San Francisco’s many iconic charms include the Golden Gate Bridge, the famed cable cars and the row of Victorian-style homes called the “Painted Ladies."
This pretty, diverse and open-minded city, with more hills than you can count, has an infamous side too. It is called Alcatraz – one of the USA’s most captivating attractions, drawing visitors for its storied past, infamous inmates and dramatic setting on a rocky island close to San Francisco. Since 1907, when it was declared a military prison, Alcatraz has hosted some of the most cunning criminals of the past century. A unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the prison and its island home can be reached by Alcatraz Cruises, the exclusive operator that provides daily tours that explore “The Rock’s” rich history.
Trove of History
There are more than 150 years of stories here. Alcatraz has been operational since the mid-19th century, first as a civil war military fort complete with the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the USA, then as a military prison, and finally as the country’s most formidable federal penitentiary. Just ten years after it closed in 1963, Alcatraz opened to the public. Today, Alcatraz Cruises brings more than 1.7 million people to visit each year, from naturalists who come to see the seabirds to history buffs eager to learn more about the prison’s past. Volunteers work to preserve the island’s structures and environment.
Sunrise view of the historic Warden's house on Alcatraz Island
As the only authorized concessioner for tickets to the island, Alcatraz Cruises offers frequent daily tours, ensuring that every guest gets a full experience. Set off on an Early Bird Tour to avoid the crowds, or show up later on a standard Day Tour; either way, you will be treated to fascinating introductory audio and video and have access to the Cellhouse and gardens. For a more visceral experience of Alcatraz, go at night, where you will get a fully narrated boat tour around the island, a guided tour up to the main prison building and access to special programs reserved for after-hours. The Behind-the-Scenes Tour runs roughly five hours and leaves nothing to the imagination; hear all of the legends and go in areas not available to the public to really see Alcatraz through the eyes of a prisoner. For all tours, it is best to book 90 days in advance.
Visitors enjoying a scenic ride with Alcatraz Cruises
Cruises leave frequently from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, which is best reached by public transportation. Limited accessible parking is first-come, first-served at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. The weather on the island can be as foreboding as the prison itself, so bring a jacket and sunblock to stay comfortable during your trip. While no food or beverages are sold on the island, you can enjoy a packed lunch on the dock to fortify you as you journey through the buildings. And don’t forget comfortable shoes – the walk from site to site is rocky and steep. For those needing additional assistance getting around, the Sustainable Easy Access Transport (S.E.A.T.) shuttle is available and navigates around Alcatraz.
Walking around the historical sites at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
To reach Alcatraz, fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Alcatraz Cruises leaves from Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing located in Fisherman's Wharf, only one hour from the airport.