One of the most famous prisons and islands in America, and a major San Francisco tourist attraction, Alcatraz is a must-visit if you’re ever in the Bay Area. Historically speaking, few prisons within the United States hold water to Alcatraz, where the likes of Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, and Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson called home. The worst of the worst were sent here, especially those with escape histories, as no one is believed to have ever successfully escaped Alcatraz. At least 36 have tried, almost all caught by guards or killed by the icy waters, with the fates of only three men ever questioned (see the film Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood).
Located on Alcatraz Island, the hours of operation are for the ferry, not the prison itself. The ferry runs daily, every 30 minutes, from 8:40 AM to 1:35 PM (until 4:30pm during summer). To book tickets, the National Park Service website directs you to Alcatraz City Tours, where tours run $42.15 per adult, $42.15 ages 12-17, seniors 62+ $39.80, and $25.80 for ages 5-11.
For the quick 15-minute boat ride, be sure to book tickets in advance, as spots can go quickly. I do not recommend trying to purchase tickets on the day of – especially during summer. We bought our tickets roughly one month prior, planning to visit at the very beginning of December. According to a ferry worker, visitation was considered “light” that day, with the boat about half full. It still felt like a good amount of people, so I can only imagine the summertime crowds. Best to plan accordingly. 😬
Upon arrival to The Rock, we were greeted by a NPS employee, who gave a quick speech on Alcatraz and what to expect. You don’t have to stay and listen, but it’s helpful. Next, up the hill you go, walking to the very top. It usually takes less than 10 minutes, depending on how many stops made along the way. For those with mobility issues, there’s a tram that runs every 30 minutes (only one “companion” allowed per person). The actual prison sits at the top, with the surrounding buildings formerly used as prison offices, guard quarters, infirmary, morgue, Warden’s home, and other administrative buildings. Only the main prison is open for visitors, and all other buildings are off-limits.
Once you reach the prison up top, you are handed an audio box and headphones, which you use to learn about Alcatraz as you walk around. The audio tour goes in a specific order, with certain parts correlating to what you’re physically seeing, so it’s best to stay on track. It can get a bit confusing but is generally easy to follow. You make your way past the intake center (including the exposed row of showers for every inmate at admission – please see above), through the library, past rows and rows of general population cells, the yard, D Block or solitary confinement, and the mess hall/kitchen. Certain cells are left open, both in general population and solitary, which allow you to walk inside. The cells of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, the only three men to ever “escape” from Alcatraz, are completely done up, including with the famous plaster heads used to trick the guards (picture located at the end of the blog).
The cellhouse audio tour is available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Mandarin. It is also available in Braille in English. If you are not interested in the audio tour, you can request a refund ($8) in the cellhouse bookstore. However, the audio tour is very informative, and it is recommended.
Important note: Al Capone’s cell is not marked, so it can be easily missed. It is in B Block, on the second row, at the very beginning of the tour once you pass the intake room and into general population. His cell is number 181.
On average, it takes about one hour to tour the main prison, depending on how many times you rewind your audio box (which is 45 minutes long). The tour officially ends at the mess hall/kitchen, with the actual kitchen off limits and only viewable from behind metal bars. If you’re not ready to leave The Rock after finishing the audio tour, you can go outside to sit and hang out at various spots on the island. We chose a spot near the Warden’s house and lighthouse, directly looking across the harbor, with a terrific view of the San Francisco skyline, the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge. They also have an additional area near the end with various artifacts, like a uniform worn by the guards, a model of Alcatraz, old artifacts from the prisons heyday like a 1950s coca-cola box, and the (closed off) doors to the Armory and Vault.
Overall, no trip to San Francisco is complete with a trip to Alcatraz a.k.a The Rock. It’s considered by many to not only be the most famous prison in the United States, but also the toughest and most inescapable. To date, nobody has ever officially escaped from Alcatraz Prison, as Morris and the Anglin brothers were never (officially) seen or heard from again, presumed to have been swept out to sea by the strong current. It’s a fascinating part of both American and California history, as well as true crime history. With a quick, relatively calm, 15-minute boat ride, and about 2-3 hours total, it will easily fit into any San Francisco itinerary!