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Tips for visiting Alcatraz and making the most of your time

Alcatraz is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the USA. Which is kind of ironic considering that no one ever really wanted to be there, and now people flock to see it daily. When we were planning our weekend in San Francisco we absolutely knew that we had to include a visit to Alcatraz. So we did our research and booked our tickets. If you are also planning to visit, here are some top tips for visiting Alcatraz that will help you plan your day.  

About Alcatraz

I’m sure if you found this page you know a little something about Alcatraz, but just to refresh your knowledge here is some information. Alcatraz Island is around 2 kilometres away from mainland San Francisco. It was one of the USA’s most notorious prisons, once housing criminals like Al Capone and The Birdman to name a few.

It was basically where prisoners who caused trouble elsewhere were held. It was a prison for 29 years before being shut down in 1963. During this period the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner ever escaped successfully. There were of course attempts including the 5 prisoners whom are now presumed drowned. Even if you could escape, the waters were so rough and shark infested that you didn’t stand much of a chance.

Alcatraz is now managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This means that the island is once again open for business although just for tourists now.

Getting your ticket

One of our top tips for visiting Alcatraz is to make sure you book your ticket in advance. This is so crucial as I know so many people who missed out.  There is only one ferry provider who will take you to the Island, Alcatraz Cruises. When you book with them, your ticket is issued for an exact date and time, and you have to be on the boat that you booked with no exceptions. It is such a popular tour and they need to control the number of people traveling to the island at one time. We booked our tickets a month before and even then our choices in terms of time slots were quite limited. I should also add that this was in October, so I cannot even imagine what it would be like trying to book in peak times like summer. You can book the standard tour or you can choose other options such as the behind the scenes tour or night tour. We opted for the standard day tour and paid just under $40 each including tax. 

Departure Point

Once you have your tickets you will need to head over to Pier 33 to get the boat over with Alcatraz Cruises. Do get there early as if you miss the boat, chances are you won’t be allowed on the next one. After a 15 minute boat ride you arrive on the Island. The boat ride itself is really beautiful. You get some great views of the city skyline as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, before finally arriving on the island. As we sailed towards the island it was really misty which added to the eeriness. 

Arriving on Alcatraz

As everyone begins to disembark the boat, you are greeted by a Park Ranger who explains how things work. You can explore the island at your own pace. Most people start by taking the 580-yard walk to the prison. This is uphill so if you think you will struggle there is also a tram that can take you up.

Visiting the Prison

When you first arrive at the prison you will need to form an orderly queue in the shower room and wait to receive your audio guide. The guide will take you around different parts of the prison at your own pace. The cool thing is that it includes stories told my some of the prisoners and guards so you really do get to hear both sides. You get to see the rec yard, the cells, the solitary confinement rooms, and staff areas. This is honestly one of the best audio tours we have ever done. There is so much detail and it is so fascinating hearing about life in the prison. 

The Dining Hall

Part of the audio tour will also take you to the dining hall. This is also where you can hear talks by the Park Rangers. If you have the time to listen to one of these talks, definitely go for it. The rangers are passionate about what they do and have talked to so many former staff and prisoners that their stories are chilling and well worth a listen. 

Exploring the Island

Don’t forget to checkout some of the other areas of the island. We did a walk that took us to the tip of the island facing the skyline and Golden Gate Bridge. It was so beautiful and you almost forget where you are. The island itself is actually very visually appealing with some incredible views of San Francisco. That was part of the reason why prisoners struggled so much in here. All they had to do was look out the window and they were reminded of the freedoms they were missing out on. 

Getting Back

Sometimes there is a queue for the next boat back, so you do have to be patient. You can get on the boat as soon as all the arriving passengers have disembarked. Only a certain number of people are allowed on each boat so if you are ready to leave we recommend lining up even if you don’t see a boat. That way you won’t miss out on boarding. 

Park Facilities

There are a lot of toilets on the island (just take one look inside the jail cells), but there are only a few that work. One of them happens to be near where the boat drops you off. Also be aware that there is no food on the island. They sell water in some of the shops, but if you want to eat you need to bring your own snacks. Also keep in mind that you can only eat near the dock. 

Final Tips for visiting Alcatraz

  • It can get cold on the boat and on the island so don’t forget to pack a jumper just in case.
  • Make sure you wear some sensible shoes because you will be doing a lot of walking.
  • You will probably spend around 2-3 hours on the island so be prepared for this.
  • Take a bottle of water with you when exploring the island. There is a lot of walking and you don’t want to get dehydrated. 
  • Try to book a tour early morning so that you avoid the crowds.

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