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Visiting Alcatraz: How to do it right and get the most from your trip

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:

Alcatraz Island crowned with a lighthouse and cellhouse viewed from the Alcatraz Ferry.
Approaching Alcatraz Island on the ferry.

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.

Alcatraz Lighthouse and the ruins of the Warden’s house on Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Lighthouse and the ruins of the Warden’s house.

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.

Day Tour

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.

Night Tour

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.

Detailed model of Alcatraz Island displayed at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing.
Model of Alcatraz on display at Alcatraz Landing.

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.

Interactive map with pins marking Alcatraz Landing and Island and other nearby points of interest.
Click the map to open in Google Maps.
An Alcatraz ferry arrives at the Alcatraz Island dock. It’s bringing a boat load of people to visit Alcatraz.
Alcatraz ferry docking at Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Ferries

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.

Three tiers of cells line both sides of the hallway called Broadway in the Alcatraz Cellhouse.
Cells in B and C Blocks along the hallway called Broadway.

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.
Two Alcatraz tour brochures and a smartphone displaying information on the free National Park Service App.
Brochures purchased at Alcatraz and a smartphone displaying information on the free National Park Service 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.

Display of photos in cell block D of famous Alcatraz inmates.
Famous inmates at Alcatraz.

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.

One of the fake heads Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers used to fool the guards during their Alcatraz escape.
One of the fake heads Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers used to fool the guards during their escape from Alcatraz.

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.

An Alcatraz prison cell with an ashtray, cigarettes, and ball of yarn on the table. Some inmates passed the time knitting.
A typical Alcatraz prison cell. Some inmates passed the time knitting.

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.

Sign describing some of the buildings, features, and armaments from 1857 to 1934 when the island was Fort Alcatraz.
Sign describing features from the Fort Alcatraz era. There’s lots of descriptive signage like this on the island.

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.

The Agave Trail and garden on Alcatraz Island. The trail and gardens are a must-see when visiting Alcatraz.
The Agave Trail and garden on Alcatraz Island.

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.

Pelicans flying near Alcatraz. It’s a common sight on San Francisco Bay.
Likely descendants of the strange birds (Alcatraces) Spanish explorers saw nesting on Alcatraz.

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.
The dock and bookstore on Alcatraz with a red Indians Welcome sign. It’s a remnant left from the 1969 Indian Occupation.
The Alcatraz Dock still has the Indians Welcome sign from the 1969 Indian Occupation.

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.

San Francisco Bay and city skyline viewed from Alcatraz Island.
Alcatraz Island view of San Francisco and the bay.

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.

Conclusion

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:

About the Author

Ginny Vail is a travel writer, whose goal is to help you pack your travels with more adventure and less stress. Her posts, photos, and videos will help you discover places to visit, sights to see, sight locations, ways to get to them, and when to go. She is a native Californian, and, although she’s visited all 50 states and traveled around the world, her main focus is the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives.