Touring Alcatraz

Touring Alcatraz, the former island prison, is one of the best things to do in San Francisco and attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year.

Alcatraz Prison in San FranciscoAlcatraz Prison in San Francisco

Touring Alcatraz is one of San Francisco's most popular attractions, and if you're spending a few days in the city as part of your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, we recommend including a tour of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Prison in San FranciscoAlcatraz Prison in San Francisco

Audio Tour of Alcatraz

We'll never forget our first tour of Alcatraz, which is a place you can visit more than once and always discover something new. We highly recommend that you do what we did and take an audio tour of Alcatraz. The tour is narrated by former inmates and prison guards, and is powerful - and at times amusing - stuff. It's included in the price of the ferry ticket, so you only have to ask.

The Island of Alcatraz Seen from San FranciscoAlcatraz Seen from San Francisco

How Long to Spend Touring Alcatraz?

Your boat will drop you at the harbour, after about a 15-minute ride from Fisherman's Wharf (Pier 33). Boats are greeted by members of the National Park Service, who will give you an overview and orientation, to help you make a start.

Our Pick of the Guides

Lonely-Planet-San-Francisco-2023.png

You'll very likely want to spend 2-3 hours touring Alcatraz, though everyone's different and it depends on your level of interest. There's no limit to the time you can spend there - you just don't want to stay overnight! See our page on the Perfect Day in San Francisco to see how you should fit Alcatraz into your day.

Old Staircase in Alcatraz PrisonOld Staircase in Alcatraz Prison

Touring Alcatraz

Unless you sign up for a guided tour, you're free to wander round Alcatraz on your own. There are pros and cons to guided tours versus doing it on your own. With a guided tour you have a set time and know when you'll be back at Fisherman's Wharf, which helps you plan your day. You also know that you'll see all the highlights.

The disadvantage to a guided tour is that you're not able to linger if you find a particular place really interesting, and you want to stay and learn more. The disadvantage to guiding yourself is that you might miss something important, because there is a lot to see at Alcatraz. We've done it both ways, and both were good. The ideal is, of course to be able to visit more than once.

Buildings on Alcatraz IslandBuildings on Alcatraz Island

What to See when Touring Alcatraz?

We'll start at the end and say be sure to allow time to visit the Alcatraz shop. You'll find some very different souvenirs and gifts here. We're sure you know someone back home who you'd love to give a replica inmate's drinking cup to, made in stainless steel and with USP ALCATRAZ on the side.

You'll want to see some of the cells, of course, and the buildings that house them. You should also visit the museum, where there are lots of fascinating documents and photos on display, as well as works created by inmates.

Maximum Security Cells in Alcatraz PrisonMaximum Security Cells

If you're there between about late September and February, you might want to take the Agave Trail. It's a short and easy trail on the south side of the island, and it gives fantastic photo opportunities of the San Francisco skyline. It's closed the rest of the time to protect the birds that nest there.

At any time of the year you can enjoy the gardens of Alcatraz. These were created and maintained by prisoners and officers alike, and soring is an especially good time to see them. Plants were originally chosen for their hardiness, and the ones you see today are the ones that survived the years of neglect after the prison closed.

Other than that, simply wandering round the atmospheric buildings and wondering what stories the walls could tell is the best part of touring Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Prison CellAlcatraz Prison Cell

History of Alcatraz

The island itself is tens of thousands of years old, and the local Miwok Indians, who lived around San Francisco Bay, are known to have used it as a base for fishing expeditions at least 10,000 years ago. Tribal lore has it, though, that they may also have used it as a place for banishment from the tribe.

What Does Alcatraz Mean?

Alcatraz got its name when Spanish explorers reached San Francisco Bay in 1775 and named the island in the bay 'La Isla de los Alcatraces', or the Island of Seabirds.

History of Alcatraz Prison

The first building on the island was a lighthouse that was put up in 1854. This was the first lighthouse along the entire Pacific coast and was constructed due to the vast increase in Bay traffic due to the Gold Rush. Then in 1859 the US Military built a fortress on Alcatraz, the largest one west of the Mississippi.

In 1907 the fortress was less needed and so the buildings then became a military prison, which it stayed until 1933. The following year it re-opened as a regular prison, and Alcatraz was born.

Alcatraz Prison BlockAlcatraz Prison Block

It remained a prison until 1963. In 1973 it opened to the public as a unique museum, and very quickly became one of San Francisco's most visited attractions. Everyone wants to see Alcatraz, the most notorious prison in the USA, and we don't blame them.

By the way, judges could not sentence someone to go to Alcatraz. It was the prison service who requested that the most dangerous prisoners be transferred to Alcatraz. These included Al Capone and 'Machine Gun Kelly'.

How Many People Tour Alcatraz?

Over 1.5 million people a year visit Alcatraz, which works out at over 4,000 per day. That's just an average, of course, and at busy periods like summer weekends, the numbers will be much higher. So, if you're thinking of touring Alcatraz, choose a time and date and book it well ahead.

The Birdman of Alcatraz

The prisoner Robert Stroud became known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, although he was not allowed to keep birds in his time at Alcatraz. He developed his interest in ornithology at his previous prison, Leavenworth Penitentiary, where he bred and sold birds.

Stroud was born in 1890 and sentenced to 12 years for murder in 1909. However, in 1916 he fatally stabbed a prison guard and was sentenced to be hanged. This was commuted to life in solitary confinement.

He was in Alcatraz from 1942 to 1959, when his health began to fail and he was moved to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he died in 1963. He spent 54 years in prison, 42 of them in solitary confinement.

The Dock at Alcatraz PrisonWhere You Arrive When Touring Alcatraz

Booking a Tour of Alcatraz

The only way you can get to Alcatraz is by taking a boat with the official ferry operator, Alcatraz City Cruises. They offer day tours, night tours, and the ultimate Behind the Scenes tour. Visit their website to book your Alcatraz tour. They operate from Pier 33 at Fisherman's Wharf, if you want to book in person or simply try your luck.

You don't have to book a tour if you don't want to, you can simply book the ferry ride across and do your own tour.

Tour Boat Leaving Alcatraz IslandLeaving After Touring Alcatraz

More Information on Touring Alcatraz

Visit the website of the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, and the National Park Service website.

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