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Alcatraz Island – Information for visitors

Alcatraz Island – Information for visitors

Photo: MintImages/Shutterstock

Alcatraz is known as the notorious former federal prison who was once home to the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelley, and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. 

The island prison is located in San Francisco Bay some 1.25 miles offshore from the mainland. It was active from 1934 until 1963 and nowadays, Alcatraz Island is open for public visitors. 

It is one of the most infamous places to visit in the United States and the island receives more than one million visitors every year. The guided tours showcase the old prison cells and tell the full history of Alcatraz Island. 

Tickets

You can purchase tickets to Alcatraz Island 90 days prior to your departure. It is recommended to book your ticket well-ahead as soon as you know your preferred date of travel since they often sell out in advance. 

Ticket Type Adult Senior (62+) Junior (12-17)
Day Ticket $39.90 $37.65 $39.90
Night Tour $47.30 $44.00 $46.25
Behind the Scenes Tour $92.30 $86.00 $88.25
Alcatraz & Angel Island Tour $78.65 $76.65  

Guided Tours

There are three main tour tickets available for visitors:

Alcatraz Day Ticket

This day ticket includes cruise transport across San Francisco Bay, entrance to Alcatraz Island, and a tour of the infamous federal prison.

Alcatraz Night Tour

This tour is a unique program available to just a few hundred visitors every evening and includes special programs, tours, and activities that aren’t available during the day.

The ticket also includes roundtrip ferry transportation, onboard narration, a guided tour from Dock to Cellhouse, and a keepsake souvenir brochure.

Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour

This tour includes the same perks as the Day Ticket and also includes the full Night Tour experience.

Alcatraz guided tours

Photo: Square Box Photos / Shutterstock.com

History & more information

Located 1.25 miles offshore from San Francisco, the island of Alcatraz was first built to house a lighthouse before becoming a military fortification and military prison. From 1934 until 21st March 1963, the island housed one of the most iconic federal prisons in the world; Alcatraz Maximum Security Prison.

The federal prison has housed some of the country’s most difficult and dangerous criminals including the notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone (1899 – 1947) and murderer Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud (1890 – 1963).

How many people have escaped from Alcatraz?

Over the years 36 inmates tried to escape the prison and out of those 23 were captured, six were shot, and two drowned. The remaining five went missing and were presumed drowned.

Alcatraz prison

Photo: U. Eisenlohr/Shutterstock

The prison was shut down in 1963 due to high operating costs (supplies had to be shipped to the island weekly) and in 1969 was briefly occupied by Native Americans before becoming part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and opening to the public.

Today the island is a popular tourist attraction and over 1 million tourists visit a year to hear stories of American incarceration, justice, and the complex history of the penitentiary system.

Points of Interest

  • Orientation Video with historical footage
  • Ranger-interpretive talks on a range of topics including ‘Famous Escapes’
  • Award-winning audio tour
  • Prison cell house
  • Former guards and inmate interviews
  • Prison exhibits
Alcatraz prison cell

Photo: melissamn / Shutterstock.com

How to get to Alcatraz

The only way to get to Alcatraz is by ferry from Pier 33. Cruises are operated by Alcatraz Cruises LLC and their offices are located on The Embarcadero close to the intersection of Bay Street.

Parking

There’s no parking at Pier 33 and on-street parking in the area is hard to find. It is recommended to leave your car in one of the nearby commercial parking lots if you have to drive, but parking in this area (around Pier 33) can vary from $6 an hour to $10 a day.

Public Transport

Public transport is the preferred mode of transport when it comes to getting to the pier and ferry terminal. The Muni F Line runs east along Market Street, north on The Embarcadero, and then straight passed the Alcatraz Cruises ferry terminal at Pier 33. Hop off before Fisherman’s Wharf.

Ferry to Alcatraz island

Photo: Allard One / Shutterstock.com

Best time to visit

Alcatraz Island will never be overly crowded as admission is strictly regulated and only so many people can cross on the ferry at any one time. However, some periods may attract more visitors than others, check out my tips below:

  • The early bird ticket is one of the best ways to enjoy a slightly quieter Alcatraz and the trip departs at 8:45 am.
  • Monday to Thursday are the quieter days.
  • Avoid federal holiday weekends and US public holidays
  • January, February, and March are the least crowded months however rain is quite common.
  • September to October is the ideal time to visit to avoid the summer crowds and enjoy better weather (with less fog).

Facts about Alcatraz

  1. Before criminals became its denizens, the windswept island was home to large colonies of brown pelicans and the island was named after them.
  2. After the prison stood dormant for six years, Native American activists occupied Alcatraz.
  3. The convicts housed in Alcatraz were not necessarily those who had committed the most violent or heinous crimes, but they were the convicts most in need of an attitude adjustment–the most incorrigible and disobedient inmates in the federal penal system.
  4. Some cells were smaller than a closet. In B & C blocks, the cells were 5 feet by 9 feet, with a sleeping cot, a toilet, and a small sink (cold running only).
  5. Military prisoners were Alcatraz’s first inmates.
  6. In 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott greased himself with lard, squeezed through a window and swam to shore. He was so exhausted upon reaching the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge that police discovered him lying unconscious in hypothermic shock. Today, hundreds complete the 1.5-mile swim annually during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
  7. Families lived on Alcatraz during its prison years: The guards and officers lived on the island with their spouses and children. There’s even an Alumni Association for folks who grew up there.
  8. Alcatraz didn’t have a “Death Row” nor any facilities for executing the death penalty, but a few prisoners did die while imprisoned there. Eight people were murdered by other inmates on Alcatraz, five of them committed suicide, and fifteen died from natural causes.
  9. Inmates who behaved had access to privileges including monthly movies and a library with 15,000 books and 75 popular magazine subscriptions. Overall, some prisoners considered the conditions inside Alcatraz to be more attractive than at other federal prisons, and several asked to be moved there.
  10. Alcatraz is surrounded by the cold waters of San Francisco Bay, but there is no source of freshwater anywhere on the island. Close to one million gallons of water were brought to the island each week, along with food, fuel, and other supplies
Alcatraz facts

Photo: ben bryant / Shutterstock.com

FAQ’s (Things to know before you go)

Are backpacks allowed at Alcatraz?

There is no storage space for luggage or oversized bags on the island. However, standards backpacks (16” x 20”) are allowed to be carried around.

How far in advance should I book?

Tickets to Alcatraz island sell out weeks in advance so it’s recommended you make your reservation as far in advance as possible.

Can I go to Alcatraz without a tour?

There is no entrance fee to Alcatraz Island.

Are there food services on Alcatraz?

There are no food services available on the island, only water. However, there is a snack bar on the ferry. Visitors should also note that eating is restricted to the picnic area. 

How long is the ferry ride to Alcatraz?

The ferry ride takes about 15 minutes each way from San Francisco.

How long should I stay on the island?

Your tour can last as long as you like, or until the last boat leaves the island! However, the suggested time to spend on the island is 2.5 – 3 hours.

Are there bathrooms on Alcatraz?

Yes, there are toilets located on the ferry and at the Alcatraz pier.


Do you have more questions before visiting Alcatraz Island in San Franciso? Leave a comment below!

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