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Greetings, Internet Stranger! So you want to know how to spend 24 hours in the Bay Area? Ordinarily, I prefer to spend my traveling days exploring one neighborhood at a time so that I really come to know a city. However, sometimes it is preferable to spend the day exploring one or two major attractions like Alcatraz and Angel Island. And when it comes to the Bay Area’s most famous prison, even one day might not be enough time to fully unlock its secrets…

24 Hours: Alcatraz and Angel Island

Where to Stay?

I was embarrassingly broke when I visited Alcatraz and Angel Island, so I needed to stay in the cheapest motel I could afford. But I can’t recommend a place like that to my beloved Internet Strangers! The next time I go to San Francisco, I’ll pick something much more centrally located. After all, who wants to walk up and down all those crazy San Francisco hills a million times just to reach one’s hotel room? Plus you can maximize your 24 hours in the Bay Area because your hotel will be near the Alcatraz ferry.

If you’re looking for great deals on hundreds of hotel rooms in San Francisco, just click here.

Alcatraz and Angel Island

What to Pack?

If the weather is rainy which happens quite often in San Francisco, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out without feeling like some gauche tourist with gross feet.

The other thing you need when it rains is an umbrella. I hope you don’t need me to tell you that, Internet Stranger! My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of San Francisco. I hear they’re strong enough to lift Tony Bennet’s heart right outside his body.

Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. You don’t want to sling a heavy bag all around Alcatraz. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!

United States Penitentiary Alcatraz

24 Hours: Alcatraz and Angel Island

Morning: Alcatraz

Alcatraz is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco, which is pretty funny when you consider that men used to risk their lives trying to get away from there. Alcatraz or The Rock, as Michael Bay calls it, used to be a military prison before it became a notorious maximum security facility and home to one Alphonse Capone, among many other vicious criminals.

24 Hour Tip

If you want to visit Alcatraz, the only way to get there is to buy a ticket on the Alcatraz Cruises website. Please buy your tickets as soon in advance as possible because they do sell out several weeks in advance. The website recommends that you buy tickets 90 whole days in advance, like Alcatraz is some restaurant that got featured on Chef’s Table. Also you will need a photo ID to pick up your ticket at Pier 33.

I recommend taking the Alcatraz/Angel Island joint tour, which leaves at 9:30 or 9:40 in the morning. Eat a hearty breakfast and take a snack with you because there is no food on Alcatraz. You won’t be able to get something to eat until you arrive on Angel Island in the afternoon. Be sure to get to Pier 33 early so that you can pick up your tickets and get on line for the ferry to Alcatraz with time to spare. That way you can fit in…

Approximately top 5: alcatraz

24 Hours in the Bay Area
1) take the audio tour

Absolutely the best thing to do on Alcatraz is taking the exciting and detailed audio tour of the prison, complete with credible voice acting of readings from the diaries of Alcatraz inmates. This tour is included with your ticket, so all you have to do is accept it politely when you arrive. Is that so hard to do, Internet Stranger? Didn’t your mother teach you manners?

24 Hours: Alcatraz and Angel Island
2) check out the prisoner cells

You actually get to peek inside the cells in which so many famous inmates from Whitey Bulger to Mickey Cohen to Andy Dufresne resided. (OK, Andy Dufresne is not a real person and he was actually fictionally held in an imaginary prison in Maine. But him aside, basically any prisoner who was any prisoner was kept here.) You can walk from the regular cells to the more punitive solitary confinement cells.

Alcatraz Solitary

Solitary confinement doesn’t seem that bad when the door in open, but imagine being shut in this cement box by yourself for several days. It would be enough to make a man want to dig his way out slowly using only a Rita Hayworth poster for protection.

Famous Inmates Alcatraz
3) learn about Alcatraz’s most famous inmates

Capone and Robert Stroud (aka the Birdman of Alcatraz) aren’t the only famous prisoners to do time on the Rock. Another celebrity gangster was Elwood “Bumpy” Johnson, one of the most notorious gangsters in Harlem. He was so famous that Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad played him in the movie American Gangster. The informative signs scattered all around Alcatraz will help you learn all about these fascinating evildoers.

I always feel a little guilty spending so much time learning about murderers and miscreants. Sometimes I wish there were exciting tourist attractions dedicated to Very, Very Nice People. Get on that, Internet!

Philosophy Alcatraz
4) Visit the library

Apparently the inmates were really into reading works of systematic philosophy in the prison library. I guess you have a lot of time to contemplate man and meaninglessness when you are doing ten to twenty. This may be one of my favorite signs I have ever seen. Who knew that bootleggers were into Schopenhauer?

5) take a ranger tour

Because Alcatraz is run by the National Park Service, free ranger tours are available daily. The ranger tours are fascinating but keep an eye on the time if you are going to Angel Island in the afternoon. If the tour goes too long, you won’t have enough time to do a ranger tour and the Alcatraz prison audio tour before your ferry to Angel Island will leave from Alcatraz around noon.

PS. I feel like calling Alcatraz a “National Park” really stretches the definition of park. But I could be missing something here.

Angel Island Ferry San Francisco

24 Hours: Alcatraz and Angel Island

Afternoon: Angel Island

We’ll obviously continue our day at 24 Hours: Alcatraz and Angel Island by going to Angel Island. After a harrowing morning spent listening to tales of prison breaks and solitary confinement, you will be happy to know that Angel Island is…even more depressing than Alcatraz! But fortunately it is much prettier than Al Capone’s former summer (and winter) home, which makes sense given that it was never a maximum security prison. Some of the views of the Bay Area from here will absolutely take your breath away.

Approximately top 5: angel island ferry

angel island ferry
1) take the tram tour

A tram tour is included with your ferry ticket, so you will be able to see all the most important spots on the island without having to do any walking at all. I know how lazy you can be, Internet Stranger!

Fort McDowell
2) visit fort mcdowell

Just as Alcatraz served as a military prison, Angel Island used to be home to Fort McDowell during the end of the 19th century. Before this trip, I never knew that the army was allowed in San Francisco! I thought if the military tried to show up in SF, the locals would just sing songs about flowers at them until the G!s ran away screaming.

You can still see the buildings left over from the island’s military days. I think they’re awfully cute for army barracks! And just look at those pretty purple flowers. This was my favorite spot on the island.

Angel Island Immigration Station
3) learn the history of Asian immigration in the us

But Angel Island is not primarily famous for being a military fort; it is most known for being an immigration processing center for Asian immigrants. It is basically California’s answer to Ellis Island, only no one has set any Godfather movies here. Sadly because of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the US government in 1882, many Asian immigrants were trapped on the island for years waiting for permission to enter the United States.

There’s a museum now where the Immigration Center used to be, but it’s not possible to visit it on the Tram Tour. If you want to fully explore Angel Island, you’ll have to come back on another day.

4) Eat lunch at the Angel Island Cafe on the island

I had the chili and it was just fine. But you might not be able to eat lunch until after the Tram Tour is complete, so again, make sure to bring a snack!

24 Hours: Alcatraz and Angel Island

Dinner: The Cafe at Chez Panisse

Since we are spending this day exploring the environs of San Francisco rather than SF proper, I think it only appropriate to dine in the adjacent city of Berkeley, California. It is very easy to get to Berkeley from San Francisco just by taking the BART train from Embarcadero Station. Part of the reason I wanted to visit the Bay Area was so that I could eat at the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

An Amusing Anecdote From My Childhood

Any food historian knows that Alice Waters basically invented California cuisine in these hallowed halls on Shattuck Avenue in the 1970s, and she is still going strong today. I have wanted to come to this restaurant ever since I read her cookbook for children, Fanny at Chez Panisse, at the age of nine. As I’ve said before, I was a weird kid.

24 Hour Tip

It is very hard to get reservations at Chez Panisse, so be vigilant if you really want to dine here. They start taking reservations exactly one month in advance. Sadly, I was not able to book a table in the restaurant, but I had no trouble getting a table for the cafe upstairs. The big difference between the restaurant and the cafe is that at the cafe you can order a la carte, but the restaurant only has one set menu offered every evening.

The food at Chez Panisse exactly lived up to my childhood expectations, and next time I spend 24 hours in the Bay Area, I will do everything in my power to get a reservation at the restaurant. Until then, I leave you with my Restaurant Review That Looks Like a Menu.

Chez Panisse Menu

Further Reading: Alcatraz and Angel Island

Are you ready to start booking your hotel room in San Francisco? Let me help you with some further reading. I like Lonely Planet’s guide to San Francisco. It’s divided into neighborhoods, which makes for convenient reading.

You can’t expect me to recommend a book like Fanny at Chez Panisse without saying more about it! This adorable book lets you into the secrets of life at Chez Panisse. The book is about Fanny, but it was really written by her master chef mother, Alice Waters.

And I have to assume you’re going to be interested in reading more about Alcatraz and its history. Why not try Inside Alcatraz, a memoir about life in Alcatraz by a former inmate. No, it’s not about Capone or the Birdman. But it’s still worth reading.

Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in the Bay Area. If you have another 24 hours in San Francisco and want to see the cable cars, try this itinerary. If you’re more interested in Golden Gate Park, this 24 hour itinerary should help.

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