Alcatraz San Francisco | Visit San Francisco’s Famous Prison

Last Updated on February 18, 2020 by AW Traveller

Alcatraz prison in San Francisco is definitely the most famous prison in the United States, if not the world. Many of most notorious American criminals, including Al Capone, have served their sentence here and have found death there either from the harshness of their living conditions or from various unsuccessful attempts to escape.

The prison is located on the island of the same name (also known as ” Rock” for its rocky confirmation), off the bay of San Francisco, and its location has made it one of the most difficult prisons from which to escape. Let’s see today how it is possible to visit Alcatraz, find tickets and take advantage of various available tours and possible savings opportunities. But first: a bit of history …

Alcatraz Island Map

Alcatraz History

Alcatraz Island
Image by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay

Given its strategic position in the center of the bay of San Francisco, the island was initially used as a lighthouse post, and only later was it converted into a prison building (first military and since 1934 as a maximum-security detention center). From the beginning, however, causes of its subsequent decline began to be glimpsed, the island was in fact very inhospitable and it was necessary to transport daily from San Francisco not only food and clothing but also drinking water.

Over time, costs soared that some American politicians argued that it would have been much cheaper to have prisoners housed in a luxury hotel than in Alcatraz. inhospitable conditions of the island in a sense were similar to rigid conditions in which prisoners had to serve their sentences. For this reason, the prison regime of Alcatraz was reserved only for inveterate or particularly recidivist criminals, so much to make saying famously.

Break rules and you go to prison, break prison rules and you go to Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island
Image by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay

The most fascinating features of the island also contributed to making living conditions more difficult for prisoners, namely its proximity to San Francisco and its suggestive panorama. If you visit prison try for a moment to identify yourself with inmates and what they could try looking at the city and hearing noises brought by wind knowing that, despite being so close, it was at the same time unreachable due to cold and strong currents of bay.

All this was extremely traumatizing during New Year’s Eve when sounds of city festivities penetrated walls of the prison and for this reason, at the stroke of midnight, all detainees undertook to make as much noise as possible so as not to be forced to listen to them.

The prison was officially closed due to management costs that we mentioned in 1963, but story of Alcatraz did not end here because a few years later, in 1969, for a short time a group of Native Americans occupied island and penitentiary now abandoned with intention of founding a cultural center to protest policies adopted by federal government against them. After initial enthusiasm, however, difficult living conditions on the island made themselves felt and a year later last Indians were evicted. Even today signs of this occupation can be seen in some murals (You are on Indian land).

How to Organize a Visit to Alcatraz?

As you may have guessed, among places of interest in San Francisco, Alcatraz occupies a prominent position. There are basically 2 ways to visit Alcatraz: first is recommended for those who, in addition to Alcatraz, do not plan to do much else in San Francisco and surrounding area, but in most cases, if in addition to prison you intend to also enjoy main attractions of San Francisco, we advise you to check convenience of second option (combined tours and tourist passes).

Note: admission to Alcatraz prison is included in park card, however, you will not derive any economic advantage from this, since, as stated in a note on the official website, the card does not cover the cost of the ferry crossing from San Francisco. For this reason, even if you have a card, it is necessary to book a visit in advance.

Option 1: Single Visit to Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

If you are not satisfied with a cruise around the island but you want to go to visit penitentiary made famous by numerous films including ” Rock”, you can do it exclusively through ferries of Alcatraz Cruises company departing from Pier 33 (not to be confused with better known Pier 39 ). Given the high demand, it is recommended to book at least one month before your arrival in San Francisco.

I was able to personally see the usefulness of this advice since when I presented with my reservation at the boarding pier, I saw a sign at the ticket office announcing that there would be no seats available for the next 20 days. So, if your visit to San Francisco will be only a few days and you are sure you want to visit Alcatraz, the advice is to book early, especially in high season.

Alcatraz Cruises, thanks to the collaboration with National Park Service, offers, in addition to transport on the island, also the possibility of using an audio guide that will be very useful in accompanying you on your visit inside the penitentiary.

Alcatraz Island

Although I do not have great sympathy for this type of service in general, my advice, in this case, is to use it because, in addition to being present Italian language, it is not at all boring and narration of history of penitentiary mixes with testimonies of former prisoners who they tell you what daily life was like in Alcatraz, they will help you fully understand meaning of place you are visiting making you discover a typical day inside prison and telling you story of many tragic and imaginative attempts to escape.

Alcatraz Cruises, throughout the day, offers numerous timetable solutions to choose from but if you want to live a more particular experience, I recommend you opt for a night tour, which will offer you the opportunity to visit the island with light suggestive of sunset. In case you are interested in a tour also in nearby Angel Island, you can combine two things but pay attention to the period in which you will go: this is, in fact, the only tour to be seasonal.

As for ticket prices, consider spending $ 39 per person on the standard tour, $ 47 on Night and $ 78 on visiting Alcatraz and Angel Island together. However, on the official Alcatraz Cruises website, you will find all the information regarding different tours and how to book.

Option 2: Visit Alcatraz with Combined Tours and Cumulative Packages

Alcatraz Island

In addition to the method shown, however, there are other possibilities to visit Alcatraz, often convenient for most visitors, who in addition to famous islands, want to visit other attractions, undertake paid activities and use public transport (or even bicycles) for travel in the city. In fact, with a single Alcatraz tour managed by Alcatraz Cruises, you can combine more while saving. Take a look at these interesting possibilities:

Obviously, recommendation always remains the same: book early!


If you are preparing to visit San Francisco, a suggestion we give is to also read our in-depth analysis of San Francisco passes, which include organized tours, excursions, and entrances to many city attractions at a discounted price.

Where to sleep in the Alcatraz area?

As we have already explained in another article, the best area to stay near boarding for the island of Alcatraz is lively Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood, however, since traveling in San Francisco is not complicated at all, you can safely choose one of the areas mentioned in our article on where to sleep in San Francisco.

Fun Activities to do in Alcatraz Island

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