Yes – Alcatraz Island is definitely open to visitors for tours.
The name itself conjures up intriguing images and fascinating stories from decades gone by.
And this is what fascinates people.
Once a federal prison and a site for political protests, Alcatraz Island is now a tourist attraction.
It is one of the must-visit attractions when you’re in San Francisco.
Here’s everything you need to know about this historic landmark.
Why is Alcatraz Island Famous?
Before Alcatraz became a maximum-security prison, it was the site of the first lighthouse on the coast of California.
Of course, it is most well-known for its infamous residents who were imprisoned there from 1934 t0 1963.
These include prisoners like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, to name a few.
Since 1972, the island is preserved by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Today, its history and natural beauty attract visitors from all over the world.
The good news is that Alcatraz is just a short ferry ride away from San Francisco and there are plenty of tours available.
How much are Tours to Alcatraz?
Basic tours start at $34 USD but these are mostly pass-by cruises that don’t get you on the island itself.
There’s one official operator “Alcatraz City Cruises” who take visitors to the island for $41 USD for adults, and $25 USD for children.
However, they’re often booked out.
Many tour companies pre-book and combine other tours in a package deal.
They will get you to Alcatraz Island and take you to more popular attractions in San Francisco.
These tour combos start at $96 USD.
What does the Alcatraz Tour include?
Some cruises like the Red and White Fleet depart from Pier 39 and will last about 1.5 hours.
It will take you under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz Island.
But the official cruise departs from Pier 33 and it takes you directly to Alcatraz Island.
Listen to intriguing audio recordings from ex-prisoners and guards that will give you a glimpse of what life was like at Alcatraz.
The free audio tour is available in many languages and can be accessed on any personal wifi-enabled device.
Headsets are also provided and the tickets give you access at the gate.
Food, drinks, and alcoholic beverages are available on the cruise for purchase.
Can you go to Alcatraz without a Tour?
Alcatraz is only accessible on a cruise tour and tickets sell out days in advance, so plan wisely.
Guided programs and walks are offered throughout the day by National Park Rangers and volunteers.
On arrival, you can explore Alcatraz at your own pace with a map.
There’s a written guide that can be picked up at the dock for $1.
You can also pick up the 35-minute multi-language Cellhouse recorded Audio Tour at the Cellhouse.
Souvenirs including memorabilia, videos, and books can be purchased at stores near the dock and in the cell house.
Alcatraz is open on most days of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Where do you Catch a Ferry Ride to Alcatraz?
All cruises for Alcatraz leave from Pier 33.
They leave Pier 33 regularly during the day, between 8:45am and 4:45pm.
It is recommended that you arrive at least 45 minutes before your departure time.
There is no parking at Pier 33 and it can be difficult to find street parking in the area.
There is an “Accessibility Drop Off Zone” for visitors with special needs.
There are also 15 commercial lots within a five-block radius with over 3000 parking spaces.
Parking can get expensive though, so we recommend taking public transportation if possible.
Best Hotel near Pier 33
If you’re looking for a hotel near Pier 33, we recommend Hotel Zephyr in the historic Fisherman’s Wharf district.
It’s about a 10-minute walk to the pier.
Hotel Zephyr is designed using materials like recycled cargo containers and nautical items for a “ship-yard chic” theme.
With 361 stylish guest rooms paying homage to all things nautical, guests will love the vibe and comfort here.
The rooms have a satellite TV, WiFi, en suite bathroom with toiletries, refrigerator, safety deposit box, and a desk.
It goes without saying that the rooms offering views of San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge are a class apart.
Their newly-opened Zephyr Walk gives guests access to many food and beverage options.
Enjoy a pick-me-up at Starbucks, breakfast at IHOP, waterfront views at Bistro Boudin, and more.
The Yard also has an 8000 sq. ft outdoor play area with oversized games, sculptures, and 4 firepits.
How Long is the Ferry Ride to Alcatraz?
Each ferry ride to and from the island takes about 15 minutes, but you can stay on Alcatraz for as long as you like.
Plan to stay for 3 hours to fully explore and enjoy all that the island has to offer.
Is There a Cafe or Restaurant on Alcatraz Island?
There is no cafe or restaurant on Alcatraz Island but many cruises offer on-board food and drinks for purchase.
There are drinking fountains located by both restrooms, at the dock, and near the lighthouse.
Guests can also buy bottled water in the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy book stores on the island.
Eating, smoking, and drinking are only permitted on the dock but you can bring water with you.
The closest cafe is Queen’s Louisana Po-Boy Cafe at Embarcadero Promenade.
They offer New Orleans style cuisine and are known for their shrimp po-boys and authentic seafood gumbo.
Is There a Gift Shop on Alcatraz Island?
While there’s a gift shop on the island, the best place to buy goodies is at Pier 39.
There’s a big sign “Alcatraz Gift Shop” so you can’t miss it.
You can pick up gifts, videos, books, and other souvenirs related to the island’s history.
Alternatively, you can purchase official merchandise online.
Can you sleep overnight at Alcatraz?
Considering the mystery surrounding Alcatraz, it’s not surprising that many visitors want to spend the night there.
You can take a night tour of the defunct prison but an overnight stay isn’t regularly offered to visitors.
There may be occasional promotions on special days like Halloween but it’s way too scary!
Our recommendation would be to stay at a place like Hotel Zephyr San Francisco.
How do you get Alcatraz Tickets if it’s booked out?
Alcatraz tickets may sell out as far as a month or more in advance during summer and the holiday season.
It’s best to book a combo deal like a San Francisco city tour that includes admission to Alcatraz.
There are combo tours that include places like Muir Woods and Sausalito.
Or if you’re more active, there are bike tours of San Francisco that include Alcatraz tickets.
Either way, you’ll get more value from booking combo tours instead of the basic entry tickets to Alcatraz.
Is Alcatraz Worth Visiting?
Whether or not you’re a history buff, it’s definitely worth visiting Alcatraz if you’re in San Francisco.
Visiting “The Rock” is not just about the place but about experiencing the lives of the people who occupied it.
Of course, the natural beauty, gardens, and abundance of birds add to the allure of the island.
There’s much more to this spot than meets the eye and that’s what makes it a must-see spot in the Bay area.
It’s a unique and immersive experience like no other and you will remember it for life!
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Alcatraz closed on March 21st, 1963.
The decision was made mostly due to costs.
Firstly at $10 per prisoner per day it was about 3x more expensive to run than other prisons.
Secondly, repairs to structural damage from constant salt spray required at least $5 million investment.
In addition, the escape from Alcatraz in 1962 shattered its reputation.
Notorious criminal inmates include gangster Al Capone and Henri Young, who murdered a fellow inmate.
Alvin Francis Karpavicz ‘creepy karvis’ was a leader of the Ma Barker gang.
He is one of only 4 criminals named “public enemy no.1” and the only one to be captured alive and imprisoned.
Of 36 inmates attempting to escape the prison, only 5 ever succeeded.
In 1937 Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe cut the iron window bars during a workshop assignment and fled into the stormy bay.
In 1962 Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin devised an intricate plan, including building a raft, and escaped the prison.
None have been found and officially declared ‘lost at sea’.
Alcatraz is supposedly one of the most haunted sites in America.
Prisoners, rangers, and visitors have reported countless strange happenings, from ghostly whispering to phantoms.
D-block, where inmates were kept in solitary confinement, is reportedly where most of the hauntings occur.