Visitor or local, a trip to Alcatraz is an absolute must during your time in San Francisco. I finally learned this after living here for almost four years and several half-hearted attempts to get to "The Rock." Jole and I talked about going all the time and watched just about every TV show or movie about it—I even have a book written by a former prisoner (a gift from my mom). And still, we never quite got it together until the news of the Ai Weiwei art installation in the prison compelled me to get tickets! I jumped on it and some for opening day along with several other friends, so we packed Mia up and headed to Embarcadero.
First and foremost, Alcatraz is surprisingly very stroller friendly. I counted at least 10 other families pushing their little ones around, so if a child has been your hold up to make a visit, you'll have to find a new excuse. I even brought our carrier in case the stroller was an issue, and we ended up not using it (although babywearing at Alcatraz is also a great option). Getting there takes some planning and a boat ride—here are a few pointers to make your visit a reality!
Plan In Advance
Tickets to Alcatraz can sell out months in advance, so if you're planning a trip to San Francisco book tickets as soon as you know when you'll be here (if you want to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit you have until April 2015, but don't wait! Many days are already sold out). The official website to purchase tickets is Alcatraz Cruises. There are other sites out there but this is the real one that works in partnership with the National Park Service, which manages the island and grounds. Adult/teen tickets (ages 12 and up) are $30 each, kids are $18.25 and seniors are $28.25. Kids under 4 are free.
If you don't get tickets in advance you can also buy tickets in person at Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33. When we arrived there was a sign noting the next date for ticket availability three days later, so there is a chance you can get tickets in person when you get here if you don't purchase early. There are also plenty of people selling tickets via Craigslist, but buyer beware.
Alcatraz is an island and taking the ferry is the only way to get there (the cost of the ferry is included in your ticket price). The ferry leaves from Pier 33 on the Embarcadero, which is covered by lots of public transportation options (from streetcars to pedicabs), and of course walking, taxis and driving are also options. There are several parking garages in the area, charging about $25 for a day of parking. If you park on the street thinking it will save money, think again. Many meters are only for two hours, and even the four hour meters may not be enough. I recommend leaving your car in a garage where you know you won't get a ticket, or use another form of transportation.
The ferries leave every 30 minutes on the hour and half-hour, and return to Pier 33 every 30 minutes five minutes after the hour and the half-hour. The trip itself is about a 10 minute ride with spectacular views on all sides going both ways. Strollers are only allowed on the first level and there is ample stroller parking, so I highly suggest leaving yours and heading up to a higher deck to see the city from the water and take tons of pictures. There is lots of staff around so your stroller will be safe but make sure you take any valuables with you.
Devote An Afternoon
I suppose you could breeze through the island, but why rush it? Plan to spend a good chunk of time there, especially if you're taking small children. There are several steep hills to climb—not the fastest task with a stroller and other associated baby gear. A tram that moves people with difficulty walking around the island is an option if you get super worn down and want a ride. Overall getting around is easy. The website suggests 2-2.5 hours on the island itself for a visit, and I recommended adding at least 30 more minutes to account for feedings, diaper changes, etc.
To give you an idea of the time commitment, we arrived at Pier 33 at 12pm to pick up our tickets at will call, grabbed a bite at the Alcatraz Cafe, got in line for our ferry at 12:30pm and took off at 1pm. By 4pm we were all tired and still had to head back to the docks to catch the next ferry back to the island (4:35pm), and then got to our car in a garage a few blocks away around 5pm.
Pack Food and Drink
There is no food available for sale on the island. There is bottled water in the shops (I also spotted coffee in one shop) and some small packs of nuts and chocolates, but don't expect to get a meal while you are out there. Parents, eat before you go to keep your energy up. As I mentioned the Alcatraz Cafe is right at the Pier and is fine in both quality and price, and there are numerous other restaurants along Embarcadero. There is also food and drink available on the ferry itself. Take plenty of snacks and water for yourself and your kids to have once you arrive.
Feedings and Changings
I nursed Mia on the island (I really wanted to do it in a cell but she wasn't interested-ha)! and saw several other moms doing the same—there are plenty of benches around, many with great views to take in while you feed the little ones. All of the bathrooms we passed on the island had changing tables, as did the bathrooms on the pier before departure.
What To Wear
LAYERS. And comfortable shoes! You are still in the San Francisco Bay after all, and locals know (and visitors quickly learn) that the weather here can sometimes change block by block. The same is true for Alcatraz. We visited in September (aka SF summer), so the day was very sunny and warm, but there were still breezes off the water. It warmed up inside the cellhouse, so the ability to take off a sweatshirt was great. Again, you'll be walking a lot and some of the floors are sketchy and uneven, so closed-toed comfy shoes are the best idea.
Alcatraz is such a unique attraction. How many times can you walk through a prison (or even want to)? For me one of the most striking elements of the trip was the juxtaposition of these old, brittle buildings against such beautiful surroundings—dozens of bird species visit the island throughout the year, the landscaping and gardens are extremely lush, and the views are simply spectacular. The audio tour in the cell house is well done and worth following to get a true sense of the life—from the mundane to the terrible—the criminals there lived. And the best part? You get to head back to the city they could only see and wish for when you're done.
San Francisco, CA
Stroller Friendly? Yes
Changing Tables? Yes
Disclaimer: Pricing and other specifics like boat times are accurate as of the day of publication. Please confirm all information when booking your trip online or by phone 415-981-ROCK (7625) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org