Here is some information to help you decide which Alcatraz prison tours to take.
|Day Tour||Night Tour|
|Audio Tour||Guided Tour|
|Alcatraz/Angel Island Tour||Alcatraz Tickets|
Alcatraz prison tours are given by Alcatraz Cruises, the official tour company that holds the National Park Service concession to take people out to the island. The tours come in three varieties:
All of the tours allow you to wander around inside the prison. You'll be able to walk the halls where Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly did their time, and see the solitary cells where the Birdman of Alcatraz sat out most of his sentence.
Machine Gun Kelly
These Alcatraz prison tours leave about every 30 minutes from Pier 33, daily from 8:45 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. The return boats leave Alcatraz every 30 minutes; the last one leaves Alcatraz at 6:30 p.m. and you can take any of the boats back (slightly shorter hours in winter).
Allow at least 3 hours for the whole trip; you may find yourself spending more than that once you get exploring the prison and the island.
There is no presentation during the 15 minute boat trip to Alcatraz, but the views of the City and the Bay on the way over are amazing.
And you are also free to explore the island and the buildings remaining from the time when Alcatraz was a fort and military prison.
There are fewer people on the night tours, so the prison is much less crowded.
The Alcatraz Night Tour leaves Thursdays through Mondays at 5:55 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. from Pier 33 and lasts 2.5 hours. The prison is even spookier, and if it's a clear night, the lights of San Francisco are truly magical.
This is a handy combination if you want to make a day of it and see both sights. Angel Island is a beautiful place with spectacular views of SF Bay. It was the Ellis Island of the West Coast, and thousands of immigrants from Asia came through Angel Island, especially during the Gold Rush era.
This tour includes the boat rides to and from Alcatraz and Angel Island, a narrated tram ride around Angel Island and the self-guided Audio Tour of Alcatraz prison. Takes about 5.5 hours. The tours run April through September, daily during the summer, and weekends during spring and fall. In my opinion, this is a lot for one day, but it depends on your stamina for touring.
You can also see Angel Island on your own by taking the Angel Island Ferry from Pier 41 or the Ferry Building. Once on the island, in addition to beautiful hiking trails, there are tram tours, Segway tours, bicycles for rent, an immigration museum and cafes. You could easily make a full day of it. See my tips on what to see and do on Angel Island.
For all the tours, check the current schedule on their website: www.alcatrazcruises.com
Once on the dock at Alcatraz, you can take one of the Guided Tours which will lead you up the hill to the prison and finish at the cellblock entrance. Or you can walk up the hill to the cellblock on your own, and explore the Civil War era buildings on the way up.
The Audio Tour starts inside the cellblock.
You will receive your headset for the Audio Tour after you enter the prison, following a steep climb up the hill. (If you don't want to do this tour, tell the people passing out the headsets and you'll get a refund of $8.00 for adults, a bit less for others. It really adds a lot to the experience, so I highly recommend doing it if you can).
The Audio Tour is available in English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Italian and Mandarin.
For those with difficulty getting up the hill, there is a little tram that leaves from the dock every 35 minutes, and carries people back down as well.
This 45 minute self-guided tour is an award-winning presentation that takes you through the prison: cellblocks, dining hall, library, prison yard, warden's office, etc. You can pause it or rewind it and so take your time going through the prison.
Some of the cells are set up and furnished as they would have been then: grim 9' by 5' rooms with a small cot, toilet and desk. The prisoners spent most of their days alone in their cells and talking was forbidden. Rather chilling.
On the tape, you'll hear the voices of actual prisoners and guards describing their experiences at Alcatraz. The narration directs you to particular spots in the prison where interesting events took place: solitary cells where the Birdman of Alcatraz spent most of his time, passageways where inmates crawled to escape, scenes of murders and shootouts.
You can walk around in the prisoners' exercise yard and see how close San Francisco must have looked to the inmates.
Alcatraz Prison Yard
In spite of the desperate escape attempts, Alcatraz' location defeated them all. The water was too cold and the current too strong. Even though the City was close enough for the prisoners to hear voices and laughter, they couldn't swim the distance: only 1.25 miles (2 km).
At the end, it's sort of relief to "escape" from the oppressive atmosphere in the jail and come out by the Alcatraz lighthouse. This is where you'll have a spectacular view of San Francisco.
The guided tours start at the dock and travel up the hill, ending at the prison.
The people doing the tours are volunteers with the Park Service - folks who have a passion for the history of Alcatraz and enjoy sharing their knowledge.
There is no fixed schedule for these tours. When you get to the dock on Alcatraz, check out the list of tours on the chalkboard to the right of the bookstore.
Each tour lasts about 45 minutes. The last time I was there, they were scheduled at 10:00, 10:30, 1:00 and 3:30.
I went on an "Escapes" tour, given by an entertaining guide (in "real life" a middle school history teacher) who told us interesting anecdotes about the escape attempts, along with some Alcatraz history.
(The Great White Sharks patrolling along the coast rarely come into San Francisco Bay - who knew? But the prisoners were told they would be eaten if they swam in the water!)
All three Alcatraz prison tours are provided by Alcatraz Cruises, the seller of the "official" Alcatraz tickets.
You can get tickets for Alcatraz directly from Alcatraz Cruises:
There are no bargain tickets for Alcatraz per se, but if you are planning to take another tour or tours while you're here, you may save some money by doing a combination of Alcatraz plus another attraction(s) through Viator.
Are you thinking about visiting Muir Woods, Sausalito, or the Napa Valley, or planning to take a city tour? Click here to see some of the combinations available.
Alcatraz tickets sell out fast, and in high season they may be sold out months in advance.
Want more information on taking the ferry to Alcatraz, plus parking and public transportation? See my tips on visiting Alcatraz.