This was the one thing that everyone said to book ahead of time, apparently tickets sell out quite frequently especially for the night tours. We booked tickets on the 6:10pm cruise via the website below which is the only official seller of tickets. Alcatraz is run by the National Park Service but the ferry ride is contracted out to Alcatraz Cruises. Although Alcatraz had several uses over the years, the visit concentrates on it's time as America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege federal penitentiary from 1934-1963 where such infamous prisoners as Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Stroud, better known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz", were sent when they didn't behave properly at other institutions.
The visit starts with a 10-15 minute cruise from Pier 33 to the backside of the island where a park ranger meets you to walk up to where the 45 minute self guided audio tour starts. The audio tour takes you through the prison and is narrated by former inmates and prison guards. It is a bit of an uphill walk to get up to the entrance but they do have a tram for people who are unable to make the climb.
After we finished the audio tour there was a choice of several talks by various park rangers, we attended an interesting one on Floyd Hamilton who attempted to escape and then broke back into Alcatraz and another on the escape attempt in 1962, the three men who escaped were never found or heard from again. We caught the 8:40pm ferry back to the pier, we could have also taken the 9:25pm ferry, the last of the evening.
The tickets for the night tour were slightly more expensive, the advantage seems to be that the crowds are smaller as there are no lingering day tours there for the 6:10 ferry and there are more scheduled activities plus you get a lovely afternoon and night view of San Francisco from the water. I imagine it's a little more eerie there at night as well.
Be sure to dress warm, it was very cool out on the water both on the boat and on the island, I had a fleece pullover and long pants and I was still chilly and this was in September, the warmest month of the year. There is no food or beverages allowed on the island, you can have a drink or snack on the boat.
Although it only served as a federal penitentiary for 29 years, Alcatraz could very well be described as the world's most (in)famous prison, and of course it is one of San Francisco's top attractions. To make the experience more complete, we chose to go on an evening tour of Alcatraz. Tickets cost slightly more than the ones for the day tour ($33 instead of $26), but I thought it was worth it. The narrated cruise that took us to and around Alcatraz Island was very interesting, and I enjoyed the fact that there were less visitors in the evening. The visit of Alcatraz is done with an audioguide - I'm usually not a big fan of audioguides, but I thought this one was very interesting. The story of Alcatraz is told by ex-prisoners, ex-guards and by people who used to live on the island (many guards' children actually grew up on Alcatraz Island, just a few steps away from the prison). The fact that you're allowed to visit at your own pace, without having to follow a big group, makes the whole experience rather surreal since you can enter cells on your own and make your own way down the long, creepy corridors as you learn about some of the prison's most notorious inmates and escape attempts, among other things.
Some other great things about the evening tour is that it offers wonderful views of the city at dusk, and since the groups are smaller, some special activities are offered such as the visit of the hospital wing, in which you can see Robert Stroud's (the birdman of Alcatraz) cell, as well as special talks on escape attempts, famous prisoners, and a demonstration of the cell lock mechanism. It's definitely worth paying the few extra bucks, but make sure you book your tickets well in advance as the evening tours usually sell out pretty fast.
This is one activity I would strongly recommend to any visitor to San Francisco. It was one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of our visit. Highly interesting and fascinating, a true pleasure. We were especially fortunate that our visit coincided with a rare visit to the island by one of the former prisoners.
Darwin Coon, #1422, a bank robber imprisoned on Alcatraz for four years 1959-1963 has written a book about his life and experiences, Alcatraz: The True End of the Line. He is one of the five surviving prisoners or guards who spent time on the island when it was a federal penitentiary.
I was able to speak with him a few moments and shake his hand. He was kind enough to autograph our copy of his book. The stories that could have been and have been told are amazing.
At any rate see for yourselves. Don't miss the opportunity if you get the chance. You will find it is well worth the cost. And be sure to take advantage of the excellent audio guide included in the price of admission. The guide is narrated by several guards and prisoners, who bring the stories to life through their personal recollections and perspectives.
Boat cruises leave Pier 33 at San Francisco and transport you to Alcatraz Island where you can view the prison made famous in several movies. Best to get your tickets online before you go at www.alcatrazcruises.com
They usually don't give out discounts. For a family of 4 (2 adults & 2 kids) you can order by phone (415-981-ROCK or 415-981-7625) and they give you $5 off the whole order.
There is another outfit that does the boat tours - the Blue & Gold Fleet but be warned that the Fleet does NOT stop at Alcatraz. They are strictly boat tours.
There is no validated parking available so you have to take your chances at one of the numerous parking garages there. The one across the street (Bay St Parking) charges about $20 per car. Pier 27 (about 1 1/2 blocks down charges $15 per car. All of these are all-day parking if you can find a spot.
I received a lot of advice regarding Alcatraz before leaving for San Francisco. Some said not to miss it and others said don't bother. The don't bother people must have been smoking crack. Alcatraz was awesome!
My interest in historic prisons probably emerged while watching films such as "The Bird Man of Alcatraz". This old prison had a lot to live up to and it certainly did. We had no trouble booking a ferry trip to the island on Pier 41. We mingled around the departure area while waiting for our boat. The trip to the island was beautiful and we got some great photos of the island, the Golden Gate Bridge and of the San Francisco skyline.
Upon arriving at the prison we picked up audio phones. Typically, I am not a big audio guide person (i.e. I found most of the audio guides in Rome to be of little value and mostly shunned them), but the Alcatraz audio guide was very informative and interesting. Some of the narration is done by ex-prisoners of The Rock.
We followed the audio tour throughout the prison. It was wonderous wandering through the cells, blocks, administrative wing and dining room. One area that was not on the audio tour, but that we were glad we found, was The Yard - where convicts went for exercise and fresh air. I found The Yard to be particularly fascinating (and surprisingly small). I climbed to the top step and took a seat just like Clint Eastwood's character in Escape from Alcatraz.
We spent about 3 hours wandering through the prison and island grounds. The flowers and gardens, even in the winter, were beautiful and the view of San Francisco from Alcatraz Island are not to be missed.
Alcatraz is a must do for those visiting San Francisco!
Alcatraz Island (or The Rock) is a small island located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, about 1.5 miles off the coast. The island is home to the infamous Alcatraz Prison, which is these days uninhabited by inmates and is instead a major tourist attraction.
The prison closed due to deteriorating buildings and high operating costs, with the last inmates leaving the island in 1963. Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary for 29 years, and during this time 36 prisoners tried to escape, with all but 5 being re-captured.
We visited the island for a few hours one afternoon. You can catch a ferry from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf. Pre-booking is recommended for the trip as there are limited ferry services and it is very popular. The price of the ferry ticket ($26 in Sep 2008) included access to the island and an audio guide - which we found very informative.
The tour covers most of the prison. It was a little eerie walking though the cell blocks, scary to see the size of the cells, and interesting to stand in the concrete, walled recreation yard. The audio soundtrack was spoken by ex-prison guards and inmates which really gave you a feel for their time on the island and added to our experience.
I enjoyed the visit to Alcatraz much more than I thought I would and would certainly recommend it if you have the time during your stay.
Alcatraz was one the must-see spots on my first trip to San Francisco. The island tours have audio you can follow along with that gives you a history of some of the island most famous events and prisoners. One of the greatest things about Alcatraz is the view of San Francisco from the Southside of the island!
Posting pic for now, text will follow very soon.
NOTE: When I was doing my research to purchase tickets to visit Alcatraz Island I found many sites charging astronomical prices. The link I provided below is the official site for the Alcatraz Isalnd tours where your purchase price can be as much as $10 less per ticket than those other tours. We paid $26 per person for the ferry and audio guide of the cell and the island from the National Park Service.
Enjoyed our boat trip and tour of Alcatraz. The views were wonderful, it was a lot of fun. We got off the dock and toured the guard house, officers club, military chapel, barracks, wardens house, lighthouse, cell blocks and if you call them gardens. Alcatraz was a U.S. Army fort and military prison (1859 -1934), a federal penitentiary (1934 –1963), and the American Indians occupied Alcatraz (1969–1971).
Teargas canisters were installed in the roof of the dining hall; they could be activated remotely, from the gun gallery as well as from outside observation points. Guard towers were positioned around the perimeter, and metal detectors were positioned outside the dining hall and on the Prison Industries access path. The cell house contained nearly 350 cells, far from the perimeter wall. If an inmate managed to tunnel through the cell wall, he would still need to escape from the cell house itself. The inmates would only be assigned to B, C, and D blocks, since the primary prison population was not allowed to exceed 300 (although the record was 302). The new measures, combined with the isolating barrier created by the cold Bay water, meant the prison was ready to receive the nation's most incorrigible and dangerous criminals.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoners as having ever successfully escaped. 36 prisoners were involved in 14 attempts, two men trying twice; seven were shot and killed, two drowned, June 11, 1962 in one of the most intricate escapes ever devised the bodies of Clarence & John Anglin were never found.
The "Birdman of Alcatraz," was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942; he spent 17 years on "the Rock" — six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield. Al Capone arrived on Alcatraz in 1934, prison officials made it clear that he would not be receiving any preferential treatment. While serving his time in Atlanta, Capone, a master manipulator, had continued running his rackets from behind bars by buying off guards. "Big Al" generated incredible media attention while on Alcatraz though he served just four and a half years of his sentence there before developing symptoms of syphilis and being transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Los Angeles.
Costs led U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to close Alcatraz in 1963.
We took the Alcatraz ferry tour to see the prison.
We booked this online before we left Ireland, which is advisable.
We also booked the first trip out, which was good, because although it was hard to get up and organised early and the ferry was full, we were the first ferry out there and it meant that the place wasn't overrun with people, though there were quite a lot. It also meant we finished up early and could spend the rest of the day doing other things.
The tour starts when you get off the ferry, there is a volunteer tour guide who gives you information about the history of the place, and tips on what to do on the island. There are guided walking tours if you want to wait for them, they have marked times.
The way into the prison itself is up an incline and there are driven carts if you have any difficulties in walking, but its an easy walk and is nice seeing all the bright flowers growing along the way.
Before you reach the prison there is an area where you can sit and listen to a taped account of time on Alcatraz from both a former prisoner and a former resident on the island- the island was also home to the families of the prison guards, who grew up on the island, and were fwerried to and from school everyday. They discribe their childhood on the island as idyllic and that they never really paid much heed to the prison overlooking them.
There is also a shop here, but it was closed when we started, and had reopened by the time we were ready to leave the island as we went back in to have a look at some of the displays.
When you go into the prison first, you are issued with a set of headphones and an audio guide which brings you around the prison. Its certainly very interesting and I wouldn't have wanted to have been a prisoner there! The place still has a certain oudour to it, very musty and sour, and the cells were tiny. There is a sense of melancholy about the place also,probably because its empty of inhabitants and parts are very neglected and overgrown- the excercise yard in particluar- and when you compare the photos they have up to the real thing, its hard to imagine people in it.
There are plenty of restrooms available both when you get off the ferry and at the top near the guards offices when you come out of the prison.
No food to be consumed anywhere other than the ferry area.
There are tons and tons of huge seagulls everywhere, and we saw a pelican roosting in one of the windows also.
Photos to come
Everyone needs to do this – BUT, make sure you grab the late afternoon tour. The history of the prison is fascinating (to be provided by your walkman and headphones), but the tour is only half the experience. I lived in and explored San Francisco for 3 years, and I can safely say there is no more beautiful view of the city than that from Alcatraz Island. The afternoon tour wraps up just in time to watch the sun begin to set behind the Golden Gate bridge to your right (West), while the evening twilight begins to rise over the Bay Bridge to your left (East). And dead set in front of you is downtown San Francisco. Photos don’t do it justice; you just have to check it out.
Alcatraz is one of San Francisco's most popular tourist destinations. I know there are already too many tips about Alcatraz on VT. I have read lots them. And on each page I have left a notice that Acatraz is one of the places I have always wanted to see but was not able to do on my last visit to San Francisco in 1999. I can now report that I too have now been to Alcatraz. I finally made it out the the famous prison and tourist site in July 2005. And it was worth the wait.
The tour was outstanding. The self guided audio tour is very chilling as you walk through the former prison and hear the voices and sounds from its history. Also the view of the city from Alcatraz is beautiful allowing you to take great pictures of the skyline if the fog is not too thick.
Make sure to phone in reservations at least a day or two in advance as the tour sells out daily.
Okay there really is nothing to fear about Alcatraz at night, but it certainly is creepy as can be. Visiting Alcatraz at night is a real treat and in my opinion is a better experience than seeing it during the day. For one there are fewer people and the low light setting within the prison enhances the claustaphobic feel. Plus on the night tour the guides sometimes will allow you to go into the "hole" where they would lock up the disobedient prisoners in a chamber with no light whatsoever. Having had that experience I finally understand what "pitch black" really is, and I can fully understand why many of the inmates felt it was haunted. From the cafeteria there are windows with bars from which you can see the bright lights of San Francisco and one can almost feel the longing inmates must have felt to get off the island and back into society, which was so tantalizingly close. The night tours must be booked at least a couple of weeks in advance and while they do cost a little more its well worth it.
OK, yes this is a hot tourist spot, but it is so damn cool. Very authentic, everything is left untouched. On the boatride over you can get some excellent shots of the island, and then swing around to the other side of the boat to get some great city shots! All the jail cells are left the same, including the ones where the 3 guys from the 'Escape from Alcatraz' movie bunked, you can also see the tunnel they dug from their vents and the paper mache dummyheads they made to fool the guards, very interesting. You can also see Al Capone's cell. What is great is that it is self guided tours. You are given a walkman with headsets with a guided tour on tape and you just go on your pace.
Alcatraz is a must se for anyone that goes to San Francisco. I have to admit that I have never been a fan of audio tours, but I decided to give it a go since it was included in the entrance fee anyway. And I am very gald that I did, this audio tour was just awesome, no wonder it has won lots of prices.