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Alcatraz is definitely one of the must-see iconic attractions in San Francisco,
and is well worth the extra effort that it takes to ensure you have tickets. Do
not be mistaken in thinking this is just a "prison tour". It is
far more than that, and I have yet to meet any travellers that have visited the
island, who didn't rate it as one of the stand-out highlights of their time in
The island of Alcatraz is a national park, and while there are many cruise
companies that sail AROUND Alcatraz, there is only one company
that actually has permission to land on the island: ALCATRAZ CRUISES,
that leave from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf.
Alcatraz Cruises also offers an extended tour that visits Angel Island in
addition to Alcatraz, but this guide relates only to visiting Alcatraz.
Recently Alcatraz Cruises has
included three short and very informative videos on the webpage, which you
should make sure you view, as they offer great info about getting tickets and
visiting the island.
If you do wish to visit Alcatraz while you are in San Francisco, you should
arrange your tickets at least 6 weeks – 3 months in advance of
your visit. It is virtually impossible to just turn up and get Alcatraz
tickets as they can sell out more than a month in advance. Every day, Alcatraz Cruises
turn away hundreds of disappointed tourists who didn’t prearrange tickets.
Same-day standby tickets are sold on at Pier 33 each
morning, but sell out very early. If you are trying to get a standby
ticket, be prepared to queue at 6am in the morning.
Your best advice is to definitely to book and pay online well before you
In 2013/14 ticket prices for for the tour to Alcatraz range between $30-$37
per head for Juniors (12-17 years), Adults (18 years and above), and Seniors.
There is negligible difference between the junior, adult, and senior pricing.
Tickets for children from 5-11 years range from $18-$22. Children
under 5 years of age are free. Minors under the age of 18 are not
permitted onto Alcatraz without an accompanying adult.
Family tickets (2 adults, 2 children (age not specified on the website) are
$90, but are only available from the ticket window on the pier, and not online.
If you are a tourist or visitor to San Francisco it is possible to tour
Alcatraz as part of the San Francisco City Pass and Go San
Francisco Pass Multi tickets, but only if the respective
multipass is purchased through Alcatraz Cruises. If you purchase your Pass
online, or from any other participating attraction, the pass will only contain
a harbour ferry cruise. However if you purchase the multi Pass from
Alcatraz Cruises, at the time of collecting the pass, Alcatraz Cruises will
remove the ferry ride voucher and replace it with an Alcatraz tour voucher. The
tour itself still needs to be booked in advance however, and it is not possible
to purchase the multi pass from Alcatraz Cruises via their website.
If you want to get a multi-pass with the Alcatraz option, you need to telephone
Alcatraz Cruises at (415) 981 7625, purchase the multi pass you want over the
phone using your credit card, (reserving your tour date at the same time) and
then visit the "Will Call" office at Pier 33 on your arrival in San
Francisco to uplift the Pass. This is definitely the best deal for the Alcatraz
Note that you will need photo ID and the credit card you initially used to
purchase the tickets. This is definitely the best deal for the Alcatraz Tour.
for more information.
Due to the inavailability of same-day tickets, there is quite a trade in
scalped tickets and alternative tours that operates around Fisherman's Wharf,
Pier 39 and nearby to Pier 33 where the Alcatraz Cruises Ticket office is
located. If you are approached by touts offering same-day Alcatraz
Cruises tickets, particularly at far higher prices than the ticket office, they
are most likely selling scalped tickets. Offers of discounted cruises to
Alcatraz, or "viewing Alcatraz" by companies other than Alcatraz
Cruises, that sail on the same day as you are being offered the tickets
probably don’t land on the island. It pays to ask, or read the small
print, as the promotional blurb and photos from alternative ferry and cruise
companies often imply that an island landing and visit is included, when it is
There are many different sailings during the day, most departing Pier 33 at
half hour intervals in the morning. They are all detailed on the Alcatraz
Cruises website. The late afternoon and evening tours are slightly more
expensive, and can book out earlier than the day tours. In the evenings some
tours may be led by rangers, or able to access areas of the island that are
closed during the day.
San Francisco harbour can be foggy in the morning (adds to the atmosphere on
the island, but detracts from the harbour views). Many tourists find the
dusk and evening tours more "atmospheric", and the dusk tours have
the added attraction of views of the sun setting over the harbour and Golden
Gate bridge to the west. The lighthouse end of the cellblock on the
western side of the island provides a really nice sunset vantage point for that
perfect photo opportunity if you time it right.
The island becomes marginally more populated later in the day, however
overall numbers are well managed and it is unlikely you will find
"crowding" a problem, particularly if you "take the road less
traveled" and seperate yourself from the main pack after the arrival
orientation. (More about that further on in this guide.) The number
of tourists on the island is largely dictated by the regular spacing of cruise
arrivals. Visitor numbers are not markedly different in the morning as
Alcatraz tours are sold out every cruise - every sailing is full, although
naturally there are less people already on the island during the first
cruises of the day.
Before the cruise to the island, all groups of people in the boarding queue
on Pier 33 are photographed against a backdrop of Alcatraz. The photos are
pre-printed for purchase on your return from the island, as you disembark back
at the Pier. The pre-printed photos cost $22 (at the time of writing in
2012) for two identical prints in cardboard slip frames. They are not available
individually, however the photograph itself, although staged is still quite an
attractive one, albeit expensive. Alcatraz Cruises emphatically do not permit
photography of the commercial images on display for purchase.
Once on the ferry, the trip across to the island is a relatively short one -
about 20 minutes, however the harbor can be cold on the warmest of of San
Francisco days, and the ferry crossing to the island can be blustery. The
island itself is windswept and exposed so even on sunny days make sure you
carry a light jacket that you can layer if the temperature drops.
Food and drink is discouraged on the island, and not available for purchase
whilst on the island. It is possible to purchase snacks and drinks on the ferry
at reasonable prices, and you are able to bring food onto the island for a
picnic. Note that large bags, hampers,
iceboxes, etc are not permitted, and there are no lockers on the island or Pier
Tours are on the island are self-guided. You should allow about 3-4
hours (including the return ferry ride). You will get basic free maps on
the various buildings on the island when you arrive. More comprehensive
walking tour maps are also available for a $1 donation.
All visits start on the dock with a brief orientation by a park ranger, who
may then lead the group up hill toward the main cellblock. While you are on the dock, check
out the board that shows what guided tours are being offered that day, as these
vary from day to day and often access areas of the island that are not open to
the public. Guided tours are free of
charge, and up to 45 minutes duration.
Included in the ticket price is an excellent free audio audio tour.
The portable audio units and headphones are provided when you enter the
lower enrance of the cellblock. The audio tour walks you on a fixed route
through the main cellblock with narration by ex-guards and convicts. It is very
well done, giving extensive insights into life of both staff and convicts on
the island, and also the more infamous escape attempts. Small children
will probably get a bit bored with the island - particularly the length of the
audio tour, however suitably prepared children and young teens will very likely
quickly become engrossed with it.
Don't rush straight up the hill to the cellblock to begin the audio tour
directly after the ranger orientation on the dock. You will just end up in a
big queue of people waiting to get audio tours issued. Issuing of
audiotours is very efficient, but you will end up viewing the cellblock amid a
throng of other audiotour listeners at the same stage of the tour. A
better option is to first visit the barracks building on the dock, where you
can sit and watch a very informative Discovery Channel documentary introducing
the island, with lots of additional background and historical information. It
really does set the scene for what you will see later on the island. There is
also a manned information office and souvenir store in the Barracks building.
After visiting the barracks, then take your time following the approach
road up the hill toward the cellblock, taking in the other sights enroute. Some
of the island's lower buildings date back to its time as a fort, far preceding
its time as a prison.
There are plenty of things to see outside of the main cellblock – other
buildings, barracks and forts, the small morgue, prison staff housing ruins, extensive
hillside gardens, seagull nesting sites, etc. There is also graffiti and
signage remaining on the island from the Native American protest occupation of
Alcatraz from 1969-71.
Ferries land and depart from the island approximately every 30 minutes. If you
spend time watching the documentary in the barracks, and time your arrival at
the lower entrance to the hilltop cellblock between the clusters of
tourists walking up the hill after their orientation, then the queue for the
audio tour should have abated. Note that the distribution of the audio tour
headsets is from the lower entrance to the hilltop cellblock - not the upper
entrance near the lighthouse vantage point at the top of the road.
The audio tour is self guided, but not self paced. You follow the narration
around the cellblock - hence the recommendation that you start your audio tour
after the main flock of people. Not only will you get your audio headset
faster, but you will have a much better audio tour experience as you won’t be
moving in the large crowd, given that very few people tour the cellblock
without following the audio tour. If you are in a family group, all start
your tour at the same time so that you visit each audio station of the
cellblock together. It is also possible to pause the audio tour if you do
find yourself in a crowd of people that started their tours at the same time,
or want to coordinate your tour with friends or family.
The Cellhouse tour itself is flat, although the main entrance to the tour
and gift shop at end are on a lower level. The giftshop has a really
imaginative and extensive range of memorabilia.
As well as the free audiotour on
the island, http://www.geoki.com also provide a
well-reviewed audio tour of Alcatraz for iOS, for purchase from the AppStore.
After finishing the cellblock
tour, be sure to walk through the Prisoner Gardens on the West Road, below the
cellblock and Recreation Yard (between
the Lighthouse and the New Industries Building).
From September 2014 to 26 April 2015, Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei
has an extensive multimedia exhibition on display at Alcatraz. The exhibition is called @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, and is spread across a number of prison
locations that are normally closed to the public, including the New Industries and Model Industries Buildings. Entrance to the @Large exhibition is also
included in the price of your entrance ticket.
If you are physically challenged the park has golf carts available to
shuttle people with limited mobility from the dock to the hilltop cellblock -
but these are in limited supply so let the ranger staff at the dock know as
soon as you arrive on the island if you need mobility assistance. There
is also accessibility information on the Alcatraz Cruises website. Loan wheelchairs are not available from
Alcatraz Cruises or on the island.
If you don't take public transport to Pier 33, and intend to drive and park
prior to taking the Alcatraz cruise, there is parking facility information
on the Alcatraz Cruises website (under “Plan Your Trip”). I also recommend
using the online parking garage search engine at http://sanfrancisco.bestparking.com
for smartphone viewing.
Input the address of "Pier 33" and the time of day you intend to
take the tour, and the search engine will provide you with the relevant prices
and addresses of all the parking buildings in the vicinity. Enroute to
your parking garage, keep an eye out for curbside metered car parking which can
be significantly less expensive than the parking structures. On a number
of the streets close to Pier 33 you may pay as little as $2 per hour for
parking. (for instance - try on Francisco Street between Montgomery and Kearny
Street, where there are also a number of parking garages).
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