Visiting Alcatraz is one of the top things to do in San Francisco. The tour includes the Alcatraz Ferry to the island, the infamous prison audio tour, and more.
The island has so much to offer, it’s little wonder that visiting Alcatraz is a top San Francisco attraction. The infamous former federal penitentiary is on an island in San Francisco Bay, so the tour includes a short ferry ride with great views of the bay and city skyline. It also includes an excellent audio tour of the Alcatraz prison cellhouse, exhibits, and talks and tours led by National Park staff.
Alcatraz is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is operated by the National Park Service. In normal times, more than 1.7 million people visit Alcatraz each year.
When planning your visit to San Francisco, you can find more great sights in our San Francisco Itinerary article.
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Here’s what’s in this article:
- About visiting Alcatraz
- Getting tickets to Alcatraz
- Getting to Alcatraz Landing (at Pier 33) to catch the ferry
- Ferry to Alcatraz Island
- About the cellhouse audio tour (including the option to listen to the tour on your own smartphone)
- Brief mention of the great escape, famous inmates, and ghosts
- Best time to go
- Bits of history
- Good things to know about an Alcatraz visit
About Visiting Alcatraz
A National Park Ranger meets each arriving ferry to welcome visitors to the island and to provide a brief orientation and review the day’s program schedule. In addition to the great cellhouse tour, there are permanent and temporary exhibits, ranger led walks and talks, a trail to take, gardens to see, and lots of interpretive signs around the island.
Although Alcatraz is open every day except for three major holidays, getting to and from the island depends on the ferry schedule, and it varies. Tickets are timed and coincide with a ferry going to the island. Once on the island, you can stay as long as you wish, just check the ferry schedule posted on the dock, and make sure you don’t miss the last boat back to Pier 33.
Days and hours open: Alcatraz is open from 10am to 8pm every day of the year except for three holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
Time needed to visit: Allow about 3 hours for the ferry ride and tour
Location: The tour begins (and ends) at Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero.
Tickets to Alcatraz
Purchase your tickets early because they often sell out days in advance. This is especially true during the summer months and holidays. The tickets are timed and dated.
Buy tickets from Alcatraz City Cruises. It’s the only concessioner authorized by the National Park Service. The price of the ticket is specifically for the ferry and the cellhouse audio tour. The National Park Service does not have an entry fee for the island.
There are three types of Alcatraz tickets and they all include the ferry to/from the island and the self-guided Cellhouse Audio Tour. The Night Tour and Behind the Scenes Tour are currently offered Thursday through Monday.
What you get: Access to all open parts of the island, the theatre, and exhibits.
Time needed: Most people spend about 3-hours (including the ferry), but you can spend all day if you wish, just don’t miss the last ferry back.
What you get: A guided (Ranger or educator led) tour from the dock to the Cellhouse. After the self-guided Cellhouse Audio Tour, a guided tour back to the dock.
Time needed: 3-hours, including the ferry
Behind the Scenes Tour
What you get: A small group guided tour through parts of the island not normally open to visitors. Some of the things included are gardens, hidden doorways, tunnels, and an underground jail.
Time needed: 4.5 hours, including the ferry. The tour is mid-day, so before and after take all the time you wish.
Tip: There are tour agencies that offer an Alcatraz tour in combination with something else, like Muir Woods or a Walking Tour. They purchase an Alcatraz Ticket for you from Alcatraz City Cruises, and give you the ticket.
Getting to Alcatraz Landing (Pier 33) and Alcatraz Island
When you book your ticket(s), you select a specific date and time, and that’s the date and time your ferry leaves Alcatraz Landing (Pier 33) and heads to Alcatraz Island. Here are three options for getting to Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 and a map with locations pinned:
Getting to Alcatraz Landing (Pier 33)
- Public Transit: Take a historic F-Market & Wharves Streetcar. It stops on the Embarcadero at Bay Street, nearly in front of Pier 33. It’s my favorite way to get there.
- Walking: If you’re in the vicinity of Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, it’s an easy walk. It’s only about 1,700-feet (524 m) from Pier 39 to Pier 33.
- Parking: There are several public parking facilities within a few blocks. The closest is the Waterfront Plaza Parking Garage at 80 Francisco Street. It’s open 7a to 7p Monday-Friday; 8a to 7p on Saturday; it’s currently closed on Sunday. Check their website for pricing and reservations.
Alcatraz Landing and Island Map
Click the map image below to go to the expandable, interactive Google Map with pins for Alcatraz Landing, Alcatraz Island and other nearby sights and places of interest. The pins have brief descriptions.
The ferry takes about 15-minutes to get from Alcatraz Landing (Pier 33) to Alcatraz Island. Once on the island, you can get back to Pier 33 on any ferry departing the island. Check the schedule posted at the dock, so you don’t miss the last ferry of the day.
Ferry tips: On my most recent visit, the last Day Tour ferry left Alcatraz at 4:25pm. For the Night Tour, there is one ferry to and from the island.
Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour
Tip: It’s a ¼ mile (0.4 km) uphill walk from the boat dock to the cellhouse. Visitors with limited mobility are welcome to take the free Tram up and down the hill.
The excellent 30-minute audio tour guides you through the cellhouse and features former prisoners and guards telling their stories. It’s called Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour. The audio tour is available in these 10 languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Spanish.
There are two ways to listen to the audio tour:
- Use the audio player provided by the park service. The device is a bit bigger than a mobile phone and you hold up to your ear to listen.
- Use your own smartphone with earbuds or headphones. I prefer this option because it leaves my hands free to manage my hefty camera. For this option, scan the QR code at the Dock or the cellhouse entrance to download and use the Alcatraz Island app.
Download the National Park Service App
You can have more information about Alcatraz literally at your fingertips, if you Download the National Park Service App onto your smartphone. Search the app for Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and then select Alcatraz Island from the list of GGNRA locations. You’ll find descriptions and location information for 14 sights on the island.
Alcatraz Night Tour and Behind the Scenes Tour
True confession. I’ve been to Alcatraz many times, but I’ve never taken the Night Tour or Behind the Scenes Tour. So, this information is from the Alcatraz website:
Behind the Scenes Tour: This is a small group guided tour through parts of the island not normally open to visitors. Some of the things included are tunnels, an underground jail, hidden doorways, and gardens.
Night Tour: : The night program offers talks and tours not offered during the day. Expert historians give the talks and the topics covered change every day. Being on the island during the evening has the added benefit of seeing the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge and having an unobstructed view of the city skyline after dark.
Alcatraz Famous Inmates
Alcatraz was a maximum-security federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Among the 1,545 men sent there, a few were famous: Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Arthur “Doc” Barker, Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpavicz, Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, and Meyer “Mickey” Cohen.
Alcatraz Escape Attempts
There were several attempted escapes but only one that may have been successful. In 1962, three men, Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers tunneled out of their cells and slipped into the bay in a makeshift raft. They were never seen again, and their bodies were never found.
On the cell block tour, you’ll learn how Morris and the Anglin Brothers dug their tunnels and fooled the guards into believing they were asleep in their cells. Stay tuned for more: recent facial-recognition technology may have solved the case.
In the 1979 film, Escape from Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood plays Frank Morris.
Is Alcatraz Haunted; Are There Ghosts?
There are reports of people hearing crying or moaning coming from the empty cells. It’s also claimed that a prisoner in Cell 14D died after screaming that he was being killed by a ghost. Some visitors have also claimed they felt extreme coldness after visiting Cell 14D. So, maybe there are ghosts on Alcatraz, or maybe it’s just the cold wind blowing through the cellhouse.
Best time to go
Weather-wise, mid-September through mid-November is best. The summer fog (nature’s air conditioner) doesn’t roll in as often and the winter rains haven’t yet started. The rest of the year, the weather is mixed: there are often gorgeous, sunny days in winter and spring, and summer days can quickly turn chilly if the fog rolls in. Dressing in layers is always a good idea in San Francisco.
Is it better to visit Alcatraz in the morning or afternoon? Early morning is best if you prefer to go when the island is less crowded. Midday is best if you prefer a warmer day and sunny skies. I took the photo below on the Agave Trail about 1pm in early December. It was a gorgeous sunny day with temperatures in the 60s.
Gardens on The Rock
Alcatraz is nicknamed The Rock for good reason: it’s a 225-acre rock. But beginning with the residents of Fort Alcatraz, people brought soil to the island and planted gardens. Now there are gardens scattered all over the island. Military families, and later prisoners and prison staff planted and tended them; now they are tended by volunteers.
Take the Agave Trail between the dock and the Parade Ground to see the Agave Garden and great views of the Island and bay.
Bits of Alcatraz History
- 1775: While mapping San Francisco Bay, Spanish explorers, observe a small rocky island occupied by a colony of brown pelicans; they name the island Alcatraces (strange birds). Overtime, the name was anglicized to Alcatraz. You’ll likely see flocks of pelicans flying by during your visit, and they are strange looking birds.
- 1850: The island became Fort Alcatraz as part of the Triangle of Defense to guard San Francisco Bay. First it was a military fortification and later became a military prison.
- 1854: California’s first lighthouse was built on Alcatraz.
- 1934–1963: Alcatraz was a maximum-security federal penitentiary.
- 1969: Native Americans took over and occupied the island from late 1969 to mid 1971.
- 1972: Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which included Alcatraz.
Native American Occupation
Notice the red graffiti above the bookstore by the dock and also on the water tower. These are remnants of the Native American occupation of the island from late 1969 to mid 1971. The Indians hoped to build a university and cultural center on the island, but they were never able to raise enough money to do so.
More Things to Know About Visiting Alcatraz
- Do wear sturdy walking shoes. Walking surfaces are uneven.
- Do bring a jacket or sweatshirt. When the fog rolls in through the Golden Gate, it heads straight for Alcatraz.
- Don’t bring more stuff than you can carry. There are no lockers or storage facilities.
- There is no food or beverage service on the island, but you can bring your own snacks and eat them in the picnic area by the dock.
- Wheelchairs are not available for loan or rent at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing or on Alcatraz Island.
Who would have imagined that a 19th century fort and an old prison would become such a popular place to visit? Perhaps it’s the combination of a rugged small island with an interesting history, and the ferry boat ride on San Francisco Bay. It’s a great way to spend half a day, and I hope you enjoy it.
For more ideas about things to do and see in San Francisco, visit these articles:
- Seven Unique San Francisco Neighborhoods to Visit
- 12 Best Parks and Gardens in San Francisco
- 15 Best Museums in San Francisco
About the Author
Ginny Vail is a travel writer who loves travel planning, sightseeing, photography, and videography. She’s visited all 50 states and traveled around the world. Her articles focus on discovering places to go, sights to see, and details about when and how visit them.