Alcatraz Island in San Francisco

Alcatraz Island in the SF Bay

Alcatraz Island, out in the San Francisco Bay, once held some of history’s most infamous criminals at the country’s first supermax federal penitentiary. The allure of Alcatraz lies in its colorful history, featuring stories made for movies – notorious criminals, dramatic escape attempts, and some unsolved mysteries in a picturesque setting.

Features of Alcatraz Island

In fact, Alcatraz Island has been featured in many movies, including The Rock and Escape From Alcatraz. The federal prison was in use from 1934 to 1963, and is now operated by the National Parks Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Situated about 1.25 miles (2 km) from the city, Alcatraz is accessible via a ferry that leaves from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf every 30 minutes.

Alcatraz Island Location Map

Alcatraz Island Location Map

The National Parks Service has an exclusive contract with Alcatraz Cruises to provide transportation to the island. Other companies offer cruises around the island, but do not stop on Alcatraz. Alcatraz Cruises sell out weeks in advance, especially during summer, so those looking to visit Alcatraz Island should book their spots on the boat as soon as possible. Do not expect to show up and get tickets once you arrive in San Francisco.

There is still hope if tickets are sold out online for the duration of your trip. Alcatraz Cruises reserves a limited number of same-day tickets, which it releases at the Pier 33 ticket office each morning at 7:30 am. The catch (besides the early rising) is that every member of the group must be present for the purchase and the maximum number of tickets per transaction is 4. The tickets are usually only available for the 8:45 am ferry. This option is not publicized on the company’s website (and denied by some of the employees), but employees at the ticket office indicated that this is the case. On very busy summer days, people begin camping out in front of the ticket office hours before it opens, like 12 year olds lining up for tickets to Bieber.

If early morning wake-up calls aren’t your thing, another option is booking a tour with Alcatraz Island tickets included, though you’ll often pay a premium for this.

Tickets are purchased for a specific ferry departure time and include admission to the island as well as the audio tours and other programs on the island.

Pier 33 has a bookstore, some Alcatraz exhibits, and a cafe to grab a bite to eat before departing. You can bring food along, but once you’re on the island, you can only eat it next to the boat docks. Anything other than water is prohibited on the rest of the island.

The wind- and solar-powered ferry to Alcatraz

The wind- and solar-powered ferry to Alcatraz

The ferry ride to Alcatraz Island offers incredible views of the San Francisco skyline. The three-level boat is powered in part by solar and wind power – the nation’s first hybrid ferry boat. There’s outdoor seating on the upper two levels, which offer the best views. A cafe on the boat sells drinks, snacks, and even beer, but the trip lasts about 10 minutes.

Day tours are scheduled to depart every 20-30 minutes throughout the day, from 8:45 am to 3:50 pm. While the trip to Alcatraz Island is strictly scheduled, visitors can take any boat back to the city. The last return boat leaves at 6:30 pm in the spring and summer, and 4:30 pm the rest of the year. It’s a good idea to leave the prison area and head down the hill a bit early, because there are some interesting exhibits to check out on your way out.

There are also night tours available on Thursday through Monday evenings, and tours that go to both Alcatraz Island and Angel Island in one day.

Day tours are $30 for adults, $18.25 for children 5-11 (kids 4 and under are free), and $28.25 for seniors. Night tours cost $37 for adults, $36 for kids 12-17, $21.75 for children 5-11, and $34.25 for seniors. Combination tours of Alcatraz Island and Angel Island run $61 for adults, $40.25 for kids 5-11, and seniors pay $58.25.

Expect to spend about half a day on the island – I spent about 4 hours and wish we’d had more time to check out some of the exhibits near the boat dock, the hospital, and some of the earlier programs.

Lots of walking on Alcatraz

Lots of walking on Alcatraz

Bring a jacket, because it’s windy out over the water, and wear comfortable shoes because there will be a lot of walking, some hills, and stairs. There are trams that run up the hill and elevators inside for accessibility.

Nearby Restaurants– Stella Pastry and Café, Rose Pistola Restaurant, Capurro’s Restaurant

Nearby Tourist Attractions– Ferry building, Lombard street, North beach garage, The San Francisco Dungeon, Cable car system


Address: San Francisco, CA 94133, United States
Phone:(415) 561-4900

Published On: Thursday, January 5th, 2017