The famous prison located on Alcatraz Island is right off the city of San Francisco. As such it makes an easy trip for visitors to the city. However, this is not a spur of the moment activity. In 2015 a number of features came out suggesting that Alcatraz was one of America’s best tourist attractions. Since that time an already popular site became even more popular. This post is our guide to what to expect on a visit to Alcatraz and also examines the question, is Alcatraz America’s Best Tourist Attraction?
Press around visiting Alcatraz has been nothing but positive. Thrillist named it as the best attraction in the state of California. Tripadvisor went a step further and named it on its 2015 list as the best tourist attraction in the U.S. and number 7 in the world. Our family has visited San Francisco hundreds of times and even lived there for several months. But until 2017 we had never been to Alcatraz. This of course had to change.
Alcatraz is run by the National Park Service. However, you need a ticket even if you have a national park pass. Tickets go on sales 90 days in advance. Summers and weekends sell out well in advance. For same day tickets, people lineup early in the morning. One reason it took so long to get to Alcatraz was the challenge of planning in advance. Whenever we got a spur of the moment urge to go to Alcatraz it was always sold out. Finally we took the plunge and ordered tickets two weeks in advance for a March Saturday (they were almost sold out).
While Alcatraz attracts a lot of visitors, it is carefully limited in the number of people who go. The 22 acre island and its services are operated by the National Park and its official concessionaire Alcatraz Cruises. This is the only company that offers tickets so be aware of resellers who buy tickets from Alcatraz Cruises and try and charge additional fees. We got the Day Tour which is $37.25 for ages 12 and up and $23 for children age 5- 11. There is a Family Pack for $112.75 that includes 2 adults and 2 children ($8 saving).
Other tours include a Night Tour (Adults $44.25 Child age 5- 11 $26.50) and a 5 hour Behind the Scenes Tour (Adults 18+ $89.25 Youth12-17 $85.25). It is hard to get a discount on tours but there are many packages that combine Alcatraz with other sights. You just need to be careful as you may be paying more even for a combination. For example, you can do the City Siteseeing Bus Tour and include Alcatraz. Just note the Alcatraz adult add-on is over $40, more than the cost of buying the ticket separately.
Your ticket will tell you to show up about half an hour early to board the ferry. Boats leave from Pier 33 a few blocks down from Fisherman’s Wharf and the very touristy Pier 39. You probably want to eat before hand as concessions on the island are limited. The ferry has a snack bar and beer and wine is served on the trip back. Obviously, they want to avoid rowdy drunks in a prison environment! You can bring a picnic but you are limited to eating right by the landing dock. Outside of water, they are not big on food on Alcatraz.
If you are in San Francisco for three or more days you may want to consider the option of getting a Go San Francisco Card. This card allows you to visit many San Francisco attractions for one low price. However, you can only add Alcatraz to the Go Card via Alcatraz Cruises. This requires planning in advance as it can sell out in advance.
The boat ride takes about 20 minutes and drops everyone at the pier well below the actual prison. There are guides who give an introduction to the island and go over the rules. They also advise you to go the bathroom now, before climbing the hill. Our ranger asked our group to raise their hands if they were from San Francisco. Nobody did and he said that was typical. Many people from the Bay Area have never been to Alcatraz.
Some of the interesting facts you immediately learn are about how Native Americans held a protest and took control of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. They claimed it as native land from a U.S. treaty from 1868. There is still graffiti from the occupation.
The walk up to the prison is short, but a fairly steep climb. Near the top you get an intro video in the barracks and an opportunity to see where the warden and others that worked on the island lived. Of course, most guards and workers commuted by boat from the San Francisco area.
The main attraction of Alcatraz is the guided audio tour that is included with your ticket. Once you walk up the hill and see some intro videos you will head to the cellhouse and pick up your headphones. The great thing about the audio tour is it allows everyone to tour the cellhouse at their own pace. The audio has many points of interest and tells you exactly where to go next. You hear stories from many former inmates. Overall it takes about an hour.
There are also many other free guided tours and ranger talks throughout the day. While the prison is the main attraction, it was only a brief part of Alcatraz’s history. The island was first developed as a military fort and became a military prison during the Civil War. It was only a Federal Penitentiary from 1933 to 1963. It opened as a tourist attraction in 1973.
The top of the island has some of the best views you will find of San Francisco and the Bay Area. There are also some gardens and a lot of places to walk around. The end of the audio tour dumps you into a large giftshop/book store with lots of interesting items. On the day we were there, a former inmate was signing his autobiography.
Overall, we would say Alcatraz was a solid trip, but probably only for kids age 10 and up. Is it the best attraction ever? That is some tough competition and we would have to say no. It is a former prison in a unique and beautiful location. The tour is very well done and you get your money’s worth. However, for a first-time visitor to San Francisco, or especially California, my recommendation would be to see some other parts of the Golden Gate National Recreation area first. This would include Muir Woods with its redwood tree or the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. Both are also part of the National Park System.
NOTE: Some readers commented that we did not mention the terrible smell of bird poop. Our visit was in March of 2017 after massive winter rains. We actually came from spring break skiing in over 10 feet of snow in Tahoe. On research, it appears that when there is not much rain the poop does not wash away. After a dry 2018, the smell that summer was very strong.