It’s only 1,675 feet (511 meters) wide, but the small island of Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. Have you visited Alcatraz? Before you do, learn all about this island’s history and the prison that makes it famous (and learn some English idioms about “jail” for fun)!
Visiting San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island
What is Alcatraz?
Alcatraz is an island in the San Francisco Bay. The island has a long history (you can read all about it here, on the official website) but is most well known for being home to the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary (prison). The prison opened in 1934, and its purpose was to hold prisoners that created problems at other prisons. In short, Alcatraz housed “the worst of the worst” of the U.S. prison population.
The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was open for 29 years. In that time, it was “home” to some of the most famous criminals in U.S. history (perhaps the most famous is Al Capone.) In the almost 30 years it operated, no prisoners escaped Alcatraz island . . . although many tried. In total, 36 prisoners tried to escape. Most of the prisoners were caught, although some tried to swim in the cold and rough waters of the San Francisco Bay and drowned.
The prison closed in 1963 due to high operation costs. Today, it is one of the most famous tourist destinations in the Bay Area.
A visit to Alcatraz includes a ferry ride to the island, which allows visitors to see San Francisco from a unique perspective. Morning and evening experiences are different at Alcatraz. In the morning, visitors meet a National Park Service staff member who gives an orientation and explains what to see and do on the island. This orientation is an excellent chance to learn about the island, including the prisoners’ attempted escapes and the island’s military and American Indian histories.
Visitors are then welcome to explore the island and the Alcatraz Penitentiary. With the price of the ferry ticket, visitors get an audio tour of the prison. See how the prisoners lived, and be sure to visit the most famous cell of all: the one where Al Capone lived!
During the evening, the ferry ride is longer and more informative. The ferry circles around the island, and while it is circling the island, there is a recording playing that explains Alcatraz’s history. When the ferry arrives at the island, visitors take a guided tour of the prison cells. This option is typically available Monday-Thursday evenings.
Alcatraz travel tips
Don’t forget each of these things when traveling to Alcatraz:
- Dress warmly. The ferry ride can be cold!
- Wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking a lot.
- Check the weather before you leave: if it rains, bring raingear! (If you don’t bring raingear, you can buy some from a shop on the island.)
- Plan to be on the island about 2-3 hours. Ferries leave the island about every 30 minutes.
- The island’s hours of operation change during the year. In the evening during the warmer months, there are tours that also take visitors to Angel Island.
- Buy tickets early (at least 2-3 weeks in advance if possible). Alcatraz tickets often sell out. Visit the Alcatraz Cruises website for information.
- Decide if you’d prefer a more self-guided experience or a more structured tour. If you prefer a self-guided experience, book a morning or afternoon ferry; if you prefer a guided tour, book an evening trip.
- For more information, visit the “Plan Your Trip” section of the Alcatraz Cruises website.
Getting to Alcatraz
Take public transportation to Alcatraz Landing on Pier 33 (one option is the streetcars from the MUNI “F” Line. Then take the official ferry, Alcatraz Cruises LLC. This company is a partner with the National Park Service (that operates Alcatraz Island).
IEC@DVC organizes trips to Alcatraz throughout the year. Contact the Activities Director or check out our latest Activities Calendar for more information!
English Idioms about “jail”
We use words related to jail (or idioms with the word “jail”) often in English. Have you heard these words and expressions?
Bail (someone) out (of jail/prison)
Definition: To pay for someone to be released from jail or prison; to get someone out of trouble or help them with a problem.
Example: My brother bailed me out when I was in some serious financial trouble.
Definition: In jail or prison.
Example: How long will he be behind bars?
Definition: Jail or prison.
Example: Did you hear who is in the big house?
Get out of jail free card
Definition: Something that will immediately get someone out of trouble. (This comes from the famous game Monopoly.)
Example: There isn’t a get out of jail free card for taxes. Everyone has to pay them!
Definition: To remove restrictions from an electronic device, usually a cell phone, so that it can be used.
Example: Will I have to jailbreak my phone when I am in the U.S.?
Definition: In jail or prison.
Example: The judge said the criminal needs to be locked up for the rest of his life.
To take the fall for (someone/something)
Definition: To take responsibility for something and accept punishment, even if you are not to blame.
Example: My sister took the fall for me after we played baseball and broke the house window.
To throw (someone) in the jail/the pen*
Definition: To put someone in jail or prison.
Example: They threw the criminals in jail after catching them.
*The word “pen” is short for “penitentiary,” which is the formal name for a prison.
To throw the book at (someone)
Definition: [For a judge] to give a criminal the strongest punishment possible.
Example: I can’t believe I didn’t have to pay for my speeding ticket. I thought the judge was going to throw the book at me!
Definition: Jail or prison.
Example: He made a joke about being in the slammer, but I didn’t think it was funny.
Did you know . . .
- Jail can also be spelled gaol? This is a more common spelling in British English.
- Jail is for minor crimes; prison is for serious crimes. This is why we refer to Alcatraz as a “prison” in this article: all of the prisoners at Alcatraz committed serious crimes.
Photos from Pixabay.