See it Now: Photo Tour
1. 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.
If you're really curious about Alcatraz or just like to amaze your buddies with little-known facts, find plenty of interesting facts about Alcatraz here.
2. Alcatraz Tours: Day and NightThe "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, but 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.
3. Alcatraz Island Tickets
- Don't be Fooled: The only way to tour Alcatraz is Alcatraz Cruises from San Francisco. Other bay cruise companies can take you by, but can't stop.
- 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. On a July Friday, I've seen them sold out until the following Tuesday. Get tickets online 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.
4. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
5. Things to Do on AlcatrazThe tour starts with a brief orientation (warning about seagulls, directions to the toilets, etc). National Park Service activities to help you learn about Alcatraz Island include a self-guided tour book (several languages, $1), ranger-led tours, an orientation film, visits by authors of books about Alcatraz and - best of all - the audio tour.
6. 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, it stinks during seagull nesting season, and it takes up almost half a day to go there and back.
POLL: How do you rate Alcatraz?
7. 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.
8. Getting to Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz IslandAlcatraz 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.
San Francisco, CA
National Park Website
Alcatraz Cruises Website
To drive, follow signs for Pier 39. Pier 33 is a few blocks east. The closest and most convenient lot is at 80 Francisco at Kearny, just one block away, across the Embarcadero from Alcatraz Landing. 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.