INSIDERS’ ALERT!!! BUY YOUR ALCATRAZ TICKETS EARLY, LONG BEFORE YOUR PLANNED TRIP TO SAN FRANCISCO. From March through October the tickets sell out weeks in advance, and they can sell out months in advance during the prime summer season. Every year the lead times get longer.
Alcatraz is one of the most popular destinations in the entire United States National Park system. 300 years ago it was an uninhabited island where large numbers of birds nested, safe from predators. Since then it’s been a fort, a prison and now a national park. People are drawn most of all to Alcatraz by the modern prison, built on the foundations of the earlier fort and military prison of the mid-1800’s and an earlier 1912 prison.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was open for only 29 years from 1934 to 1963, and held famous gangsters like Al Capone and famous characters like The Birdman of Alcatraz. Although it has been closed for over 50 years (longer than the modern version was open), the 1963 version of the prison is maintained as part of the National Park.
Visitors to the island are free to walk its steep paths and stairways, which feature beautiful views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. Portions of the prison have been converted into a museum, and visitors can walk through the old cell blocks. A tram carries visitors up and down the steep access road to the prison if they don’t wish to walk.
Alcatraz Tickets, Tours and Ferries
The National Park Service allows only one company to operate ferries from San Francisco to Alcatraz, Alcatraz Cruises. All tickets that you buy for Alcatraz include both the cost of entry to the park and the ferry ride to and from the island. You cannot buy them separately. All ferries that dock on the island are operated by Alcatraz Cruises and sail from Pier 33 in San Francisco, “Alcatraz Landing.”
Tours are offered both during the day and at night, and all visitors under 18 must be accompanied by an adult at all times.
INSIDERS TIP: BUY YOUR ALCATRAZ TICKETS EARLY, LONG BEFORE YOUR PLANNED TRIP TO SAN FRANCISCO. From March through October the tickets sell out weeks in advance, even longer in the prime summer weeks, and every year the lead times get longer.
I walked by the ticket office the other day (in early November) and asked how long till the next available tickets. They said, “Our next open date is 13 days from now.” And this was before the Thanksgiving travel season.
Cruises Around Alcatraz
A second, separate ferry service offers tours with boats that sail around the island, but passengers do not actually get to step onto the island or to visit there. This ferry usually has spaces available if the prison tour tickets are sold out. This service is operated by Blue and Gold Fleet and sailes from Pier 41.
Food, Beverages and Water
The Alcatraz Landing Cafe offers fast food and water to passengers waiting for their ferries. There’s also a broad selection of food including sandwiches and snacks on the Alcatraz Ferries that bring guests to visit the island, BUT there’s a catch.
Any food or drink (other than bottled water) you have not finished before you reach the island has to be eaten while you’re still on the dock, or thrown away. The only food or liquid that you can take beyond the dock area is bottled water.
Insiders Tip: If you decide to buy a sandwich as the ferry is approaching the dock on Alcatraz, this means you’ll have to delay the start of your visit. If you can, plan to eat before you depart or buy food at the beginning of the voyage.
Alcatraz Weather and Webcams
Alcatraz weather is highly variable and unpredictable, since it sits in the fog zone opposite the entrance to the Golden Gate. Our page on how to prepare and what to wear is here.
If you’d like to check out the current weather on Alcatraz you can refer to these webcams.
Parking for the Alcatraz Ferries
Pier 33 lies between San Francisco’s Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf, and close to the San Francisco Cruise Ship terminal. As you might expect, this makes parking close by more expensive, and there are good mass transit options for getting to Pier 33. Our page on parking and transit is here.
Gardens of Alcatraz
Many people are surprised to hear that the gardens on Alcatraz were not added when it became a National Park, but were originally planted by guards and (in some cases) by prisoners. You can read about them here.