Everything You Need to Take the Ferries To Alcatraz Island

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Published: March 29, 2024

The ferries to Alcatraz are the only way to get onto the island and explore its history. I've taken the different Alcatraz Prison Tours more than a dozen times each, so I have learned quite a bit about what it takes to get there.

My guide offers answers to frequently asked questions and a few other things that you may not have thought about when you booked your visit.

Alcatraz Island is part of the National Park Service, which contracts with Alcatraz Cruises, the company that provides the ferry ride to and from the island.

Are you interested in booking your tour? View my Alcatraz Prison Tours guide for more details on the three different tours available on the island.

Ferries to Alcatraz Top Image

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

1. Where to Find the Alcatraz Ferries

I'm going to start with the basics.

Where are the ferries to Alcatraz located?

There is only one company, Alcatraz Cruises, that is allowed to offer trips to and from the island. All of their ferries depart from and arrive at Pier 33 along the Embarcadero.

This is on the northeast side of San Francisco.

Here is a map showing it's location within San Francisco.

  • #1: Pier 33 where the ferries leave and return to San Francisco
  • #2: Alcatraz Island
  • #3: Fisherman's Wharf
  • #4: Union Square
Map for Ferries to Alcatraz

Great Combo Ticket Tours for Alcatraz

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2. How to Get to Pier 33

Streetcar Near Alcatraz

Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing, is very easy to get to from anywhere around San Francisco.

Since I know most of you will be coming from Fisherman's Wharf or Union Square, I'll offer advice on how to get here from these two locations.

Fisherman's Wharf to Pier 33

The heart of the Fisherman's Wharf district is about a half mile from Pier 33. The far western side of this district is about a mile from Pier 33.

Here are the options I recommend to get here:

  • Walk: The walk from Fisherman's Wharf to Alcatraz Landing takes 10 to 25 minutes. It is mostly flat, so this is a good option if you don't mind walking this far.
  • Uber/Lyft: You can also use one of these apps to get to your ferry to Alcatraz. They cost between $10 and $20.
  • F-Streetcar: Another option is to jump on the F-Streetcar. You can pick it up at Jones and Beach, Beach and Mason, or Beach and Stockton. This option is great if you have a Muni passport or you just don't want to walk. These usually run every 12 to 15 minutes and the ride will take about 5 to 10 minutes. Hop off at the Embarcadero and Bay Street stop.

>> Where to stay in Fisherman's Wharf

Union Square to Pier 33

Union Square, a central and popular area for tourists to stay, is a bit farther away from Alcatraz Landing, but still an easy trip by public transit or taxi.

  • Bus: From Union Square, walk two blocks east to Kearny and Geary Streets, where you can catch the 8 Muni bus heading north. Get off at Kearny and North Point Streets, on the Embarcadero, a block away from Pier 33. The ride is about 15 minutes.
  • F-Streetcar: To hop on the F-Streetcar, you'll need to walk two blocks south from Union Square along Stockton Street to the Market and 4th Street stop. You'll ride this historic tram along the waterfront and get off at the Embarcadero and Bay Street. The ride takes a little less than 25 minutes.
  • Uber/Lyft: This is the fastest way to get from Union Square to your Alcatraz ferry. This should cost somewhere between $15 and $20.

>> Where to stay in Union Square

3. What to Wear on the Alcatraz Ferries

View of Alcatraz Island from the Ferry

The ferries to Alcatraz Island from San Francisco offer both indoor and outdoor seating. I always prefer the outdoor seating as you get to see sweeping views of the island as you approach.

You also get some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Fisherman's Wharf area, and downtown San Francisco.

I recommend that you wear layers for your visit. If you plan to sit outside, like I do, then you will need a jacket and long pants to stay warm.

When you reach the island, you may be able to remove the jacket when you are outdoors, but the main prison building is usually chilly, so you'll probably end up wearing it again during your tour.

I also recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes. This will help you easily get around the ferry or be able to stand during the journey. It will also make for a more comfortable visit on Alcatraz Island.

>> More tips on what to wear in San Francisco

4. When You Need to Arrive

Waiting Line at AlcatrazThis is the waiting area at Pier 33. You will stand in line here as you wait for your ferry.

I often get asked two questions about arrival times, so I want to clear both of them up for all of you.

The first is about the time on your ticket. The time on your ticket is when your ferry leaves Alcatraz Landing. This means you need to arrive well before this departure time so you don't miss out.

The second question is about arriving 45 minutes early. This is what Alcatraz Cruises recommends, and it's what I would recommend as well.

You could arrive 30 minutes early and still have time, but it's better to plan to be there early in case something comes up along the way to slow you down.

While you may have to wait a bit if you arrive 45 minutes early, this ensures you don't miss your ferry.

Once you arrive, they will check you in and you will get in line.

If you would prefer to sit as you wait, just let the ticket scanner know before they scan your tickets. You will easily see when they start boarding, which is when you will need to get over to the ticket scanner.

The ferries will not wait for anyone who is running late. They leave on time and typically close their gates a few minutes before they leave.

They also don't offer refunds for anyone who arrives after their scheduled departure time.

5. What You Can Bring with You

Sign with what you can bring to Alcatraz

I recommend that you bring as little as possible on the ferry to Alcatraz. There are no lockers or storage facilities at Pier 33 or on Alcatraz Island. You will need to keep everything you bring with you at all times.

In addition, they only allow small backpacks (16” x 20”) and purses. Large backpacks are not allowed, so make sure to leave those in your hotel room.

If you happen to arrive with one that is too big, they will not allow you to board. However, you can go to the ticket booth to get a refund for your tour.

When I visit, this is what I typically bring:

  • Alcatraz Island tour ticket
  • Bottled water
  • Camera or phone for pictures
  • Jacket or sweater
  • Government-issued ID: you may need your government issued ID when they check you in, so make sure to bring this along for yourself and your entire group
  • Wallet or small purse with my ID, credit card, and other essentials

I like to keep it really simple so I can focus on the tour and not worry about having to carry too many items during my visit.

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6. Length of Time from Pier 33 to Alcatraz

View of Alcatraz from the Ferry

The ferry over to Alcatraz is pretty short. It usually takes anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes.

I think the official site says something like 12 minutes, but I always plan for a bit more time, as it does take a few minutes for the entire ferry to unload once you arrive.

You will spend more time waiting in line and for the ferry to leave than you will on the actual ferry.

7. Best Places to Sit on the Ferry from San Francisco

All of the Alcatraz Island ferries offer both indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor seating is on the top. This is where I like to sit on the way over to the island, even when it's a little chilly.

Note that you do have to walk up some pretty steep steps to get to the top. The ferry will sway a bit so make sure to use the handrail the entire time in case the boat moves a little more as you are on your way up or down.

This is a picture of the stairway you need to walk up and down to get to the top floor outdoor seating on the ferry.

Alcatraz Ferry Steps to the Top

I also like to sit on the left-hand side (when facing toward the front of the ferry). The reason I like this side the best is this is where you will get the best views.

You will get spectacular views of Alcatraz Island as you approach.

Ferry View of Golden Gate Bridge

The left-hand side is also where you will get the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. When you turn around, you will also get some great views of downtown San Francisco.

Views of Downtown SF from Ferry

On the way back, I usually sit indoors because it's a great place to warm up when you visit on a cool day.

The visit is always amazing, but it also takes quite a bit of energy so I tend to stay in the downstairs, indoor area on the return trip.

This also allows me to get off the ferry faster when I arrive back at Pier 33.

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8. Seating Options on the Ferry

I already talked a little about where you can sit on the ferry, but in this section, you'll see some pictures of the type of seating you can expect on the ferry.

The outdoor area at the top offers two types of seating areas. There are a handful of chairs in the middle.

Upstairs Seating on the Ferry

There are also quite a few boxes (I guess that's what they are!) with no backing and sort of an unorganized seating area.

I don't really know how else to describe them, but this is what I'm talking about.

Seating Boxes on the Ferry

In the indoor section on the main level, you will also find a few seating options.

Along the windows, you will find tables with chairs on one side and a bench on the other.

Indoor Alcatraz Ferry Seating

You will also find a row of chairs in the middle. These chairs are tied together, so you cannot move them around.

This is to make sure they all stay put when the ferry rocks back and forth on the journey or while it's waiting at the docks.

9. All About the Return Ferries

Return Ferries from Alcatraz

When you book your ticket, you will only select the time you depart from San Francisco. You will not select the time you return.

You are allowed to return on any ferry that leaves Alcatraz back to San Francisco.

When you arrive at Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33, they have a sign that details the times for all the return ferries. This allows you to plan out your trip and select which one you want to return on.

The return ferries are usually available every 20 minutes or so, and you will have plenty to choose from. The time listed on their schedule is the time the ferry leaves the island.

Since each ferry has a limit on the number of people that can board, I recommend arriving at the dock on Alcatraz Island at least 20 minutes early to get in line and secure your spot.

If it happens to fill up before you get to the front of the line, you will need to wait for the next ferry.

You do not need to show your tickets in order to get on the return ferries to San Francisco.

And don't worry about missing the last ferry off the island. They are very organized and make sure everyone gets off the island before it closes and gets on a ferry back to SF. 

10. Food & Drink on the Ferries

Snack Bar on Alcatraz Ferry

Even though food is not allowed on most of Alcatraz, there are some snacks and drinks available on the ferry.

Their snack bar offers chips, candy, pastries, and a few small sandwiches. There are also alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

Keep in mind, if you order on the way over, you need to either finish your food before you leave the ferry or put it in your purse or bag. You are not allowed to eat on the island except right at the ferry landing, which is usually a little stinky from the birds that like this area because of the crumbs.

I usually don't eat anything on the way over, but will sometimes order a warm beverage for the ride home.

The last time I visited, I received a reminder text during my visit that I could preorder food or a drink for the ferry ride back. Here is the message they sent me.

Text Message from Alcatraz Cruises

I think ordering ahead is a great way to get something quickly when you get on the ferry if you really need a drink or some food after your visit.

11. Bathrooms on the Ferry

Bathroom on Ferry

Are there bathrooms on the ferry to Alcatraz? Yes, and I even took the time to take a picture so you can see what they look like!

As far as I know, there is just one bathroom on all the ferries. There might be a second one on some of the larger ferries, but I know there is at least one bathroom on all of them.

It isn't anything fancy, but it will do the trick if you need it during the short ride to or from the island.

There are two sets of bathrooms on the island too. So, if you prefer to wait, you will find the closest set just a few steps from the ferry when you get off for your tour.

12. Ferry to Alcatraz Without a Tour

Alcatraz Island from the Ferry

One question I see a lot is about taking a ferry to Alcatraz and then exploring on your own. Currently, the only way to get there is to book a tour, since there is only one company that offers ferries to Alcatraz, which is Alcatraz Cruises, run by Hornblower.

There is no cheap alternative that allows you to explore on your own. This is so that they can manage who is on the island at any given time, and be sure that everyone has left when they close things up each night.

However, you could book the tour to Alcatraz and then ask for your money back for the audio tour.

This means you would not be able to take the self-guided tour within the main prison building, but you could walk around on your own, read the signs, and then explore other outdoor areas.

You would need to ask for your refund once you arrive on the island. No one at Pier 33 or those on the ferries can put through a refund for the audio tour, but the rangers on the island can give you a refund for this portion.

In my opinion, this would make for a very boring visit to Alcatraz. I think you would miss out on the full experience, which is learning all about what happened where on the island and which prisoners were involved.

On the other hand, I understand that this would help you save a little bit on each tour ticket if you are sticking to a tight budget.

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Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I would love for you to join me in my private Facebook group

It's a great place to interact with me and others who 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!

Come join the fun here!

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