As long as there's been tourism in San Francisco, there's been the tour to Alcatraz. Just like eating dim sum in Chinatown, listening to Italian operettas in North Beach or walking the Golden Gate Bridge, visiting Alcatraz should be a must-do on any San Francisco tourist's list.
Especially through April 2015.
Ai Weiwei exhibit on Alcatraz — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Before becoming part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, Alcatraz was a tactical fort with cannons for the Spanish and US, and it was occupied by Native Americans in the late '60s for almost two years in protest.
Perhaps most famously, Alcatraz was a high-level federal penitentiary from 1933 until 1962, housing some of the most infamous criminals, including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the "Birdman of Alcatraz"),] and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.
Yes, Alcatraz has seen some things. But it's hard to believe it's seen anything like the current display on the island: the protest art of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.
Climbing the hill of Alcatraz — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
For those who want to visit Alcatraz for just the traditional sights, such as walking through the cellblocks and mess halls, don't worry. Not only are all of the usual venues open to the public, but the National Park Service even allowed areas formerly closed off to the public to be open in order to view Ai Weiwei's powerful art.
The central irony of Ai Weiwei's exhibit is the fact that he was able to design and orchestrate this entire show while being prevented by authorities to leave his native China, where his repeated attempts at free speech and criticism of the government have not gone over well.
The art is spread all over Alcatraz, from the Chinese dragon kite in the New Industries Building to the Stay Tuned exhibit in Cell Block A.
Illumination may be the most simple but haunting exhibit: in the stark, cold, small isolation chambers used for mentally ill prisoners, Native chanting is piped in, echoing on the walls and forcing visitors to really contemplate the painful history of Alcatraz.
If you didn't sign up for painful and haunting experiences while on your visit to Alcatraz, it's easy to escape into the outdoors and enjoy some healthy exercise all over the island.
Whether you choose to consider the art of Ai Weiwei or not, give yourself plenty of time to really explore the island, which offers outstanding views of the entire Bay Area, views that you simply can't get anywhere else.