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The infamous penitentiary of Alcatraz Island, a.k.a. 'the Rock', was home to nefarious criminals, desperate escape plots and even more outrageous tales. Named Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans) in 1775, the island is located just 15 minutes' from San Francisco.

Best known as a federal prison, Alcatraz has also been the site of a civil war fortress, bird sanctuary, the first lighthouse on the US West Coast and a Native American demonstration. In 1850, Alcatraz was declared a military reservation and troops were stationed here to defend the Bay Area from 1859 to 1934. From 1934 to 1963, the Rock was a federal prison used to isolate and make an example of high-profile criminals such as Al Capone, Robert 'Birdman' Stroud and George 'Machine Gun' Kelly. In 1964 and again in 1969, the Rock was claimed as Indian land. In 1969, American Indians, mostly urban college students calling themselves Indians of all Tribes, occupied the island for a cumulative period of 18 months to highlight the plight of American Indians which effected a change in federal policy. Alcatraz Island's latest incarnation is as a popular tourist site and a sanctuary for sea and water birds.

Alcatraz Island is accessible only by tour which begins when you disembark at Alcatraz dock and are greeted by a National Park representative for a brief orientation of the island. After that, you can stay as long as you like with ferry services departing every half hour. Take your time to explore the cell house and historic gardens. You can see just how close the outside world was to those jail inmates and why escape from Alcatraz was such a tantalising prospect.

The all-inclusive ticket includes the return ferry ride - your escape! - and the 45-minute Cellhouse Audio Tour. Tickets for adults and children aged 12 to 17 are priced from US$30, entry for kids aged five to 11 costs from US$18.25 and under-fours are free. It's suggested to book ahead as tickets sell out well in advance and set aside at least two to three hours for your visit.