Alcatraz is the most popular attraction for tourists visiting San Francisco, Craig being the history buff in the family said from the outset that he wanted Alcatraz on the itinerary. I was a little concerned to visit Alcatraz with the kids as I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate for them. I am happy to report it was more than suitable for the kids and they really enjoyed it, especially the Alcatraz ferry across to the island.
Alcatraz has a long history, it was used as a military base and military prison from 1868 and was home to the first operating lighthouse built on the West Coast. It was utilised as a Federal Prison between 1934 and 1963 and was branded as the worst prison in America where no prisoner ever successfully escaped.
Alcatraz housed the most notorious criminals in American history including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly among many others. There were 36 attempted breakouts and none made it alive although 5 are listed as missing, presumed drowned. It was one of the most feared federal prisons in California with a formidable reputation that had even the most notorious criminals terrified.
Alcatraz Ferry – getting across to Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz ferry departs from Pier 31-33, its a dedicated Alcatraz pier and you’ll see all the signage as you approach. The Alcatraz ferry runs every 30 mins and returns to Alcatraz pier with those tourists leaving the island. Your Alcatraz entrance ticket includes the return trip on the Alcatraz ferry. You don’t need to book a time for the Alcatraz ferry, it works on a first in best dressed system.
While in San Francisco we stayed at the Hotel Union Square on Powell St, we caught the F Tram on Market Street to Pier 31-33. The tram ride only takes 15 mins and I highly recommend staying there.
Cost of the Alcatraz Tour
Alcatraz has a number of different options for tours including early bird, day tours, night tours and behind the scenes tour. Tour prices also vary from season to season with the peak spring/summer season being a little more expensive.
Alcatraz Tours regularly sell out so it’s advisable to book your tickets in advance, particularly if you are visiting in the peak spring/summer season. I strongly advise not to wait until you arrive, Alcatraz tours are the most popular thing to do in San Fransisco and it is highly likely you will miss out without pre-booking tickets.
I found Viator a great option for Alcatraz tours combined with many of the attractions that San Francisco has to offer.
Our Alcatraz Tour
We were booked in for 9.30am but we arrived early and were able to catch the 9am Alcatraz ferry after confirming with the ticket booth. The Alcatraz ferry takes about 20 mins to cross the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island where it drops you off at the Alcatraz Pier, same pier that was used to drop of inmates back in its heyday! You get some lovely views of the Golden Gate Bridge. We rode across the Golden Gate Bridge the day before so the kids were quick to point it out.
On arrival we were greeted by a Park Ranger who gave an introduction into the history of Alcatraz Island and went over the usual safety/housekeeping rules. We then headed up the hill to the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary for our self guided tour. For any Australian’s visiting, on your way up the hill, like me you might think you’re at home when you smell the eucalyptus trees, they have grown some gum trees and the smell is undeniably Australian.
At the top of the hill is the entrance to Alcatraz Prison that leads to the headset collection point. This is in what was originally the prison shower house and it instantly gives you an impression that this was a very harsh place. The tour is self guided and once you have your headset you will be free to go at your own pace.
My tip, make sure you get your headset first so the kids don’t get their’s and take off as this means they will be ahead of you for the whole tour. I learnt the hard way. Also make sure you do a toilet stop prior to entering as there are no bathrooms on the inside and you have to leave and go outside to go. There are bathrooms down at Alcatraz pier before heading up the hill.
The head set recording guides you through the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary stopping at points of interest as you go. It is narrated by a number of people including previous prison guards and prisoners that had the dubious honour of being housed here. It is interesting to hear the point of view of those that actually experienced the harshness of Alcatraz.
The recorded self-guided tour takes you past the prison cells, the solitary confinement cells and the visitors windows that are tiny and do not allow for any touching. It also fills you in on where prison fights happened, who the fights were between and a correctional officers first hand account of an attempted breakout while on his shift. Correctional officers lived and worked on Alcatraz Island with their families and there were a number of small children that were brought up on the island. One lady gives her account of what life was like growing up on Alcatraz Island.
The tour takes you out to the prisoners exercise yard and you’ll be surprised how small it is. Outside of the prison you are able to walk around the gardens and take in the views of San Francisco. The inmates were able to see across to San Francisco and on particularly still days weather wise, it is reported that you could hear people celebrating on New Years Eve or Independence Day activities.
The kids were fantastic on the tour, they listened and followed the audio tour around as directed. I was surprised that they all found it very interesting and were able to follow along quite easily. They were generally at the post in front of me so I was able to follow around behind them. The tour finishes in the Alcatraz mess room, aka the dining room. From there you head downstairs which takes you back the the audio headset drop off point. If you want to go back inside, you’ll need to walk through the whole audio tour again.
We went back and had another look at the exercise yard and walked around the gardens from there again. The Golden Gate National Park Conservancy and the National Park Service have been working on restoring the gardens around Alcatraz and its a nice area to have a look around. We were there in December and luckily had a crystal clear sunny day and I loved the views across to San Francisco.
Audio tours are available in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
The Cellhouse Store
Of course what would a tourist attraction be without the obligatory exit through the souvenir shop, the Cellhouse Store. During our visit, the store was hosting a book signing by a ex-inmate. They stock a number of books written by ex-prisoners and other people that worked at Alcatraz. The books are written from their personal account of the time they spent on Alcatraz.
- Al Capone played the banjo in the prison band and played in the Sunday concerts;
- 36 prisoners attempted to breakout, 23 were re-captured, 6 were shot dead, 2 drowned and 5 are missing presumed drowned;
- Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island during the 1970’s;
- It is possible to swim the 1.5km between San Francisco and Alcatraz, hundreds attempt it annually for the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.
After the tour we head back down to the dock and lined up for the next ferry which was no longer than 20 – 30 mins away. If it’s a very busy day, you might need to wait for the next ferry. As you sail away on the Alcatraz ferry, you can’t help but look back and think what an awful place it must have been. Dark, quiet and cold, the nights would have been long and horrible. If that place didn’t reform you nothing would!
This was Craig’s top pick from his bucket list and I didn’t think the kids and I would find it that interesting, I can confirm that I was pleasantly surprised. The tour is engaging and informative and easy enough for the kids to follow along. How long is the Alcatraz tour? The tour went for about 1.5 hours and I think that was the longest time in the whole 44 days in the USA that I didn’t hear ‘mum’!
I think the night tour would be a little spooky and you would get a proper feel for just how formidable a prison it was back in the day. The daylight and hustle and bustle of so many tourists takes away a bit of the oppressiveness from the prison. I think with the dark, cold and surrounding concrete, you’d get a totally different feel on the night tour.
We all really enjoyed the tour, I think its suitable for kids 7 years and over, the tour is informative and the different people telling the story throughout the audio tour keeps it interesting. The first hand accounts really add to the experience, its a well conducted tour and as people are moving at their own pace it didn’t feel crowded. Its good that the audio keeps people moving in the same direction.
Have you been to Alcatraz Island? What did you think of the tour, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. Did you take your kids, what age and did they enjoy it. This is one of a number of great attractions that you can experience in San Francisco.
Sal, Craig & our 3 kids.