Before you visit Alcatraz in San Francisco, there are a few things you need to know. My guide offers you some insider's tips to help you make the most of your visit to the island.
Are you looking for information to book your tickets? If so, visit this page for ticketing details and then return here to help prepare for your visit to Alcatraz Island.
Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.
Still need tickets? Click the links below to check out some combo tickets that include the tour of Alcatraz.
What should I wear to visit Alcatraz?
Is it ADA accessible?
How do I learn more about the prisoners that lived on the island? Visit my Alcatraz History page to learn more about the prisoners and the history of the island.
Let's start with the basics. Where is the Alcatraz ferry located and how do I get there?
The ferry is currently operated by a company called Alcatraz Cruises. They operate all of their ferries out of Pier 33. This is a change from previous years, when the ferry to Alcatraz left from Pier 42.
The cost is $3 and you'll get off right in front of Pier 33. You'll want to get off at the Embarcadero and Bay Street stop. The driver will sometimes just call it the Bay Street stop, so listen for either version.
You can also take a cab. You can pick up a cab anywhere in the city.
The cost starts at just over $3 and usually costs between $15 and $20 depending on your pick up location.
Lyft/Uber are about the same.
Driving is another option. However, there is no parking right at Pier 33, so you'll have to find a lot and walk over to Pier 33 for your ferry to visit Alcatraz. There are several lots within just a few blocks of Pier 33.
Here are a few of the top parking options near the ferries to Alcatraz.
80 Francisco Street: Large garage with more than 500 spaces, it's just a couple of blocks away and an easy walk to Pier 33.
1603 Montgomery St: Just two blocks away from Pier 33, between Chestnut St. and Lombard St. and it has about 100 spaces.
Here is a map showing Pier 33, the streetcar drop off point and some of the parking available. The blue "P"s on the map mark a few of the popular parking areas. The red "F"s on the map mark the stops for the F streetcar.
The time on your ticket is the time the ferry leaves the Pier, so make sure you arrive no later than 20 to 25 minutes before the ferry departs. This sign at Alcatraz Landing shows which ferry is currently boarding.
As long as you have a ticket in hand, you are guaranteed a spot to get on that ferry. You are welcome to line up, but you can also sit back and hang out in the waiting area until the ferry starts to board.
Before you head over to visit Alcatraz, you might also want to plan for which return ferry you want to take. You will find this sign in a number of places. They are strict about leaving on time, so arrive at least 10 to 15 minutes in advance to secure your place on your return ferry.
You can take any ferry back to San Francisco after your visit. You will have a specific time for when you need to leave San Francisco for the island, but the return ferries are open to anyone wanting to return.
Each ferry does have a limit, so if the one you are in line for fills up, you will just need to wait for the next one to arrive before you can leave.
When you arrive to visit Alcatraz, everyone on the ferry will get off at the one and only stop.
You will receive a short briefing as a group and then head up the hill to the main building to visit Alcatraz. It's not a race, so feel free to take your time getting up the hill.
The hill is about a fourth of a mile long. The hill is steep and is broken up into four football size sections with flat landings in between.
Within the fourth of a mile walk, you will climb the equivalent of 13 stories. Don't hesitate to stop along the way, take some photos and look around at the buildings you see during your walk.
There are also a few benches along the way for you to stop and catch your breath.
The self-guided audio tour starts in the main prison building. It lasts about 45 minutes.
When you get to the top of the hill, you'll head into the doorway in the picture below.
You'll receive an audio player for your self-guided tour of the main Cellhouse. The audio is really well done and it's always one of my favorite parts.
After climbing one more set of steep stairs (the largest one on the tour), you'll look for this sign to start your audio tour.
For the next 45 minutes, you will walk along the predetermined audio tour route. During the tour, you will hear from guards and prisoners that spent years in this prison. Some of them were here for decades!
You will learn all about the history of the island including information on its most infamous prisoners (find out more about these prisoners including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly). You'll also learn about the escapes from Alcatraz (discover details on the most famous escape attempts here).
At any point along the way, you can pause your audio player to spend a little more time in a certain area. This is perfect when it's crowded and you want to get a closer look at something.
I also often put mine on pause if there is a talk or special tour going on. You will just want to remember where you were on your self-guided tour, so you can head back to that location. Your audio player also shows which section you were in, so ask a ranger for help if you can't find your way back.
At the end of the tour, you'll turn in your audio player. At this point, you are on your own to explore Alcatraz.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you will find different areas open. Any time of year, you can head out to take pictures near the lighthouse (it's also on the audio tour, so you should have no problems finding it when you are done).
From this area, you get some great views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the SF Bay.
I also recommend that you visit the gardens, which are beautiful. Some of the plants and flowers have been growing for years. Recently, they increased their efforts to care for the plants and flowers in the garden, so it's a great stop.
I also recommend that you head out to the old prisoner yard. It's only a short stop on your audio tour, so just ask a ranger if you can't find it again. It's a fun place to hang out and take a look up close at the outside of the Cellhouse.
From here, you can also get some great photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito.
You will also find two gift shops on the island. This is where you can find a large selection of Alcatraz related books, movies, and other items.
The first one is located next to the area where you drop off your audio tour. The second is next to the theater (this is also where you can get a warm cup of coffee on those cold winter days).
If you want to learn more before you visit Alcatraz, you will also find a great selection of Alcatraz books and movies online. Some of my favorites include the book Letters from Alcatraz, with personal letters from a number of inmates on the island from Al Capone to Machine Gun Kelly, and the National Geographic documentary called Vanished from Alcatraz, which includes recent information on the famous 1962 escape attempt from the island.
Is there food on Alcatraz?
There is no food available for purchase on Alcatraz. However, if you brought your own food, there is a small area with picnic benches that you are welcome to use to eat or drink. That being stated, I want to warn you that the area is full of birds looking for a meal also, so I recommend either eating before you arrive or after you return to San Francisco.
They do not allow you to eat anywhere else on the island nor do they sell any food.
Can you sleep at Alcatraz?
This would be such a cool program, but at this time they do not allow people to spend the night on the island.
Are there bathrooms on Alcatraz?
There are bathrooms on most of the ferries on the way over and back.
There are also restrooms in two locations on the island. One is right near the ferry terminal. The second set of bathrooms is at the top of the hill right outside the Cellhouse. Ask any ranger for directions to the nearest bathroom when you are on the island as they are always happy to help.
You will want to bring along layers for your visit. It will be cool and windy on the ferry ride over, so make sure to bring a light jacket or sweater. You can also sit inside, but the doors are open so it's usually cool in there also.
On the island, it is warmer outside, but cooler inside the building. They don't have heat or air inside the building, so bring along layers so you can mix and match based on the weather that day. There are also many broken windows and they leave many doors open, so the air can really blow through the prison on very windy days.
You can also check out my weather by month pages to get an idea on what to pack for your stay. Keep in mind, that it might be an additional 10 to 15 degrees cooler on the ferry and/or inside the prison on Alcatraz.
Are the Alcatraz Prison Tours ADA accessible? Yes, most of the island is ADA Accessible.
Limited Mobility and Wheelchairs
For those with mobility limitations, you will find a few options to help you get around. When you arrive on the island, you will arrive at the ferry terminal at the bottom of the island. The main Cellhouse building is up a very steep hill. It's about a fourth of a mile, but the climb is similar to climbing up 13 flights of stairs.
To help you get to the top, there is a S.E.A.T. Tram that will take you to the main entrance to the Cellhouse. You will see the tram upon arrival on the island. You can take this to get to the entrance of the prison.
Most of the tour is on the second floor of the building, but there is a small elevator that can take you from the main floor up to the area where you will find the tour. You can return to this elevator after your tour to get back to the main level.
Alcatraz does not supply or rent wheelchairs at any of their facilities. You will need to bring your own along if needed.
An American Sign Language version of the audio tour is available. Simply alert a member of the staff that you need this version and they will be happy to provide you a hand-held device with a screen for your tour. There are also large markers for each stop, so you can identify where you need to be for each section of the audio tour.
Alcatraz also has materials for those that are visually impaired. They have the Cellhouse tour available in both large print and in Braille. You can request these upon arrival. They also have other materials available for you to use to explore the island.
More on Alcatraz & its Prisoners