Alcatraz Island has a story so intriguing it draws in over 1.5 million visitors each year. But is the Alcatraz Tour worth your valuable time and money?
In short, the answer is yes. But you’re not here for the short answer.
Fort, military prison, maximum security federal penitentiary and freedom all play a role in the colorful history of the eerie, forbidding and isolated island a mile offshore in the center of San Francisco Bay.
The Golden City is certainly not a cheap place to visit and with limited time to explore the city, it’s important to spend your time and money wisely.
Let’s dive deeper into what you can expect and why the tour of Alcatraz is worth putting a dent in your San Francisco travel budget and itinerary.
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City: San Francisco
Nickname: The Rock
Famous Prisoners: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Robert Stroud, Whitey Bulger, The Anglin Brothers
Prisoner Capacity: 336 (never reached maximum capacity)
Prison Opened: 11 August 1934
Prison Closed: 21 March 1963
Annual visitors: 1.5 million tourists
History of Alcatraz
Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first man to sail into San Francisco Bay and lay eyes upon ‘the Rock’.
The Spanish explorer mapped the bay in 1775 and named the tiny island Alcatraces, which translates to ‘Gannet’ but research tells us it is in fact ‘Pelican’.
Gannets are traditionally North Atlantic sea birds and brown Pelicans are common around the San Francisco Bay Area. Alcatraces when Anglicized translates to Alcatraz.
The name feels slightly less sinister now you know it means Pelican, right?! You could ignore this fact if you want the name to retain its mystique!
Following the Gold Rush and booming of San Francisco in the 1850’s, the US military built a fortress at the top of Alcatraz to protect the bay from Naval invasion.
On June 1st 1854 the ‘Alcatraz Light’ became the first lighthouse built on the West coast of America and by the late 1850’s Alcatraz received its first military prisoners.
No shots were ever fired from the enormous cannons at Alcatraz fortress and its requirement as a defensive installation became obsolete.
The US army demolished Alcatraz fortress in 1909 and military prisoners at the time built what would become ‘the Rock’.
Punishment to Fit the Crime
Following rampant crime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Alcatraz was the perfect symbol for the Department of Justice to show its citizens they were taking crime seriously.
The prison was categorized as maximum security and minimum privilege and opened in 1933.
Alcatraz would be the new home for those who were incapable of reform or who had gained cultural repute.
Native American Occupation
Alcatraz prison was finally closed on 21 March 1963 after almost 30 years of operation. Its closure had nothing to do with escape attempts (which we will get to later) and everything to do with finances. It simply wasn’t cost effective to maintain the prison any longer.
Following the closure of Alcatraz prison, the island was left deserted and abandoned for 6 years. In 1969, a group of Native Americans known as ‘the Indians of All Tribes’ occupied Alcatraz and raised awareness of the troubles they faced.
Support for Natives grew throughout their 19 month stronghold on Alcatraz until they lost control and buildings were burned down. Federal Marshalls intervened and removed all people from Alcatraz in 1971.
Alcatraz Museum and Tour
In 1973 Alcatraz was opened to the general public as a museum under the National Park Service. Alcatraz remains one of the most popular park service sites and receives over 1 million visitors each year.
Are you planning to visit more of California? You can’t miss our top 23 stops along the legendary Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to San Diego.
How To Get To Alcatraz – Pier 33
There’s only one way you can reach the Rock as a tourist and that is from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing.
Alcatraz Cruises own sole rights to ferry crossings from Pier 33 to Alcatraz Island. It’s not worth looking into chartering a private boat to access the island because you won’t be able to enter the museum.
Pier 33 is located half way around San Francisco’s Embarcadero, between Fisherman’s Wharf and Ferry Building.
If you’re driving your own vehicle with the aim of parking nearby, there are over 3,000 parking spaces within a 5 block radius of Pier 33.
However, if you are able to access the pier by foot or public transport, we actively encourage you do so.
Pier 33 is equipped with an accessibility drop off zone for those with special needs.
Alcatraz Tour Cost
When you visit Alcatraz you can choose between 4 different types of tour, each with varying costs, access and privileges:
- Day Tour – Round trip ferry to Alcatraz Island, audio guided tour, takes around 2.5 hours | US$ 39.90 Adult
- Night Tour – Round trip ferry to Alcatraz Island, guided tour, special tour activities | US$ 47.30 Adult
- Behind the Scenes Tour – Round trip ferry to Alcatraz Island, exclusive behind the scenes guided tour, access to areas not available on day/night tour, fewer than 30 people in group | US$ 92.30 Adult (13 years of age and older)
- Alcatraz and Angel Island Tour – Round trip ferry to Alcatraz and Angel Island, audio guided tour, Angel island tram tour | US$ 78.65 Adult
More information about costs of each tour can be found here. Note that prices and availability may change during COVID-19.
Alcatraz Tour Ferry Schedule
At the time of our visit in November 2019 the following departures sailed each day:
- Day Tour – 8.45am, 9.10am, 9.30am, 10.00am, 10.30am, 11.00am, 11.30am, 12.00pm, 12.30pm, 1.00pm, 1.30pm, 2.10pm, 2.40pm, 3.20pm and 3.50pm.
- Behind the Scenes Tour – 4.20pm and 4.50pm (Tuesday through Saturday only).
- Night Tour – 5.55pm and 6.30pm (Tuesday through Saturday only).
- Alcatraz and Angel Island Tour – 9.30am and 9.40am.
However, at the time of writing during COVID-19 in September 2020, there are only 5 ferry times per day and only the Day Tour is in operation:
- Day Tour – 11.00am, 12.00pm, 1.00pm, 2.00pm and 3.00pm
Note: We will update this section with revised times when appropriate.
Arrival on Alcatraz Island
We don’t want to give too much of the Alcatraz tour away so instead of going into great detail, we will simply give you an idea about what you can expect.
You can then determine if you think you want to part with US$ 40+ per adult. After all, San Francisco is not a cheap city to visit in the first place.
Upon arrival to the Rock, you will disembark and find a crowd has amassed outside Building 64.
Also known as Residential Apartments, this 3 story ex military barracks and prison officer accommodation was the first building to be built on Alcatraz.
A guide / park ranger will explain all important information for your visit. Stay to listen so you can find out which special talks are on for your particular day of visit.
However, pick a reasonable time to break away from this group otherwise you’ll be in a long line for an audio tour headset once you reach the old shower room.
Begin Your Alcatraz Prison Tour
Walk up and around the slaloming walkway, ignoring any other areas you might be keen to unleash yourself upon! Head straight to the main prison entrance (which states cell house audio tour) and get your first real taste for Alcatraz prison.
When you first cast your eyes upon the rusting grey-blue metal doors, you will be immediately feel your insides crawl and shudder.
Once inside, make your way to the long narrow and very open shower room. Imagine taking a shower with some of the most hardened and creepy criminals in the history of America.
“Hey Mr. Scarface, could you pass me the soap please?”
Line up here until you reach the front to pick up your audio headset, which can be set to the following languages:
English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Mandarin.
Your Alcatraz tour will begin in the cell house. However, our top tip of the tour is to consider what time you are picking up your headset and compare against the special talks taking place.
If there’s a talk on a few minutes after you pick your headset up, don’t start your audio tour, go straight to the special talk.
We’ll explain the 2 special talks we were able to listen to on our visit:
Sounds of the Slammer
Alcatraz housed 4 main cell blocks with three tiers of cells – A, B, C and D.
Some cells measured no more than 9ft long by 5ft wide. Imagine a bed, toilet and sink inside those dimensions. Doesn’t leave a lot of room for maneuvering, does it?!
Cell blocks B and C were the longest rows and contained the most cells. In between cell blocks, each corridor was given a famous street name such as Broadway, Michigan Avenue and Park Avenue.
Cell block D is where misbehaving prisoners were sent and if it was a particularly serious offense, they would find themselves in one of six segregation unit cells, also known as ‘the Hole’.
Each hardened steel cell door was operated by a series of levers and mechanisms located at the end of that particular row of cells.
Individual or multiple cells (not necessarily next to each other) could be opened at the same time using this mechanism at the end of each row. At the time this was innovative technology, replacing the traditional lock and key method.
The featured talk about opening and closing cell doors is called ‘Sound of the Slammer‘ and includes a practical demonstration plus stories from during and after the operation of Alcatraz prison.
Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to try to open the cell door using bed sheets and a wheel to lasso the lever a la Sean Connery in ‘The Rock’!
Alcatraz was dubbed ‘the inescapable island’ but there were a series of attempts.
Did anyone successfully make it out? Well, that remains a mystery.
Are you a romantic who wants to believe that someone managed to escape (despite the fact they were in prison for committing serious and/or heinous crimes)?!
Or are you a firm believer of facts, logic and physics that suggest no person made it out alive?
The escape attempts talk takes place in the dining hall next to the cell house. If this talk is on during your visit – do not miss it.
This talk was the highlight of our Alcatraz tour thanks to some fantastic story telling by the ranger / guide who led the program. The room was packed full of tourists utterly engrossed in a wide semicircle.
Throughout Alcatraz prison’s history, 14 escape attempts were made by a total of 36 inmates. Some of the stories are sad, some downright hilarious and others full of ingenuity.
We will not divulge any more information here, you will hear about them when you visit!
If you really can’t wait that long you can read about each escape attempt in detail.
Many inmates at Alcatraz were relative unknowns and were only sent to the ‘supermax’ prison of the 30’s because they were escape threats or committed serious offenses at other prisons.
However, some inmates were of higher renown and some gained reputation through popular culture in years to follow.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous Alcatraz inmates:
Al Capone – Gained notoriety as the modern day Robin Hood making millions in bootlegging illegal alcohol. Nicknamed ‘Scarface’, Capone led the Chicago mob outfit during prohibition but was jailed on tax evasion offenses after being named Public Enemy #1.
Robert Stroud – Nicknamed ‘the Birdman’, Stroud only became famous when a movie called Birdman of Alcatraz was made. But he never actually kept any birds at Alcatraz, he kept 300 birds in his cell at Leavenworth, Kansas. A dangerous murderer, Stroud was in jail from 19 years of age until his death in 1963.
George Kelly – A model inmate at Alcatraz, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly was only transferred to the Rock after half joking with guards at Leavenworth that he would escape in time for Christmas. His joke was taken all too seriously. Kelly was imprisoned for kidnap and is believed to have only turned to crime because his wife pushed him into it.
Alvin Karpis – In prison for conspiracy to kidnap, ‘Creepy’ Karpis was a near genius IQ member of the Barker-Karpis Gang along with fellow inmate ‘Doc’ Barker. They would rob banks, gunning down anyone who stood in their way. Karpis spent 26 years on Alcatraz, more than any other prisoner.
Views From Alcatraz Island
Sections of the audio tour include walking around external areas, such as Alcatraz Lighthouse. Plus, you can explore the recreation yard and parade ground after the audio tour has finished.
Remember you are in the center of San Francisco Bay, which means you have 360 degree views around the entire Bay Area!
Don’t forget your camera if you’re into photography. Depending on the time of day and positioning of the sun, you can snap photographs of Oakland Bridge, San Francisco city and of course the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge.
Don’t expect Alcatraz to be one of the better views of the Golden Gate Bridge, instead you will need to head one of these 5 best photography locations.
Is The Alcatraz Tour Worth Your Time And Money?
Personally, we have to say we were genuinely surprised by just how good the Alcatraz museum tour is put together. We had high expectations but they were surpassed.
Be sure to make the special talks on your day of visit and we’re positive you will find the tour of Alcatraz to be as informative and satisfying as we did.
At a price of US$ 40 per adult for the day tour, the price may appear a little on the steep side.
That being said, once you consider that price includes return ferry, a wonderful audio tour featuring the voices of former guards, inmates and historians, plus excellent featured talks – 40 bucks is actually a bit of a steal.
If you’re concerned about your travel budget, grab a cheaper dinner one night to save your cash for this tour, it’s worth the sacrifice!
So, the long answer to your question ‘Is the Alcatraz Tour worth my time and money’ … is YES.
Buy Your Alcatraz Tour Tickets (In Advance!)
When it comes to buying your Alcatraz tour tickets, you can get them from one place and one place only: Alcatraz Cruises.
We do not make any commission from these tickets. This review (as always) has been 100% genuine and intended to help you decide whether the Alcatraz tour should be a part of your San Francisco itinerary.
We hope to have convinced you to visit ‘The Rock’!
When it comes to buying your tickets, please plan ahead and book as far in advance as you can.
We meet countless people who say they couldn’t do the tour because there were no tickets left the day they wanted to visit. It’s not worth risking it.
Don’t miss our catalogue of in depth California travel guides to help you plan the perfect Golden State vacation!
- San Francisco – 15 Things You Can’t Miss On A First Time Visit (Including Alcatraz!)
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- Golden Gate Bridge – 5 Best View Points For Photographing The Iconic Bridge
- Warner Bros Studio Tour – Is it the best Hollywood Movie Studio Tour?
- San Diego – 22 Amazing Things To Do In 3 Unforgettable Days
- Yosemite National Park – HUGE travel guide to one of the best parks in the world
- Joshua Tree National Park – Perfect Day Trip From LA and San Diego
- Death Valley National Park – Complete Day Trip Guide From Las Vegas and LA
Alcatraz in Popular Culture
Before visiting Alcatraz, you might want to watch some of these old movies to get in the mood:
- Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
- Point Blank (1967)
- The Enforcer (1976)
- Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
- The Rock (1996) – our personal favorite!
- The Book of Eli (2010)
Even the Harry Potter franchise created by JK Rowling features Azkaban prison which can only be based on one place!
Why Did Alcatraz Get Shut Down
Contrary to popular belief, Alcatraz was not shut down due to an escape. It was purely financial in the end. Millions of gallons of fresh water had to be shipped to the Rock weekly and eventually the government decided it would be cheaper to just build a new prison!
How Cold is the Water Around Alcatraz Island?
Yes the water is always cold in San Francisco Bay! An average temperature of around 12 C (54 F) with little variation would prove challenging for escapees. However, avid open water swimmers do swim across the bay regularly.
Has Anyone Escaped From Alcatraz?
Now, we said we wouldn’t give anything away and we won’t. However, we will tell you there are 3 men who broke out of Alcatraz and disappeared never to be seen again. They were Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin. Do you think they made it across the bay?
Are there Sharks Around Alcatraz?
Yes, but usually only Leopard Sharks. Man eating Great Whites are frequently found outside the bay in the Pacific but rarely venture into the bay. That being said, there is footage of Great Whites close to Alcatraz. Would you swim the channel?
We hope this helped you plan your Alcatraz Tour!
Please let us know if you have any questions or need any help planning your visit to San Francisco in the comments below.
Enjoy Your Visit,
Mark and Kristen
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