Honest Alcatraz Island Tour Review: Tips for Visiting Alcatraz

One of America’s most infamous maximum security prisons on an island with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alcatraz Island is one of the best things to do in San Francisco, whether you’re interested in its history as a fort and military barracks or you’re really here for the Al Capone stories.

Not only will those who visit Alcatraz experience a bleak and unforgiving cellhouse, but they’ll also discover the beauty of the lighthouse and Military Chapel, as well as awesome views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate bridge from this island in the middle of the bay.

alcatraz island san francisco

Alcatraz prison tours (currently self-guided) will take you behind the cells that housed dangerous criminals throughout the years as well as show you the recreation areas, the cafeteria, intake room, and more.

Keep your eyes peeled for the wildlife as well, as an absence of four-footed predators has made this a haven for birds who want a more peaceful life and today it houses mice, salamanders, and insects as well.

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What is Alcatraz? Prison Island’s Troubled History

From the dark pasts of prisoners like Al Capone and Robert Stroud to what life was really like on this foggy, mysterious island, Alcatraz Island has a fascinating past.

alcatraz island san francisco

The island, just over a mile away from San Francisco and situated in the heart of San Francisco Bay, has been used for everything from a fort to a prison.

In the early days, native people in the Bay area would paddle to Alcatraz to hunt and fish from its shores, but it wasn’t until the Gold Rush that Alcatraz was used as a fort in a defensive strategy for San Francisco Bay.

At this point, more than 400 soldiers were stationed here and it was all about weapons and defense, not prisoners (though there were prisoners on the island at this time, in the basement of the fort).

alcatraz island san francisco

The history of Alcatraz as a prison as it was known in the 1900s began around 1915, when objectors to World War I were inmates here.

By 1934, it had opened as a federal penitentiary for over 1500 men until it closed down in 1963.

Alcatraz functioned well as a prison for security reasons, as the cold and unforgiving currents of the bay meant that escape from the prison, much less the island, was practically impossible.

alcatraz island san francisco

Today, Alcatraz escapes are something of lore, and on the island you can see replicas of how prisoners attempted to escape, the most famous being the escape of 1962 when three men got out of their cells and used raincoats as flotation devices to attempt to make it to the mainland (their bodies were never found).

alcatraz island san francisco

Today, the history of the actual cellhouse as well as the other buildings on the island like the Warden’s House, Guardhouse, Post Exchange and Officers Club and the military chapel are all on display at this National Park.

alcatraz island san francisco

Practical Tips for Visiting Alcatraz

To get to Alcatraz, the foggy island in the bay, you’ll have to do some prior planning to make sure that your journey there and back goes off without a hitch.

How to Book Alcatraz Tickets

The easiest way to book Alcatraz tickets is to do it online on the Alcatraz Island website if you’re looking to do the Alcatraz Day Tour (the most popular one), the Alcatraz Night Tour (where you are on the island in the dark!), or the Alcatraz Behind the Scenes tour (a guided tour).

This review and experience below is of the popular Alcatraz Day tickets entry.

However, if you want to combine Alcatraz with some other San Francisco sights or get unique Alcatraz tour options, read below where I’ve got more ideas of how to make your time on Alcatraz memorable.

alcatraz island san francisco

Alcatraz Tickets Price (all includes ferry)

  • Day tour: $49 for adults, $33 for children
  • Night tour: $56.40 for adults, $36.60 for children
  • Behind the scenes tour: $101.40 for adults, $97.35 for children

Alcatraz Hours

The island hours range from 9 or 10am to around 5pm or 6pm depending on the time of year.

What’s most important is the ferry hours, which for the day tour typically depart from around 8:50am to 2:00 or 3:00pm (giving you a couple of hours to explore the island before coming back).

Again, you can’t just waltz onto the island by yourself without taking the ferry, so it’s the ferry booking time that you should concentrate on.

Alcatraz Booking Tip

Book one of the earliest ferry times you can. This way, you can explore as long as you want without worrying about needing to come back for the last boat.

How to Get to Alcatraz Island

The only way to get to Alcatraz Island is by ferry, and the sole ferry operator licensed to take you there is Alcatraz Island cruises.

Other tours will either use this ferry to get you there while bringing their own guides along, or they will take you past Alcatraz without stopping on it.

Alcatraz Cruise & Ferry Experience

When you arrive for your ferry to Alcatraz island, you’ll join a line that wraps around quite a few times.

They recommend arriving at least 30 minutes prior to departure time, and this rang true for us in order to make sure you’d actually make it onto the ferry you meant to (if you miss it, you’ll have to wait for the next one which will probably be in another 30 minutes).

alcatraz island san francisco

When it’s time to board, you’ll show your ticket and hop on.

Spread out and sit or stand wherever you’d like.

We stood outside to get some amazing pictures of the island and of San Francisco from a vantage point that you probably hadn’t seen it from before.

The ferry doesn’t take long, about 12-15 minutes each way.

Self-Guided Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour Review

Tours around the cellhouse are done via audio guide with the Alcatraz audio tour, narrated by some past Alcatraz prisoners and officers.

While much of what you look at is very stark and, well, prison-like, the audio guide really brings everything to life and helps you imagine what life would have been like behind these walls.

At the time it was built in 1912, the cellhouse was the largest steel-reinforced concrete building in the world, largely built by unskilled inmates.

With easy-to-read signs and the audio guide telling you exactly where to go, you wind your way through the rows of cells (you can even go in one), learn the stories of the prisoners who attempted to escape, explore the outside grounds with actually beautiful views, and see where the prisoners ate.

This was a maximum security prison, and there were also areas of the prison for even more dangerous prisoners who needed to be in complete solitary refinement.

This was known as the D Block, and one step inside one of these completely pitch black rooms will give you a tiny glimpse of the psychological anguish that these prisoners would have felt.

Other Things to See on Alcatraz Island

In addition to the actual cellhouse and prison area, you can walk around the island to explore other areas.

Make sure to check out the bookstore and exhibits at the old military barracks near the dock, which were used to house soldiers and cannons.

alcatraz island san francisco

The guardhouse is the oldest building on teh island, built in 1857, and was one of the areas that held Confederate sympathizers and U.S Army prisoners in the late 1800s.

alcatraz island san francisco

What is now left of the Post Exchange and Officers Club (it was destroyed by fire in 1970) shows the remains of an area where soldiers and their families would buy food and personal items.

During the federal prison days, it was a recreation hall with a dance floor and bowling alley for the prison officers (yes, they and their families lived on the island too!)

In fact, you can see where these officers would have lived, which was the barracks and apartments about halfway up the hill to the prison.

There was a tiny post office and small market, and this part of the island was fenced off for security of the families during the federal prison days.

alcatraz island san francisco

Don’t forget to see the lighthouse, first lit in 1854 to help guide ships through the Golden Gate.

It was the first one in operation on the Pacific Coast, and the keeper often lived in a home at the base.

alcatraz island san francisco

The lighthouse keepers left the island when the island was home to the prison, and the lighthouse was automated from that point.

There are also some beautiful gardens to explore, especially on the western slope below the cellhouse and at the warden’s house, as well as beautiful views.

These historic gardens have been restored by efforts from the National Parks Conservancy and others.

The southern part of the island is closed during bird-nesting season to make room for the animals who now call the island home.

Unique Alcatraz Tour Offerings

If you want to combine a visit to Alcatraz with other things to San Francisco, check out some of these awesome tours.

  • One Day in San Francisco with Alcatraz Tour – if you only have one day in San Francisco and want to “do it all,” the best thing you can do is take this tour which takes you all around the city in the morning, then off to Muir Woods to see the redwoods, and finishing up at Alcatraz for the afternoon. Genuinely, this is the best way to work in Alcatraz to an itinerary that would be hard to manage on your own.
  • Alcatraz Inside with Fisherman’s Wharf lunchthis tour allows you inside Alcatraz to explore around the island, but it also includes lunch credits for restaurants at the popular Fisherman’s Wharf area (near where the ferries depart). Fisherman’s Wharf is a fun, vibrant, and popular place for visitors to hang out, and this way you can have both your lunch and your Alcatraz tour planned.

Is Alcatraz Island Scary for Kids?

Many parents wonder if Alcatraz is somewhere they should take their kids.

With such a history, is it all too much for the little ones to handle?

The historic part of it is really mostly appreciated by children old enough to understand the audio guide, so toddlers and early elementary aged will likely feel “dragged” around here.

alcatraz island san francisco

It’s not that it is scary on its own, but it is a very intimidating structure and bleak-looking (it wasn’t built to be welcoming!), so take note if you have a particularly sensitive child who may be frightened at a replica of a prison cell or the cold and unforgiving nature of the place.

There are no “actors” or replicas of prisoners or people (besides one example of a prisoner who created a ‘copy’ of himself to try and trick guards into thinking he was in his cell), so nothing spooky will pop out at them during the regular tours, but you may want to avoid the night tours if your children scare easily.

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