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One of the most memorable days of our last American trip was our day exploring Alcatraz – San Francisco’s famous federal prison and top of our San Francisco bucket list. We are sharing our tips on how to visit Alcatraz so that you can have a fantastic experience too.

How to visit Alcatraz

Alcatraz tours

Alcatraz cruises are the official tour company that offers tours of the prison, although other companies may offer a whole day package that includes this tour.

There are different tour options available:

  • Day Tour ($39.90)
  • Early Bird Tour ($39.90) – Recommended – this is the first tour of the day so the prison is a lot less crowded.
  • Night Tour ($47.50) – includes a guided tour and extra activities
  • Behind the Scene tour ($92.30) – Includes a behind-the-scenes tour, including areas not open to the public
  • Alcatraz and Angel Island tour ($78.65) – Includes a tram tour

Tours begin at 8.45 am (for the Early Bird tour) and from 9.10 am for day tours. Ferries back run every 20 – 30 minutes.

It is advised that you book your tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.

How to visit Alcatraz

Visiting Alcatraz tips:

  • Buy your tickets in advance, tickets can sell out 7 weeks ahead of your visit!
  • Bring ID – You are required to bring a form of ID to collect your tickets.
  • Use the audio tour – the audio tour is very well done and moves you through the experience dramatically whilst keeping you deeply interested.
  • Pack small – there are no locker or storage facilities on the Island. You will want to pack small anyway as the tour takes up to 3 hours.
  • Bring a bottle of water – drinks are allowed and food is allowed to be eaten in the docks area.
  • Ferries leave from Pier 33.
How to visit Alcatraz

Our experience

After catching a taxi to Pier 33, we found ourselves munching on a breakfast burrito and waiting to board the 8.45 early bird tour to Alcatraz. Remember to bring a photo ID if you are collecting tickets at the entrance but I strongly advise you to print the tickets before arriving to save time and avoid queuing.

Creative tip: Get the earliest Alcatraz Cruise to avoid the crowds.

The boat to the island took around 15 minutes and I do recommend you to wear layers when getting any ferries around San Francisco as the high speeds can make the journey rather chilly. Once we arrived at Alcatraz Island we headed straight up the hill to the entrance; there was a welcome speaker introducing the history of the island but we decided to move on and head straight up to avoid the crowds and we are glad we did!

Once we made it to the entrance of the prison, it took just a few minutes to get our audio tour headphones and head in. The audio tour guides you around each cell and pathway of the prison, feeding you factual and fascinating information along with inmate stories and the life of the federal prison throughout the years. You learn about the different escape attempts along with what life would have been like as an inmate.

Looking through the small windows of the prison, you can begin to understand how torturous the island must have been for its inmates; being able to see the developing city that is San Francisco but never being able to get near it.

The tour takes approximately 2.5 hours with an Alcatraz store selling the usual merchandise you would expect. Throughout the day there are some talks about various aspects of the prison for those who wish to learn more.

As it was still fairly early when we finished the tour, we had no problem catching the ferry back to pier 33; which runs every 30 minutes.

The History of Alcatraz

The island acted as a military prison for civil war prisoners from around 1861. In 1867, a brick prison was built and so came about Alcatraz; a detention center for long-term military prisoners. In 1934, the island became a Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prisoners who caused problems in penitentiaries were sent to Alcatraz with most inmates being notorious bank robbers and murderers.

In its 29 years of use, Alcatraz saw infamous lawbreakers such as Al Capone, George ‘Machine gun’ Kelly, Robert Franklin Stroud (The Birman), and Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karps; Alcatraz’s longest-serving inmate as well as Rafael Cancel Miranda, a member of the Puerto Rican National Party who attacked the U.S Capitol building in 1954.

During these 29 years, the penitentiary claim that no prisoner ever successfully escaped however 36 prisoners made escape attempts with 2 men trying twice, 23 being caught alive, 6 were shot, 2 drowned and 5 are listed as ‘missing and presumed drowned’, although there is some believe they have been sighted since their escape. Due to the incredibly high costs of running the prison, it was closed on March 21, 1963. On the tour, you learn about each of these famous inmates in more detail along with the most intricate escapes devised.

We really enjoyed our time visiting Alcatraz – send us a message if you have any questions about our visit! Heading to San Fran? We have a mini-guide to help you plan your visit PLUS our top things to do, a guide to Fishermans Wharf and our day visiting the Zig Zag Lombard street. 

What is your favorite thing to do in San Francisco? Let us know in the comments below. 

Helpful Resources

Travel essentials:

What to pack

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