Andy Goldsworthy

Being tourists in our own city by Courtney Stewart

Alcatraz, The Presidio, and the Palace of Fine Arts

We had been wanting to go to Alcatraz since we moved here, but we wanted to save it for when we had someone come visit from out of town. So, when we found out Alex's parents would be coming for his Dad, Dean's birthday we thought tickets to Alcatraz would be the perfect present. 

We had heard two things about booking tickets. One, if you can do the night tour, DO IT. And two, book your tickets far in advance. We took both pieces of that advice and booked our Alcatraz Night Tour tickets with Alcatraz Cruises about a month or so in advance. The night tour is $7 more expensive, but it is also more complete and allows you to spend a little more time on Alcatraz exploring. And as a bonus, the sun sets while you are on the island so you get beautiful views of SF and Marin County.

On the day of the tour, they tell you to be at Pier 33 (where Alcatraz Cruises leave from) 30 minutes before departure. Because Pier 33 is not directly accessible by BART, we chose to use ParkWhiz and reserve a spot in a deck nearby (You can reach Pier 33 by taking a streetcar from BART, though). ParkWhiz is great because you can secure your spot in a particular parking lot or deck before you get there, so the lot is not full when you arrive. 

While it's not imperative, it does help to get there rather early if you want a good spot for taking pictures and seeing the best views from the boat.  On the day tours to Alcatraz, the ferry just goes straight to the island. But on the night tour, it goes a longer route which makes it the best for snapping photos. 

The back side of Alcatraz Island with SF in the background

The back side of Alcatraz Island with SF in the background

Upon arriving at the island, you disembark in groups and a tour guide leads you up a pretty long path. Then, you are directed into what was once the communal shower at the jail where you are given a headset for an audio tour. At first we were hesitant about the audio tour, thinking it was kind of lame we wouldn't be learning from a tour guide, but the audio tour was PHENOMENAL. It was way better than a tour guide because the narrators are former prison guards and former prisoners who actually experienced Alcatraz when it was open. One of the best things about the night tour is that they open the prison hospital, which they do not do during the day tours. 

The tour does a good job of leading and guiding you through the prison, but certain points did get clogged with people just because so many people choose the night tour. If you are wanting to miss the crowds, it may be better to try one of the daytime tours or even the Early Bird tour which is the first tour of the day.

The watch tower

The watch tower

The wardens of Alcatraz

The wardens of Alcatraz

After we finished the audio tour, the tour guides put on several different talks that you could choose to listen to. Alex and I chose to listen to one about the different escape attempts from Alcatraz. We thought it was pretty interesting, but we had already learned about several of the escape attempts from the audio tour. It just wasn't all new information. Glen, Alex's brother, went to a talk on the lengths prisoners went to make alcohol without the guards finding out, which he enjoyed because it was something he had never heard nor thought much about before.

After these two talks, we went to a demonstration of the slammer which is the mechanism used to open and close the jail cell doors. This is a CANNOT MISS! It was really awesome to see how it worked and hear the sound the prisoners heard every day of their time there. Glen and Alex probably loved it even more because of the engineer in both of them.


The Presidio in San Francisco is a park now, but it was established by Spain as a military base in 1776. Since then it changed hands to Mexico before being passed to the US. It is truly gorgeous to drive though; all the roads are shaded by beautiful eucalyptus trees and structures built in many different architectural styles. It's a place we have driven through countless times to go over the Golden Gate Bridge, but we have never actually stopped to spend time there. 

But, there's more to the presidio than just eucalyptus trees. There are several hiking trails and scenic overlooks as well as Fort Point and other military outposts. One of the coolest attractions, though, is is collection of outdoor art installations by Andy Goldsworthy. There is a 3 mile walk/hike you can take to see all four installations, but unfortunately we only had time to see one. We chose to see Wood Line, which you can see below. It was pretty amazing to see and to walk along, but we will definitely have to go back to see Spire, Earth Wall, and Tree Fall.

Andy Goldsworthy's  Wood Line

Andy Goldsworthy's Wood Line

To round out our weekend of touristing, we hit up the Palace of Fine Arts which is right on the edge of the Presidio. The Palace of Fine Arts was built to house art exhibitions for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. In fact, it's one of the only structures that is still standing from the Exposition. Besides the Palace, there is also a lagoon surrounded by trees and walkways as well as a theatre where you can see ballets, stand-up comedians, and recording artists. It's a great place to spend the afternoon and just enjoy some beautiful views.

We can't wait to have more adventures like these in SF!