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How I survived going directly from SFO to Alcatraz Island

Put on your comfiest shoes and highest SPF, it’s going to be a long ride

“Who in their right mind would travel from San Francisco International Airport directly to Alcatraz Island?” you might be thinking. Well, I did. In fact, I made said journey 25 years ago when I first visited San Francisco.

How foolish I was! How daft! What a nightmare of a trip, traversing to an island in the middle of the bay to fawn over our country’s history of mass incarceration.

Even more foolish was that I did it all over again.

For Curbed’s Transportation Week, I made that exact same journey, this time doing it all via public transportation. Four modes of transport, five escalators, two packed bags, and one tired editor were all it took to get from San Francisco International Airport to the city’s popular tourist trap. Here’s my journey.

Beginning at baggage carousel No. 4 on a Wednesday afternoon (packed for a three-day sojourn), I walked over a skybridge and made my way up to the AirTrain, a fully automated people mover that connects travelers to the BART system.

AirTrain operates on two lines—the red line and blue line—which run every 2.5 minutes. The Red Line travels in a clockwise loop around the airport, while the Blue Line travels in a counterclockwise loop. Lots of space for bags and dizzy tourists new to the Bay Area.

After a 5-minute ride, I made my way down another escalator and onto a roomy BART train. The benefit of not traveling during rush hour: I got to keep my backpack on, which is a no-no during peak hours.

Most noteworthy during my BART ride was the major microclimate changes that happen within the span of 45 minutes. The sunny scene outside the San Bruno station came to a halt at the Colma station, which was blanketed in fog. Something of a shock for most visitors, but de rigeur for any San Francisco dweller.

Another highlight of my ride was the change of tile design and color at each station. The warm amber and yellows patterns found at the 24th Street platform changed to a cool blue and green at 16th Street. These designs deserve far more attention than they get.

Getting closer to my jailhouse destination, Google Maps suggested transferring to a historic streetcar in downtown San Francisco. My BART exit station options were aplenty—Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero. I opted for the latter, traveling up two escalators, and heading out to Market Street.

There I jumped on a gorgeous yet uncomfortable F-Market streetcar. What these gems lack in legroom and shock absorption they more than make up for in beauty. I hopped on a circa-1946 Washington DC streetcar and headed down Market, around the Embarcadero, and west toward Pier 33.

In a little over an hour since I left SFO, I arrived. One more mode of transit to go—a ferry.

Heading to the ticket counter at the Alcatraz Island booth on Pier 33, I glanced at the impossibly long line of people. Ugh. A massive queue of tourists waiting to get on a boat. To see an old jail. In the middle of the water.

I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

Challenge failed. I opted to trade one long line for another. Dodging the slack-jawed crowds along Fishermen’s Wharf, slaloming past people in Dodgers hats and at least one unfortunate MAGA cap, I made my way toward the familiar red and yellow signage signaling shelter in a storm—San Francisco’s only In-N-Out.

Here I encountered an even more hungry and exhausted crew. But instead of history, all eyes are set on Double-Doubles and animal-style fries.

While the trek was long and arduous, it didn’t matter much since the only people who take it are tourists. But for those of you who need a quick fast-food fix post-flight care of California’s preferred burger purveyor, just go to Daly City.

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