What to Do When you Visit Alcatraz Island for the First Time

October 3, 2018

Follow our itinerary to have the best experience on Alcatraz Island!

Over half a century ago Alcatraz was one of the most feared prisons in America. No one wanted to go there. Now, though, it’s one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco. My, how the times have changed! Almost every person visiting San Francisco for the first time has Alcatraz on their list of things to do. In order to make your sentence, I mean visit, an easy one follow in my footsteps. I’ll show you exactly what to do when you visit Alcatraz Island for the first time.

Aerial view of Alcatraz Island. Boaz Meiri / Wikimedia

Visit Alcatraz Island: History Lesson

Before we get started with what to do, it’s important to understand the history of Alcatraz. Opened in 1934, Alcatraz was designed to house the most notorious criminals in America. During its 29 year operation, it jailed bank robbers and murderers, including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), Mickey Cohen, and James “Whitey” Bulger, among many others.

The prison was dubbed “The Rock” due to its location on a rocky island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Its location was no coincidence, though, as it prevented convicts from escaping. Not that it didn’t stop them from trying. The most famous escape attempt happened in June 1962, when three men (Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin) did in fact escape, but are believed to have perished at sea.

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Life on Alcatraz Island was grim. Which is exactly why this federal prison was the one prison no criminal wanted to be.

Visit Alcatraz Island: How to Get There

To visit Alcatraz Island, you’ll need to take a ferry operated by Alcatraz Cruises. Other operators may offer cruises that cruise around “The Rock,” but this is the only one that actually stops there. The port for the ferry is located at Pier 33, which is near Fisherman’s Wharf.

Accessing Pier 33 can happen one of these ways:

  • Depending on where you’re staying, you can walk there.
  • Take a cab, which will cost around $10-12 if you’re staying in the city.
  • Take the F Street car line from Market Street. (Cost is only $2.)
  • Drive to the Pier. (Note there is no parking at Pier 33, so you’ll have to pay to park at a nearby lot.)

I recommend reserving tickets to visit Alcatraz Island, as you never know just how big those crowds may be—especially during the summer season!

The view of Downtown San Francisco as you head to Alcatraz.

Visit Alcatraz Island: All Aboard

The ferry ride to Alcatraz Island doesn’t take long—about 20 minutes—but it does boast some excellent views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. If you want a prime viewing spot, I suggest arriving for your departure time early. The open air, top level deck is optimal for taking photos, but it fills up fast. Start queuing at least 30 minutes before your departure time to make sure you don’t have to fight the crowds.

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Do be sure to bring a light jacket with you, no matter the weather. It may feel warm in the nice, California sunshine but once you’re on that boat the wind picks up, and the chill hits.

view of alcatraz island during daytime in San Francisco, California, USAVisit Alcatraz Island: Touring “The Rock”

Let’s go to prison! Arriving at Alcatraz is a fairly straightforward process. There’s a quick briefing, then you’re free to head up the hill towards the prison entrance. The walk, which is only ¼ mile, is rather steep so feel free to make stops along the way. Additionally, if you need assistance there is a shuttle available that will take you from Point A to Point B. Just ask the friendly Park Ranger about it!

Once inside the prison, you’ll receive a self-guided audio tour, which is available in 10 different languages. There are park ranger guides, but this is the easiest way to tour Alcatraz at your leisure. The Cellhouse Audio Tour “Doing Time” is a compelling look at life inside the prison. It features the actual voices and accounts of former guards and inmates, which provides an extra layer of personal insight. Throughout the day, the National Park Service also offers guided programs so you can gain additional access to areas of Alcatraz Island.

The ruins of the old Warden House.

The self-guided tour leads you on a 45-minute route through the prison, during which you’ll learn all sorts of amazing facts and stories. One of the most intriguing I remember from my visit was that Alcatraz also provided housing for its prison staff and families. Imagine, some of America’s most hardened criminals living on the same island as children!

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After the audio portion of your visit is complete, you are free to walk around the island. Highlights include:

  • Gardens of Alcatraz
  • Recreation Yard
  • Rock pools and seabird colonies
  • Ruins of the Warden’s House and Officers’ Club
  • The oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast

There’s also a theater on-site, showcasing a short film on the history of Alcatraz Island, as well as two gift shops. At the gift shops, you can discover everything there is to know about Alcatraz. Book and movie selections range from personal letter collections from inmates to escape attempts and more.

ferry docking area for the entrance and exit to Alcatraz Island on a sunny day in San Francisco, California, USAVisit Alcatraz Island: Escape Route

Luckily, this prison visit is one with a get of jail free card! After your tour, which will probably take you 2-3 hours, make your way to the ferry dock. It’s helpful to plan your departure in advance, as they are strict about leaving times. Line-up a good 15 minutes before departure to secure your place on board. You don’t want to have to spend the night on Alcatraz Island. (Don’t worry—they’ll kick you out before that happens!)

Tour Alcatraz Today

With this step-by-step guide to a first-time Alcatraz Island visit, you’ll be able to make the most of your experience on “The Rock.”

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