Touring Alcatraz

posted by Sharon Odegaard 39 Comments
Alcatraz San Francisco

Touring Alcatraz should be top of your list of what to do in San Francisco, even though it may seem strange to plan a visit to a former maximum security prison. You will find The Rock a fascinating place to explore, and the tour comes complete with a boat ride on the bay. Here’s an overview of what you’ll see on your tour, along with practical information to get the most from your valuable vacation time here.Alcatraz San Francisco

Begin at Pier 33 in San Francisco

Your tour of Alcatraz begins on the wharf, at Pier 33. No private boats are allowed to dock at the island. The only way to arrive is by the Alcatraz tour boats. You can purchase tickets on the official website. These do sell out, so order up to three months ahead. The island itself is now maintained and run by the National Park Service. Alcatraz San Francisco

The weather cooperated on our reserved day, and we enjoyed a lovely 20-minute cruise with views of the Bay Bridge, Angel Island, and back toward the city of San Francisco. Alcatraz San Francisco

Arrive on the Island

Alcatraz is most well known for its years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963. Many of the cell blocks today are exactly as they were left when the prison closed, except for the ravages of time. Peeling paint is everywhere inside and out, and nothing has been spruced up. This allows you to imagine what life was like for the “incorrigible” criminals who lived here in spartan conditions.

When you arrive on the island, you can see a short orientation film and then trudge up the steep hill to the main prison. When a prisoner arrived, clothes were issued, along with shaving equipment and other basics. Wind around the shower area to pick up an audio tour in your language. Alcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San Francisco

Tour the Cell Block Rows

Moving to the cell block rows, you’ll start the audio and meet the prison guards and inmates who will be your “guides” and tell you about life at Alcatraz. Alcatraz San Francisco


Alcatraz San FranciscoListen to stories of daily life along the corridors of cells and marvel at tales of insurrections, lost keys, smuggled hacksaws, and grenades. Some of the cells are restored to show that prisoners painted, read, played checkers, and even crocheted in an effort to maintain a civilized existence. Alcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San Francisco

Go Behind Bars

You’ll have plenty of opportunities to stand behind bars, in cells, to get a feel for incarceration. I’m not sure why some bars are pink. No women were ever imprisoned here.Alcatraz San Francisco

Alcatraz San FranciscoFind a Lighthouse

Back outside, you run into the lighthouse, built in 1854. Lightkeepers lived in the residence that once was at the base but burned in 1970. Today, the light is automated and continues to shine. Alcatraz San Francisco

The shell of a large house sitting in a prime view spot on the island housed the warden and his family. It also burned in 1970, but at its heyday it was a mansion surrounded by ornamental gardens.

Wander Down the Hill

Down the hill from the main prison you’ll find several interesting sights. You may want to stop at these on the way up. We stopped on the way up to the cell blocks, then went down the hill, then later went back up to the cell blocks to see more. You are totally free to roam the island at your leisure (unlike some unlucky people who resided here).

A water tower rises above the north end of the island, and it tells of another era in the history of Alcatraz. American Indian activists occupied the island for 19 months, coming from the city in 1969. They claimed the land for “Indians of All Tribes.” They lived in the cells and spent time outside, too.  The water tower declares Peace and Freedom. The occupiers ran out of money, food, and supplies and eventually left. Graffiti is still displayed, though the National Park Service has invited native Americans back to help paint over it. Alcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San Francisco

The large ruined building just above the dock was at one time the Post Exchange and Officer’s Club. One amazing aspect of Alcatraz is that during its time as a federal prison, the families of the prison officials lived in close proximity to the prisoners. Children raised on Alcatraz remember it fondly. This Club featured a soda fountain and a bowling alley. Dances and parties took place. And the children would hop on a boat and go to San Francisco for school each weekday. They recall that they were almost unaware of the prison that stood a few yards away. Alcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San Francisco

Wander Through Tunnels

Alcatraz was first the home of a fort. In the 1850s, this was the first line of defense in case of invasion on the west coast. During the Civil War, Confederate prisoners were housed here. You can wander through the tunnels of the early fort. Alcatraz San Francisco


Alcatraz San FranciscoSit on the Dock at Alcatraz

At the dock stands the symbol of Alcatraz – the guard tower. This is one of only a few guard towers. It’s notable that the prison lacks walls and fences, though the windows are barred. Guards believed that no one could escape, because it’s not possible to survive in the choppy, cold waters of the bay. Prisoners did attempt to escape anyway, of course. Only one escapee got off the island, and he was never found. He likely died in the water, but no one will ever know for sure. Alcatraz San Francisco


Alcatraz San FranciscoTake a National Park Service Tour on Alcatraz

The National Park Service offers informative free tours throughout the day. We took the tour on escapes from Alcatraz. We heard about the cell area where one escape attempt happened, and we went back up the hill to study the shape of the bars and cells. Some bars are flat, and some are rounded. Details like that make the tour so interesting.

As you stand on the island with the prison looming above and sailboats gliding by on the water, you’ll find yourself imagining what life behind bars here was like, knowing that beauty and freedom lie so close but are just out of reach. Alcatraz San Francisco


Alcatraz San FranciscoAlcatraz San FranciscoPractical Information

Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online at Alcatraz Cruises. Some sites sell bay cruise tickets that include “seeing” Alcatraz from the boat but not landing there. Be careful and try to book through the official site only. You can choose from day cruises, night cruises, and behind-the-scenes tours. Only the day cruises were available when I booked.

Prices: Adults — $40, children 11 and under — $24. Audio guides are included with the ticket.

What to wear: It can be windy and cold, so take a windbreaker-type jacket even in summer.

Food: This seemed to be confusing. We were allowed to bring food in our backpacks, though we were first told we would have to eat the food at the dock or throw it away. Apparently as long as you don’t try to dine in the cell blocks, you can carry food. A picnic area is available on the dock. No food is for sale on the island. Water is allowed.

Tours: A daily schedule of tours led by National Park Service employees is posted. These are about a half hour long. The one we took was great!

More information about Alcatraz: For more information about touring Alcatraz as well as its history, check out the National Park Service website.

Read More About San Francisco

San Francisco Hidden Gems to Explore
Iconic Hotels of San Francisco
Visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
Exploring San Francisco with Kids
Walking the Golden Gate Bridge
Coit Tower — A San Francisco Landmark
Riding San Francisco’s Cable Cars
San Francisco at Christmastime
Finding the Filbert Stairs

This post contains affiliate links. Clicking on them may result in a commission being paid if you purchase afterwards. This is at no extra cost to you. All opinions are always my own.


Alcatraz Island San Francisco
Alcatraz San Francisco Tips - Exploringrworld.comAlcatraz San Francisco - Exploring Our World

You may also like


William Kendall at

It still looks foreboding.

Tamar A Strauss-Benjamin at

So much fun! I would love to get there one day.

Carol at

Alcatraz is one of my favorite memories of my first visit to San Francisco and yes I think everyone should go. The boat ride to the island and back is worth the trip even if you don’t find the old prison interesting.

Lydia C. Lee at

Really great pics!!

Bill at

My son visited the Island a few months ago, he just turned up on the day bough a ticket and went for a tour, He took a load of photos though I have not seen them. He did bring me back a mouth organ though with Alcatraz on it. Thanks for showin the photos I’ll nag him to see his now

junieper2/Jesh StG at

It may be the mysteriousness of a place where so many criminals have lived that sparks the curiosity of people. See in the captain’s face, it looks like you won’t mess with him! Seeing the small cells, I don’t know, I might go bonkers in there, but of course that daily got out for at least an hour.As always, a great description and images of the subject, Sharon. Thanks fo much for sharing it will All Seasons! A happy Thanksgiving to you and your family:)

Amy Franks at

oh man I am SO envious! that place is on my bucket list

Alan B Bates at

Great photo and information. It’s on my bucket list.

Sandra Nachlinger at

Fascinating! I visited Alcatraz about 30 years ago, and I don’t think the tour was as extensive then as the one you enjoyed. Thank you for sharing your amazing photos.

Aletha Oglesby, M.D. at

Your photos capture the somberness and oppression of a tiny prison cell so well, it makes me cringe. I think it must have sucked the life out of anyone who entered, maybe that was the point. I hope only those who had failed attempts at rehabilitation were sent there.

Ann at

Such a rich history in that place, must have been both scary and amazing to visit 🙂 I know my husband would love to visit a place like this, he would not stop nagging until we went.

Jay Artale at

We did a night tour of Alcatraz and is was amazing .. if a little intimidating. It was late autumn and dark, with fog rolling in and it really added an daunting ambiance to our visit. The tour was really informative and my in-laws often mention this as one of the most memorable activities of their trip.

Anna at

It’s interesting to open a former prison as a tourist attraction. It’s not the first one I hear about, there’s one in La Paz, while other prisons have been converted into hostels, cultural centers or museums, even clubs! It would be interesting to hear the stories, but would only visit it if I had plenty of time in San Francisco, as other places are more interesting for me.

Heather at

Alcatraz is definitely on my list for my trip to San Francisco (hoping to go in 2020!). I think it’s so cool that they have this attraction and you get to really see what it was like in there!

Kathy at

This brought back many memories for me as I toured Alcatraz some 20 years ago on my first trip to San Francesco.

Andi at

I lived in the SF Bay Area for close to 30 years and worked in the city more than 10, but it took a LONG time before I ever went to Alcatraz – so fun and a great way to spend the day when the weather is good. However, I never did the tour and am going to try to do that on my next trip back! Feel like I missed out!

Chris at

I teach criminal justice and currently teach a course on corrections in the United States. I would love to tour Alcatraz. It would be fascinating.

Chris at

I teach criminal justice and currently teach a course on corrections in the United States. I would love to tour Alcatraz. It would be fascinating.

Leah at

Alcatraz is so fascinating! I live just an hour away, so I went here a lot while growing up. It is filled with so much history (a bit creepy!), and I learn something new every time. You have some great tips here for first-time visitors, and I’m inspired to go back soon! My husband hasn’t been yet, so I think we need to plan a weekend trip soon. 🙂

Margy at

I visited many, many years ago. It was quite amazing, I remember being in a solitary confinement cell that must have been horrible with no light and limited interactions with other human beings. – Margy

Allison at

Alcatraz is on my bucket list. It looks and sounds so fascinating. #wanderfulwednesday

Wendy Lee at

We visited Alcatraz a few years ago and found it fascinating. So much history on this small island. Thanks for all the great information and photos1

image-in-ing: weekly photo linkup at

Rather a grim place. I have become friends with an inmate through 20 years of correspondence, and seeing such sights always makes me feel rather sad.
Thanks for sharing at

Patti Morrow at

I was only in San Francisco once, many years ago. I did not make it to Alcatraz unfortunately. You made it look and sound so interesting! I’ve been thinking of going back in the near future, and this time I will make sure to visit the old prison.

Sue at

I have been to Alcatraz a few times & reading this brought back a lot of memories. It has always stuck in my head as one of the most interesting tours as one of the first I ever did with the headset guides. I love hearing all the stories from former inmates & wardens which really make the experience come to life. Such a foreboding location though!

Slavka at

I haven’t been to SF yet. When I go, Alcatraz is a must-do. Thanks for the informative article. It’ll be easier to plan with all the tips.

Sarah at

I can’t understand why I never visited Alcatraz when I was in San Francisco, it was such a long time ago. Really wish I had, it looks fascinating and I’d love to be incarcerated behind pink railings, well for a few minutes Hopefully, I will get back there one day and Ill be definitely visiting Alcatraz.

Larch at

It is morbidly fascinating but a must-do when I finally get to San Francisco.

Cynthia at

I haven’t been there since I was so young but I do remember the boat ride there and some of the creepy cells! It is a great quirky thing to do in SF 🙂 I love that first photo — so moody yet inviting!

Lisa | Handmade in Israel at

My parents visited it and I remember them saying it was a fascinating place to go to. Some of your “guides” sound rather naughty! Glad you had a good day. #WanderfulWednesday

Mandy at

Looks like Alcatraz was fairly empty when you visited. It’s a very interesting place to explore. I went in the spring when flowers were blooming, so it was rather pretty then. Was it cold on the day you visited? The sky looks a little overcast.

Rhonda Albom at

I don’t recall that my tour of Alcatraz was as comprehensive as what you saw. Great photos of both inside and out.

beatravelling at

This I wanna do! Kinda looks a little like Robben Island, just that Robben Island is a lot bigger. #wanderfulwednesday

betty - NZ at

What a great tour of this fascinating place–thanks for sharing your experience with us! Its history is quite interesting.

Your link at ‘My Corner of the World’ this week is much appreciated!
My Corner of the World

Anna Intrepid Scout at

Your post brings a lot of memories! I have toured Alcatraz many years ago. It was fun reading your post and looking at the pictures. It has an incredible history.

Lisa at

This brought back memories of our trip there but we definitely didn’t get to see as much as you did. We love San Fran so will need to get back and head over again.

Aswani at

That’s a great summary of Alcatraz trip! Loved it!

Catherine at

Great post, very in depth and detailed! I didn’t realize that Alcatraz was run by the NPS, that’s interesting. You’ve painted a very vivid picture for what the tour is like. We will definitely check out Alcatraz next time we visit San Francisco!

Sharon at

I would love to Tour Alcatraz, it’s on my bucket list.


Leave a Comment