Alzatraz is one of the most legendary prisons in the world. Home to some of the most wanted and most dangerous Federal inmates in the mid-1900s and set in beautiful San Francisco Bay, it’s captured the public’s imagination for years. I’d been wanting to visit Alcatraz since we learned about it in history class – and the fact that I love the movie The Rock doesn’t hurt either – so it was high on my list of places to see in San Francisco. Though it was abandoned for several years after the prison was closed, Alcatraz is now managed by the National Park Service. Admission is technically free, but you do have to pay for a ferry ride from San Francisco. This guide features everything you need to know to plan a visit to Alcatraz, including the ferry service, audio tour guide, natural highlights of the island, and answers to frequently asked questions.
Note: I received a complementary Alcatraz ferry ride courtesy of Alcatraz Cruises. All opinions are my own.
How to get to Alcatraz
Because The Rock is a small island, the only way to get there is by ferry. Boats depart regularly from Pier 33 just a short walk from the touristy area around Pier 39. I would highly recommend booking your tickets in advance. The morning we visited – still in the off-season for travelers – there were signs posted saying that the next available tickets were for the following day. If you don’t pre-book, you may miss your chance to take an Alcatraz tour during your vacation.
Once we arrived at the pier and picked up our tickets at Will Call, we milled around waiting for our boat’s time to be called. People were lining up outside the queue anyway, and by the time we realized that, there were tons of people in front of us. (That part only really matters if you want to snag a good seat for the ride.) There is a small café on site with drinks and food, a souvenir shop, and a couple bathroom stalls. I’d highly recommend using the bathroom before you arrive though, because the line was long and incredibly slow.
Once our tickets were checked, we began filling in the official queue and posed for photos we had the opportunity to purchase later. Once our boat docked and was ready to take on passengers, we were let on. The whole thing was surprisingly orderly up until that point.
Our boat had three decks, and since the first one was pretty full, we headed toward the stairs at the back to try for a seat along the edge. The second floor was filling up too, so we kept going to the open air top deck. We got lucky and found a row with only one other passenger in it, and it turned out to be on the side with the better view. I’d highly recommend sitting on the port side of the boat (the left as you face the front or what would be considered the driver’s side in a North American car) because you’ll get great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz as you approach.
The ferry ride to Alcatraz only takes about fifteen minutes, so don’t sweat it if you can’t find good seats. Once you dock at Alcatraz you get to join the mass of people disembarking the boat. Everyone is required to gather in the landing area and listen to a short brief by one of the park rangers. It’s well-worth the few minutes because they’ll give you the times of any special talks or other events you should know about during your visit as well as give you a brief overview of the island.
Once you get your briefing, you head up a hill to the prison. There is definitely an uphill grade, but it’s not too strenuous. There is a free tram offered for those who need assistance.
One of the more interesting things I learned while visiting Alcatraz was that the guards’ families lived on the island with them. One of the first buildings you encounter is the apartment block for them. It seems like having wives and children living on the island would’ve been a liability in the event of an inmate riot, but I guess that wasn’t a concern. It certainly would’ve been a unique place to grow up.
Alcatraz audio tour
Alcatraz audio tour guides in eight different languages are included at no extra cost for all visitors. I’m not generally a fan of audio guides, but this was one of the best ones I’ve encountered. The tour was narrated by former inmates and guards and you got to learn about the prison through the voices of those who experienced it firsthand, which makes it way more interesting. The guide explains different areas of the prison and tells the stories of some of the escape attempts. You pick up the guide in the lower level of the prison, in a room where prisoners used to shower in an open area.
Some highlights of the Alcatraz tour include “The Hole” aka the cells used for the worst prisoners. You can even step inside one of the dark cells used for the harshest punishment. It’s the only one of the cells that I found that you could enter, so don’t be shy if you want to take a peek.
The cell blocks with their rows and rows of cells stacked on top of each other are visually striking. The walkways are named after famous streets in New York, which I found somewhat amusing. They even named a larger area outside the dining hall Times Square. Many of the cells are unfinished or have crumbling toilets, but some of them have been fixed up to appear as they did when prisoners resided there. I particularly liked the one filled with the type of recreational things prisoners would do in their cell. One of them used to crochet, which I enjoyed because it’s not how you typically envision an inmate passing his time and I’ve also recently taken that up as a hobby myself.
The guide also tells the story of an inmate escape attempt that resulted in several dead guards and prisoners that I’d somehow never heard of before. The story of the three inmates whose unknown fate after constructing a raft has captured imaginations for years, but the “Battle of Alcatraz” was just as dramatic. I won’t spoil the story, but it took the Marines to put an end to the ensuing standoff.
One of the coolest parts of the tour for me was looking into one of the cells that housed one of the escapees from the famous raft attempt. You can see where he chiseled away around the vent in his cell to crawl into the gap between the rows and get out of the building. Around the corner, there is a glassed in opening showing the narrow utility passage behind the cells that was used for the escape. The three inmates constructed a raft out of rain coats and were never seen again. The official record states that they drowned in the bay, but the US Marshals still have an open case and rumors of them living in South America and anonymously contacting relatives in the US persist.
As part of the Alcatraz audio tour, you’ll get a chance to see other areas like the walled-in yard that offers just a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay, the dining hall, and the control area for the guards.
Other things to see on Alcatraz Island
Make sure you leave yourself some time to explore outside of the cellhouse while you’re visiting Alcatraz. You’ll be treated to some fantastic views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge and see a surprising amount of nature.
The other big surprise for me was that Alcatraz is a very popular nesting area for sea birds. We visited in the spring and saw two huge areas just crammed full of nests, with older birds all over the place. You can even grab a special seabird brochure from the visitor center. One of the types of bird that favors the island is the seagull (turns out it has an actual name – the Western Gull) and I’ve never seen so many of them in one place before. It turns out they even mate for life.
On the other side of the island, cormorants had taken up a huge area for their nests – I think they picked a better view than the seagulls did, personally – and we enjoyed watching them returning to the nests. There was one determined bird trying to pull a piece of shrubbery off of the cliff, presumably for a nest, but it was not budging. We stood there watching for several minutes and the poor bird never did dislodge the prized shrub.
If birds aren’t your thing, you can take a walk through the beautiful garden that was once maintained by inmates and has now been restored by volunteers. The brightly colored flowers and beautiful landscaping presented a sharp contrast to the rest of the island with its depressing architecture and crumbling facades. You might even be able to join a free organized tour of the gardens if you’re there on a Friday or Sunday morning.
Returning from Alcatraz
Boats back to San Francisco depart regularly from the same docks you arrive at. You don’t have to schedule your return, so don’t stress about getting back to the dock (unless it’s for the last boat of the night, of course). You just join the line and then board when the boat is available. Departures are roughly every 30 minutes throughout the day. The final departure time for the day tour varies based on the season, so be sure to check the schedule on the day you visit.
Other Alcatraz tours
Alcatraz Night Tour
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fit the Alcatraz Night Tour into our schedule, but it’s another option for you to pay a visit to the island after dark. The boat will loop you around the island with narration pointing out key features and the sites of escape attempts. Once you dock, you’ll be given a ranger-led walk up to the cellhouse and have a chance to do the audio guide. Don’t miss the views of sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge while you’re there.
Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour
This small group tour takes you into areas typically closed to the public. You can visit underground tunnels, gardens that are off-limits to others, and other areas around the island. You’ll also get a chance to do the full cellhouse audio tour during your visit.
Alcatraz and Angel Island
Angel Island is a state park located nearby in the bay. This combo ticket allows you to visit both islands in one day. Depending on the itinerary you choose, you can visit either one first. On Alcatraz, you’ll have the regular tour experience with the cellhouse audio guide and on Angel Island, you’ll get a one-hour tram ride included with your ticket.
Other Alcatraz tips and FAQ
How much time should I plan to spend at Alcatraz?
I’d recommend planning to be on the island for 2-3 hours. That will give you enough time to complete the audio tour and explore a little. If you plan to attend any of the ranger talks or other tours, expect to add additional time.
What should I wear to Alcatraz?
I would highly recommend comfortable walking shoes because you’ll be on your feet a lot and some of the outdoor terrain is uneven. You’ll also want to bring a jacket and possibly rain gear with you. It can be significantly cooler out on the island in the bay, even in warmer months and it rains frequently.
Is there any Pier 33 parking?
Not really, and the Alcatraz Cruises website warns you that it may be a challenge. There are some parking lots for tourists nearby, but they can be very expensive. If you’re able to, I would highly recommend walking or taking public transportation from wherever you’re staying. Even an Uber, Lyft, or taxi might save you money over parking and be a little more convenient. If you do need to park, there is a garage at the corner of Bay and Kearney just a block away or a lot at Pier 27.
Where can I book Alcatraz tickets?
Alcatraz Cruises is the only official ticket source. You may get them through tours, but ultimately those vendors are booking through the National Park Service contracted vendor. Check out ticket availability and tour options on their official website.
How much are Alcatraz tickets?
Alcatraz ticket prices vary based on which option you choose to book and your age. The cheapest options are the early bird (first departures) and regular day tours and the most expensive is the Behind the Scenes Tour. Check the website for exact pricing.
Can I get last minute Alcatraz tickets?
Maybe? If you’re lucky you could snag some, but the boats do tend to book up in advance. Your odds of snagging last minute Alcatraz tickets are higher in less popular tourist seasons. If at all possible, I’d recommend booking your Alcatraz tickets as far in advance as you can.
Are there any Alcatraz tours from Oakland?
No. The only departures are from Pier 33 in San Francisco. There are ferries operating from Oakland to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building nearby if you need public transportation from Oakland.
Tips for visiting Alcatraz
- Bags and luggage larger than your standard backpack aren’t allowed on the island, so make sure you don’t bring anything too large with you.
- Minors must be accompanied by an adult at all times.
- If you need to pick up your tickets at Will Call, be sure to bring a photo ID with you.
- You can eat at Pier 33, but there is no food served on Alcatraz Island, so I’d highly recommend eating before you start your visit.
- Skip the line for the audio guide when you first arrive (almost everyone heads straight there) and look at the outside area first. We did it that way because it was supposed to rain and we wanted to see the outside area before it started, and then were able to walk right up to the spot where they were handing out guides without waiting. Just try to avoid getting caught in the rush from the boat arriving after you.
- Alcatraz is operated by the National Park Service, so if you’re a nerd like me and into collecting NPS passport stamps, bring yours. Their cancellation stamp is located in the gift shop on the island, and they have a few more “unofficial” ones nearby.
Check out these other great things to do in California:
- Walking Among Redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument
- The Perfect 2 Days in Yosemite Itinerary
- Ten Best South Lake Tahoe Restaurants
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