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A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete without a trip to Alcatraz Island, aka “The Rock”!
Looming off in the distance of San Francisco Bay, this island served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Its dark halls kept some of America’s most notorious criminals locked away, including Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Now, it’s part of the National Park Service, and you can book a tour to explore its fascinating history.
But don’t think it’s all about the prison. Alcatraz Island also features Civil-war era buildings, the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast, and historical reminders of the American Indian occupation.
Before you book your Alcatraz tickets, here’s everything you need to know!
How do I get to Alcatraz Island?
Although Alcatraz Island is located right in the San Francisco Bay, the only way to legally access it is through Alcatraz City Cruises. This is the only ferry authorized by the National Park Service to provide transportation and tours on the island.
There are many fake Alcatraz cruises that will offer you tickets, but Alcatraz City Cruises’ guests are the only ones that will be allowed to step foot on the island.
To reach the island, you’ll have to book tour tickets directly through Alcatraz City Cruises and no other websites!
Alcatraz Island Directions
All Alcatraz City Cruises leave from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. This is located at the intersection of The Embarcadero and Bay Streets. It’s about a quarter-mile from the popular Fisherman’s Wharf, so you can walk there if you like.
However, if you choose to drive, be aware that there is no parking at Pier 33 and lots in the area are limited.
When do Alcatraz Island tours depart?
Before booking your ferry tickets, make sure to check the Alcatraz City Cruises schedule for that particular day. The schedule changes slightly almost daily, but you can count on the ferry running consistently between 9 am and 4 pm most weekdays for basic day tours.
The ferry leaves the island about 10 minutes after arriving, so be sure to check the island departure schedule, too!
Night tours start departing after 4 pm on select evenings.
What kind of tours do Alcatraz City Cruises offer?
You can book three different types of Alcatraz cruises for your trip to Alcatraz Island. All tour tickets include the ferry tickets and Cellhouse Audio Tour.
Day Tours let you explore the island at your own pace, discovering the scenic views, historical buildings, and outdoor spaces at your leisure. You can download the National Park Service app for interactive maps, historical info, and more.
Night Tours are guided and give you a closer look at Alcatraz Island’s significance. The tour includes special demonstrations and exhibits that aren’t available during the day, as well as a special route to the island.
The final way for visitors to explore is with a behind-the-scenes tour. This extremely limited tour takes groups of 20 on a fascinating journey around the island. This includes tunnels, underground jails, hidden doors, and more! The entire tour is personally guided by an expert and includes access to many areas that are off-limits to other visitors.
What can I see on Alcatraz Island?
Alcatraz Island has so much to explore! Most people spend about 2 hours here, but you could easily fill an afternoon with learning and exploring the island. And if you opt for the basic Alcatraz cruises, you can take everything in at your own pace.
The island’s notoriety comes primarily from the fact that it was a prison for dangerous criminals during the early 1900s. With its isolated location in the middle of the bay, it was nearly impossible for anyone to escape.
Many of the cells and prison buildings are open for you to explore. The popular Cellhouse Audio Tour is a must as you walk the dark halls of this legendary prison. It will give you insights into what life was like for the inmates of “The Rock.”
If you’d like to learn more about the prison, be sure to join one of the guided programs hosted throughout the day, which allow you to access other parts of the island.
When you’ve had your fill of Alcatraz’s dark side, check out the Gardens of Alcatraz, the recreation yard, and the ruins of the officer’s club and warden’s house.
Alcatraz Island’s rich history
But don’t forget about the other important parts of Alcatraz Island’s history! The island’s on-site theater will give you a look at Alcatraz’s fascinating history beyond its prison days.
Years before Alcatraz Island was a prison, it was a harbor defense fort designed to protect the San Francisco Bay during the Gold Rush. The government built a large citadel on the island in the 1850s, complete with over 100 cannons and the first functioning lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.
By 1909, the defensive part of Alcatraz was no longer needed, and it was primarily used as a military prison. The Army tore down the Citadel and utilized its basement as the foundation for a new military prison. These buildings eventually became the maximum-security federal penitentiary designed to strike fear into criminals’ hearts.
In addition to the military buildings, you can also see the lighthouse from the 1800s!
American Indian Occupation
Another important cultural stop for Alcatraz Island visitors is the evidence of the American Indian occupation. When Alcatraz was abandoned for a time in the 1960s, a group of Native Americans tried to reclaim the island. They wanted to build a cultural center and education complex on the abandoned island. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, their occupation marks an important milestone in the Native American Indian rights movement.
You can still see evidence of their stay in graffiti on the walls, which the National Park Service has preserved.
Remember, you can see even more if you book a behind-the-scenes or night tour with Alcatraz City Cruises. You’ll just have to keep up with the group.