Two kilometers off the shore of San Francisco, in the middle of the bay lies “The Rock” aka Alcatraz. Most famously known as the federal penitentiary that held notorious criminals like Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alcatraz held prisoners who refused to cooperate or caused trouble at other prisons – a prison for prisoners essentially.
The island also served as a lighthouse, military fortification and military prison before it was occupied by aboriginal activists. Today the island is a National Historic Landmark and museum. Each year, more than 1.3 million people make the trek out to Alcatraz for a look into the former prison. Tours of the island start from Pier 33, where a boat takes you to the island. The boat crossing offers great views of the city skyline.
Once on the island, you can pick up an audio guide which takes you through the cell block and comes included with your ticket to the island. I would highly recommend you listen through it all.
The commentators are former officers and prisoners offering their first hand perspectives and recollections which really enhances the experience. The sound effects that run throughout the tour make you really feel like you’re right there in the action.
Adelina’s note: While I didn’t go to Alcatraz on this particular visit to San Francisco, I had visited in 2010 and was completely blown away by the quality of the tour. This tour was definitely one of the best audio tours I’ve been on in all my travels so make sure you do it.
Alcatraz served as a prison for 29 years and was ultimately closed in 1963 due to increasing costs and a struggling reputation. During that time, the prison saw 1,576 inmates and no successful escapes. On the tour, you hear about one of the most notable escape attempts, the “Escape from Alcatraz” by Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin in June 1962 which later was turned into a movie starring Clint Eastwood.
Given the subject matter, the tour wasn’t overly creepy or eerie, instead offering lots of fascinating information about what life was like at The Rock. Beyond the audio guide, visitors can explore the gardens on the island, historic exhibitions and special installations. During my time there, Ai Weiwei had a special exhibit which allowed access to parts of the hospital wing which is otherwise closed to the public.
The tour is a fascinating look into a dark time in history and is a must visit to anyone in San Francisco.
Good to Know
Be sure to book your tickets to the island as early as possible as they tend to sell out quickly. That said, the best time to go is January to March where the demand is not as high making it easier to nab tickets last minute. Even though it may be the off season, the weather can still be cooperative like it was the day I went.
There are also evening tours available which give access to areas not available during the day and has less people. To see what a night tour is like, check out this great post from my friends over at Independent Travel Cats. For the most up to date information on ticket prices and boat schedules, visit the Alcatraz Cruise website. If you’re planning on getting the San Francisco CityPass, there is an option to go to Alcatraz with it, but it comes with special instructions. Also be sure to bring photo ID when picking up your tickets and at boarding.
Things to pack
The island offers great views of the San Francisco skyline and of the Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond the tour, there is plenty to explore around the island and many great view points so be sure to bring your camera. Even if the skies are clear, be sure to dress in layers to accommodate the ever changing weather in San Francisco made worse by being on an island in the middle of the Bay. No food is allowed on the island other than in the dock area. However, you can carry bottled water with you. Snacks are available for purchase on the boat to and from the island as well.
Be prepared to walk
Wear a comfortable pair of shoes and allow yourself 2-3 hours to fully explore the island. The audio tour took about an hour and there are other buildings and exhibits to explore (the exhibition on while I was there was for an architect, Ai Weiwei). Once you’re on the island, you can take any boat back to the mainland when you’re ready. The walk up from the docks is about ¼ mile (0.4 km) and is uphill with a change in elevation of 130 feet so be prepared to walk. However, there are electric shuttles that can take people up and down if you are unable to make the climb.
Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing
Where To Stay
Accommodation in the Bay Area can get quite expensive and budget options get booked up quickly. Book early to avoid disappointment or consider booking across the water in Oakland or further away in San Jose.
Please consider booking your San Francisco accommodations through the included links. There are no additional costs for you and it helps support this website.
Here are my top picks for where to stay:
- USA Hostels San Francisco (711 Post Street, San Francisco) – What hostel has its own movie theatre and yoga studio?! This one does! The hostel is centrally located a couple blocks from Union Square and walking distance to a number of tourist attractions. They regularly have activities where you can meet other travelers and organize daily excursions. They also provide breakfast! Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
- Green Tortoise Hostel (494 Broadway, San Francisco) – Self-proclaimed the #1 party hostel in San Francisco, this would be a great place to meet others. They’re located walking distance to Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf in historic North Beach. If you’re on a budget, they offer free breakfast every day and free dinner three times a week. However, just be aware that there are clubs in the area so it can get noisy. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
- Minna Hotel (509 Minna Street, San Francisco) – Located just a few blocks from downtown San Francisco, the Minna Hotel offers budget and clean accommodation in the heart of San Francisco. Included in the price is a continental breakfast. However, note that the washrooms are shared with other patrons. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
- Greenwich Inn (3201 Steiner Street, San Francisco) – This newly renovated inn is a great option for those seeking more of a hotel experience at a budget price. Located in the Marina District, it’s an easy walk to Fisherman’s Wharf or if you’re more ambitious, to the Golden Gate Bridge. Free breakfast is also included. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
Have you visited Alcatraz or a former prison before? How did you like it?
Disclosure: Lily received a complimentary ticket from Alcatraz Cruises however all opinions as always are her own.