Alcatraz Tours: What to know before you go

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Alcatraz Island from the water.

Today’s post, Spotlight San Francisco: Alcatraz Tours, is brought to you by my friend, Fauzita Conway.

This abandoned landmark intrigued me. Maybe it’s because of the Alcatraz movies I watched. Or maybe it’s because of the stories I read about its famous occupants, namely Al Capone and Robert Stroud. But whatever it was, it sure did pique my curiosity about this historical monument.

If you are going to include Alcatraz Tours, aka tours of “The Rock” in your traveling itinerary, the you can buy the tickets at least one week in advance online (this is the official site) to avoid the massive line at the ticket booth. And remember to print your tickets at home. The ticket includes ferry rides to and from the Rock and an audio tour of the Cellhouse, which I strongly recommend. You get a lot more than just wandering aimlessly.

Though, if you want a more comprehensive tour of San Francisco and Alcatraz, we recommend this popular Alcatraz tour and bay cruise instead.

Left to Right: Warden’s House / Electrical Repair Shop / Schoolhouse

Images of the buildings on Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Tour Options

There are three types of tours: Day Tour, Night Tour and Alcatraz & Angel Island Tour. We chose the Day Tour because that was the only time we had in our short trip to San Francisco. The Night Tour sounds fun and even creepy but I’m not sure it’s suitable for young kids.

Alcatraz Age Appropriateness

The child age allowance for the Alcatraz tours is questionable. Personally, I think the appropriate age for a child to explore the prison is 7 and above. Nonetheless the 15-minute ferry ride is a fun experience for kids of all ages. The park’s junior ranger program offers nature and adventure activities for kids age 7 to 15.

I saw some small kids and even toddlers during the tour and even as they were oblivious to their surroundings. Parents need to know the entire walk-about takes at least 2 hours and the island hop tour is 5 hours. The pathways are steep and uneven, unsuitable for strollers.

Parade grounds at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Tour Tips (Your Family Friendly Survival Guide)

These Alcatraz Tour tips are based on booking tickets directly with Alcatraz Island. Though, the same tips apply to whichever tour you choose.

What to Bring: Food is not allowed on the island, so have a meal earlier and pack bottled water. Also wear comfortable walking shoes (again I stress – a lot of walking!) and bring a light jacket, it does get chilly and windy, especially on the ferry ride.

City of San Francisco as seen from Alcatraz Island ferry ride.

Meeting the Ferry: Get to the ferry landing, Pier 33 along The Embarcadero at least 20 minutes early. Once on board, get a good spot on the top deck for a perfect camera shot of the scenery. Further from the dock, the backdrop of the city is absolutely beautiful.  On the west is the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and on the east is the view of Oakland Bay Bridge, and not to forget the skyline of the city. We were blessed that it wasn’t a foggy day for us, so I was camera happy!

Exploring the Island: We decided to join the guided tour before venturing on our own.  Basically the guided tour is a 45-minute presentation on several topics about the history of Alcatraz.  Our guide was very lively, and we were totally engaged by her dramatic narration of famous inmates, accompanied with animated vocals no less!

Next, we proceeded to the Cellhouse Audio Tour. Do not be turned off by the long line at the entrance of the Cellhouse, it does move quickly.  The audio tour will direct you through the prison building. Due to the heavy traffic, we came up with a system to stay close to each other. So at every junction, we hit the pause button on the remote, took a couple of photographs and then hit play to continue on to the next site. This is especially helpful if you are traveling with kids so no one gets lost.  Plus you get to tour the grounds at your own pace without rushing, which I really like.

Collage of photos of cells on Alcatraz Island.

We did not watch the Orientation Video nor the exhibits as we had a time constraint. However, the Cellhouse Audio Tour, in my opinion, was the highlight of the entire excursion. Listening to the voices of correctional officers and inmates while exploring the walls of this gloomy building was kind of surreal. The Alcatraz tour is definitely a must do when visiting San Francisco.

There’s so much to see and do in San Francisco, but the Alcatraz Tour is definitely a highlight of any visit to the city. Alcatraz is cloaked in mystique made famous by Hollywood films. Of course, Al Capone’s stint here helps too.

But, there’s so much to see in San Francisco! If this doesn’t strike your fancy (or you just need more ideas, check out these other ideas!