It's a former federal prison on a rocky island in the middle of the bay, steeped in legend and a popular tourist stop.
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, a Federal prison and a symbol of Native American plight. Today, the National Park Service runs Alcatraz Island as a tourist attraction.
Things to Do on Alcatraz
You can get a look at what you'll see on the Alcatraz tour by visiting the Alcatraz slideshow.
The National Park Service schedules activities to help you learn about Alcatraz Island, including lectures and special tours. The schedule board at the ferry landing gives the times. The only guided tour is the audio tour, but you can also pick up a self-guided tour book near the boat dock.
Barracks from Alcatraz Island's stint as a military base, the cell house, lighthouse and a few others remain. Many of the Alcatraz Island prison buildings are gone. Some burned during the American Indian Alcatraz occupation in the 1960s. The guard's residences, deteriorated beyond repair, were torn down in the 1970s.
If the hospital area is open during your visit, don't miss it. It's a fascinating look at medical care during the prison's heyday.
To see two San Francisco Bay islands in one day, take the Alcatraz & Angel Island Tour which will also take you to Angel Island.
Alcatraz Island Tickets
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 and buy tickets at the Alcatraz Cruises website. Anyone else selling an Alcatraz Island tour is re-selling tickets and may charge a processing fee.
Alcatraz tour 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. When checked on a July Friday, they were sold out until the following Tuesday.
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. 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.
The boat ride 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).
The Day Tour is the most popular. It includes round-trip transportation to the island and the audio tour.
The Night Tour includes extra activities — and is slightly more expensive. Taking it allows more time to visit other sights that close earlier, maximizing your sightseeing time. The only downside is that a few areas that are open during the day close after dark.
Get Ready to Visit Alcatraz
Most visitors spend at least a few hours on Alcatraz. Snacks and water are essential to keep everyone from getting "hangry" or thirsty.
If you don't know much about Alcatraz, stop to see the 17-minute introductory video before you go up the hill. You can also read up on these interesting facts about Alcatraz before you go. And explore the fascinating history of the Alcatraz lighthouse.
Watch the Clint Eastwood movie "Escape from Alcatraz" for a glimpse of how the prison operated during its busiest period.
Tips for Visiting Alcatraz
Pick up an audio tour and use it. You'll get a lot more out of what you're seeing. Pay attention to the audio directions. Otherwise, you could end up gabbing away with your friends and not able to figure out where you should be going. If that happens, ask a ranger or tour guide for help.
If you miss your boat, don't despair. The ticket office can direct you to the standby line for the next one.
To see Alcatraz, you'll walk — a lot. It's easy enough if you're in reasonably good shape. They offer a tram to get you up the hill, but you still have to walk after you get there.
The 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 a boat bobbing up and down, take your favorite remedy.
Those white spots all over the island aren't paint. Rangers say several people a day acquire a "white badge of honor" as a gift from a seagull. DON'T look up if you hear birds. Also watch where you put your hands to avoid touching those same white splotches of yucky stuff.
The gift shop has some very stylish and clever souvenir items. They also sell the book "Hollywood Alcatraz" which details all the films made at Alcatraz and where their scenes were filmed.
Alcatraz Tour Review
In a poll, more than 2,000 Tripsavvy readers rated Alcatraz, 48% rated it awesome and 10% great. However, 26% gave it the lowest rating.
Alcatraz is likely to bore children under the age of five and is more fun for kids who are old enough to understand what it is.
On the plus side, the views of San Francisco and the bay are eye-popping. History buffs enjoy Alcatraz. So does 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 the prison's story.
On the downside, it takes almost half a day to go there and back. If your trip to San Francisco is short, that may be more time than you want to spend on one activity. And it smells like bird poop during spring seagull nesting season.
Getting to Alcatraz Island
San Francisco, CA
National Park Website
Alcatraz Cruises leave from Pier 33. If you've been to San Francisco before, be aware that the ticket booth and departure dock moved several years ago.
To drive, follow signs for Pier 39. Pier 33 is a few blocks east. You can find more than a dozen commercial parking 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, use a ride-sharing service or public transit. Muni's F Line runs past Pier 33 and the Powell-Mason cable car stops nearby. Find more ways to get around San Francisco.