• San Francisco, California: Alcatraz

      It's been a military fort, a notorious federal prison, an encampment for Native American activists, and the backdrop for numerous Hollywood movies. And now Alcatraz Island is a national historic site and a prime tourist attraction in the San Francisco Bay.

      Upon landing, you're free to wander about the island on your own. You should allow 2 or 3 hours and be aware that the pathways can be a bit steep and strenuous - or you can take a guided tour. Stroll down the drab corridors through the cellblocks, and you'll get an idea how grim life was for the inmates, who included Al Capone, 'Machine Gun' Kelly and Robert 'Birdman' Stroud. Through audio, photos and video you feel that you are being transported back in time - especially since some cells and common areas are historically restored. You'll learn about the deadly riot of 1946 and of course the notorious escape (or attempted escape-you be the judge) of 1962. The cell from which the escape was staged is even restored to its appearance on that night. You may even be fortunate enough to visit on the day of a special event, and even catch an appearance by a former guard or inmate. And yes, you can even take your turn at being shut up in one of those cramped cells. You'll also learn about the island's occupation by a group of Native Americans from 1969 to 1971.

      But if you've had enough of life inside the prison for a while and crave fresh air, you can step out and see one of the cruel punishments to which inmates were subjected: being within viewing distance, but out of reach of, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And if you're a bird lover, you'll find this former prison to be a paradise, as a variety of birds have nested here since long before the humans arrived.

      IF YOU GO: No admission is charged for Alcatraz, but you'll have to pay for a private ferry service to deliver you to the island. The ferry service also offers a combination Alcatraz-Angel Island tour that you may want to consider. The closest parking lot to the ferry is at Francisco and Kearney. (Forget about street parking, it really doesn't exist here!) Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and be prepared for cool weather, even in summer. There are no food concessions on the island itself, but some snacks can be purchased on the ferry. No food may be consumed on the island except by the dock. Large bags, backpacks or parcels are prohibited. Those with mobility problems may ride a shuttle up the hill. Wheelchairs can be accommodated.

      WHEN TO VISIT: Alcatraz is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. The winter is the least busy time, and the warmest weather occurs during the spring and fall. Bird watching is best from February to August.

      JURISDICTION: United States National Park Service
      INFORMATION VERIFIED BY Dennis Goza Last visit , March 2010
      ADDRESS: Alcatraz Island, California
      CRUISE ADDRESS: Alcatraz Cruises, LLC
      Pier 33, Hornblower Alcatraz Landing
      San Francisco, California 94111
      (415) 981-ROCK (7625)

      Taking the tour at 'The Rock' Alcatraz Island Historical Park
      Photo courtesy of Dave Gomm