San Francisco, the cultural capital of Northern California, is one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. Founded in the 18th century by Spanish colonists, San Francisco experienced a rapid growth during the California gold rush of 1849. Much of the city was destroyed in a catastrophic earthquake and fire in 1906; even today, many of the city’s most prominent buildings date from the post-earthquake reconstruction.
Today, San Francisco is known for art, culture, its leading role in the technology industry and its colourful counterculture. Tourist attractions include museums, the historic waterfront and the soaring Golden Gate Bridge, which stretches across the entrance of San Francisco Bay to Marin County on the northern shore. Perhaps the most famous of San Francisco’s landmarks, however – and certainly its most notorious – is Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Island sits in San Francisco Bay, only 2km from the city’s shore. The Spanish colonists charted the island, naming it after the pelicans which nested there (“Alcatraces” is Spanish for “pelicans”). The American military fortified the island after California joined the United States, but it was as a prison that the island gained notoriety. In 1934, Alcatraz Penitentiary was established on the island to hold prisoners who had proven too disruptive for other Federal prisons.
Alcatraz Island is an ideal location for a secure facility. Any inmate who managed to get off the island would be faced with a two-kilometre swim through the cold, choppy, fast-moving and shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay. No successful escape was ever recorded. With a reputation as America’s strongest prison, Alcatraz played host to criminals such as Chicago crimelord Al Capone, Los Angeles kingpin Mickey Coehn and bank robber George “Machine Gun” Kelly. The prison closed in 1963 and the island became a national park in 1972.
Today, the cells that once housed America’s most violent criminals are one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions. Visitors can take a ferry to the island from Fisherman’s Wharf and be led on a guided tour of the prison, or sail past Alcatraz on a harbour tour. Ferries leave about every 30 minutes; the boat trip and prison tour are covered by the same ticket. Ticket prices vary depending on the time of the tour and the type of ticket, but a typical adult ticket costs around $30 (approximately £20).
Getting to and from Alcatraz and other San Francisco landmarks is easy; the city is one of the smallest major American cities, with most things worth seeing concentrated in the eastern half. Major tourist destinations are served by buses, a subway system and the distinctive cable cars which ferry passengers around the city centre and up San Francisco’s famously steep hills. For more flexibility, however, and to reach destinations outside the city itself, a car is a definite advantage; the regional train system, CalTrain, runs only once an hour during most of the day. For travellers looking for a car rental San Francisco has a range of options available, including several rental agencies based at the airport just south of the city.