Alcatraz Island and the Alcatraz Tour

Alcatraz Tour Fascinates Visitors to Alcatraz Island

••• Taking the Audio Tour at Alcatraz. Courtesy of John A. Martini and Alcatraz Cruises

It's a former federal prison on a rocky island in the middle of the bay, steeped in legend and a popular tourist stop. This page contains everything you need to know to plan your visit.

Scenes from Alcatraz

Enjoy some of our best shots in this Photo Tour

What Alcatraz is All About

Spanish Explorer Manuel de Ayala named this barren rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans).

The island called Alcatraz has been used as a Civil War fort, Federal prison and symbol of Native American plight. Now, the National Park Service runs Alcatraz Island.

Many Alcatraz Island prison buildings are gone. Some burned during the 1960s' American Indian Alcatraz occupation. The guard's residences, deteriorated beyond repair, were torn down in the 1970s. Barracks from Alcatraz Island's stint as a military base, the cell house, lighthouse and a few others remain.

Alcatraz Tours: Day and Night

The "Day Tour" is most popular. It includes round-trip transportation to the island and the audio tour.

Also popular and well-rated is the Night Tour, which includes extra activities - and is slightly more expensive,. Although a few areas that are open during the day are closed after dark, we think this is the best way to see the island and maximize your sightseeing time elsewhere.

To see the two San Francisco Bay islands in one day, take the Alcatraz & Angel Island Tour will take you to Angel Island, too.

Alcatraz Island Tickets

  • Don't be Fooled: The only way to tour Alcatraz is with the company called Alcatraz Cruises, leaving from San Francisco. Other bay cruise companies can take you by, but can't stop. Find all the details at Alcatraz Cruises.
  • Save Money: Anyone else selling an Alcatraz Island tour is re-selling tickets and may charge a processing fee. Save money. Do it yourself.
  • Reserve Tickets Ahead: Alcatraz tours are very popular and tickets sell out fast. The official brochures say tickets sell out as early as a week in advance in the summer and on holiday weekends. On a July Friday, I've seen them sold out until the following Tuesday. Get tickets online up to 90 days ahead or call 415-981-7625.
  • Unprepared? Your hotel's concierge or front desk may have tickets. Or consider taking the Alcatraz and Angel Island tour, which doesn't fill up as fast.
  • Early Birds: Tickets not used by hotels are released to the Alcatraz ticket booth just before it opens. Be first in line you may get a same-day tour ticket.

Be a Smart Alcatraz Island Visitor

  • How Long: The trip to Alcatraz takes about 15 minutes each way from San Francisco. Your tour can last as long as you like (or until the last boat leaves).
  • Miss your Alcatraz boat? Don't despair. The ticket office can direct you to the standby line for the next one.
  • Primary Needs: There is no food available on the island, and sometimes they don't sell it on the boat either. You could easily spend a few hours on Alcatraz, and your tour won't be much fun if you're hungry or thirsty.
  • Get a Good Start: If you or any of your companions don't know much about Alcatraz, take the time to watch the 17-minute introductory video before you go up the hill.
  • Walking: To see Alcatraz, you'll have to walk - a lot, but it's easy enough if you're in reasonably good shape. The SEAT tram gets you up the hill, but you still have to walk after you get there. On a hot day, bring plenty of water so you don't get too thirsty walking uphill.
  • Seasickness: The new, environmentally friendly boats are quiet, clean and smooth riding. The trip is short. But if you need a Dramamine just to sit on the dock and watch the boat bobbing up and down, take your favorite remedy. Otherwise you'll probably be OK.
  • Seeing Spots: The white spots all over the island aren't paint. DON'T look up if you hear a birdy noise! Rangers say several people a day acquire a "white badge of honor" as a gift from a seagull. You'll also need to watch where you put your hands, avoiding those same white splotches.
  • Watch the movie: If you’re the type who enjoys movies, watch Escape from Alcatraz (PG) prior to your trip, for a glimpse into how the prison operated during its glory days.

Things to Do on Alcatraz

The National Park Service activities to help you learn about Alcatraz Island, including lectures and special tours. The schedule board at the ferry landing give sthe times. You can pick up a self-guided tour book (several languages) near the boat dock.

Pick up an audio tour and use it. You'll get a lot more out of what you're seeing that way. Pay attention to the directions they give. Otherwise, you'll end up like my friend and me, gabbing away and not able to figure out where we should be going. If that happens, ask a ranger or tour guide for help.

If the hospital area is open during your visit, go. It's a fascinating look at medical care during the prison's heyday.

You can also try to find those guinea pigs. It's the title of a book on display in a prisoner's cell.

The gift shop has some very stylish and clever souvenir items. They also sell a book - Hollywood Alcatraz  - that details all the films made at Alcatraz and where their scenes were filmed.

Alcatraz Tour Review

We rate Alcatraz 3 stars out of 5 because it is, after all, only an abandoned prison, the weather can be unpleasant.

Alcatraz is likely to bore children under the age of 5 and is better for kids over 8 or 9 years old who know what it is.

On the plus side, the views of San Francisco and the bay are nice. History buffs will enjoy it. So will anyone who's seen the movies about it and feel like it's a must-see. The audio tour is one of the best anywhere, using voices of actual guards and prisoners to tell you about it.

On the downside, it takes almost half a day to go there and back. If your visit is short, that may be more of your trip than you want to spend on one activity. And it smells like bird poop during spring seagull nesting season.

Here's what more than 2,000 of our readers had to say in a poll: 48% awesome, 10% great. 26% gave the lowest rating.

More About Alcatraz

Alcatraz Essentials

  • Hours: Open daily except Thanksgiving1, December 25 and January 1
  • Reservations: Highly recommended
  • Location: Alcatraz iѕ locatеd in the San Francisco Bay, boats leave from Pier 33
  • How Long: Allow about 4 hours
  • Best Time to Visit: You'll find warmer weather mid-day in summer. Spring and fall are also nice. Winter is cold. Avoid early summer (late June-ish) if you can, when nesting seagulls create a stink.

Getting to Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island
San Francisco, CA
415-981-7625 Reservations
National Park Website
Alcatraz Cruises Website

Alcatraz Cruises is thе only way to get to Alcatraz. They're at Pier 33, where you can buy tickets or pick up advance orders. If you've been to San Francisco before, don't go to the wrong place. The ticket booth and departure dock moved from Pier 39 up the street toward the Bay Bridge several years ago.

To drive, follow signs for Pier 39. Pier 33 is a few blocks east. The closest and most convenient lot is at about a block away, but there are more than a dozen commercial lots within a five-block radius. Street parking isn't practical because the meters have a two-hour limit and you'll be gone longer than that.

If you're staying in San Francisco, take a taxi or public transit. Muni's F Line runs past Pier 33 and the Powell-Mason cable car stops nearby. The best way to get to the pier depends on where you're coming from. Check out all the other options.

1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.