Before you visit Alcatraz, check out these tips from a local...
Every year, over 1.4 million people visit Alcatraz, definitely one of the most popular of San Francisco attractions. A fascinating spot - both creepy and beautiful! Highly recommended.
Recreation Yard, Alcatraz Prison
The bleak remains of Alcatraz prison sit on a windy island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
Visitors can walk in the footsteps of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, and see the cell where the Birdman spent his time. With the Audio Tour, you can hear the voices of actual Alcatraz prisoners and guards talking about their life on the Rock.
The dark history and sense of isolation seem to seep out of the penitentiary's damp walls. It's no Disneyland ride; this is real and has a rough edge to it. Plenty of "atmosphere"! Lots of people have said this was their favorite San Francisco attraction.
The only way to visit Alcatraz is to take one of the ferries operated by the Alcatraz Cruises company. Other Bay cruises may include a trip past or around Alcatraz, but they don't let you get off on the island (see other San Francisco Bay cruises).
The boats leave from Pier 33 on the San Francisco Embarcadero, the waterfront boulevard running from Fisherman's Wharf to the Ferry Building. See maps below.
Alcatraz Cruises offers four ways to visit Alcatraz:
For information on what is included during these tours and the free guided tours on the island, as well as information on what you'll see in the prison, see Alcatraz Prison Tours.
To find out more about what the the night tour is like, and photos, see Alcatraz night tour.
The Alcatraz ferries depart from Pier 33 daily, every 20 to 30 minutes from 8:45 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. and return every 30 minutes or so. The last boat leaves Alcatraz at 6:30 p.m. You can take any boat back, but don't miss the last one!
The night tour runs Thursday through Monday at 5:55 p.m. and 6:30 p.m and lasts about 2.5 hours. Return boats leave at 8:40 and 9:25 p.m. (varies with the season).
The Behind the Scenes tour also runs Thursday through Monday, leaving at 4:20 p.m. and 4:50 p.m. (earlier in winter), returning on the 8:40 or 9:25 p.m. boat. 4.5 hours.
Tip on the "Family" ticket price. The $112.75 price for 2 adults and 2 children is only available at the ticket booth or over the phone, not online. Online, it comes to $120.50.
Alcatraz Cruises is the official concessionaire for the U.S. Park Service which administers the island and prison. They sell the Alcatraz tickets online, at www.alcatrazcruises.com, by phone at 415 981-7625, or at the ticket booth on Pier 33.
Warning: There are a number of other companies that sell tickets for the Alcatraz tours online, but these tickets are actually bought from Alcatraz Cruises and resold to you.
One major company you may see online sells the $37.25 adult day ticket for $44.95, plus a $2.99 service charge, plus a $6.95 processing fee: total = $54.89! You get nothing extra with that, and if the official company, Alcatraz Cruises, is sold out, they appear to be sold out as well.
There is really no reason to buy them from other companies unless it is more convenient from where you are. Just make sure they aren't charging more than Alcatraz Cruises.
Another way of getting Alcatraz tickets is to purchase a combination tour, where Alcatraz tickets are paired with one or more other San Francisco attractions or activities.
This can be a good way of getting a good deal on other SF tours or attractions that you would like to see while you're here. Alcatraz can be be paired with a large variety of other activities, where the total cost can be less than buying the tickets individually.
If you're planning to do a city tour, or see Muir Woods or Sausalito, or go on a bay cruise, you can find tours like that combined with Alcatraz. Also things like food tours, Segway tours, beer pub tours, and lots of other fun things may be available along with Alcatraz.
For Alcatraz, plus a city tour, and Sausalito, you can get Alcatraz tickets and a 3-day pass on a Hop On, Hop Off Bus (actually 4 tour loops: city, downtown, Sausalito and night tours). See Alcatraz and City Tour for info and booking.
If you want some great attractions all rolled into one package, Viator has a convenient tour combination that gives you Alcatraz, Muir Woods, Sausalito and a San Francisco city tour over a two day period: the 3-in-1 Bay Area Package (actually 4-in-1). Click here for more info and booking.
Click here to check out what Alcatraz combo tours are available (lots to choose from!).
There are also Alcatraz cruises that go around the island, but don't allow you to visit Alcatraz itself. They are great fun too (see my page on SF Bay Cruises for tips on the cruises), but that may not be what you were looking for. So read carefully about the tour being offered.
The Day Tour
from Fisherman's Wharf
The Alcatraz ferries and tours run all year round, but the island is closed on Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Thanksgiving.
The ferries run rain or shine, but some months are rainier than others. As a general guide, September and October are the warmest and sunniest months, November, December, January and February are the coldest and wettest, March can be wet, but not that cold, April is variable (often sunny, with occasional rain), and May, June, July and August are often foggy, but no rain.
Our drought is officially over, in Northern California anyway, and the winter of 2016/2017 has been very wet. But blessed as we are with a quasi-Mediterranean climate, even in wet years the rain usually disappears by May, often by April, and doesn't start up again until November.
The ticket that you buy from Alcatraz Cruises includes:
1. The ride to and from the island
2. The Audio Tour of the prison
The Night Tours and Behind the Scenes tours have additional activities. See Alcatraz prison tours for information on what to expect on the various tours.
How to get the refund: Unfortunately you can't get it when you buy your tickets. When you enter the prison, you will be offered the headsets for the tour. Tell them you don't want one and you will get the voucher. The refund is only available on the Day Tours.
The rest of the activities on the island are free:
(a) Guided Tours: volunteers with the National Park Service give 45 minute tours on various topics (English only).
(b) Videos on the history of Alcatraz.
(c) Walking through the cell block and recreation area.
(d) Exploring the island, including the old Civil War fort and the nature preserve.
When you arrive at Pier 33, you can get a brochure with a map of Alcatraz and other information. Booklets about Alcatraz are available on the Alcatraz dock for $1, in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. There is also a bookstore on the island with a large selection of material about Alcatraz.
No matter what time of year you visit Alcatraz, be sure to bring a jacket! What may look like a warm sunny day when you start out often turns into a cold, foggy and windy afternoon, especially in the "fog season": May, June and July. Also, it tends to be colder and windier out on the Rock.
If you forget, however, you can always buy one of those "Alcatraz" sweatshirts once you get there, in the bookstore on the dock or in the gift shop at the prison!
Reminder: Alcatraz Cruises has some requirements for boarding the ferries:
# 1. Don't forget to bring an ID with your photo on it when you visit Alcatraz. It is required as a safety precaution, first to purchase or pick up your tickets at Pier 33, and as you are boarding the ferry if you have a pre-printed ticket. If you used a credit card on the phone, you will need to show them the card used to buy the ticket. Only the person who purchased the ticket on the phone or online needs to show ID.
# 2. Certain items cannot be taken on the boat, in addition to the obvious ones like weapons. They include:
There is no place to store stuff at Pier 33 while you visit Alcatraz. A few bike racks are available, but they can fill up.
Practical Tip: there is a place to store luggage at Pier 39. The California Visitors Center on the second floor will hold your luggage for $5 per bag.
Bottled water and a snack.
You can get food and drinks on the boat and some very limited munchies on the dock on Alcatraz, but it's not a bad idea to bring along your own food (see Food and Drink on Alcatraz below).
The best views of San Francisco (in my opinion) are from a boat out in the Bay. It's worth going to visit Alcatraz just to see the City from this amazing vantage point.
View from Alcatraz
The usual items.
Sunglasses, sunhat, sunblock, etc. Anything you think you might need for the next 3 or 4 hours. Shopping is very limited on the island, unless you need a shirt, baseball hat, bottled water or a special Alcatraz prison cup!
Thirty minutes before departure, there will be a long line waiting to get on the boat. Should you get there early so you can be at the front of the line and get a good spot?
No. Good News! There is plenty of seating and the best spots are standing along the railing anyway. People rush on and take the seats on the open decks up above. When the boat starts, many people leave their seats to go over to the rail where the view is better, or walk around the boat, so the seats will open up if you want one.
You also have a choice to sit outside on the decks or inside and look out the windows.
The ferry company asks you to be at the pier 30 minutes prior to boarding, but you don't have to be in the line for 30 minutes. There is a snack bar and shop on Pier 33 next to the departure point, so you can relax and have a cappuccino while you're waiting to visit Alcatraz.
The Park Service has strict rules about food and drink when you visit Alcatraz. No eating or drinking other than water is allowed anywhere on Alcatraz, except on the dock area where you get off the boat.
On the ferry, there is a snack bar serving sandwiches, hot dogs, nachos and snacks, plus beverages (beer and wine are served only on the return trip).
Once on the island, your only opportunity to get food is a bag of almonds in the bookstore on the dock.
Your visit to Alcatraz may last several hours, so I suggest bringing a snack or sandwich with you to eat on the dock before or after you explore the island. The ride out to Alcatraz is only 15 minutes and the views are spectacular, so you won't want to spend the voyage in line at the snack bar!
The only beverage allowed past the dock area is water. Cold bottled water is for sale in the bookstore. Good idea to take some with you; it can be a warm hike up the hill to the prison.
One of the Park Service staff is there on the dock to greet each boatload of arrivals. When everyone is off, he (or she) gives a ten minute introduction to the island and goes over the Rules (such as, no smoking anywhere except behind the restrooms on the dock).
The bookstore is to the left and a building behind the Ranger shows free videos about Alcatraz. The restroom is also on the dock.
Docking at Alcatraz
The climb up to the prison is a rather steep and long: a distance of 1/4 mile (.4 km) with one switchback. You will be climbing a hill 13 stories tall.
Wear comfortable walking shoes when you come to visit Alcatraz.
Prior to the federal penitentiary, the island was used as an army fortress, and later as a military prison. Confederate prisoners were held here during the Civil War. You can explore some of the buildings still remaining from that period.
Old Fort, Alcatraz
Some of the buildings were burned during the Indian occupation of Alcatraz in 1969-1971. The warden's house on top of the hill was one of the casualties; only the shell remains.
Special transport is available for those with difficulty walking. An electric vehicle pulling two small cars carries passengers from the landing dock up to the prison every 35 minutes. Ditto going down.
Wheelchair accessible areas: the dock, bookstore, video area and ground floor of prison cellblock (only that floor is open to the public).
If you're interested in getting Alcatraz souvenirs, there is a large selection for sale on the island. The bookstore has some, but the biggest collection is in the gift shop at the top of the hill, just as you leave the prison.
Along with the usual T-shirts, hats, mugs and posters, you can stock up on replicas of prison clothing, cell keys, official guard pins and tin prison cups! There are lots of books and DVDs about Alcatraz as well.
You can also buy them online from the Parks Conservancy website: Alcatraz souvenirs.
Pier 33 is located on the Embarcadero, near Francisco and Beach Streets.
Street parking in this area is dismal. There are a few metered spots, but not long enough to visit Alcatraz, so plan to use a parking garage or lot (expensive) or park on the street without meters in another neighborhood (like the Sunset District) and take public transportation.
There is a cluster of parking garages in the general area of Pier 33 and a couple of parking lots that are possibilities, price-wise.
There are about a dozen garages and lots within a few blocks of Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 that I would recommend.
See my page on Embarcadero parking for details and maps showing their locations.
I think the easiest parking is at one of the nearby piers that offer spaces:
Pier 27 (very close to Pier 33). The new cruise ship terminal has a big lot outside that is fairly reasonable: $15 first 2 hours, $20 per day weekdays, $25 per day weekends. Open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. You would need more than 2 hours for Alcatraz.
Pier 23 (6 minute walk to Pier 33). Cavernous parking area inside the pier building. $20 flat rate. Weekdays 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sun. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
But two caveats: book it in advance and don't leave anything visible in the car. When we got back, one of the cars in the lot had been broken into. Sad, but there it is.
The next F-Line streetcar stop is Steuart Street, just past the end of Market Street towards the Ferry Building and the bay.
Take the trolley along the Embarcadero to the "Bay Street" Stop at Pier 35, and walk back a short distance to Pier 33.
(Also see Map of F-Market Line and Bart Stations for the entire F-Line route).
Standard adult fare on San Francisco buses and streetcars is $2.75, exact change required. Youths 5-18, and seniors 65 and over, pay $1.35.
Market Street Trolley
San Francisco has a collection of antique streetcars from U.S. and European cities that run on the F-Line, from the Castro District along Market Street to the Embarcadero, past Pier 33 and Pier 39 to Fisherman's Wharf.
The Alcatraz stop is "Bay Street" at Pier 35, close to Pier 33.
The #10 Townsend bus stops at Pier 33.
You can go to a page to download a Downtown Transportation Map showing the BART, bus and streetcar routes.
Walking from Embarcadero BART station. Come up on Market Street and head for the Ferry Building, straight ahead one block at the end of Market Street, then go left and walk along the Embarcadero to Pier 33. About a 16 minute walk at a brisk pace.
Enjoy your visit to Alcatraz!