Your Guide to Visiting Alcatraz, San Francisco

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Alcatraz Island. And it seems plenty of people agree — this US National Park records more than 1.4 million visits per year! As one of our home city’s most famous attractions, it’s hardly surprising that our combination Alcatraz Island tours are among our most popular tours in San Francisco.

When you visit such an iconic place, you want to do it right. That’s where this guide to visiting Alcatraz comes in. We’ve used our local knowledge and insights to provide all the essential information you need when planning a trip to ‘The Rock’.

Scroll down to get started! And if you have any questions for the Incredible Adventures team, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Aerial view of Alcatraz Island showing historic buildings and surrounding waters during the San Francisco Bay Sailing Tour.

Where is Alcatraz?

Nestled in the heart of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island stands as a beacon of history and intrigue. It’s to the south of Angel Island, west of Treasure Island, east of the Golden Gate Bridge, and north of Fisherman’s Wharf.

Just 1.25 miles (2km) offshore from the bustling city, this rocky outcrop is easily accessible by ferry, a journey that offers stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline along the way.

What is the History of Alcatraz?

Of course, the best way to immerse yourself in the full history of Alcatraz is on an Alcatraz Island tour! Our excursions include the famous audio presentation “Doing Time”. Over a fascinating 45 minutes, the prisoners and correctional officers who lived and worked on the island take you on a journey through time, bringing the Alcatraz story to life. The audio tour is available in English, Spanish, Japanese, German, Mandarin, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, and Korean.

For now, though, let us briefly introduce the basics of Alcatraz’s rich history. The island’s development dates back to the mid-19th century with the creation of a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison. But, of course, Alcatraz Island is most famous for the notorious maximum-security prison that operated between 1934 and 1963. 

Housing some of America’s most infamous criminals, including Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alcatraz earned a reputation as an impenetrable fortress, surrounded by treacherous cold waters and fierce currents. It was, to all intents and purposes, impossible to escape from. Depending on what you believe, the reality is somewhat different!

When the federal prison closed its doors in 1963, several proposals were made to repurpose the island. But in 1972, the National Park Service purchased Alcatraz and has been responsible for it ever since.

A woman on a tour in California's Yosemite National Park, gazing out over a body of water with an island in the background.

Why is Alcatraz So Popular?

Alcatraz’s allure lies not only in its tumultuous history but also in its captivating, mysterious ambiance and breathtaking vistas. Visitors flock to the island to explore the eerie cellblocks, learn about the daring escape attempts, and soak in the panoramic views of the bay. 

Whether you’re a history buff or simply seeking an unforgettable adventure, Alcatraz is a rare opportunity to enjoy an experience that you simply can’t find anywhere else. It’s this truly unique quality that makes Alcatraz San Francisco’s #1 tourist attraction.

If you’re already itching to book your visit as part of a multi-day adventure in the Bay Area, check out our Alcatraz Day Tour + Silicon Valley Day Tour, Alcatraz Day Tour and Aquarium + Muir Woods & Sausalito Half-Day Tour with Ferry, or our wider range of combination tours.

How Do You Get to Alcatraz?

Given its location, you can only access Alcatraz via ferry. Departing from Pier 33, Alcatraz ferries whisk you away on a scenic 15-minute journey across the bay. This initial ride is a thrilling first step on your adventure as you follow in the footsteps of previous inmates. Leaving the mainland behind, the prison becomes bigger and more menacing. Imagine yourself on this journey, unsure when or if you would ever make the return trip.

Our Alcatraz tours frequently sell out, especially during peak seasons, so be sure to book in advance to avoid missing out. Official tours vetted by the National Parks Service are the only way you can visit the island. For security reasons, all guests must present a government-issued photo ID to board the Alcatraz ferry.

Don’t forget, we offer combination tours that allow you to visit Alcatraz and other local or regional destinations. They’re the perfect introduction to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Looking for inspiration? Check out our Alcatraz Day Tour and Aquarium + Yosemite Day Tour and Alcatraz Day Tour and Aquarium + Napa & Sonoma Wine Country.

Alcatraz Island is located in the beautiful San Francisco area of California.

Should You Visit Alcatraz in the Day or at Night?

Alcatraz is an amazing place to visit in the daytime and at night. Both options have their own unique character. But there is something special about tours after dark. Night tours provide an atmospheric glimpse into the island’s darker side, with guided walks through the dimly lit cellblocks and chilling tales of ghostly encounters. What’s more, you can enjoy exclusive access to parts of the island that aren’t open during the daytime.

Tempted by the prospect of a night excursion? We think you’ll love our two-day combination tours which include an Alcatraz night tour alongside other quintessential North California experiences. Just some of our favorites include the Alcatraz Night Tour and Aquarium + Muir Woods and Sonoma Wine Country, the Aquarium and Alcatraz Night Tour + Yosemite Day Tour, and the Alcatraz Night Tour + Silicon Valley Tour.

Are Alcatraz Tours Self-Guided?

Yes, visitors have the option to explore Alcatraz at their own pace with the previously mentioned self-guided audio tour “Doing Time”. Equipped with headphones and your informative guide, you’ll delve deep into the history of the island while wandering through its historic landmarks and haunting corridors. 

The flexibility to tailor your experience to your own interests is just another reason why Alcatraz tours are universally popular.

A metal railing in the middle of the room, serving as a focal point for small group tours in San Francisco, California.

What are the Highlights of an Alcatraz Tour?

From the imposing Cellhouse to the picturesque gardens, Alcatraz boasts an array of highlights that captivate visitors of all ages. Some must-see attractions include:

  • The Cellhouse: Step inside the notorious Cellhouse and imagine life behind bars for Alcatraz’s most notorious inmates. Explore the prison cells, dining hall, and library while learning about the daily routines and escape attempts of its inhabitants.
  • The Rest of the Rock: Take a leisurely stroll around the island and admire the other highlights, including the lighthouse, water tower, New Industries building, recreation yard, and the ruins of the warden’s house.
  • Native American Occupation: During your tour, you can learn about the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. Lasting for 19 months, the peaceful protest was an attempt to claim the land back as their own.
  • Views of the City: There aren’t any bad views of San Francisco, but one of the most unique is found on Alcatraz. You’ll just have to hope that the fog doesn’t roll in while you’re on the island!

As we near the end of this guide to visiting Alcatraz, let us point you toward another useful trip-planning resource: What are the Most Unique Things to See and Do in San Francisco?

A hallway in an old building with green doors located in San Francisco, California.

Don’t Miss Out on Our Alcatraz Island Tours!

We hope you’ve found this guide to visiting Alcatraz, San Francisco equally inspiring and informative! Are you ready to book your visit? Browse our range of combination Alcatraz Island tours and find the perfect adventure to suit your needs. 

If you have any questions about any of our tours in San Francisco, please just contact us for the answers you need.