For next USA series post see San Francisco – Golden Gate Park