We actually booked online the day before we went. Perhaps we were lucky, but it was also mid January, so probably the quietest time of year. Had it been the summer I would strongly advise to book early. All we had to do was head down to the wharf two hours before the ferry was due to depart and pick up the tickets.
There is no food available on Alcatraz Island, so you’ll want to grab a bite beforehand. I’d recommend Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf, the clam chowder in a bread bowl is superb. If you choose to eat outside then be aware of the pigeons, if you shoo them away they WILL remember! Turns out the devious little buggers sneakily land above you, take aim and fire…… Much to my friends disgust 😂
While you’re on the wharf you don’t want to miss the sea lion colony over on Pier 39. They’re noisy, but hilarious to watch and surprisingly there was no smell.
When the time comes you’ll need to head to Pier 33 to catch the ferry. There is a bar onboard where you can buy snacks, water or a beer. You can take food with you onto the island, however it has to be eaten at the picnic tables by the ferry port, you’re not allowed to wander around with it.
When you get off the ferry you’ll be greeted by a ranger who will gather you all together and give a brief introduction. After this you’re then free to wander the island in which ever direction you wish. We choose to walk around the Agave trail first, which is a walk around the edge of the island and has some spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline and of course the Golden Gate Bridge.
After walking the trail we made our way to the cell house for the free audio tour. I recommend this as it’s very informative and guides you around the the island explaining where you are and all the history in great detail. Before you get your hands on it you’re taken through the shower room. It’s after here where you pick up the headset.
The main cell room has three floors, but unfortunately you can only walk around on the ground floor in here. You see inside all the cells and can go inside of a few. Some you can see where the prisoner had smashed up the cell including the toilet. You get to see the cells of the great escape prisoners, interestingly with the sculpted dummy heads they concocted to fool the guards and you’ll notice in the picture under the sink is a widened vent opening, this is the hole they dug out, with spoons to escape.
When you get outside there are some spectacular views from the lighthouse, shame it was locked and we couldn’t go up.
You can cover the whole Island in just 2-3 hours, but you can stay for as long as you want. At least until the final ferry departs that is. Alcatraz is a very unique and interesting experience I would like to someday return to do the night or extreme tours, there were a lot of areas you couldn’t go to on a standard day pass.
Made famous for its use as a military prison and later a federal prison that housed many notorious prisoners. Alcatraz Island was originally owned by Julian Workman, after it was given by the Mexican governor to him in 1846. He sold the island to the U.S. government in 1846. It became a military compound called Fortress Alcatraz. Civil War prisoners began to be shipped to Fortress Alcatraz in 1861. In 1933 the Fortress became the property of the Bureau of Prisons, and in 1934 the U.S. Department of Justice turned it into a federal prison. The prison would be home to criminals such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Birdman of Alcatraz – Robert Franklin Stroud.
- Alcatraz is named after seabirds. In 1775 the first European sailed through the Golden Gate. He was Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, and he named the island ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’ (which means Island of the Pelicans) because of the many colonies of brown pelicans on the island.
- Alcatraz was the site of the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast. It was built and activated in 1854 but in 1909 was replaced by a taller lighthouse.
- Alcatraz operated as a federal prison for 29 years.
- Alcatraz has 1.5 million visitors a year.
Walking is the only way to get around on the Island. There is a land train that can take you from the ferry dock up to the main building if required.
You have to catch a ferry from Pier 33. Its only the ferry to the island that you actually pay for, entry into Alcatraz itself is free. Tickets are available 90 days in advance. A day ticket cost us $37 each and are available from:
- Online: from Alcatraz Cruises, the official source for ferry tickets to Alcatraz Island.
- Telephone: 1-415-981-ROCK (415-981-7625)
- In Person: At the ferry departure point at Pier 33
They offer different experiences from a simple day pass, to an extreme pass and a night pass.
- Grab a bite to eat beforehand, there is no food available on Alcatraz Island
- Book Early
- Take a jacket with you. It may be sunny in the morning, but the weather changes fast and frequently.
- Pick up the free audio tour