Is Alcatraz worth a visit? Exploring the iconic Rock

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? Travel for a Living

When visiting San Francisco for the first time (as we did recently), there are certain sights that just need to be on your San Francisco bucket list: Golden Gate Bridge, Cable Cars, the sea lions at Pier 39 and obviously Alcatraz Island. I mean how could you not visit Alcatraz when in San Francisco? But the big question is, is Alcatraz actually worth a visit? Or would you be better off just booking a bay ferry tour?

Well along with the question if Alcatraz is worth a visit or not, let me answer a few other common questions about visiting Alcatraz:

How do I get to Alcatraz Island?

How much does a visit to Alcatraz cost?

How much time do I need for a visit to Alcatraz?

Is Alcatraz island accessible for everyone?

What should I wear when visiting Alcatraz?

And most importantly: What is Alcatraz Island?

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? Travel for a Living

OK, let’s start with the last question first:

What is Alcatraz Island?

Alcatraz Island is a small island, located in the San Francisco Bay. Originally occupied by a lighthouse (actually the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast) and military fortification, a high security federal prison was built and in operation in the first half of the 20thcentury. Holding only prisoners that had previously caused trouble in other prisons, including notorious criminal Al Capone (amongst other ‘famous’ inmates). In all its active duty, it is claimed no prisoner ever managed to escape from Alcatraz, although many tried. Saying that, there were three that managed to escape and were presumed drowned in the bay, yet their bodies were never found. So, who knows?

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a visit to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

With the prison long abandoned, Alcatraz Island nowadays is a popular tourist attraction and for many (us included) one of the must-see attractions when visiting San Francisco for the first time.

How do I get to Alcatraz Island?

If you buy a ticket to visit Alcatraz Island, it automatically includes the ferry transfer to and from San Francisco.

The Alcatraz Ferry departs from Pier 33 and you are advised to arrive at the departure point at least 30 minutes before your scheduled departure time.

Along with the ticket check, there will also be a quick security check (in form of briefly checking the inside of your bag, not a full airport security style check).

You will also have your picture taken against an Alcatraz photo backdrop. When arriving back after your trip to Alcatraz, you can then decide whether to purchase that photo or not (we did not and I must say I was appalled when I noticed that they actually print out all those photos rather than show them on screens and only print the ones that are actually purchased. What a waste of resources – and NO, making a point about recycling the images isn’t the same as not producing unnecessary rubbish in the first place).

The ferry ride itself takes about 15 minutes and you can purchase drinks and snacks during the crossing (no alcohol allowed on the island, so beer and wine is only sold on the way back).

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

How much does a visit to Alcatraz cost?

The cost of your ticket for Alcatraz depends on the tour you choose.

There are four different Alcatraz tours on offer:

The Day Tour (this is the one we did) costs you around $40 per adult (tickets for kids and seniors are cheaper).

The Night Tour for just under $50 per adult.

The ‘Behind the Scenes’ Tour for just over $90 per adult

And lastly the ‘Alcatraz & Angel Island Tour’ for just under $80 per adult.

All four tours include the round trip by ferry (the Alcatraz & Angel Island Tour includes a round trip to both islands) and the multilingual audio tour through the cell house.

The night tour offers an additional guided tour, on board narration on the ferry as well as special tour activities.

The ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour is for a smaller group of people (30 max) and includes an exclusive ‘Behind the Scenes’ guided tour.

The ‘Alcatraz & Angel Island’ tour includes access to both islands and the Angel Island Tram tour.

We originally thought of booking the night tour. Visiting the disused prison as dusk sets in would make it feel even more spooky, I assume. But in the end, we opted for one of the first day tours instead, trying our best to stay ahead of the crowds.

When purchasing your ticket, you will have to select a date and departure time for your ferry to Alcatraz, however the ferry back is strictly first come first serve. So, you can spend as little or as long a time as you need for your visit to Alcatraz to make it worth your visit.

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

How much time do I need for a visit to Alcatraz?

How long you will need to explore Alcatraz obviously depends. I would advise to allow at least half a day in your schedule. Last thing you want to do is spend all that money for a ticket to Alcatraz, then rush through as you need to head back for your next activity. Also, since the ferry back is first come first serve, you might not be able to get onto the first ferry and end up with a little wait time.

Ferries run every 20 minutes to half hour though. So even if you cannot get onto the first one, it shouldn’t take all day to get you back to the mainland.

We started early that day with the ferry booked for 8.45 am. And we spent a good 2.5 hours on Alcatraz Island itself, plus approx. 1 hour for the ferry transfer (15 minutes one way plus boarding / wait time).

You do want to have sufficient time for the cellhouse tour (after all, that is the main attraction), but if the weather is decent, it is also nice to just stand in the courtyard and take in the scenery and view of San Francisco across the bay.

There is also a theatre near the entrance that shows some videos (which we skipped completely TBH), so if you wanted to see those as well, you would need to allow for more time.

Needless to say, depending on how busy the season is, you might have to factor in some extra time to stand in line at the cellhouse.

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz island accessible for everyone?

Yes, it is. Maybe not every single inch of the island, but as a whole.

As you arrive at the dock, there is a five to ten-minute walk uphill from the ferry to the cellhouse. Which might be a struggle if you aren’t good at walking. But that being said, Alcatraz Island offers a tram to take you from the dock up to the cellhouse, if you are unable to walk it and there is a lift inside the cellhouse, if you are unable to take the stairs.

What should I wear when visiting Alcatraz?

There is no specific dress code for visiting Alcatraz Island. But since you are walking around the island, including up and down slopes, I would recommend a comfortable pair of shoes.

I would also recommend that you wear something windproof and probably layered. After all, you are out on a windy island in a rather windy bay. So even if it is sunny, it can be a little chilly.

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Back to the ultimate question: Is Alcatraz worth a visit?

Well, I let you make up your own mind about this. But let me show you some photos, to give an idea of what there is to see in Alcatraz.

The Grounds and Nature Resort

Exploring Alcatraz Island - Travel for a Living Exploring Alcatraz Island - Travel for a Living The oldest light house on the West Coast and other things to see on Alcatraz Island - Travel for a Living Ruins, birds and prison cells - What to expect on Alcatraz Island - Travel for a Living

With the prison long closed and the former living quarters gradually crumbling down, the only full time inhabitants of Alcatraz Island are birds. Alcatraz Island is part of the Golden Gate Nature Reserve and parts of the island are fenced off to provide breeding grounds for a variety of seabirds.

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

The Cellhouse

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

View over San Francisco

Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living Is Alcatraz worth a visit? All you need to know when planning a trip to Alcatraz - Travel for a Living

Is Alcatraz Island worth a visit?

Yes, for us it was. We enjoyed the trip to Alcatraz Island. And we were lucky. Thanks to the early start, it wasn’t too crowded on the island just yet. And the weather was lovely and sunny. Perfect conditions.

Tell me. Have you been? Would you recommend it?

Planning your visit to San Francisco? Want to know whether to include Alcatraz in your itinerary? Read all about a visit to Alcatraz and decide if Alcatraz is worth a visit for you - Travel for a Living

Leave a Reply

8 Comments

  1. Kalilah Hayward

    I’ve been wanting to go for…FOREVER!! Thanks for confirming how cool it is!

    Reply
  2. Anita Sane (@thesanetravel)

    I have been to San Francisco but not to Alcatraz. It’s something to consider for my trips in future. Thanks for detailed description and nice photos.

    Reply
  3. Soumya Gayatri

    I would definitely want to see this island, if only for the history. Visiting that old cell house has been on my list forever. But I am glad you posted all those gorgeous pictures as well. The views over San Francisco, the birds, and the grounds all look really attractive.

    Reply
  4. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

    I loved Alcatraz! We messed up a bit though, as we thought you could just jump on a ferry if you weren’t doing an actual tour – we didn’t realise you HAD to book a slot! So we ended up extending our time in San Francisco by a day, which wasn’t exactly a bad thing haha. This is a great guide, and you got some great views!

    Reply
  5. Anisa

    I have been to Alcatraz twice. Once on the day tour and then recently I did the night tour. Its an amazing place to visit. I do think the night tour is worth the extra money. The atmosphere is something special.

    Reply
  6. Julia Dent (@juliadentphoto)

    I’ve visited San Francisco, but I didn’t get a chance to go to Alcatraz! I definitely want to go there when I go back, it looks so interesting!

    Reply
  7. Shari-Ann

    I’ve never been but I’ve been interested in going. Great info!

    Reply
  8. Priya Vin

    Great post. We have been to San Francisco a few time but never made past the pier. Will have to get up there next time. Thanks for taking me on this virtual trip to Alcatraz.

    Reply