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Know Before You Go: Visiting Alcatraz

Here are the top things to know when planning your visit to this former prison–turned–extremely popular National Historic Landmark.

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Hi, I'm Gianmaria!

Gianmaria Franchini is a writer based in Oakland, CA who makes his life between California and Italy. He’s a Senior Writer with Viator, and the in-house San Francisco expert.

Formerly a military fort, a maximum security prison, and the first lighthouse on the West Coast, Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most iconic sites—and among the most legendary historic landmarks in the US. Visiting the windswept “rock” isn’t as hard as escaping the jail must have been back in the day, but it does take some pre-planning. You’ll want to get the right tickets to suit your needs, review your tour options, and pay attention to the best times to visit. Before boarding a ferry, read these essential tips for a hassle-free visit.

When is the best time to visit Alcatraz?

visitors on an alcatraz ferry's outdoor deck
The only way to get to Alcatraz is by ferry.Foto: Rosa Furneaux / Viator

You can visit year-round, but ferry tickets are much easier to book in the off-season.

Alcatraz is open year-round, every day except for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's. That said, tickets are hard to come by during the summer and on holidays, often selling out a month or more in advance. If you want to skip the summer crowds, visit in spring or fall for the most pleasant weather. While you’ll never have the island to yourself, you can beat most of the crowds by catching the first ferry of the day to the island and returning to San Francisco by early afternoon. Alternatively, you can book night tours; these can include narrated boat rides, themed guided tours, special evening programs, and sunset views from the San Francisco Bay.

Insider tip: Travelers can get discounts on family packs, but you must call the authorized tour provider, Alcatraz City Cruises, or book at the ticket booth at Pier 33.

What time does Alcatraz open and close?

alcatraz island with a sailing boat in the foreground
Alcatraz can be visited by day or night.Foto: f11photo / Shutterstock

Alcatraz is usually open most of the day and into the evening, but the hours vary by season.

Alcatraz is typically open from early mid-morning until around sunset, though it stays open later for nighttime tours Tuesday through Saturday. The key planning consideration is ferry departure times: The first ferries of the day typically depart before 9am. Once you know your departure time, you can return to the mainland on any of the scheduled returning ferries—though it’s best to spend at least three hours exploring the island and what remains of the prison complex. Nighttime tours typically depart in the late afternoon and early evening and take the last ferry back to San Francisco.

Can I visit Alcatraz without a tour?

visitor looking at prison cell on alcatraz
All visits to Alcatraz include an audio tour, but you can also take a guided tour.Foto: Brittany Hosea-Small / Viator

Yes, and your ferry ticket includes a cell house audio tour, interpretive walks, and guided programs.

Your Alcatraz ticket is all-inclusive—your ferry ticket includes round-trip transportation, a cell house audio tour (in multiple languages), and interactive walks and guided programs led by national park rangers and volunteers. You can also choose to forego these activities and explore the island on your own, but if you do, you’ll want to pick up a self-guided brochure with a map at the arrival dock before heading out. That said, guided tours are the best way to make the most of your visit, as they offer the chance to get behind-the-scenes access to special areas or visit the island at night. Many tours bundle a visit to Alcatraz with other tours, such as an affordable San Francisco city tour.

What kind of Alcatraz tour should I take?

visitors walking by a prison cell
If you have plenty of time, take a "behind-the-scenes" guided tour.Foto: Rosa Furneaux / Viator

Start with a day trip but consider a night tour or a combination package for more adventure.

Day-trip tours are a great place to start if you want to gain an appreciation for the island's layered history, but other options can provide you with extra insight into the historic landmark. If you have extra time, you can take the 4- to 5-hour “behind-the-scenes” tour, which explores many areas usually closed to visitors. On night tours, you can catch sunsets and special programs and activities that are unavailable during the day. Lastly, combination tours are a great way to maximize your time, offering everything from bike trips across the bay to Muir Woods excursions and bay cruises along with a visit to Alcatraz.

Insider tip: The "behind-the-scenes" tour includes the night tour, making it one of the best deals you can get.

How much time do I need to visit Alcatraz?

view of alcatraz from below
There's so much to see on Alcatraz that you could easily spend a full day here.Foto: Rosa Furneaux / Viator

Three hours minimum, and ideally four hours or longer.

Plan to spend at least three hours at the site. This will give you time for the ferry rides (each ride is roughly 15–20 minutes), to take the audio tour, and to explore some of the grounds and what's left of the former prison. However, seeing everything in this time frame can feel rushed. Ideally, you’ll want to plan to spend half a day or longer—around 4 or 5 hours. It’s also worth noting that while the night tour takes 2–3 hours, the "behind-the-scenes" tour (which requires a lot of walking) takes 4–5 hours.

What should I wear to visit Alcatraz?

visitors on the ferry to alcatraz
Layer up on a visit to Alcatraz, as the weather can change rapidly.Foto: Rosa Furneaux / Viator

The island’s weather is more unpredictable than San Francisco's. Wear layers and prepare for chills.

Unfortunately for visitors, Alcatraz was not chosen for the site of a maximum-security prison because it had a hospitable climate. While never too extreme, the weather can change suddenly and unpredictably, sometimes providing foggy, windy days in summer and clear sunshine in winter. It's usually colder on the island than on the mainland, so bring layers—at least a sweater and a windbreaker. For night visits, wear a warm jacket and long pants; in winter, bring something waterproof. No matter what tour you take, you'll have to do quite a bit of walking and even some low-key hiking, so wear athletic shoes.

Is Alcatraz accessible?

a walkway along the water on alcatraz
Despite the island's difficult terrain, it's been made as accessible as possible.Foto: Rosa Furneaux / Viator

Yes, Alcatraz is highly accessible, including the ferry parking lot and the facilities on the island.

Alcatraz is a model of accessibility. There’s accessible parking at Pier 33 (where the ferry departs) and accessible facilities and features on the island. Visitors can take advantage of tactile models of the island, audio-described tours, tactile tour markers, assistive listening devices, braille transcripts, ASL versions of the cell house audio tour, and more. That said, while the park service makes every effort to make the site accessible, some roadways and walking routes have significant slopes. The distance from the dock to the cell house, for example, has a significant elevation change; if it’s too steep for your party, you’ll need to wait for the electric shuttle that runs every half hour.

Should I visit Alcatraz and Angel Island or Sausalito?

the waterfront businesses in sausalito
Sausalito's waterfront is worthy of a visit, even if just for a meal.Foto: Andri Tambunan / Viator

Yes, combine trips to Alcatraz with visits to Angel Island and Sausalito.

Alcatraz isn’t the only spot across the bay from San Francisco worthy of a visit. Angel Island—Alcatraz’s larger, greener cousin—is a great hiking and camping destination and has historical significance of its own as the site of a long-time US immigration station. Some bay cruises sail by the island, but nothing beats an actual visit. To get there, you’ll have to take a separate ferry from San Francisco (there isn’t a route that stops at both islands), but it’s still possible to see both Alcatraz and Angel Island in one day. If two ferry trips sound like one too many, however, you could opt to drive to Muir Woods and Sausalito instead, to enjoy the town’s lovely waterfront in the morning, then spend your afternoon at Alcatraz.

Insider tip: When visiting Angel Island, make sure to take advantage of the rental bikes available at the shop near the ferry landing and to visit the Immigration Station museum on the northeast side of the island.

Can I spend the night in Alcatraz?

alcatraz illuminated at night
The opportunity to overnight on Alcatraz is very rare, but you can still visit for part of the night.Foto: Michael Cola / Shutterstock

No, you can’t spend the night on the island. But you can stay later than you think.

While a handful of people get to experience rare, expensive overnight camping trips in the cell blocks (thanks to annual lotteries benefiting nonprofits), most visitors can’t spend the night on Alcatraz. That said, on most days you can stay well past sunset—and after most visitors have ferried back to the mainland—by booking a night tour. These evening excursions are limited to a few hundred visitors per night and include unique programs, historical talks, and guided tours that are different from the tours you’d take during the day. At the beginning of the trip, your ferry will also take a narrated trip around the island—another perk that is typically unavailable during the day.

Insider tip: While you can’t usually spend the night on Alcatraz, you can camp overnight on Angel Island, another island in the San Francisco Bay.

Frequently asked questions

view of alcatraz from hill in san francisco
Be sure to add Alcatraz to your San Francisco must-visit list.Foto: Stephen Lam / Viator

Everything you need to know about visiting Alcatraz.

When was Alcatraz built? Various elements of the site were built in different eras since the mid-19th century. Alcatraz has served as a Civil War fortress, a military prison, a federal prison, the first lighthouse on the West Coast, and more. The first structures on the island, known collectively as Fort Alcatraz, were completed in about 1858. The main prison cell block that stands today was built in 1912.

Who were the most notorious criminals imprisoned in Alcatraz? In addition to US military personnel, war prisoners, and Native Americans, Alcatraz held notorious American criminals such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), and Bumpy Johnson.

How is Alcatraz connected to the American civil rights movement? Groups of American Indians from various tribes occupied Alcatraz during the American civil rights movement to protest the plight of their people—first in 1964 and again in 1969. The latter protest lasted nearly two years.

Did anyone escape from Alcatraz? According to historical records, 36 prisoners attempted to escape from Alcatraz, but no evidence suggests anyone ever succeeded. Of the 36 who made the attempt, most were caught or killed during their escape. Five were never found but are presumed drowned.

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