Checking out Alcatraz with Alcatraz Cruises

posted in: Tours, USA | 31

One of the highlights of visiting San Francisco is to visit the world famous Alcatraz penitentiary which is located on Alcatraz island in the bay of San Francisco. Run by the National Park service, the company Alcatraz Cruises is the only way to get there. The price of the tickets includes return tickets on the ferry and entry to the island.

Alcatraz Cruises
On board Alcatraz Cruises
Alcatraz Cruises ticket centre in San Francisco

We departed from Pier 33 (south of Fisherman’s Wharf and north of the Ferry Building) and the journey took around twenty minutes to get to the island. On the way we had pleasant views of the bay, the island, but even more so, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline.

Downtown San Francisco as seen from Alcatraz Cruises
Alcatraz Island – a view from our ferry ride

As soon as we disembarked from the ferry, we had a park ranger greeting us and the rest of the group of tourists. There was a brief introduction to the island and the penitentiary (otherwise known as a prison), what not to do on the island and explained where we should go first. We were very eager to get into the penitentiary and learn about some of the things inmates would get up to here.

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island

Walking up a steep hill (where views over the bay were even more spectacular) we eventually walked into the building and landed up in the former shower room where we queued up for an audio guide. I have to admit that I am not a keen fan of audio guides when walking around attractions or sights of interest but here, I wanted it. I wanted to know the history, some of the stories of the inmates and where I was in the building. As I found out, there is much more history to this place than I first thought despite only been operational between 1934 and 1963.

The steep hill we had to walk up to get to the prison.
The Shower Room

Listening to the history of Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and ‘Birdman’ Robert Stroud, two of some of the most infamous inmates, made Alcatraz a scary place to be sent to. There were stories coming out that once criminals were sent there, there was no way to escape because of its high security and location. Eventually the island became to be known as ‘The Rock’. Walking around I have to admit that the conditions for that period of time was more than ideal and not as scary as I thought it would be but there is always a saying in the game, it’s the inmates who make the prisons scary, unwelcoming and unpleasant.

Inside Alcatraz
Inside Alcatraz
The audio guides were excellent
The outdoor area used by inmates
The outdoor area used by inmates
Just checking out the ‘outdoor area’ used by inmates. Baseball and basketball seemed to be popular here.
Inside Alcatraz
Inside Alcatraz
Inside Alcatraz
Inside Alcatraz – the control room
The main wardens in charge when Alcatraz was open
Inside Alcatraz – one of the cells where someone tried to make a break for it! We won’t give away the full story, go and check out the place yourself to find out more!
Inside Alcatraz
Inside Alcatraz

However, before the buildings were turned into a prison, we found out the history goes back even further. There are some subterranean rooms, cannons and Civil War-era buildings which have stood since the 19th century which give us great insight that the island was used as a military prison and a harbour defence fort. After Alcatraz was closed down (the prison that is), there were reminders of the American Indian Occupation dotted about the place (this lasted between 1969 and 1971). These years were a very important part in history on the American Indian right movement.

Alcatraz Island – one of the first things we saw was to do with the Indian Occupation.

Another piece of history worth checking out on the island is the lighthouse. This one was the first to be built on the United States Pacific coastline. I (Danik) am a total sucker for photographing lighthouses and this one was special to see with the importance behind it.

The lighthouse on Alcatraz island

We nearly spent about three-four hours on the island before heading back to San Francisco. As well as being a tourist and doing the typical sightseeing ‘thing’, we found that we actually learnt quite a lot about the place and felt like being in a school history lesson (which is a good thing). Once we were back on land and later that evening, we just had to watch the film ‘The Rock’ with Nicolas Cage in it, just to see the filming locations used on Alcatraz island. Were we disappointed with the visit, hell no! We would totally recommend this to anyone visiting the city. It’s not just about visiting the island, the journey to and from across the bay is special and Alcatraz Cruises are the only company which does this journey. There punctual timetable, queuing systems, professionalism of the staff on board, (and of course taking safety into account), made this an enjoyable experience and one we shall not forget.


Please note that while we were working with Alcatraz Cruises, the review and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. We value our readers too much to lie to you. Our blog would be nothing without you and your continued support!

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31 Responses

  1. I’m yet to visit San Fran so when I do get to visit Alcatraz is on my list of places to see. The photos of the rows of cells reminds me so much of scenes from “Prison Break!” I’m not usually one for audio guides either so it’s good that you mentioned that they are well worthwhile getting here, I’ll keep that in mind. I’m looking forward to finding out more about the attempted escape from that cell, thanks for sharing!

  2. What an interesting experience! I have never seen the movie The Rock haha, but it’s always nice to see a movie and then visit the location to really put the whole thing into context. (Maybe Scarface would be a good one to watch for this trip too?) For example I just went to Salzburg without seeing The Sound of Music haha

  3. Our daughter goes to Santa Cruz, so we pop through San Francisco every so often. There is just so much to see and do. Going on an Alcatraz Cruz was pretty high on our San Fran list and I could really imagine being there from you photos. I never knew the first light house was built there. I just assumed it was further south, since San Francisco Bay wasn’t discovered right away. Perhaps it was the difficulty in locating the bay that helped get the lighthouse built.

  4. So I visited Alcatraz when I went to SFo about a decade ago. My friend and I were both pleasantly surprised – the site is well preserved, the audio guide is informative and there are lovely views from the outside of the building. Overall, a good trip. And I can see you two similarly enjoyed your experience.

  5. I was in SFO 5 years ago and I remember looking at one of the companies that did Alcatraz Cruises and feeling bad that I didn’t have the time to do it. It was one of the key highlights of the place and I missed it. Well, there’s always a next time.

  6. So much history associated with the place. Your 3 to 4hours were spent so well there. The interiors of prison cells have good fittings. Interesting story behind the name – The Rock.

  7. Although I’ve been to San Francisco a couple of times, I never visited Alcatraz since it was always too crowded (which is quite ironic when talking ’bout a prison), but judging from your pictures it wasn’t that bad. I wonder how it is to visit a prison where criminals were locked. I’ve only visited places so far where innocent people were locked in which is terribly depressing. I wonder how it is to visit a place like this where the imprisonment is justified.

  8. A visit to the penitentiary always seems so intriguing. I must say this was a fascinating and different kind of trip, a different experience when you walk through the cells where so many people spent their lives. The lighthouse is another structure that appealed to me and must be another place that holds a thousand stories.

  9. After the movie, this has been on of those places that I have been wanting to visit. I am not sure if this place will leave me feel happy or depressed. Does this place get too crowded?

  10. This must have been an ultimate experience. I’ve never visited Alcatraz but I do hope to cross it off my bucket list soon. Thanks for bringing this place closer!

  11. That’s a mighty fine photo of a lighthouse. I visited Alcatraz many years ago and I had no idea about the American Indian Occupation! What an interesting piece of history. I can’t believe Sean Connery broke out of there!

  12. Carol Colborn

    I visited Alcatraz a long time ago. But I don’t remember a comprehensive history and tour. Maybe I should go back now that my daughter lives in the San Francisco area.

  13. I’ve been interested in visiting Alcatraz ever since watching The Rock many years ago, and I even used to be able to see the island regularly when I lived in San Francisco. Someday I need to return and finally take a tour. I had no idea Alcatraz Cruises were the only way to get there.

  14. I have always wanted to do this. All of your information is fantastic and definitely makes me want to go sometime soon. I have always thought this looked like a neat place to tour. Thank you for sharing this!

  15. I can’t believe the cell blocks had street names! It’s bigger than I always imagined. I would love to know if that prisoner made it out:)

  16. I am so in awe of all of this. I’ve always been fascinated with Alcatraz but could never imagine what it would feel like to actually be in this space and see it up close. Your photos do a very good job of bringing the experience to life.

  17. thank you for sharing your experience. I am sure that was exciting to visit Alcatraz. hopefully one day i will make there too

  18. What a wonderful way to see the San Francisco skyline and the golden bridge! Love the view of the Alcatraz Island from your ferry ride! I quite like audio guides for the pace they offer. You can rewind and re hear what you missed! I am glad the penitentiary has it too. Must have been quite fascinating to know about the history of this place and it’s inmates. Their stories reminded me of the Cellular jail in Andamans, India where political prisoners were sent and the place had no escape! The attempted escape bit is quite intriguing! Curious to know more. Prisons generally have a very depressing vibe but it is just so important to know and learn from history!

  19. Really cool to see your pics from Alcatraz. I’ve only been to San Fran once and we were unable to make the trip out. I saw a few times in the distance, but clearly not the same as taking the boat and and walking through the prison itself. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Always wanted to go but haven’t made it there yet. Sounds like an interesting tour. I had no idea they had subterranean rooms and Civil War-era buildings! How was booking it? I heard you have to do it far in advance.

  21. I went to Alcatraz years ago and totally loved it. It is one of those tourist musts in San Fran. Enjoyed reliving my experience through your post!

  22. Wow, it sounds like a very interesting and unusual location to visit – it must have been a mind-blowing experience to visit Alcatraz! Certainly different from the other touristy locations in SFO 🙂

  23. Alcatraz looks scary but very interesting at the same time! Must have been something standing in those cells seeing exactly how they lived. This was a very interesting read.

  24. I’ve heard of Alcatraz earlier, through another blog (but never seen in any guide book or main stream websites, which is why blogs are awesome!).
    Visiting such intriguing places like yesteryears prisons is such an weird thing to do!
    I dunno if I’ll ever get to visit USA, if I do, I won’t miss Alcatrz

  25. I had only heard of this place and today got to see photos as well. The place looks little scary to me. But I like the history stuff so I might enjoy the walk around. The cruise seems fabulous.

  26. I’m so glad you got to do this – I spent a few days in SF for work and, even though I got to walk around and (yay!) ride a trolley car, I missed the chance to see Alcatraz. Thanks for letting me live vicariously 😉

  27. It’s really a shame I have yet to visit Alcatraz Island even though I’ve been to San Francisco MANY times! I need to change that this year. I’ll definitely consider this company, I’m glad you enjoyed yourselves AND learned a lot 🙂

  28. Followingtherivera

    I remember doing this years ago and really enjoying it. I didn’t spend as long there as you did, but really learned a lot too!

  29. I went to San Fran a few years ago and we sailed around Alcatraz, but never went in! It’s so much different than I imagined, the layered cells in the 12th photo are especially intriguing. I wonder if that caused any disturbances or accessibility issues. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  30. Suddenly, I remember “The Rock” and “Escape from Alcatraz” movies. Hehehe! I wonder if there are people who actually escaped Alcatraz alive and are hiding as of the present. In any case, visiting old and historical places like Alcatraz is among the most important aspect of travel.

  31. Alcatraz somehow reminds me of The Cellular Jail in Port Blair. It was a jail from where it was impossible for prisoners to escape. Such fascinating history! Would love to visit!

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