If you’re planning a visit to San Francisco then you need to schedule a trip to Alcatraz into your itinerary. Alcatraz Island sits just 1.25 miles away from San Francisco Bay and is famous for its past as a federal prison for America’s worst criminals. Between the years of 1934 and 1963, Alcatraz was home to criminals such as: Al Capone, Bumpy Johnson, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. The island is now a National Historic Landmark visited by over one million people each year.
I was fortunate enough to visit the island on my recent trip to San Francisco with tickets provided by DiscoverTown Tours. Here are my top tips for visiting Alcatraz Island, which cover the essential things you need to know.
You’ll need to book tickets in advance
Alcatraz tickets can sell out very quickly in busy periods so if you’re planning on visiting Alcatraz in the summer then you’ll want to make sure you get your tickets well in advance. The best place to buy tickets is directly from Alcatraz Cruises as this is the cheapest option. There are multiple different tour options including day tour, a night tour, a combined ticket to both Alcatraz and Angel island and more. If it turns out the tickets are sold out via Alcatraz Cruises, then the next step is for you.
Last minute tickets are available, but expensive!
If tickets are sold out on the Alcatraz website, the only way to get them is through third parties, who sell package tours. These are authorised re-sellers so the tickets are perfectly legitimate however they will always tack on extras which can quickly rack up the price. If it turns out that Alcatraz tickets are sold out on Alcatraz Cruises then a good option can be to purchase a package such as a two day bus tour of San Francisco and the Alcatraz tour. At least this way you get to add on something useful to your trip as you won’t need to think about transport in San Fran.
Remember to Bring Your ID
The person who made the booking will need to bring their ID to pick up the Alcatraz tickets on your allotted day. This ID will be checked against the ticket again when you join the queue for the ferry. If you made the booking, don’t forget your ID or you won’t be able to get on the boat! It’s best for the rest of your party to bring ID too as they often wish to verify the ID of all guests over the age of 18.
Bring layers – no matter the weather!
Even if you’re visiting in the summer months, you’ll need to bring some layers for your visit to Alcatraz. The ferry from San Francisco’s Pier 33 to the island takes around 10-15 minutes but that is more than enough time for you to get very, very chilly. If you thought the winds of San Francisco bay were frosty then wait til you get onto that ferry! As an island, Alcatraz can get very windy and very cold, despite the sun, so make sure to wrap up warm. Doubley so if you’ve booked onto the Night Tour!
The guards (and their families) lived on Alcatraz too!
Can you imagine growing up on an island like Alcatraz? To play outside a federal prison with the USA’s most troublesome criminals? It seems crazy but the guards and their families used to live on Alcatraz too. Of course, they had separate quarters from the prisoners but their movements were still limited by the fact that they were living on an island fifteen minutes away from the shore.
They were free to go back to and visit San Francisco any time they wanted but it wasn’t at all convenient. The families living on the island all became quite close to each other during their time there but the guards’ accounts tell of some (understandably) difficult times. You will learn much more about this on the tour and you can see the area in which the guards and their families used to live.
You can stay on the island for as long as you like
You can stay on the island for as long as you want on your allotted day (until closing that is!). There are ferries going back and forth between San Francisco and Alcatraz island at regular intervals throughout the day and you can hop on any one of these ferries back, provided there’s space (more info below). However, most people tend to spend two to three hours exploring Alcatraz.
The ferries back fill up fast!
You’re guaranteed a place on the ferry on your way over to Alcatraz since you book a specific time slot. However, that’s not the case on the way back. As I said above, you can stay on the island for as long as you like. Therefore you can catch any ferry you like back to San Francisco. However, if you want to guarantee a place on your desired boat back then you need to leave yourself plenty of time to get down to the dock.
During busy times, you can’t just rock up at the dock right before the ferry is due to leave and expect to get a place on it. There are often large queues and you would do well to leave yourself half an hour (at least) to wander from the main prison, down to the dock, to wait for the ferry.
Book the Alcatraz Night Tour
If you’ve got a choice, definitely opt for the Alcatraz Night Tour. It’s slightly more expensive but a hell of a lot creepier which really adds to the prison tour experience! You might not get the same views of San Francisco on the ferry over but you do get to see San Francisco lit up at night, which is equally incredible. If you’re lucky, you might even find that you’re on the island when the sun sets and there’s a fantastic viewing platform as part of the prison tour from which you can view this.
When I was on the island there were two extra talks about the lives of two lesser known prisoners, which were given in complete darkness. The tour guide used his torch to light up a select number of pictures he’d printed off and the whole thing was made more chilling by the torchlight. The Alcatraz Night Tour really is a must!
Look out for extra tours and talks
There are often extra tours and talks going on Alcatraz island so check to see if there are any specials on your allotted day as soon as you arrive. Your tour guide should give you a heads up as to what’s going on when they give the introductory tour but if you forget what they’ve said don’t worry! When you get to the end of the self-guided audio tour, there should be notices about what else is going on.
The tour of the prison is self-guided audio tour
There is an introductory tour of the island as soon as you arrive on Alcatraz, which lasts about thirty minutes. However, once you are in the main prison building, you are left to take yourself around the prison with an audio guide. This self-guided tour of Alcatraz means you can go as fast or as slow as you like. There are lots of different chapters so take your time to really explore each part of the prison before moving onto the next part.
The audio guide is narrated by ex-guards
What makes the audio guide really exciting is that it is narrated by ex Alcatraz guards. The guide is peppered with first hand accounts from guards and they offer some truly fascinating insights into their lives of the prisoners on the island, as well as their own. As I mentioned, these guards had to live on the island along with their families and the prisoners!
You’ll learn who their favourite prisoners were, what the prisoners were like on the inside and whether they lived up to their reputations as the worst criminals in the American system.
You’ll get amazing views of San Francisco
At one part of the tour, you’ll be guided out to a platform from which you get amazing views of San Francisco. Pause here and take lots of photos. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the tall towers of San Francisco. If you’re on the night tour you might be lucky enough to see the sun set during your tour. When I was the island, the sky turned a beautiful shade of lilac as the sun set and it made for great photos. You can also appreciate the natural beauty of the island and its many inhabitants (birds!).
There’s a bookshop on the island
I couldn’t not mention the bookshop on Alcatraz island for all my fellow literary travellers! You’ll find lots and lots of books about the history of Alcatraz and its inmates in the bookshop at the end of the audio tour, which are great for further reading. The audio tour covers so much material but when I left the island I was keen to find out more about its inmates and guards. Most of the books are non-fiction but honestly most of the stories I’ve heard about Alcatraz inmates are more exciting than some of the crime books I’ve read!
There are also lots of Alcatraz souvenirs including t-shirts, postcards, mugs etc. There are even replica trays, uniforms, cutlery and more, which I found a little macabre but to each his own.
Alcatraz island is home to a thriving colony of birds
Whilst there are no longer any human inhabitants on the island, the island now has a thriving colony of birds. If you’re a fan of bird-watching then look out for these seabirds: pigeon guillemots, cormorants, Heermann’s gulls, and western gulls. Sometimes there are even harbor seals on the island! If you miss these however, there are plenty of seals to be found at Pier 39.
There are no food options on Alcatraz
There are no food options on Alcatraz Island, which is something to bear in mind if you’re taking a tour round about lunch or dinner time. Cheekily, there are some food and drink options on the ferry on the way back, to catch out the hungry tourist. I didn’t take a look at these options myself but I assume they are overpriced and very average. San Francisco has so many amazing food options so either bring a light snack or sandwich you can munch on the ferry or be prepared to wait until you get back to shore for decent food. Check out my post on the top things to do in San Francisco for lots of food options!
*My tickets to Alcatraz were provided by DiscoverTown Tours. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.