Visit Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco: tickets, prices, opening hours

Visite de la Prison d'Alcatraz

How do you visit San Francisco’s famous Alcatraz prison? Discover our complete guide from A to Z!

The rugged remains of Alcatraz prison dominate a windy island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. You’ll be able to walk in the footsteps of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, and see the cell in which the Birdman (the « Alcatraz Canary Man ») spent his time. With the audio tour, you can hear the real voices of former Alcatraz prisoners and guards talking about their lives on The Rock (« The Rock »). The dark history and sense of isolation seem to ooze from the penitentiary’s damp walls. When you visit Alcatraz, you’ll quickly realize that you’re not in Disneyland: this is real. There’s plenty of prison « atmosphere » to be found here! For many people, it’s their favorite San Francisco attraction.

Alcatraz Island is one of the most famous prisons in modern history. According to records, no one has ever escaped from Alcatraz, although five inmates were listed as « missing and presumed drowned. » The prison closed due to costs in 1963. Every year, over 1.4 million people visit Alcatraz. It’s a fascinating place, both scary and beautiful! And highly recommended.

How to visit Alcatraz

Prison d'Alcatraz, Île d'Alcatraz, Visite

Wikimedia – WPPilot

The only way to visit Alcatraz is on one of the ferries operated by Alcatraz Cruises. Other cruises on the bay may include a passage in front of or around Alcatraz, but will not let you go down to the island. Boats depart from Pier 33 on the San Francisco Embarcadero, the waterfront boulevard running from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Ferry Building.

Alcatraz Island can be visited day or night. For more information, visit Pier 33. A ticket to Alcatraz Prison, including the ferry ride, costs around €37.

You should also know that there is a ticket offering both a guided tour of the famous Alcatraz tour, as well as a 72-hour multi-stop bus ticket. This includes a visit to Sausalito, among other places. The ticket costs around €105. To buy it online, simply click on the button below:

The price of this ticket allows you to spend a rich day organized as follows: go to the mythical Fisherman’s Wharf district. It’s here that you’ll board a ferry to take you to the prison island. You’ll be given a multilingual audio guide (renowned for its high-quality commentary). A 45-minute audio presentation will guide you through the former prison, giving you an insight into the life of the prisoners and their escape attempts. Afterwards, you’re free to explore the island and take any return ferry you like (every 30 minutes).

Why book online?

It’s not as easy as you might think to visit Alcatraz prison. There are a lot of tourists there every day, and it’s relatively difficult to visit the prison on the day you buy your ticket. During the summer and on public holidays, tickets are sold out at breakneck speed. Sometimes you have to buy your ticket 3 weeks before your visit! So it’s up to you…

What’s on Alcatraz?

Cellules de la prison d'Alcatraz, photo en noir et blanc

Flickr – William Warby

Alcatraz was chosen as a prison because of its location: the island in San Francisco Bay, although only 2.4 km from the coast, is surrounded by rough waters that are almost impossible to swim in. This means total isolation from the outside world, making Alcatraz a prison where escape is virtually impossible.

Take an audio tour (in French) and use it. You’ll learn more with it than you’ll see. Make sure you follow the guide so you don’t get lost. If you do, ask a ranger or guide to help you. If the prisonhospital is open, don’t hesitate for a second to go there. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see what medical care was like during the prison’s golden age.

Administration Building, Prison d'Alcatraz

Flickr – Mario Sánchez Prada

This 45-minute self-guided tour takes you through the prison: inmate cell blocks according to dangerousness, dining room, library, prison yard, warden’s office, etc. You can pause or rewind and take your time visiting the prison. Some of the cells have been refurbished and furnished as they once were: small rooms with a small bed, a toilet and a table. Prisoners spent most of their days in their cells, and talking was forbidden.

On the soundtrack, you’ll hear the real voices of prisoners and guards describing their experiences at Alcatraz. The narration directs you to particular places in the prison where interesting events took place: solitary confinement cells where the Birdman of Alcatraz spent most of his time, passages where inmates crawled to escape, scenes of murders and shootings. You can stroll through the prisoners’ exercise yard and see how close San Francisco seemed to the inmates.

Tunnel d'Alcatraz, prison

Flickr – Chris Amelung

Despite desperate escape attempts, Alcatraz’s location discouraged them all. The water was too cold and the current too strong. Even though the town was close enough for prisoners to hear laughter and voices on feast days, they couldn’t swim the distance. At the end, you’ll climb to the top of the Alcatraz lighthouse, escaping the oppressive atmosphere of the prison. From there, you’ll have a spectacular view of San Francisco.

Cour récréative de la prison d'Alcatraz

Flickr – Nathan Jongewaard

Cellule prison d'Alcatraz

Flickr – Justin Ennis

A few words about Alcatraz prison

Alcatraz was a military prison in 1868 and a federal prison from 1933 to 1963, located on a rocky outcrop in San Francisco Bay. Prisoners were deliberately fed rich, fatty foods with lots of bread and large portions. All this food combined with very little exercise led most of the prisoners to be physically unfit and overweight, which made the 2.4 km swim even harder. This was made even harder (depending on how you look at it) by the fact that the inmates were treated to hot showers, unable to acclimatize to the freezing temperatures of the sea. The guards had also let it be known that the area around the island was teeming with sharks, ready to attack any prey once in the water.

Alcatraz was therefore one of the most secure prisons in the world, or at least the one where no inmate ever managed to escape (or rather survive his or her escape).

Famous inmates at Alcatraz

Détenus célèbres de la prison d'Alcatraz, Al Capone

Flickr – Antonio Fucito

Among those who spent time on The Rock was notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al « Scarface » Capone, who spent four and a half years there in the 1930s. His arrival on the island generated headlines across America. Capone was sent to Alcatraz because of his incarceration in Atlanta, Georgia, which enabled him to stay in touch with the outside world and continue running his criminal operation in Chicago. He was also known to bribe prison guards. All this came to an end when he was sent to Alcatraz. This kind of transfer increased Alcatraz’s notoriety at the time.

Bataille d'Alcatraz, détenus

Flickr – Antonio Fucito

Alcatraz has also counted in its cells George « Machine Gun » Kelly (17 years old here), Alvin « Creepy Karpis » Karpowicz (26 years old here), and Robert Stroud, also known as the « Birdman of Alcatraz » (also 17 years old).

Over the course of its history, Alcatraz has seen 14 escape attempts involving 36 inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that of these alleged escapees, 23 were captured, 6 were shot, 2 drowned and 5 disappeared and were presumed drowned.

In short, you’ll read a lot about Alcatraz Prison, and see many movies set here, but nothing beats a visit to the island to get a feel for the prison’s historic and iconic aspect. Explore it without hesitation!

Visit Alcatraz: opening hours, prices…

Alcatraz Prison is a popular tourist destination. But if you book well in advance, or are lucky enough to get tickets directly on the spot, single admission for an adult isaround $38. Full details of Alcatraz prices are given in the table below:

Tarifs pour visiter la Prison d'Alcatraz

To help you plan your visit to Alcatraz, here are the ferry departure and return times from Pier 33 to the prison and vice versa:

Horaires pour la visite de la prison d'Alcatraz

Where is Alcatraz prison?

Located less than 2 kilometers from the port of San Francisco. Access is by boat, a 15-minute crossing. The boat departs from Fisherman’s Wharf. The pier is Pier 33, less than a 10-minute walk from the famous sea lions at Pier 39.

Have you visited Alcatraz prison?

Main photo credit: Flickr – Krystian Olszanski