Trying to decide which Alcatraz prison tours to take?
Here are my tips on what the tours are like and the how to get the tickets.
|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 four 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.
There are a few areas that are off-limits, mainly on the second floor of the prison, but some of those areas are included on the night tour.
Once you're on Alcatraz, you're free to explore the rest of the island, including the Civil War era buildings and the gardens. Plus, there's a small museum on the dock that shows a good film on the history of Alcatraz.
Machine Gun Kelly
Tip on the "Family" ticket price. The $114.75 price for 2 adults and 2 children is only available at the ticket booth or over the phone, not online. Online, it comes to $122.50.
These Alcatraz prison tours leave about every 30 minutes from Pier 33, daily from 8:45 am to 3:50 pm (8:45 am to 1:35 pm in winter). The return boats leave Alcatraz every 30 minutes; the last one leaves Alcatraz at 6:30 pm (4:30 pm in winter) and you can take any of the boats back. The return times are posted at Pier 33 and at the dock on the island.
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.
Tip: the first tour of the day is called the Early Bird Tour, at 8:45 am. This one's very popular because it's the first boat out to the island and you can explore before it gets really crowded. This tour gets booked up faster than the other day tours, so booking ahead for this one is even more important.
In summer, there are 14 day-tour sailings out to the Rock, and 11 sailings in winter. Each boat trip carries about 200 people to the island. As the day progresses, it tends to get more crowded, since there's no time limit and visitors can take any boat back; as a result, the morning tours tend to be more popular and book up faster.
There are fewer people on the night tours, so the prison is much less crowded and has a more intimate feel.
Plus, you get to watch the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge and see the lights all around the bay begin to sparkle.
In summer, the Alcatraz Night Tour leaves Thursdays through Mondays at 5:55 pm and 6:30 pm from Pier 33 and lasts about 2.5 hours. You can return on either the 8:40 pm or 9:25 pm boats. The sun doesn't set until around 8:30 pm in mid-summer, so it will be light for the first couple of hours, good for exploring the island.
The prison is even eerier after dark, and if it's a clear night, the lights of San Francisco are truly magical.
During winter, there is only one night tour, leaving at 3:50 pm, Thursday through Monday, returning at 6:45 pm. At the darkest time of year in San Francisco, the sun has usually set by 5 pm, so you'll see both the sunset and the city lights.
Return times are posted at Pier 33 and at the dock on Alcatraz.
The two night tour sailings (5:55 and 6:30) resume on March 12, 2018. That time of year, the sun sets around 7:15 pm, so if you take the later boat, it will be dark 30 minutes after arrival on the island.
For lots more about the night tour, plus photos, see the Alcatraz night tour.
This one is the newest tour, limited to 30 people max.
It includes the ferry to Alcatraz and starts out with a special guided 2-hour tour of the island, going into places that the other tours don't go, then joins the night tour's activities for a 4 to 5 hour total Alcatraz experience.
This tour involves a lot of walking up and down stairs and steep hills and is limited to age 12 and above for that reason. They describe this one as "strenuous", so be prepared. They don't have breaks, so eat (and whatever else you need to do) before the tour!
The Behind the Scenes Tour leaves at either 4:20 pm or 4:50 pm (during the summer) Thursdays through Mondays from Pier 33. You can return on either the 8:40 pm or 9:25 pm boats.
Again, in winter, the boats leave at 2:10 pm and 2:40 pm and return at 6:45 pm and 7:45 pm. See current schedule below.
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 only during spring and fall. In my opinion, this is a lot for one day, but it depends on your stamina for sightseeing.
You can also see Angel Island on your own by taking the Blue and Gold 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.
Doing Angel Island on your own (ferry ride from SF plus tram tour) would run around $33.50 for adults, less for seniors and kids.
For all the tours, check the current schedule and ticket availability 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 (day tours only). 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. Refunds are only available on the day tours. 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, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin.
This 45-minute, self-guided audio tour is a very well-done 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 recording, 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. (Or did it? Three escapees left on a raft and were never seen again.) 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.
For those who have difficulty getting up the hill, there is a tram that leaves from the dock every 35 minutes, and carries people back down as well.
These Alcatraz prison tours are free and are offered on a variety of topics, like "Escapes", "Famous Inmates", and "Fortress Alcatraz".
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. They also post a list on the dock at Pier 33.
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.)
There are also free, guided, docent tours of the extensive gardens on Alcatraz, including tours of areas normally off-limits to visitors. Tours are Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:30 am, leaving from the Alcatraz dock (you would have to take the first or second ferry). Also, the Officers' Row area is open every Wednesday from 11 to 2, with a docent present for questions.
Note: Construction and repairs. Alcatraz is starting to crumble from the effect of sea air on the metal frames of the buildings, so they're fixing up various sections of the prison. As a result, some of the areas aren't currently accessible.
The closures affect some of the places that would normally be included on the night tour and Behind the Scenes tour, like the prison hospital. All the work was scheduled to be done in early 2018, but the rain has been slowing things down.
The good news: all of the areas that you would normally see on the day tour are now open again, including the prisoners' exercise yard, which is a really cool place to check out.
Tickets for Alcatraz go on sale 90 days in advance of the tours.
Alcatraz is extremely popular and tickets sell out fast, so try and purchase them well ahead of your visit. In the high season (summer), and over the holidays, the tickets can be sold out two months in advance. And the night tours sell out even faster than the day tours.
Alcatraz is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Also, the Night Tour and the Behind the Scenes Tour don't run on July 4th, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.
All four 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).
Note: I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through some of the links on this page, at no extra cost to you. This helps me provide all the free information I post on this website.
Are you thinking about visiting Muir Woods or Sausalito, doing a bay cruise, or taking a city tour?
Here are some of the most popular Alcatraz combination tours:
Alcatraz, Muir Woods and Sausalito. Walk the tranquil paths of Muir Woods among the redwoods, then explore through the seaside town of Sausalito. For more info and booking, see Alcatraz, Muir Woods & Sausalito tour.
Alcatraz, SF City Tour, and Sausalito. Get a ride on the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus (three-day pass) and see all the highlights of the city with commentary from a local guide, getting off to explore at any stop, at your own pace. Includes four tours: city, downtown, Sausalito and night tours. For more info and booking, see Alcatraz & Hop On Hop Off tour.
The Jail and Sail Tour is a very popular one, and tends to get booked-up. In addition to exploring Alcatraz, you spend two hours sailing around SF Bay and under both bridges as the sun sets, with hors d'oeuvres, drinks and live music. A fun one! For info and booking, Jail & Sail tour.
Or see Alcatraz combo tours to see a list of the many combinations available; there are lots!
Alcatraz tickets sell out fast, and in high season they may be sold out months in advance.
Want more information on buying the tickets, how to get to Pier 33, taking the ferry, what to bring, what to see on the island, plus parking and transportation? See my page on visiting Alcatraz.
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