Looming ominously in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, surrounded by treacherous currents making escapes virtually impossible, America’s infamous former prison, Alcatraz, remains one of California’s most visited attractions, and should be on your radar if you’re planning a visit to San Francisco.
Extra creepy on foggy days but worthy of a visit anytime, prison tours of ‘The Rock’ often sell-out, especially sunset departures and the highly popular, Alcatraz night tours.
‘The Rock’: a brief prison history
It was the Spanish explorers in the 18th century that named it Isla de Alcatraces or Pelican Island. Over its 150 year history as Alcatraz, the 22-acre island was used as America’s first military prison (1828) and a maximum-security penitentiary (1934-1963). The first lighthouse on the west coast was built here, too. Of course, the island is much older than that, and was first occupied by the Bay Area’s Indigenous people 10,000 – 20,000 years ago.
In 1969, Native American students and activists attempted to reclaim the island, with as many as 100 Native protesters re-occupying the disputed territory for almost two years. They demanded the island’s buildings be repurposed to include an Indian education centre, cultural centre and ecology centre.
The stand-off between the U.S. government and the Native Americans ended in 1971, when President Nixon ordered everyone to be removed by the armed National Guard. Graffiti from the occupation can still be found on the Water Tower and elsewhere.
Today, a public ceremony (open to everyone) is held every Thanksgiving on Alcatraz Island honouring the plight of Native Americans.
Alcatraz gained its notoriety though as a federal prison, housing several high-profile criminals. Prisoners deemed too dangerous for other federal prisons were brought to Alcatraz, including members of the Ma Barker and Bonnie and Clyde gangs, Robert ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ Stroud, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and America’s most famous mobster, Al Capone.
In 1986, Alcatraz became a National Historic Landmark, administered by the National Park Service, offering organized tours daily.
Alcatraz Cruises operates daily scheduled ferry service to and from the island from Pier 33’s Alcatraz Landing (near Fisherman’s Wharf), as well as a few tours. At just a little over 2 kilometres offshore, it takes less than 15-minutes to reach by boat. Once there, budget about 2.5-3 hours for a thorough visit. If your time in San Francisco is limited, book your tour in advance.
Besides the lighthouse and some early military fortification, the island still boasts the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Library, Parade Grounds, Building 64, Water Tower, Recreation Yard, the New Industries and Model Industries Buildings, as well as the ruins of the Warden’s House and Officers’ Club, which were partially destroyed in a fire before the Native protesters were removed.
Tours of Alcatraz can also be combined with a visit to nearby Angel Island or with cruises of San Francisco Bay, and even with wine tours of Napa and Sonoma.
Please note that children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult on all tours.
Early Bird & Day Tours
For Early Bird (first tour of the day) and Day Tours, expect lengthy queues on warm sunny days, and expect tours to sell out.
All Day Tours of Alcatraz include round-trip ferry service, are self-guided, but offer an audio component available for those interested (do it!). Tickets also include access to any daily activities and exhibitions. While you can stay on the island as long as you like, 3 hours are usually sufficient.
Family discounts are available for groups of 2 adults and 2 children (2-11 years).
For the brave, there’s nothing like wandering the storied holding pens of Alcatraz after dark, on a spine-tingling night tour.
There’s a good chance that the place is haunted, and why wouldn’t it be. Countless restless souls of some of America’s most hardened criminals can’t just go gently into that good night, and Native legend, as well as visitors, have occasionally reported unexplained paranormal activity – just ask your guide.
Night Tours include everything Day Tours do but add a guide and narration and special tour activities. Highlights include stunning views of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, evening talks, covering everything from prison breaks to kitchen recipes, and the pitch-black solitary confinement cells.
Available Thursday – Monday only.
Behind the Scenes Tours (ages 12+)
For the most in-depth Alcatraz experience, take the chilling Behind the Scenes Tour. These immersive explorations include everything covered in a Night Tour but take things up a notch with exclusive access to areas not available to the general public.
Groups max out at 30 and comb the island grounds as well as the buildings with a ranger-guide. Explore hidden tunnels and doorways, underground jails and even gardens on this highly insightful experience.
Tours operate in the evenings and are 4.5 hours long.
Cellhouse Audio Tours
Stroll the cell blocks at your own pace while listening to captivating tales of riots, attempted escapes and general life behind bars, from those that lived it. The self-guided tour is narrated by ex-prisoners and guards that lived and worked on the island and perfectly capture both sides of life on The Rock.
‘Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour’ is available on all tours, in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
Alcatraz Tours FAQs
When is the best time to visit Alcatraz?
For the best weather, visit in the spring or fall, namely April-May or September-October. To beat the crowds, early November and early December visits are best. Summers in the Bay Area, including Alcatraz Island, can often be cold and foggy.
What should I wear on a tour of Alcatraz?
First and foremost, a comfortable pair of walking shoes with a good tread. Much of the island is steep and hilly and sandals and heels can be extremely cumbersome. Weather in The Bay changes constantly so it’s always best to dress in layers, including rain gear. If you forget a rain jacket, they’re for sale in the island’s bookstore.
What can I expect to see on the island?
Contrary to what many think, a visit to Alcatraz isn’t all about the prison itself. The island has been an important breeding ground for several species of seabirds and the best time to view nesting birds is February through August. Egg-laying occurs April/May and chicks hatch in June.
Other than nature, historic artifacts can be found throughout the island. Original photographs, objects made by inmates, and more, can be found on display. The island also features exclusive art installations, having recently hosted works by acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Nelson Saiers.