What to Expect: Alcatraz

When we visited San Francisco this summer, one of the top things on our list was visiting Alcatraz.  But we really didn’t know what to expect.  We have visited many historic sites, forts, homes and museums, but this was our first visit to a historic prison.  If you are planning a visit to Alcatraz with your family, here are some tips from our experience so you will know what to expect.

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Alcatraz Island

What to Expect:  Alcatraz

Visiting Alcatraz is more than just a visit to a former prison.  It is a full experience with the boat ride out to the Island and some of the most amazing views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.  

To visit Alcatraz, you must make reservations and secure your tickets here.

You board your tour boat from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, located along San Francisco’s northern waterfront promenade.

There are umbrellas, picnic tables, and benches so you can wait until time to get in line for your tour.  There is also a cafe so you can buy snacks if you don’t have any in your backpack.  Restrooms are available off to the side before you get on the boat although there are restrooms on the boat and island as well.

Alcatraz Tours Boarding Area

You must board the boat with the tour time you purchase.  But you may return at your own convenience.  The tour guides will help you understand the return schedule.  It is nice to be able to pick your return time based on how long you choose to spend touring Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Island Return Boat Schedule

The ride out to Alcatraz Island is not long but is beautiful.  You can sit inside the boat if you prefer to be out of the wind, or you can sit on the outer levels for the best views.

View of Golden Gate Bridge from the tour boat

When you arrive at the Island, you are given a brief overview of Alcatraz by a Park Ranger.  You can choose to take a self guided tour, or stay with the Ranger for a narrated tour. 

Accessibility Note:  It is a significant climb from where you unload the boat to the actual prison at the top.  There is a park tram that will take you up the hill for those with difficulties walking, but once you arrive at the prison, there is still going to be much walking and some stairs to climb in the actual prison.  

First Close Up view of Alcatraz Island 

As you climb the hill to the main prison where you will begin your tour, take time to enjoy the beautiful gardens and scenic view of the city and bay.

Gardens along the path to the Prison

View from Alcatraz Island

When you arrive at the main prison building, I highly recommend you pick up the audio tour headset.  This is a free narrated tour that is included and helps you understand the history of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Tour Audio Tour

You can start and stop the audio tour based on how quickly you want to progress through the prison.  Each stop on the tour will tell you where to go next so you can follow along and learn about each part of the facility.

Touring Alcatraz

When people hear that we visited Alcatraz, the first question we get is “Was it Creepy?”  The answer is yes and no.  It’s not creepy to tour Alcatraz, but it is eerie.  Everyone is listening to their headsets so when you take off your earphone, it is very quiet.  To walk the corridors of the prison and hear nothing but the occasional whisper or the loud clang when one of the rangers opens or shuts a door for a tour, that is the eerie part of the experience.  So much history occurred on this island and the more you learn, the more you understand how it felt.

One of the audio tour stops is the recreation yard. If you have seen any of the movies about Alcatraz, you will recognize this area immediately.  But the thing that movies don’t convey is the smell.  There are so many sea gulls in the recreation area that the smell is overpowering.  We didn’t stay out here long!

Alcatraz Recreation Area

*Allow yourself at least 3-4 hours for your tour of Alcatraz.  

View of the Bay from Alcatraz Island

Find Alcatraz


Directions and Parking

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  1. Ooh this is awesome!! My first thought was wow so many people I wonder how loud it is…then I continued reading! 🙂 That’s awesome that it’s so quiet and adds to the eeriness of the experience. I’d love to go when there’s no one there… I wonder if they do overnight tours!

      1. That’s so cool! Very intense process though, we just might have to toss our name into the lottery and see what happens! lol

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