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Planning Your Visit to Alcatraz Island –

In this Article:

  • Alcatraz History

  • Five Compelling Reasons to Go

  • Visiting Alcatraz: A Comprehensive Guide

  • Things to Know Before Visiting Alcatraz

  • Types of Alcatraz Tours

  • What to Do and See When Visiting Alcatraz

  • Common Mistakes When Visiting Alcatraz

If you have a free day to explore San Francisco, visiting Alcatraz should be at the top of your list. Once home to the world’s most notorious criminals, today Alcatraz is a top-rated attraction that offers stunning ferry views, captivating prison ground walks, and an award-winning cell house audio tour. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the history of Alcatraz Island and provide you with six compelling reasons why you should make it a part of your San Francisco adventure.

What is Alcatraz?

Alcatraz Island, situated in San Francisco Bay, was once the site of an infamous federal prison known for its powerful currents and freezing temperatures, making it seemingly inescapable. Although it operated as a prison for just around 30 years, Alcatraz’s legacy endures to this day.

But the history of Alcatraz extends beyond its time as a federal penitentiary. It held historical significance long before that, from being home to the first West Coast lighthouse to being the site of an impactful American Indian Occupation. This tiny, rocky island is brimming with intriguing stories from history, breathtaking sights, and even ghostly mysteries.

Facts and History of Alcatraz

To get you excited about your trip to Alcatraz, here are some fascinating historical tidbits:

  • Civil War Era: Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary housed prisoners during the Civil War.
  • Notorious Inmates: The prison housed some of America’s most infamous criminals, including Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly.
  • Life on the Island: Besides the prison, the island had barracks, apartments, and even a recreation hall. Families with children lived there full-time.
  • Nature and Movies: Since becoming part of the National Park Service in 1972, the island has been home to beautiful gardens, and it’s featured in numerous movies and TV shows.

Alcatraz History Through the Years

Alcatraz’s history is a rich tapestry of different eras:

1934 – 1963: The Dark Mystique

During this period, Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary and home to infamous inmates like Al “Scarface” Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud. It gained notoriety as one of the world’s most legendary prisons.

1969 – 1971: The 20th Century

Alcatraz’s history goes back even further, serving as both a harbor defense fort and a military prison in the 19th century. The American Indian Occupation from 1969 to 1971 marked an important milestone in the American Indian rights movement.

What is the History of Alcatraz?

The history of Alcatraz is a fascinating journey:

  • 1775: Juan Manuel de Ayala mapped and named the island “Isla De Los Alcatraces,” or “Island of the Pelicans.”
  • 1850s: It became a military fortress with over 100 cannons and the West Coast’s first lighthouse. It held military prisoners, Confederate sympathizers, and American Indians fighting for land.
  • Early 1900s: The inmate population built the iconic 600-cell structure and other concrete buildings, making Alcatraz the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world at the time.
  • 1934 – 1963: It operated as a federal prison, housing some of the most infamous criminals before closing due to high expenses.
  • 1969: Native Americans claimed the island, protecting it from private purchase and eventually making it part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area in 1972.
  • 1973: Alcatraz opened to tourists, welcoming over 1 million visitors each year.

How Tours Began at Alcatraz

Today, Alcatraz is managed by the National Parks Service and is a National Historic Landmark. It opened to the public in a limited fashion in 1973. Due to its protected status, specific procedures are in place for visiting Alcatraz, with Alcatraz City Cruises being the sole ferry company authorized to transport visitors to and from the island. Local tour companies partner with Alcatraz City Cruises to offer Alcatraz Tickets as part of tour packages.

Five Reasons to Visit Alcatraz

Now that you have a deep understanding of Alcatraz’s history, let’s explore five compelling reasons why you should plan a visit:

1. It’s the Top Must-See Tourist Site in San Francisco

Visiting Alcatraz is a must for anyone exploring San Francisco. From the ferry ride with breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay to the chillingly awe-inspiring island itself, Alcatraz promises an unforgettable experience. Spend hours exploring the grounds, navigating different cell blocks, and immersing yourself in the legends of Alcatraz.

2. The Amazing Audio Tour

Alcatraz offers a self-guided but immersive audio tour provided by the National Parks Service. This award-winning tour takes you on a journey through the island’s history, from the Civil War era to its role as a Hollywood movie set. You’ll hear stories and perspectives from former employees, inmates, and even those who spent their childhood on Alcatraz.

3. Perfect for History Lovers

If you’re a history enthusiast, Alcatraz is a treasure trove of historical insights. The audio tour delves deep into the island’s multifaceted history, including ranger-led talks on American incarceration and the impact of the Native American Occupation on the island’s preservation.

4. Great for Movie Buffs

Alcatraz’s prominence in pop culture and the film industry has made it a household name. Movies like X Men, Catch Me If You Can, and The Rock have featured this inescapable penitentiary, adding to its notoriety.

5. Stunning Views and Natural Beauty

Beyond its historical significance, Alcatraz offers stunning natural beauty. Enjoy breathtaking views of the San Francisco skyline, Golden Gate Bridge, and the bay. The island’s gardens, home to various species of animals, provide a serene contrast to its tumultuous history.


Visiting Alcatraz: A Comprehensive Guide

Planning a visit to Alcatraz, the infamous island prison in San Francisco Bay, can be an exciting yet intricate endeavor. To make the most of your trip and avoid common pitfalls, here’s a comprehensive guide covering everything you need to know before visiting Alcatraz:

Things to Know Before Visiting Alcatraz

Highlights to Visit Alcatraz

  • Ferries leave from Pier 33, just south of Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Tickets are timed, so ensure you board the designated ferry.
  • Arrive at least 20-30 minutes before your ticket time.
  • Travel light as there are no storage lockers.
  • Wear a jacket or sweater for the chilly ferry ride.

Where is Alcatraz?

  • Alcatraz Island is about 1.25 miles off the shore of San Francisco.
  • It covers approximately 225 acres of rocky terrain.

How to Get to Alcatraz

  • Alcatraz is accessible only by ferry.
  • Alcatraz Cruises operates the official ferry service from Pier 33, near Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Options for reaching Pier 33 include taking the F streetcar line from Union Square.

How Long is the Ferry Ride from Pier 33 to Alcatraz?

  • Your ticket time is when the ferry departs from Pier 33.
  • Arrive at least 20-25 minutes early to secure your spot.
  • You can choose to wait in the boarding area until your ferry begins boarding.

How do I know which ferry to take back to San Francisco?

  • Plan your return ferry in advance.
  • Ferries have specific departure times, and it’s crucial to arrive at least 10-15 minutes early for your chosen return ferry.
  • If your selected ferry fills up, you may have to wait for the next available one.

Other Questions About Your Visit

  • There is no food for purchase on Alcatraz.
  • You can bring your food but beware of birds.
  • Overnight stays on the island are not allowed.
  • Bathrooms are available on most ferries and on the island.

How Much Time Does It Take to Visit Alcatraz?

  • Budget 2.5 to 3 hours for your visit.
  • Each ferry ride takes 15 minutes, and the overall trip duration is 2-3 hours.

Tickets and Pricing for Alcatraz Island

  • Due to its popularity, book tickets weeks in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons.
  • Tickets are available online or in person at Pier 33.
  • Prices vary: $41 for adults, $25 for children (5-11 years), $41 for juniors (12-17 years), $38 for seniors (62+ years).
  • Family pricing: $119.60 for 2 adults + 2 children (5-11 years).
  • Tickets might be included in tour packages with authorized Tour companies.

When Should You Arrive for Your Alcatraz Tour?

  • Arrive at Pier 33 well in advance.
  • Budget extra time for ticketing check-in, bathroom breaks, and exploring the 3D replica of the island.

Can I Buy Discounted Alcatraz Tickets?

  • Be cautious of third parties selling Alcatraz ferry tickets without confirmed partnerships with Alcatraz City Cruises.
  • Ignore third-party companies not selling tickets as part of a tour package.
  • Scams can lead to disappointment; stick with reputable sources.

When is the Best Time of Year/Day to Visit Alcatraz?

  • High season is late spring to early autumn.
  • Visit on weekdays to avoid weekend crowds.
  • Early bird tickets allow you to beat the crowds and have a more peaceful experience.

Can I Use My National Parks Pass to Visit Alcatraz?

  • Your National Parks Pass won’t grant access to Alcatraz Island.
  • The ticket price covers the ferry ride, not the island entrance.

What Are the Hours of Alcatraz?

  • Hours vary by season and tour.
  • Typically, it’s open from 10 am to 6 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 6 pm on weekends.
  • Night tours extend later into the evening.

How Accessible Is Alcatraz?

  • The island has made efforts to be wheelchair accessible.
  • Trams are available for people with mobility limitations.
  • The tram is not for individuals with strollers.

Alcatraz Island is a Bird Sanctuary — So There Are No Food Opportunities on the Island

  • Alcatraz is a nesting ground for waterbirds.
  • There is no food for purchase on the island, except for a few pre-packaged items.
  • Eat before your visit or bring your own snacks.

How to Prepare for Visiting Alcatraz

  • Research beforehand to enhance your appreciation of the island.
  • Eat a snack before the tour to avoid hunger during the 3-hour visit.
  • Bring essentials: photo ID, layers, comfortable walking shoes, cash, and water.

What Should You Bring When Visiting Alcatraz?

  • Photo ID for everyone over 18.
  • Layers for changing weather conditions.
  • Comfortable walking shoes.
  • Cash for the gift shop.
  • Bottled water to stay hydrated.

Four Types of Alcatraz Tours

Alcatraz Day Tour

    • The most popular and widely enjoyed tour.
    • Offered year-round.
    • Self-guided tour with flexible duration.
    • Includes ferry ride, audio tour, and ranger-led talks.

Alcatraz Night Tour

    • Offers a spookier experience.
    • Runs twice daily from March to November, once during winter.
    • Guided tour with exclusive behind-the-scenes access.

Behind The Scenes Tour of Alcatraz

    • Exclusive and intimate tour for smaller groups.
    • Offers insider insights with guides.
    • Includes ferry transportation, guided tour, and more.

Alcatraz and Angel Island Tour

    • Includes both Alcatraz and Angel Island in one tour.
    • Available during the summer and spring.
    • Features ferry rides and narrated tram tours.

What to Do and See When Visiting Alcatraz

  • Enjoy a self-guided tour with the freedom to choose your itinerary.
  • Explore outdoor spaces, iconic views, and historic sites on the island.
  • Visit the chilling cell house with an immersive audio tour.
  • Discover political graffiti from the American Indian occupation.
  • Engage kids in the Junior Ranger Program.
  • Participate in ranger-led tours and demos.
  • Learn about the occupation of Alcatraz by Native tribes.
  • Explore the lives of famous inmates like Al Capone.
  • Visit the island’s largest gift shop and chat with guest authors.

Common Mistakes When Visiting Alcatraz

Buying Tickets from Scalpers or Scams

    • Avoid scalpers or non-legitimate sites for tickets.
    • Purchase tickets from authorized sources only.

Not Reserving Tickets Far Enough in Advance

    • Tickets can sell out months in advance.
    • Book as early as possible, especially during peak seasons.

Not Wearing Good Walking Shoes

    • Stable walking shoes are essential for the steep walk to the cellhouse.

Not Eating Beforehand

    • No food opportunities on the island.
    • Eat before your tour to avoid hunger

In conclusion, Alcatraz is a unique and captivating destination that combines rich history, breathtaking views, and intriguing legends. Whether you’re a history buff, a movie enthusiast, or simply looking for an unforgettable experience in San Francisco, Alcatraz has something to offer everyone.

Plan your visit, and get ready to uncover the mysteries of “The Rock.”

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