penitentiary building

Alcatraz Island Tour

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Alcatraz was something I knew very little about until I toured the island. One of my coworkers had told me the Alcatraz Island tour is a “must-do” while visiting San Francisco.

So I took her word for it and bought tickets. It ended up being one of my favorite ventures (along with cave hiking in Pinnacles National Park) while I was visiting SF.

If you want to learn more about the Alcatraz Island Tour, keep on reading! In this post, I will tell you all about my Alcatraz Island tour. Then at the end, I will tell you all the important, need-to-know information to help you plan your visit! (And some fun facts and FAQs!)

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. This means if you make a purchase through a link, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. Read full disclosure here.

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Touring Alcatraz Island

I honestly had ZERO idea what to expect from this Alcatraz Island tour but it has turned out to be one of my favorite tours I’ve ever been on! Even the 15-minute ferry ride to the island is super cool. You can see San Francisco from afar, the bay bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

ocean with bridge & city in the background

Once exiting the ferry, we attended a brief welcome/”in-service” about the island by one of the National Park Guides. Our next stop included photos in front of the Alcatraz Island sign, then into the bookstore near where the guide gave us our welcome speech.

Alcatraz Island sign against a white wall with a clock

Going through the bookstore, there are three large rooms where we watched a short (maybe 15 minutes) video about Alcatraz.

I HIGHLY recommend this, especially if you know nothing about Alcatraz! The video is very informative, giving the history of the island and penitentiary from previous guards and inmates. I had no idea the island has a military history and that Native Americans once lived on the island! 

After watching the video, we climbed the steep concrete hills up to the penitentiary.

watertower and building on Alcatraz Island. building has sign that says "united states penitentiary"

The Alcatraz Island tour comes with a free audio guide. The audio tour is absolutely amazing and is a MUST!! I don’t even know why it’s optional. I would have had NO clue what I was looking at if it weren’t for the audio tour guide.

The audio tour will guide you throughout the penitentiary, telling you exactly where to go. It can be paused at any time. Several prior guards and prisoners are on the audio guide, telling about their experiences on Alcatraz Island.

With the help of the audio guide, I was able to see the cells of famous former inmates (Machine Gun Kelly, Al Capone) and also see where famous escape attempts originated.

I was surprised to find that the solitary confinement cells are actually bigger than the regular cells. Not to say it was a step up from the regular cells. The prisoners in solitary were often kept in the cells all day, sunlight blocked out, and left to use the bathroom in a small hole in the floor of the cell.

jail cell with concrete floor, lower half of the interior walls are painted green. toilet and sink in cell.

Alcatraz is known for taunting prisoners with views of San Francisco that seem so close, yet is so far away. I can definitely see why there were escape attempts. The view of the city from the island is beautiful!

View of San Francisco from inside Alcatraz via a tiny window in the concrete wall

Looking for a fun day trip from San Francisco? Try cave hiking in Pinnacles National Park or Visiting Muir Woods and Point Reyes!

We were lucky enough to visit on a day where the National Park Guides would be demonstrating the opening and closing of the cellblock doors. Apparently, they don’t do this all the time. We were excited to hear the famous slamming of the cell doors!

This ended up taking longer than expected (a good 20-30 minutes). The volunteer guide told us more history about Alcatraz, the difference in the types of cells, the different metals used for the cell doors, then FINALLY we got to see and hear the opening and closing of the doors. The guide showed us several times, demonstrating with one door, then opening and closing all the doors at once (quite loud!).

ocean with view of San Francisco

The Alcatraz Island tour ends with returning the audio guide & headphones. They have strategically placed a large bookstore between the audio guide return and the exit to go back down to the dock. All excited from the audio tour, I wanted to buy one of everything. I managed to control myself and only buy two books.

The first book, Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock, is written by former prisoner Jim Quillen. The other book is written by a former guard who has collected actual letters from inmates of Alcatraz and published them in this book titled Letters from Alcatraz.

This ended our nearly 4.5 hours on the island. It was definitely worth the $46, and I would love to go back and do the night tour sometime! If this post has you wanting to tour Alcatraz Island, below are some tips for planning your visit!

Things to Note Before Your Alcatraz Island Tour

Tickets: Tickets are only sold through Alcatraz Island Tickets. These tickets include the ferry ride to and from the island. They have two tours available: the day tour ($46) and the night tour ($53).

Purchasing Tickets: Tickets are rarely available the day of the tour and tours can sell out weeks in advance. (I found that out the hard way. I had to rearrange my schedule in order to get one of the last available tours!) You can book up to 90 days in advance. My suggestion is to buy tickets online and print them out if possible. This will save you the time and hassle of having to wait in line and pick up your tickets at will-call.

What to wear: Per usual for San Francisco: a jacket (the ferry ride is chilly!) and good walking shoes. The trek up to the penitentiary is a steep 10-minute walk. Transport is available only for those with disabilities.

Food: Eat before your tour. There is a small, pricey cafe at the Pier before you board the ferry. The ferry also sells snacks and drinks. Food is not allowed on the island except on the dock by the ferry. So make sure you plan accordingly!

Time: Arrive 30 minutes prior to ferry departure. Most suggest allowing 2-3 hours for the tour. However, we ended up staying about 4.5 hours. We just loved it that much!

What to bring: Make sure you bring a photo ID to get on the ferry. I would also suggest bringing a camera (I love my Canon Rebel T6)!

Alcatraz History

  • Alcatraz was originally named “La Isla de los Alcatraces” by Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, which means “Island of the Pelicans.”
  • The lighthouse on Alcatraz Island was the first lighthouse on the West Coast.
  • Alcatraz was originally a fortress built by the US Army to protect San Francisco during the Gold Rush in the 1950s, however, it was never needed.
  • The fortress turned into a military prison in 1868.
  • The first group of federal prisoners arrived on the island in 1934 when the prison officially became Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
  • Native American activists took over the island in 1969 and were removed by federal marshalls in 1971.

Alcatraz Facts

  • Al Capone played the banjo in the inmate band.
  • The families of the guards and officers also lived on the island.
  • The average jail cell was 5 x 9 feet.
  • Alcatraz Island comprises about 22 acres of land.
  • The island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972.

Why did Alcatraz close?

  • Alcatraz became too expensive to operate and the facilities were deteriorating. It was actually the most expensive prison to maintain compared to all the other state and federal prisons.

When did Alcatraz close?

  • Alcatraz closed on March 21st of 1963. It was in operation for 29 years.

Alcatraz Island Bonus Points

Alcatraz Island is part of the National Park System!! It’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. I had no idea so I didn’t bring my Passport To Your National Parks book. 

However, lucky for me, the bookstore had one. So I just bought another one & got my Passport Book stamped! I was needing another one anyway since I have already filled up all the pages for the Western Region. The bookstore sells a sticker sheet that includes stickers from all the sites included in the Golden Gate NRA. This is a different sticker sheet than the yearly sheets from the National Park Service. It provides a sticker for each of the GG NRA places where passport stamps are offered.

Hope you enjoyed this post and are inspired to take the Alcatraz Island tour for yourself!

melissa of dogwoods & driftwood travel blog

Want to read about more adventures while I was visiting San Francisco? Check out these posts:

Spending a Day Hiking to Bear Gulch Cave in Pinnacles National Park

How to See Point Reyes & Muir Woods in the Same Day

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Everything You Need to Know for Touring Alcatraz Island!

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