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By Karen

Updated December 27, 2023.

The Alcatraz Night Tour

The night tour has been voted the best tour of Alcatraz, and it books up even faster than the day tour.

So, how much better is the night tour, and should you make an effort to get night tour tickets? 

The Night Tour vs. the Day Tour. What's the difference?

In many ways, the night tour is pretty similar to the day tour. But as the sun starts to go down, and the crowds thin out, it takes on a magical quality not present during the daytime.

I'd been out to the Rock many times, but seeing it at night had a very different feel; the prison was eerier and the island more charming somehow.

Plus, it was cool getting to see areas not open during the day and hearing stories about the prison and its inmates from the park rangers.

Night tour on Alcatraz, view of old fort and bay lights.Sundown on Alcatraz

Included in the night tour:

  • Transportation out to Alcatraz on the ferry.
  • A narrated tour as the ferry circles the island.
  • A guided tour up to the cell block.
  • Audio self-guided tour inside the prison.
  • Extra programs like guided tours of areas not accessible to the day tours. 

Visitors are also able to explore areas outside the prison, including the Civil War buildings, gardens and the area around the lighthouse and ruins of the warden's house.

Night tour on Alcatraz, sunset view of city skyline.City view before sunset

There is an interesting film about the history of Alcatraz, shown in the theater on the dock, which you can watch before or after the tours.

How the Night Tour works:

Getting to Alcatraz...

The night tour ferries leave from Alcatraz Landing on Pier 33. In summer, there are two sailings out to the Rock (Tuesday through Saturday) at 5:55 and 6:30 pm, and in winter (starting Nov), only one sailing (Tuesday through Saturday) at 3:50 pm (two over the Christmas holidays).

Normally, the ride out to the island takes about 15 minutes, but on the night tour, the captain sails around Alcatraz before docking on the island. 

On the trip out, there's a live narration about the history of Alcatraz and what's available on the island, but I have to say it was pretty hard to hear it over the noise of the engines.

It's fun seeing all sides of Alcatraz, which you don't see on the day tour. 

Alcatraz island building, new Indian signNew sign on Alcatraz

On the island...

When the boat arrives on Alcatraz, the passengers are divided into three groups so that the entrance to the cell block is staggered.  The first group is assigned a guide, who gives a brief intro talk, then leads them up the hill. 

On the way up, the guide gives a presentation about the island and what to expect on the evening's tour. Then the first group enters the cell block and gets their audio gadget and headset to do the self-guided exploration of the prison.

Same process for the second and third groups, so they don't all arrive at prison at the same time.

The tram is also available on the night tours for visitors with difficulty walking up the steep hill. They run about every 30 minutes, and meet the ferries at the dock.

The Audio Tour of the Prison

When you enter the cell block at the top of the hill, you'll find yourself in the prisoners' shower room, where the audio tour gadgets and headsets are handed out.

You can choose from English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin and Korean.

When you get your audio device, you are directed to a sign near the entrance to the cell block which says Tour Starts Here and told to turn on the recording.

The whole audio tour lasts 45 minutes.

The gadget is delightfully simple: red and green buttons. It's either going or not going. Beautiful!

You can pause it any time, and rewind or fast forward. You don't have to put in a number for a location like in many museums.

The audio narration tells you where to go and plays recordings of actual prisoners and guards from Alcatraz telling their stories. 

You'll hear the sound effects of the shoot-outs, clanging doors, etc. Very well done.

Tips for avoiding the crowds...

One  advantage of the night tour is that only two boats go out to the island during the evening (and only one in winter), whereas 15 (!) boats go out during the day, and numbers can build up as the day goes on, since visitors can take any boat back.

But all the day tour folks have to leave the island before the night tours start going out.

Even so, I found the crowds pretty intense, because the corridors are not that wide, and everyone in the group is trying to see the same cell at the same time.

Crowds in Alcatraz cell block corridor, night tourRather crowded in cell block halls

One solution: (which I didn't think of until later)... be one of the last ones off the boat to be in the third group.

Then once you get into the cell block for the audio tour, hang back and let the group start ahead of you.  Start your audio tour after most of the group has moved on.

Otherwise, you may find yourself waiting for a turn to see each place on the tour and trying to peer over people's heads.

Another idea: head outside when you first get to the cell block, explore the island, then come back inside after 7:30 pm (summer schedule) when the visitors on both boats will have finished their audio tours.

Here's what the corridors look like later in the evening (after 7:30 or so) when most people are outside.

Alcatraz night tour, tiers of cellsQuiet at night

It's really cool to wander through the prison when there's hardly anyone around. You can go into the open cells and explore on your own; it's a bit haunting and you can get a better feel of the prison atmosphere.

alcatraz night tour, inside cellView from inside

Special programs

The night tour gives you a choice of extra guided tours to areas not normally available during the day.

It used to include the hospital, but they're doing repairs on it at the moment, so you'll see other areas like the second floor cells and A Block which is usually closed off.

On one of our night tours, there was a guided tour of areas associated with Machine Gun Kelly. 

There are also extra lectures on various topics. For our first night tour, there was a talk on the lives of the guards and families, and another one on a notorious kidnapper sent to Alcatraz.

Tidbit: kidnappers of rich tycoons were looking at $250,000 in ransom money, quite a haul in the 1930's. 

On our second night tour, a ranger gave a talk on the 1930's gangsters' method of robbing banks vs. the modern pattern (the gangsters were more organized, and more violent, and a number of them ended up in Alcatraz), and another ranger gave a talk on escape attempts.

The guide announces the times for these tours during the trip up to the cell block, and they are also posted in the building, near the prison entrance and in the bookstore/gift shop in the prison building.

Board with special programs schedule, Alcatraz night tour.Evening programs posted in the bookstore

Exploring outside the prison.

When you finish the audio tour inside the cell block, you can head outside to the area where the Alcatraz lighthouse sits.

From there, you can see the ruins of the warden's house and can follow the paths down to other areas of the island.

Alcatraz after dark, couple on walkwayExploring Alcatraz at night

Other things to see: buildings from the Civil War era, gardens, and nesting areas for birds.

If it's a clear night, the views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular as the sun goes down. 

Alcatraz night tour, Golden Gate Bridge view at sunset

Note:  There's been a fair amount of construction going on at Alcatraz for the past couple of years to repair the damage done by decades of salty air, but it's winding down now. 

Consequently, certain areas may not be accessible on the night tour, depending where repairs are being done at the time. But most of the areas normally open on the tour are available now, including the prisoners' exercise yard. 

The Birds on Alcatraz

Alcatraz is a major nesting site for large numbers of sea gulls, snowy egrets, cormorants and other sea birds. It's not so obvious during the day, but as the sun goes down, the resident birds come in for the night and the numbers are impressive.

The squawking of the gulls and flapping of all the wings makes you realize just how many are living on the island.

The birds are building nests and laying eggs in April and May, and the chicks are born in June. There's a good map that shows their nesting areas on this Park Service publication.

Very few birds lived on Alcatraz while it was a prison (the Bird Man didn't keep any birds while he was here; that happened in Leavenworth).

The cormorants spend their whole lives out on the open ocean and only come to land during the spring to nest and raise their chicks.

Cormorants nesting, April on Alcatraz, night tourSpring on Alcatraz, cormorants nesting

The Bird Man of Alcatraz didn't raise his birds on Alcatraz. He did that at another prison prior to his time on Alcatraz.

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Tickets for the night tour

Alcatraz night tour tickets can be purchased 3 ways:

  • Online from City Experiences, the official company that has the tour concession from the Park Service, at cityexperiences.com
  • By phone at 415 981-7625.
  • At the ticket booth on Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing (9 am-6:30 pm).

Current night tour prices:

  • Adults: $56.30
  • Ages 12-17: $55.10
  • Kids (5-11): 33.00
  • Seniors (62+): $52.25
  • Under 5: free

Night tour departure times:

As the length of daylight changes during the year, the departure times change as well. The night tours run 5 evenings a week, year-round.

Most of the year, the night tour runs Tuesday through Saturday, with two sailings each night; departures are at 5:55 and 6:30 pm.

In winter, the tours leave once a day at 3:50 pm (with two sailings over the Christmas and New Years holidays).

The return times also vary with the seasons; they're posted at Pier 33 and on the dock on Alcatraz. You can return on any of the boats. But check the notices for the current departure times.

Holiday schedule. There are two sailings a night from Dec 16-Jan 7. 3:50 and 4:45 pm, last boat returning at 7:40 pm.

Getting night tour tickets

It can be a challenge. Alcatraz night tour tickets are the toughest to get because there are a lot fewer of them.

By mid May, they are usually sold out two months in advance, often almost three months, and aren't included in most of the combination tours. But now there are a few packages that include the night tour! See night tour combos below for a list.

Winter is easier; you can probably snag some night tour tickets just a few days away (as of late December 2023, they are available one week out).

Insider tip: the night tour is included in the Behind the Scenes tour, so if the night tour tickets are sold out, check for Behind the Scenes tickets. They tend to be scarce as well, but you might get lucky. 

More info on the Behind the Scenes tour.

Night tour tickets sold out?

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Insider Tip:

There are ways to get night tour tickets even if they're sold out for the day you want. 

Here are three ways to score tickets for sold out days:

  1. Check for canceled tickets on sold-out days on the official website, cityexperiences.com. And keep checking. You might get lucky!
  2. Check the combination tours (see below) for tickets. Now there are combo tours that include the night tour.
  3. Night Tour standby tickets. You can still get same-day tickets for the night tour and there's  a good chance of getting on the boat. See standby tickets for more details.

Night Combo Tours

Another option: do the night tour together with another activity, in a combination package.

This is one of the ways of getting those hard-to-get night tour tickets when they're sold out.

Until 2018, it wasn't possible to find a combination deal that included the Alcatraz night tour, but now there are a smallish number of them.

They disappeared during Covid, and are just starting to return.

Two night tour combos are now available (December 2023): 

Alcatraz Night Tour combos:

Alcatraz Night Tour & SF Bay Cruise.

 Go on the Alcatraz Night Tour and do a boat tour of the bay.

Sail around San Francisco Bay, out under the Golden Gate Bridge, and along the waterfront, with a great view of the city skyline.

See Alcatraz Night Tour & SF Bay Cruise for info and booking.

Alcatraz Night Tour & HOHO City Bus Tour.

Alcatraz by night, plus a ticket to ride the Hop On Hop Off bus to a long list of San Francisco attractions. 

See Alcatraz Night Tour & HOHO Bus Tour for info and booking.

Otherwise, you can book a Day Tour by itself or a Day Tour combined with other San Francisco attractions, like the popular Alcatraz/Muir Woods/Sausalito Tour, or the Alcatraz/Bay Cruise Tour.

See Alcatraz day tour combos for a list.

Spooky scene of Alcatraz cellblock at night

Is Alcatraz haunted? There aren't any ghost tours on Alcatraz, but there are plenty of ghost stories about it!

Check out the spooky encounters some visitors and staff have reported.

Heading home

There are currently two return boat to get back to the city after the night tour, but don't miss the last one!

Return times vary by season. In summer, the return boats leave at 8:40  and 9:25 pm, but the winter departure is at 6:40 pm, so be sure to check the signs for the current times.

They blow a warning horn and do a search of the island each night before the last boat leaves to make sure there aren't any overnight visitors!

We went out in summer on the 5:55 pm ferry and found 2.5 hours was plenty to see and do everything, so we took the 8:40 pm boat back.

It was pretty dark by that time, but Alcatraz is well lit at night, so finding our way back down to the dock was easy.

In mid-summer, you'll have to take the last boat back to see the city lights.

Alcatraz night tour, walkway under bridgeBack to the dock

It was so pretty out on the island with the lights of the city sparkling in the distance.

Alcatraz seemed more intimate and magical after dark; not at all scary, but very welcoming and friendly. Almost like being on a private island. Highly recommended!

For information on the other Alcatraz tours available, see Alcatraz prison tours.

For more tips for visiting the island,  including where to catch the ferry, transportation and parking, see visiting Alcatraz.

Is Alcatraz sold out, for both the day and night tours?

See my suggestions on getting the tickets.

The Dinner Cruise

SF dinner cruise, city and bridge lights.View of the city on our dinner/dance cruise.

If you want to experience the city lights at night from the bay, City Experiences has a fun dinner/dance cruise.

We had a great time on it. See my dinner cruise page for info and photos for my experience

Check rates and availability to book it.

More to explore...