SIGN UP FOR OUR EMAIL TO RECEIVE YOUR FREE SAN FRANCISCO PLANNING GUIDE.
by Jill Loeffler •
Updated: April 7, 2023
Alcatraz Prison tours are a must for every visitor to San Francisco. With over one million visitors every year, it's one of the most popular SF attractions.
I highly recommend that you pick them up right away as they sell out quickly. However, there are also a few ways to find tickets for sold out days.
Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.
Highlights for Alcatraz Prison Tours
You will find four types of Alcatraz Prison tours. All include a ferry ride to and from San Francisco.
When you purchase your tickets, you will find there are two separate tour options. However, everything about them is the same except the time they leave.
The Early Bird Tour is the first Day Tour that leaves in the morning. Both cost the same and offer the exact same experience except with the Early Bird Tour, you are the first to arrive on the island.
The day tours include a self-guided audio tour which walks you through a pre-determined route in the main building on the island. It includes some history for several locations within the main cell block along with descriptions about life on the island from ex-inmates and guards.
It lasts about 45 minutes.
Once you complete the audio portion, you are free to roam the open areas on your own. You can visit the gift shop, where you can purchase T-shirts, books and other items about the island. You can also join one of the scheduled, guided walks or discussions.
You will find a list of the special programs on this board as you enter the building before you start your visit (shown in the picture above). It allows you to plan out your time while you are on the island.
Unfortunately, you can't get a schedule of these when you book your ticket, since all of them are offered by volunteers. However, if you are able to experience one, this is another great benefit of the Alcatraz Prison tours and a great way to learn more about this site's history.
The day tour is great since you can spend as much time as you want. You can also take any ferry back to San Francisco, so there is no rush during your tour.
For most people, the day trip lasts about 2.5 to 3 hours.
The Night Tour is my favorite since the groups are smaller and there are fewer people on the island. It also includes a few more stories told by the park rangers. You can either stop and listen to them or head to the main prison building to start your self-guided audio tour (same on as in the day tour).
One question I get a lot about the Alcatraz night tour is if it's scary. The night tour is not scary. It's very similar to the day tour. There are just fewer people on the island, and you get a more personalized experience.
They run only twice a night. There also just two return ferries. These tours run in the late afternoon, even though they are referred to as night tours.
They also only run a few nights a week. Most of the night tours are about 3 to 3.5 hours.
Click here for additional details on what it's like on the night tour.
The Behind the Scenes tour of Alcatraz Island runs once a day every Thursday - Monday. It is all year around and is limited to less than 30 people per tour.
This is one of the Alcatraz Prison tours where you will get specialized treatment during your visit with a guided tour.
The tour starts with narration on your cruise during your journey. Once you reach Alcatraz Island, you will then be treated to a guided tour to places on the island few people get the chance to see. They show you hidden doorways, basement cells, and tell you interesting stories about this historic gem.
Once the guided tour is complete, you will then set off on your own for the self-guided audio tour of the prison. This part of the tour lasts about 45 minutes.
The Behind the Scenes Alcatraz tour lasts about 4.5 hours. It is quite a bit more strenuous than the other tours as you will be climbing steep stairs and walking around on uneven pavement. Keep this in mind as you select which one is right for you.
All participants for this tour must be 13 or older and they won't give refunds if you purchase the ticket for someone under 13 and are not allowed to go.
This cruise leaves in the late afternoon and returns in the evening.
The final option for Alcatraz Prison Tours are the combo tours. These tours offer tickets to the island as well as a ticket for another San Francisco activity including a city tour, the hop on hop off bus, or a visit to Muir Woods.
The benefit of buying these tickets is that you have the opportunity to save a little money vs. buying these tickets separately. All of these tickets are sold through tour companies, so they do the work to set everything up for you.
The majority of these combo tours only include access to day tour tickets. Here are some of the best-selling combo tickets.
Now that you know all about the types of Alcatraz Prison tours, you probably want to know which one is the best? My favorite is the night tour for a few reasons.
First, there are fewer people on the island as all the people from the day tour are gone. Second, you get a more personalized experience since there are also fewer people on each night tour.
Another reason I love the night tour more is because there are usually additional areas open on the island that aren't open during the day. This is how I had a chance to see the prison's hospital area and other rooms above the cell blocks.
The downside to the night tour is that it only runs a few times a week, there are only one to two tours a day, and there are fewer tickets for each one. They are also more expensive than the day tour.
I also love the Behind the Scenes tour. These run during the day, so there are still a lot of people around. However, you also get to go to places in the main jailhouse that others do not.
Being that there is only a limited number of tickets each day, you will want to plan ahead since they can be hard to get.
The combo tour tickets are best for those that already plan to do other activities in addition to their visit to Alcatraz. These are all day tickets to the island plus a ticket to another tour or activity. My favorite is the combo ticket with the Hop On Hop Off Bus.
You can use it to get to Pier 33 for your Alcatraz Prison Tour and then use it to get to your next destination.
Visiting Alcatraz is interesting both during the day and at night. You will get a great sense for what it was like to live on the island and what it must have been like to be a prisoner here.
The day tours are fascinating and offer the most flexibility. The night tours are amazing, but keep in mind they leave in the late afternoon and return between 6 pm to 8 pm depending on the time of year.
So, which one is better? I prefer the night tour, but not because of the time it leaves. I prefer it because it's a more personalized experience. However, it takes longer, is more expensive, and the tickets are harder to get since it only runs a few times a week.
Typically, when I visit, I head over during the day as early as I can. It's a peaceful place first thing in the morning. You can easily get your tour in, explore the island for a hour, and then return to San Francisco for lunch. This also gives you more time to explore the city.
The minimum time for the day tours is about 2 to 3 hours. This includes the 15 minutes each way on the ferry to get to and from the island.
The night tours run about 3 hours including the time on the ferry.
The Behind the Scenes tour takes anywhere from 4 to 5 hours.
All of these are estimates as you are able to leave the island when you are ready to go back and there is a ferry available.
You can stay on Alcatraz until the last ferry. The last ferry for the Alcatraz Prison tours during the day leaves around 3pm. Depending on the season, the last ferry returns to Pier 33 at 3:50 pm or 6:40 pm.
For the night tours, there are usually only one to two return ferries. They make sure there is room for everyone, so you can stay until the last night ferry leaves. Depending on the season, the last ferry can return as late at 9:40 pm to Pier 33.
Yes, can take pictures everywhere within Alcatraz. There are no restrictions on taking photographs as long as you are in an area open to the public. Make sure to look out the windows because you can get some great photos of places on the island that are not open to the public.
At times, they do have traveling exhibits on the island. Each of these has a different photography policy, so make sure to check with them on any restrictions on these exhibits.
The Alcatraz Prison Tours are going on sale several months in advance right now.
I recommend booking your tickets as soon as you know your dates. They don't typically sell out on the very first day the tours open, but sometimes they will sell out a day or two after.
You can also look at combo tickets, which give you a little more time to book your dates. Tour companies are given an allotment of tickets to sell and most people purchase these much closer to their date of travel. They are also a great place to look for sold out dates.
>> Tips on how far in advance you need to book other SF attractions
I get emails all the time from people looking for tickets for Alcatraz Prison tours on days that are sold out on the official website. Once those are sold out, there are no places I'd recommend booking individual tickets. However, my secret to solving this issue is to look for and book a combo tour (package) that includes other attractions or activities as well as Alcatraz tickets.
The best place to look is on GetYourGuide. They consolidate the tickets available at local tour companies and offer you one look at almost everything that is still available for your dates.
Below are some of the top combo tour options on Get Your Guide. Click the pictures to find out what options are available on the date of your visit.
Alcatraz Prison Tours ticket range from $45.25 for the day tours to $101.30 for the Behind the Scenes Tour. The day tour tickets are the least expensive.
Many people search for discounted Alcatraz tickets. You won't find any reputable companies selling these tickets.
Since Alcatraz sells out most of the year, they never offer their tickets at a discount. I specifically point this out as I want you to be very careful of fraudulent tickets.
I recommend purchasing your tickets either directly through Alcatraz Cruises, a reputable site such as GetYourGuide, or at the ticket counter (tickets will only be available here during the low season).
If you think you found an amazing deal and/or discount on Alcatraz tickets, it's most likely a scam. If you aren't sure, feel free to reach out to me and I'll do my best to help you identify if the deal is legitimate.
I highly recommend getting the earliest ticket in the day that is available. The Early Bird tickets are best since you are the first group on the island.
I also like getting there as early as possible because then you can participate in some talks on the island. These usually start around 11 a.m. with the final ones in the early afternoon. If you show up around noon, you will miss your chance to listen to these talks as you will first need to go on your self-guided audio tour.
There are a few considerations you'll want to look at when booking your tickets for Alcatraz Prison tours. The warmest months in San Francisco are September and October. This is the best time to visit the island as the main Cellblock is a little warmer than the rest of the year.
That being said, this is San Francisco, so make sure you plan accordingly and bring long pants and a jacket. It can get mighty foggy and windy on the island and you don't want to be caught out there without some way to keep warm.
January and February are a little cooler as it's rainy season. However, tourism is quieter during that time of the year. This is a great time to visit if you don't want to battle the crowds as much. There is covered seating on the ferry, so they won't cancel them due to rain.
Visit the San Francisco weather section for a month-to-month look at the weather.
Yes, this is a must see when you are in San Francisco. It's best for those interested in history and stories about the inmates. If those two things don't interest you, then you can skip this attraction.
The self-guided audio tour is great. You will hear voices from inmate with great sound effects. It gives you an honest feeling for what it must have been like to live on the island.
You will also learn more about the escape attempts including the one by Frank Lee Morris and Anglin brothers in 1962. You can then make your own decision if you think they made it to the shore alive. You can also read a little more about that one here before your visit.
Alcatraz is now starting to use some of their buildings for special exhibits. They have featured the works of famous artists such as Ai Weiwei, as well as others that focus on topics related to prisons, prisoners, or human rights.
Access to these exhibits are included with your standard tickets for all Alcatraz Prison tours.
The following sections are dedicated to the history of this island. Discover details on its infamous prisoners, escape attempts, and some general history of the island. It's a great way to learn a little more before you head over for one of these fun Alcatraz Prison tours.
One of the most infamous prisoners of Alcatraz was Al Capone. He was one of the first prisoners on the island. How did he get his start as a gangster? What crime eventually sent him to prison? How did he get here (you might be surprised!)? What was it like for him here? Discover answers to these questions and more.
Read More: Al Capone
Stroud was another famous prisoner on Alcatraz Island—one of the few to become famous after he went to prison. Discover details around the crime that sent him to jail and why he was sent here. You will also find out more about his nickname, the "Birdman of Alcatraz".
Learn More: Robert Stroud
What was it like to be a prisoner? Here you will find details on the strict rules and regulations of the prison. You will also learn about some of the other famous prisoners who spent time on the island, including George 'Machine Gun' Kelly and Henry (Henri) Young.
Discover: Prisoners & Prison Life
Many people are fascinated by the escape attempts. Here you will learn about the various escape attempts and what happened to those inmates. In addition, you will learn more about the two most famous attempts, including the bloody Battle of Alcatraz and the 1962 attempt by Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin Brothers.
Uncover Details: Famous Escape Attempts
Alcatraz Prison tours offer you a great way to learn more about the island's history. I've also pulled together some information to get you started. Here you will learn about what it was like on the island before it became a maximum-security prison. You will also learn more about prison life and the Indian Occupation that made headlines in 1969.
Learn More: A Brief History
Comments? Questions? Suggestions?
I would love for you join me in my private Facebook group!
It’s a great place to interact with me and others that know the area well.
You can ask questions, get advice for your upcoming stay, and then share your photos and advice with others when you return home. It’s a great community and the fastest way to get answers to those nagging questions about your visit!