Explore Alcatraz

Explore Alcatraz
Alcatraz, located on Alcatraz Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, was once a federal prison. It was also home to some of America’s most dangerous criminals, between 1934 and 1963. Among those criminals were Al Capone, and Robert Stroud. Later it became a military prison for the U.S. Army. Nowadays Alcatraz is a perennially popular tourist attraction in San Francisco, and an icon in California – ranking consistently among the top 25 tourist attractions in the world!

The island on which Alcatraz is located is actually a national park. The island is home to many rare flowers and plants, as well as thousands of seabirds. Getting there means taking a boat trip, which often affords excellent wildlife viewing opportunities like whales and pelicans. The prison area itself is filled with Civil War-era buildings, and visitors can visit many of them like the cellblocks or the hospital area. If you want a fascinating and exciting look at one of the most important pieces of United States history, experience Alcatraz.

Alcatraz corridor
Door posting with original graffati
Hydrotherapy Room
“Prisoners who were uncontrollable at other penal institutions were at last tamed by the severity of life at Alcatraz, while restless inmates who made a habit of breaking out of other prisons on the mainland found that their days of easy escapes were over. Almost 40 tried, but no one ever successfully escaped the citadel perched on the rock in the bay.” –Biography.com

Unique Things to See and Do at Alcatraz

  • Visit the barracks
  • If it’s open, visit the hospital area for a glimpse into old medical practices
  • See the lighthouse
  • Explore the cell house
  • See the morgue
  • See the vegetable gardens set up by Native Americans
  • Take in the San Francisco skyline

Information on Alcatraz

Tickets to Alcatraz aren’t easy to come by, and reserving your spot means booking far in advance. Show up early the day of departure, otherwise you may lose your spot. While there is a gift store on the island, there isn’t a place to buy food – it’s a good idea to pack some sandwiches before you leave. (Note, however, that large coolers or bags are not permitted.)

One of the most interesting parts of Alcatraz is the D-block, otherwise known as “the Hole.” The most dangerous criminals were contained here, and were constantly surrounded by high-security. It’s a dark, windowless and soulless part of the prison, and visiting will give you a good idea of how the prison was run back in its heyday. Another extremely interesting area of the prison is the cellblock, including the famous cells where three bank robbers once escaped. The trio had dug through the complex with spoons for months, and had sculpted “heads” out of soap to place on their pillows to confuse the guards. You can see these replicated rooms today.

Back in 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel Ayala named the island Alcatraz for its many roosting brown pelicans. Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service, so you don’t have to go far to find pelicans and other roosting seabirds, as well as stunning gardens. For a more unique perspective, learn about the Native American activists who occupied the island for nearly two years starting in 1969. They were successful in mobilizing countrywide protests to fight for Native rights, and ultimately changing the course of Native American history in the United States.

Visiting Alcatraz is a must-do when in San Francisco. Just be sure to plan in advance, and give yourself lots of time on the island. You won’t run out of things to do.

Getting to Alcatraz

From San Francisco, there is only one ferry company departing from Pier 33 that is allowed to land on Alcatraz. Other companies will circle the island without landing. Once you’re on Alcatraz, what you choose to do is up to you, and you can also hire a local guide in advance to show you the way. Guided tours are recommended as you’ll learn lots of interesting historical tidbits about the place, including insider secrets.

Did you know…?

The lighthouse here was the first ever erected on the west coast, in 1854.

Alcatraz Lighthouse

Did you ALSO know…?

Some cells were smaller than closets, at just five feet by nine feet. A sink and toilet were included in each cell, with cold running water only.

Alcatraz Cell
Your best option is to show up early in the morning, thus ensuring you have lots of time to explore the island and the prison. You can take any ferry back to San Francisco, and the last one runs late in the evening. You probably don’t want to spend a night in an abandoned prison! Remember that food isn’t sold on the island, and large coolers/bags are not permitted.

Ready to plan your visit to San Francisco? Check out these popular guides and trips.

Join GuideAdvisor Now.
3 great reasons!

I'm a traveler I'm a Guide