California

Plan Your Trip: Alcatraz Island in San Francisco

by Paul Stafford  |  Published September 9, 2020

One of the world’s most notorious former prisons, Alcatraz, is also one of San Francisco’s most intriguing tourist destinations. Here’s how to plan your trip to Alcatraz Island, including ticket, transport and tour information, helping you to make the best choice for your trip.

Alcatraz Island and San Fran city in the distance (Photo: Christopher Michel via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s most distinguishing features. Among the city’s top sights, the island fortress is right up there with the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39’s sea lions and the Beat Generation hub, City Lights Books, as a truly unique Frisco experience. Sitting in San Francisco Bay, the island is a little over one mile from the city shoreline, making it a fantastic destination not just for the sights on the island, but also for the boat trip to get there.

Alcatraz Island has had many functions over the decades, but it’s best known as a former prison-turned-tourist attraction. This was something capitalized on to thrilling effect in the Michael Bay action movie, The Rock, where visitors to the island are taken hostage and only a former inmate, and the only one to successfully escape the prison, is sent back in to save them all. Luckily that’s all Hollywood fiction and millions of annual visits take place without a hitch.

Ghosts of Alcatraz (Photo: Todd Petrie via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Initially, Alcatraz was used as a strategic military post and lighthouse point. Its first use as a prison came in 1859 for soldiers who’d fallen foul of the law. From the Civil War onwards a succession of war prisoners and conscientious objectors filled the island’s cells. Alcatraz became a federal prison in 1934 and finally ended its role as a human cage in 1963. Just like in the movies, one of the biggest sources of fascination with Alcatraz is the theme of escape. Similar to the Ile d’If prison in the Count of Monte Cristo, the combination of armed guards, dangerous currents around the island, plus the distance to shore, made escapes exceedingly risky. Not a single official escape has been registered, although a handful of escapees were never accounted for, and are assumed to have drowned in the attempt.

Today the American National Park service runs the island and visitors get a glimpse of the living conditions and hardship that prisoners like Al Capone would have faced. The lighthouse, dining hall, cells and even the morgue can be visited. The isolated nature of the island means that getting there can be as tricky as escaping, if you don’t wish to pay for the ferry and entry ticket. See below for some of the ticketing and tour options available.

A historic sign at Alcatraz (Photo: Airwolfhound via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hours & Directions

Since COVID-19 bulldozed into our lives, Alcatraz operates at reduced hours, with reduced access. Only outdoor tours were permitted at the time of writing. Between January and October, departures run hourly between 11am and 3pm, with return ferries departing hourly between 11.20am and 5.40pm. In November and December, departures run hourly from 10am to 2pm, with hourly returns from 10.20am to 4.40pm.

Alcatraz is open most days of the year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. At the time of writing it’s not clear when the restrictions will be lifted, but prior to COVID the hours of operation were more regular, with boats every half hour from 8.45am, often running well into the evening. The evening tours were by far the most popular. Furthermore, tours prior to COVID headed inside buildings as well, which is admittedly the main draw of an Alcatraz tour.

Directions: The only way onto the island for visitors is with Alcatraz Cruises. Their boats depart from Pier 33, which is opposite the junction of Bay Street and Embarcadero, and roughly five minutes’ walk from Pier 39. The L-OWL bus between Jones & Beach, and Wawona & 46th Ave has a stop right outside Pier 33.

Alcatraz Island (Photo: Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr / CC0 1.0)

Tickets & Tours

Tickets: It’s really important to book your visit to Alcatraz as far in advance as possible. During the peak tourism seasons such as Christmas and summer breaks, tickets for the ferry to the island can be sold out weeks ahead. Alcatraz tickets are all-inclusive, meaning the return ferry trip, the audio tour and the general taxes and fees are wrapped into one price. This means that when you buy your ticket through a tour operator or Alcatraz Cruises, you automatically reserve your spot with the National Park Service to access Alcatraz Island. Officially, access to the island is free, so the National Parks passes, like America the Beautiful, are not valid for Alcatraz trips.

Ticket prices for Alcatraz are around $40 for Juniors and adults aged 12–61, $38 for senior citizens, and $25 for children aged 5–11. Toddlers up to 4 years old go free. These are for specific time slots and don’t allow any flexibility on your departure time, although you may stay on Alcatraz Island as long as you’d like once there, up to the final ferry departure.

Basic tickets can be bought directly from Alcatraz Cruises, whose website is also the best port of call for detailed updates on the island’s accessibility and opening hours during the COVID-19 situation.

Arrival at Alcatraz (Photo: Airwolfhound via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tours: If you’d prefer to leave the scheduling and itinerary planning to a tour operator, there are some excellent broader San Francisco tours that incorporate Alcatraz Island into the trip. below are three tour options that include all the fees, tickets and bookings for Alcatraz, along with various other sights in and around the city.

Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge Express – $78 per person – Of particular interest to anybody visiting San Francisco without their own transportation is this three-hour tour that combines two of the San Francisco greats. The tour starts out at Pier 33, where transport in an air-conditioned van is provided to the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. From there you have time to walk out onto the bridge and back, before returning to Pier 33 for your trip out to Alcatraz. This tour is perfect for anybody who’d prefer to have the logistics taken care of, but who prefers to explore at their own leisure at the landmarks visited. This tour is available from Friday to Monday only. Book at Viator.com.

Golden Gate Bridge at dusk (Photo: Christopher Michel via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Sunset Bike and Alcatraz Tour – $105 per person – For those looking for a hands-on guided tour with local knowledge and anecdotes, this excellent tour is a great way to get to know San Francisco. The tour is actually staggered over two days, with a 12-mile guided bike ride on the first evening, followed by Alcatraz tickets for the following day. You can change the date of your bike ride up to three days in advance, should you wish to alter your trip’s itinerary. The cycle tour includes a crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge, which follows a route reserved strictly for cyclists to ensure safe passage. Book at Getyourguide.com.

Alcatraz, Chinatown and Fortune Cookie Factory Tour – $99 per person – For a guided tour steeped in social history, this is a great way to learn about both the island of Alcatraz and the city’s multicultural heartland. Start out with the ferry ride and Alcatraz trip before heading out on a walking tour of Frisco’s Chinatown, the largest outside of Asia. Learn about the neighborhood’s history as well as glimpsing the area’s highlights and hidden gems, from the best dim sum to a factory where fortune cookies, which in their modern form originated in San Francisco, are made. This tour usually runs from Friday to Sunday only. Book at Getyourguide.com.

Alcatraz graffito (Photo: ewe neon via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)