Alcatraz Island Tour Review & Tips

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Wondering if the Alcatraz Island Tour is worth it, or which tour of the former prison you should take during your San Francisco visit? This post provides info for getting tickets to visit Alcatraz, plus photos of the island, jail cells, and other random tips for making the most of your time on “The Rock.”

First of all, I don’t want to get all political up in here, but I think we can all agree that it was a major blunder to close Alcatraz. When Nic Cage, Liam Neeson, and I inevitably go to prison after our heist of valuable Saturn rocks from the International Space Station, you better believe we want to be imprisoned on Alcatraz. (GET IN THE CAGE!) That way, we can stun the world with a theatrical escape that would make Houdini blush.

Until then, I have to admit that it’s pretty awesome being able to tour Alcatraz and see the preserved remnants of this historically-rich prison. Alcatraz holds a unique place in American history, and is a definite highlight of a visit to San Francisco.

With that said, if you want this to be part of your visit to San Francisco, you really need to purchase tickets in advance. On our first visit to San Francisco, we didn’t realize how popular Alcatraz Island tours were, and tickets were sold out for the entire week we were there. This led us to purchase tickets to take another, random boat tour around San Francisco Bay. That tour was a pleasant experience, but in no way compared to the actual Alcatraz Island Tour.

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For our return visit, we purchased Alcatraz Island tour tickets over a month in advance (you can purchase tickets up to 90 days in advance). This tour is run by National Park Service concessionaire Alcatraz Cruises. Many different tour companies along the piers will advertise Alcatraz tours with same day availability, but none of these actually visit the island–they go around it.

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There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these tours (as mentioned, we enjoyed ours), but know that they are essentially the second-rate imitator option for which people “settle” because they can’t get on the official tour. I’d strongly recommend buying at least 30 days in advance (more during summer tourist season) from the official Alcatraz Cruises website for the best experience.

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Boarding for the cruise begins 30 minutes prior from Pier 33, and people tend to be lingering around to line up even before then. I’m not entirely sure why, as the boat has seats for everyone, but whatever.

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Once you arrive on Alcatraz Island, the National Park Service takes over (worth noting is that admission to the island is free, meaning that your ticket pays for the ferry, and any NPS annual and lifetime passes are not valid). There, a ranger provides some background, rules, and the daily schedule.

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I started with the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, which is the main offering at Alcatraz. You receive a little handset and headphones, and make your way through various spots inside of the cells.

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If I recall correctly, the tour was about an hour long and is available in numerous other languages in addition to English. It might sound bland and unappealing, but this tour was incredibly rich, and guided you through various areas of the prison and referenced visuals you saw while in the cellblock and offices.

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This audio tour far exceeded my expectations (I was half expecting to ditch it and just wander around the cell block on my own) and I would highly recommend anyone visiting Alcatraz giving it a chance. It’s exceptionally well done, and really captivating.

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While there were a lot of other things to do on Alcatraz Island, I spent most of my time in the cellblock. In addition to the audio tour, there are a number of exhibits and cells that have been staged by the National Park Service, and this is much more than an ordinary prison tour.

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Whereas other prisons/jails I’ve visited have gotten old quickly with redundant rows of cells, it seems like Alcatraz has something unique and historically-significant around every corner. The National Park Service has done an excellent job with presenting it in a way that’s both entertaining and educational.

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It doesn’t hurt that so many high-profile criminals were among the 2,000 inmates that were imprisoned in Alcatraz throughout its operational history. From Al Capone to Robert “The Birdman” Stroud to George “Machine Gun” Kelly and many others, Alcatraz was a veritable who’s who of mafioso and other notorious criminals.

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You are free to explore Alcatraz Island at your leisure, and there’s a surprising amount of beauty to the place that contrasts the prison infrastructure. There are gardens containing cacti and flowers. Not many people were exploring these, but they are worth strolling through.

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There’s also a theater, bookstore, exhibit area, and huge gift shop. In the exhibit area/gift shop when we visited was one of the last surviving inmates of Alcatraz, who was there signing his autobiography. I flipped through it, and the writing seemed poor and rambling (so if you like this blog, it’s right up your alley!).

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He resembled any sweet old grandfatherly figure at this point, like he couldn’t hurt a fly. I had to pause to remind myself that, in reality, he probably did some pretty heinous stuff in his day to get sent to The Rock. This was a harsh reminder of the ravages of time, and how it affects us all. Well, everyone who isn’t John Stamos, at least.

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Other former inmates and experts present at Alcatraz from time to time, so be sure to check the daily schedule when you arrive on the Island. If you were to do everything that’s offered in a single day, you could easily spend a good 5+ hours on The Rock.

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We spent about 3 hours here, and I was satisfied with that amount of time. If I were by myself, I probably would’ve stayed longer and spent a bit of time soaking up the views and taking photos.

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Since I was visiting Alcatraz Island while showing my parents around San Francisco and we were constrained by that, I didn’t have the option to stick around for sunset or dusk, but the late afternoon light coming through the windows did look nice.

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To that end, if you’re concerned with photography, I’d recommend a mid to late-afternoon visit to Alcatraz Island, or doing one of the Night Tours. Tickets sell out quickly for these, so book as close to 90 days in advance as you can.

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If you’re doing the night tour, bring a tripod. I had mine with me on the daytime tour, but never used it as it was not necessary. Had I stuck around for sunset and the evening hours, I would’ve definitely used it. I can picture capturing some awesome, eerie nighttime photos of scenes I saw on The Rock.

alcatraz-island-prison-san-francisco-california-003Overall, I cannot recommend the Alcatraz Island Tour highly enough. With the exhibits and tours, the National Park Service has excellently balanced education with entertainment, and the result is something that is fascinating for just about anyone, and guests of all ages. San Francisco is an amazing city to visit, with a wide range of compelling attractions and things to see, and I would put the Alcatraz Island Tour at the very top of that last, ahead of other popular places like the Marin Headlands, Palace of Fine Arts, Twin Peaks, etc. The Alcatraz Cruise tickets are well worth the money, and you should not hesitate to pencil in 3-4 hours at Alcatraz on your visit to the Bay Area.

For these photos, I used my Nikon D810 and Nikon D750Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens, and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 Lens.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

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Your Thoughts…

Have you visited Alcatraz Island? If so, as a prisoner or a guest? Have you done one of the other tours around the San Francisco Bay? Thinking about doing the Alcatraz Island Tour? Share your thoughts or questions you have in the comments!

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14 replies
  1. Holly
    Holly says:

    We toured Alcatraz this past summer. We wish we could have done the night tour (didn’t book early enough) but we really enjoyed our time on The Rock. We chose a combo tour that included a tram tour of Angel Island. What a beautiful place!

    Reply
  2. Francesca @onegrloneworld
    Francesca @onegrloneworld says:

    Thanks for your comment and perspective on my blog – I appreciate it! I’m glad I came to check yours out, your photos are AMAZING! Love the perspective and the quality. They were so good that I almost forgot the experience that I had there! haha. Lots of great advice here, and it is so true that you absolutely have to book in advance. It was my third visit to San Fran and I got really lucky scoring last minute cancellation tickets! Well, perhaps not so lucky considering I didn’t really enjoy it!

    Reply
  3. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    I have done the tour twice — once during the day and the first time was the night tour. I prefer the night tour and could not get tickets when we went the second time. The only downside to the night tour is that you can’t linger and spend the extra time you want.. Tour is definitely worthwhile!!

    Reply
  4. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    I was at Alcatraz for the night tour 2 days before you were there. I did not bring a tripod (I was worried the NPS wouldn’t allow it and I had nowhere to store it) but I found many “makeshift” tripods using a beanbag. I was able to capture a beautiful sunset over the Golden Gate using the beanbag and a railing. I could have easily spent a few more hours there but I had to catch the last boat off the island. I was able to capture some of my favorite interior shots right before I had to get on the boat as most of the crowd had moved down to the dock already and the cell block was empty. If you are planning to visit the Rock I would highly recommend the sunset/night tour but be sure to reserve it as early as you can as it does sell-out well in advance.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Bummer about not taking a tripod (you’d think the NPS would have this info clearly listed on its site–photographers at NPS locations are pretty common), but great to hear that you got some good photos.

      Next time, that’s definitely the tour I’ll do. I wanted to do it this time, but it just didn’t work out with the schedule. Thanks for your report!

      Reply
  5. Tim
    Tim says:

    We were very impressed by the audio tour. It’s like walking through a really interesting documentary about the prison. The island itself is pretty darn pleasant in spots, which was a surprise.

    Reply
  6. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    This seems like a good time to add a thanks for writing blog posts that include practical information (like how many hours to spend) about visiting a location. That info can be hard to come by but is often the most valuable when planning a trip. And obviously you’ve been to these places, instead of just writing a well researched article.

    I like the photos that show the rest of the world from Alcatraz. It makes you stop and think about the prisoner perspective much more than a photo of a lonely prison on an island.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      When I first moved to California, I picked up 4 guidebooks from the library to figure out what I wanted to do to see as much of the state as I could, as quickly as I could. All 4 were awful, reading as if they were written with Wikipedia as the primary source. Turns out only one had an author who actually lived in California!

      While I still want to share my experiences and photography, a focus going forward with this site is basic trip planning stuff, since there’s shockingly little out there about general travel that’s actually good.

      Reply

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