Monday, 28 January 2013 9:59 AM
Culture lovers taking a holiday to San Francisco will certainly find a wealth of attractions to captivate them. From the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown to Pier 39 and the de Young Museum, there are plenty of things to take in during a trip to the US city, though none are perhaps quite as historic as Alcatraz Island.
Although this isle, which is around 1.5 miles from the mainland and situated in the stunning San Francisco Bay, is probably most famous for being home to a prison in the mid-20th century, it has actually been used for a range of purposes over the years. No matter where your interests lie, you are certain to discover something that fascinates you.
First of all, let's look at Alcatraz's role as a prison. Between 1934 and 1963, the island was the home of the United States' first-ever maximum-security penitentiary, where some of the most notorious criminals in the country's history, including the infamous gangster Al Capone, were housed. Its island location was considered ideal for ensuring high-profile offenders were not able to communicate with anyone from the outside world while behind bars, and it would later become a model for the development of further high-security prison on the American mainland.
Come to the island today and you can explore prisoner cells, warden quarters and other parts of the prison to gain an idea of what life here was like for both prisoners and prison guards.
However, Alcatraz's history dates back further than its use as a 20th century prison, as during the 1800s it was a strategic battleground in the American Civil War. Seen as a stronghold for Union forces to protect California from attacks by their Confederate opponents, the isle was a training ground for troops and became the first garrisoned fort to be situated on the west coast of the US. At one point, more than 100 cannons were mounted and, although many of these have since been removed, evidence of its military fortification can still be seen.
The island was also occupied by local Native American tribes during the 1960s as part of their protests against being marginalised by the rest of American society, with the onsite museum a fantastic place to learn about their plight. Here, you can see photographs of the graffiti they daubed across Alcatraz in their campaign for greater support from the US government.
Generally speaking, many of those who come to Alcatraz do so with the intention of checking out the island's intriguing history of human occupation. However, it is also a great place for nature lovers, as a wide range of seabirds live here. Depending on when you visit the isle, you could see snowy egrets, cormorants and pigeon guillemots.
As you can see, there is a lot to do at Alcatraz Island and, while there is no admission fee to enter the island, places on the private ferry service that transports visitors to and from the attraction can fill up quickly, particularly during the peak summer season.
Consequently, it's a good idea to purchase ferry tickets soon after you have booked a flight to San Francisco (and you'll find companies such as Virgin Atlantic offer a number of routes to the US city from the UK) in order to avoid disappointment.