More than one million tourists book an Alcatraz tour and visit Alcatraz Island every year.
The island which was once the World’s most dreaded prison is on the itinerary of every tourist visiting San Francisco.
In this article, we explain everything you need to know for your visit to Alcatraz.
1. How to reach
2. Ferry timings
3. Best time to visit
4. Tour inclusions
5. Tour duration
6. Alcatraz tickets
7. Combo tours
8. Last minute tickets
9. Alcatraz night tour
10. Night tour reviews
11. Alcatraz map
12. Audio tour
Where is Alcatraz?
Alcatraz Island is a rocky island 2 Kms (1.5 Miles) from the San Francisco shore.
This island occupies an area of 22 acres (9 hectares), and from 1934 to 1963 served as a federal prison.
Can you visit Alcatraz?
Yes, Alcatraz prison and island grounds are open to the public.
Tourists can plan to visit Alcatraz any day of the year, except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – the three days it is closed.
All you need to do is book an Alcatraz island tour.
How to reach Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island tour ferries depart from and return to Pier 33.
That’s why Pier 33 is also referred to as Alcatraz Landing.
Pier 33 is located on The Embarcadero near the intersection of The Embarcadero and Bay Streets.
It is just 400 meters (of .25 Miles) from Fisherman’s Wharf.
How to reach Pier 33
Fire up your Google Map and see how far you are from Pier 33.
If you are already exploring San Francisco nearby, take a streetcar to the ‘Bay Station Street.’
Note: If you are scheduled to take an Alcatraz ferry to the Island, we don’t recommend you driving to Pier33. Parking is difficult to find, especially in summer and spring months. If you don’t find parking in time, you may miss your scheduled departure.
Alcatraz tour times
Alcatraz Island opens for tourists as early as 8.45 am. This is the ‘early bird’ tour, available for booking all through the year.
The rest of the Alcatraz tour timings change with the season.
Ferry timings in Summer
Day Tour: 9:10 am, 9:30 am, 10:00 am, 10:30 am, 11:00 am, 11:30 am, 12:00 pm, 12:30 pm, 1:00 pm, 1:30 pm, 2:10 pm, 2:40 pm, 3:20 pm, 3:50 pm
Night Tour: 5:55 pm, 6:30 pm
Behind the Scenes tour: 4:20 pm, 4:50 pm
Ferry timings in Winter
Day Tour: 9:10 am, 9:30 am, 10:00 am, 10:30 am, 11:00 am, 11:30 am, 12:00 pm, 12:30 pm, 1:05 pm, 1.35 pm
Night tour: 3:50 pm, additional time of 4:45 pm may also be available
Behind the Scenes tour: 2:10 pm, 2:40 pm
Alcatraz & Angel Island Combo tour times are 9.30 am, all through the year.
Best time to visit Alcatraz?
Your Alcatraz tour experience will depend on a lot of factors.
Best time to visit
If you want to avoid the crowd, early morning is the best time to visit Alcatraz.
The trick is to buy the ‘Early Bird tour ticket’, and take the ferry which departs Pier 33 at 8.45 am.
You get a head start and avoid the tourists who arrive later in the day.
If you don’t mind a bit of adventure, yet another way to avoid the crowd is by booking the night tour.
During summer months Night tours are scheduled around 6 pm and in winter months around 4 pm.
Few people opt for the Alcatraz night tour, and thus the Alcatraz prison is much less crowded.
As a bonus, during your return from the Island, you will see amazing views of a lit-up San Francisco skyline.
Best day of the week to visit
Weekends are the peak times for Alcatraz Island tours.
Mondays to Thursdays are the best days to visit the island.
Best month(s) to visit
January, February, and March see the minimum crowd.
Weather is not as pleasant as one would expect and there is always a threat of rain.
However, since the ferries have covered seating rains don’t affect the travel to Alcatraz Island.
If you don’t mind the bad weather, these are good months to visit Alcatraz.
If you want to avoid the crowd and prefer good weather too, look no further than September and October.
Note: You must know that San Francisco weather is unpredictable. It can get sunny, foggy or chilly at an hour’s notice and that’s why it is always best to dress in layers.
What is included in an Alcatraz tour?
An Alcatraz tour ticket includes five things –
1. The ferry transportation from Pier 33 to Alcatraz Island
2. The Cell House audio guide, which is provided by Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
3. The tour of the prison (using the audio guide)
4. Other programs and exhibits going on in Alcatraz
5. Return ferry from Alcatraz Island to Pier 33
Alcatraz tour length
At Alcatraz, a visitor can opt for different types of tours.
The most popular being – Alcatraz day tour and the Alcatraz night tour.
Whichever tour the visitor opts for, one question is sure to pop-up, “How long is Alcatraz tour?”
Here is the short answer:
To have an excellent, satisfactory Alcatraz tour, you need 2.5 to 3 hours.
However, if you love history, like to get into the details and prefer to take a lot of photographs, you can very easily spend four to five hours exploring Alcatraz.
For a more detailed answer, continue reading –
How long does Alcatraz tour take?
Like it happens with most tourist attractions, the length of your Alcatraz tour depends on numerous factors.
Here are the three factors which impact the duration of Alcatraz tours most:
1. Once you get down at the Alcatraz Island, a steep 400 meters (1312 feet) climb takes you to the Cell House. This elevation change is 40 meters (130 feet). Some visitors prefer to rest in between, while others manage this distance faster.
2. While some tourists stop for catching their breath, many others stop for the breathtaking view during this climb. The sights are so alluring that many tourists decide to take it easy and spend extra time.
3. The Cell House audio tour at Alcatraz is 45 minutes long. However, you can pause it at regular interval and pace your exploration.
Duration of Alcatraz day tour
The Alcatraz prison day tour includes the ferry ride to the attraction, the Cell House audio tour, the optional exhibits and the ferry ride back.
The ferry rides are managed by Alcatraz Cruises.
From the time, you step onto the ferry at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, to your return, it will take you approximately 3 hours.
The ferry rides take 12-15 minutes each way. Allowing for two and a half hours on the island.
Duration of Alcatraz night tour
Since the Alcatraz night tour is a limited-edition tour, a limited number of Alcatraz cruises ferry the tourists to the island.
Length of Alcatraz night tour in Summer
During Summer months, the night tour Alcatraz cruises depart at 5.55 pm and 6.30 pm.
The return trips start at the Alcatraz island at 8.40 pm and 9.25 pm.
If you start from the earliest cruise which departs (at 5.55 pm) and return by the last cruise (at 9.25 pm), your Alcatraz tour will be over in three and a half hours.
And if you depart by the second available cruise (at 6.30 pm), the maximum duration of your Alcatraz night tour can be 2 hours and 55 minutes.
Duration of Alcatraz night tour in Winter
During winter, only one cruise makes the trip to the Alcatraz island taking tourists on their night tour.
It departs at 3.50 pm from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing and reaches the island at 4.05 pm.
The same cruise then returns from Alcatraz island at 6.40 pm.
This means, if you book a night tour of Alcatraz in winter, you can spend only two and a half hours on the island.
Occasionally, there may be a second cruise, depending on demand.
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Alcatraz Cruises manage the sales of Alcatraz tour tickets.
Alcatraz Island tickets can be purchased up to 90 days in advance.
Once the date of your Alcatraz visit falls within this 90 days, you can book your tickets.
During the summer months, Alcatraz Cruises advice tourists to book their tickets 75 days in advance.
During the winter months, it is advisable to book at least 30 days in advance.
How to buy Alcatraz tickets
There are four ways to buy Alcatraz tour ticket –
1. Buy Alcatraz tickets in-person
The Alcatraz Landing ticket office is at Pier 33, The Embarcadero, San Francisco.
To purchase Alcatraz tickets in person, you need to visit this office.
2. Book Alcatraz tickets over the phone
You can call Alcatraz Cruises ticketing centre at 415-981-7625 and reserve your Alcatraz island tour tickets.
3. Purchase tickets from Alcatraz Cruises website
If you are booking couple of months ahead of your Alcatraz visit, it is best to book from the Alcatraz Cruises website.
Once you have booked your tickets online, they get emailed to you.
On the day of your trip, visit the Alcatraz ticket window at Pier 33 to collect your paper tickets.
You must show the email you have received and a government-issued photo ID to collect your tickets.
We recommend you arrive 45 minutes before departure to collect your tickets in time.
4. Buy combo Alcatraz tour tickets
However, if your visit is within the next 45 to 50 days, the Alcatraz tickets may have already sold out.
During the peak summer months, they may even sell out 75 days in advance.
Once the tour tickets available with Alcatraz cruises sell out, the only way to visit the prison island is by booking a combo tour.
Besides being a last-minute option, these combo tickets also help you save money.
Continue reading to find out more about Alcatraz combo tours.
Alcatraz combo tours
For every day, a limited set of Alcatraz tour tickets are allotted to local tour operators to be sold as Alcatraz combo tours.
Once the tickets dry up on the Alcatraz Cruises website, the Alcatraz combo tickets become your only hope.
Are Alcatraz combo tours reliable?
Yes, they are reliable – these companies have bought the tickets in bulk from Alcatraz Cruises.
Alcatraz Cruises allows these tour operators to sell Alcatraz tickets under one condition – the operators must club Alcatraz visit with other SFO tours.
Therefore, when all the Alcatraz tour tickets get sold out, your best option for the last-minute Alcatraz ticket is a combo tour.
Best Alcatraz combo tours
We have hand-picked the best ten combo tours, which also include a visit to the Alcatraz island.
1. Alcatraz and Big Bus 1-Day Hop-On Hop-Off tour
It includes one day of San Francisco sightseeing on Hop-On Hop-Off bus, Alcatraz Island tour, and a Panoramic night tour of San Francisco. More about the best HOHO bus tours in San Francisco
Cost: USD 110 per person
Duration: 1 day
2. 72-hour Hop-on Hop-off bus tour and Alcatraz ticket
One 2-hour night tour of the San Francisco city is also included.
Departure time for your Alcatraz tour will be provided on the first day of the trip when you pick up your tickets.
Cost: USD 129.99
Duration: 72 hours
3. Seaplane flight over Alcatraz + Alcatraz tour
Take off in a seaplane from the lovely bayside village of Sausalito just across the Golden Gate Bridge.
During the 30 minutes flight, fly over San Francisco and the Alcatraz.
A complimentary shuttle takes you back to the city.
You have your lunch in the Pier 33 area, after which you board your Alcatraz ferry at 3.20 pm.
Cost: USD 227
Duration: 4 hours
4. Guided tour of San Francisco + Alcatraz tour
Tour starts in the morning, and a guide shows you highlights of San Francisco.
Later in the day, you head to Pier 33 to board your Alcatraz ferry.
This Alcatraz combo package includes a complimentary dining voucher.
Cost: USD 125.50
Duration: 7 hours
5. Helicopter tour of San Francisco + Alcatraz tour
Your tour starts with a 20-minute helicopter flight over San Francisco and the Bay area.
You fly over and under the Golden Gate Bridge (weather permitting).
After your flight is over, you head over to Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 to catch the Alcatraz ferry.
Cost: USD 243
Duration: 6 hours
6. San Francisco city tour with a visit to Alcatraz Island
The first part of this Alcatraz comb tour is 3.5 hours of SFO sightseeing.
You visit Golden Gate Bridge, Beaux Arts-style Civic Center, SFO Opera House, Alamo square etc.
In the second half of the day, you pick up your Alcatraz Island ferry tickets at Pier 33 and start your Alcatraz prison tour.
Cost: USD 160
Duration: 7 hours
7. Three hours’ bicycle ride at sunset + Alcatraz tour
This is a two-day tour.
On day one, you go on 12-mile-long (19.3 Kms) guided bike tour along a coastal route.
You see the city in its best light, at sunset.
The next day, you line up at Alcatraz Landing to start your tour of the notorious prison.
Important: The day you book this ticket for, is your Alcatraz tour day.
Cost: USD 95.75
Duration: 7 hours
8. Segway tour of San Francisco + Alcatraz tour
You will explore North Beach, San Francisco Waterfront, Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Russian Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf etc. on a Segway!
The best part will be when you Scoot down the legendary “Crookedest Street” in the World.
After the city tour is over, you will get your Alcatraz tickets.
Cost: USD 150
Duration: 7 hours
9. Alcatraz tour + 2 hours exploring SFO in GoCar
You start your day with a visit to Alcatraz island at 9.30 am.
After using the complimentary lunch voucher, you pick up the GoCar from the GoCar Office and start exploring San Francisco.
GoCar has GPS so you won’t get lost and they also keep sharing location specific trivia as a human guide would. You will love the 2-hour long loop of San Francisco.
Note: This combo tour is priced for two. Best for couples.
Cost: USD 245.88
Duration: 5 hours
10. Half day Catamaran cruise + Alcatraz Island tour
If you love water, this Alcatraz combo tour is an opportunity to get onto the water twice.
You start the tour with a 90 minutes long catamaran cruise. You sail by the Alcatraz Island and then from under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Once you are back on the mainland, you line up for the ferry ride for the Alcatraz island tour.
Cost: USD 95
Duration: 5 hours
Can’t afford so much? No problem. Try this tour wherein you cruise around Alcatraz Island for 90 minutes. It costs only USD 39 per person.
Last minute Alcatraz tickets
In case you aren’t interested in combination tours of Alcatraz, your last option is to go for Alcatraz tickets at the last minute.
If you missed buying them earlier, there are four not-so-popular tricks to buy Alcatraz tour tickets last minute.
1. Check for canceled tickets
During the summer months, the Alcatraz tour tickets can get sold out 75 days in advance.
This is because many tourists plan and book their Alcatraz tickets much in advance.
But when their plans change, and they cancel their booked tickets at the last-minute, Alcatraz Cruises puts them back for sale on the website.
If you want an Alcatraz tour ticket at the eleventh hour, you must visit the Alcatraz Cruises website and keep hitting the refresh button.
Determined (and desperate!) tourists have often seen tickets pop-up on Alcatraz Cruises website a few days before the date of their travel.
2. Buy same day tickets
Alcatraz Cruises has an excellent initiative to ensure tourists who are left scrambling for Alcatraz tickets at the last possible moment, get yet another chance.
For every day, they set aside a limited number of same-day Alcatraz tour tickets which are available on a first-come, first served basis.
These same days Alcatraz tickets can be bought at the Alcatraz Cruises ticket office at Pier 33.
Number of same-day tickets issued
Alcatraz Cruises team decides on the number of same-day tickets to be issued depending on the demand.
During the peak summer season, the number of same-day tickets distributed to the tourists can even go up to 200.
During the non-peak times, this number can be as low as 50 tickets.
How to buy same day Alcatraz tour tickets?
The ticket office opens at 7:30 am.
However, tourists desperate for a last-minute ticket for the Alcatraz Island start lining up from 4.00 am itself.
This early start is especially true for the peak summer months.
Once you also stand in this queue, you can’t step out. Except for a washroom break. This is strictly enforced by the ticketing personnel at the venue.
This ticketing personnel will also give you a ticket voucher (one per person), which means that you will walk out with an Alcatraz tour ticket in hand.
However, there are some restrictions on buying same day Alcatraz tickets which you must be aware of.
Restrictions on buying same day Alcatraz tickets
1. These same day tickets can only be bought at the Alcatraz cruises office.
2. These tickets are sold on a first-come, first served basis. Standing in the queue doesn’t guarantee a ticket.
3. The maximum number of Alcatraz tickets sold to one person is one. This means all family/group members must be present at the ticketing window at the time of ticket purchase.
4. There is also a limit of four people per group. That is, a family of six must split into two groups and stand in a queue (and pay with a different card).
5. Government-issued photo identification is required for purchasing tickets.
What time are the same-day Alcatraz tours?
The same-day Alcatraz tickets are usually for one or more of the morning tours.
Notably, the ferries that leave the Alcatraz Landing at 9.10 am, 10 am and the 10.30 am.
In the winter months, all the same day Alcatraz ticket holders are accommodated on the 9.10 am boat.
3. Buy standby tickets for Alcatraz night tour
Standby tickets for the Alcatraz night tour are a real gamble.
If you want to buy Alcatraz tickets at the eleventh hour, it is worth trying.
You must start lining up early in the morning and be one of the first in line when the ticket office opens at 7.30 am.
Every morning, depending on the demand 10 to 20 standby tickets are issued.
You are then expected to come back to Alcatraz Landing right before the 5:55 pm and 6:30 pm departures to see if there are any no-shows.
The standby tickets are honoured in the order by which they were purchased in the morning.
Those who bought it first, get a chance to get in first against a no-show.
Just because you got a standby ticket, doesn’t mean you will go on the Alcatraz island tour.
On an average 50% of the tourists with standby, Alcatraz tickets go back home without boarding the ferry.
All the above-given tricks to buy Alcatraz tickets at the nick of time are a pure gamble.
There is a high chance that you may not be able to get onto the ferry bound for Alcatraz Island.
That’s why we highly recommend you instead buy a combo tour which includes a visit to Alcatraz island.
Alcatraz night tour
The nocturnal guided tour of Alcatraz is open to a limited set of tourists every day.
You must hurry if you want to book your place.
Alcatraz Night tour vs day tour
One of the major differences is in the cost of the night tour ticket. An adult’s night tour ticket costs USD 7 more than the day tour tickets.
From the experience perspective, the most notable differences between the two are –
1. Exclusivity of the tour
The night tour is more exclusive than the day tour because of the lesser number of tickets.
For instance, during the summer months, 14-15 ferries start from Alcatraz Landing to take the tourists on day tours.
In sharp contrast, only two ferries depart for the Alcatraz Island carrying the night tour ticket holders.
2. The creepiness factor
The creepiness factor of Alcatraz multiplies manifold at night.
The fact that that there is a lesser number of people touring with you makes it scarier.
The human guides who take you through the Alcatraz night tour, capitalise on the ‘darkness’ factor.
They give special presentations, such as making all the steel doors close together as they would when Alcatraz was a real prison.
The loud sound of these doors closing is disconcerting and stays with you even after you are back from the tour.
3. Exceptional views
During the summer months, the Alcatraz night tour starts at Alcatraz Landing Pier 33 at 5:55 pm or 6:30 pm. In the winter months, there is only one ferry at 3.50 pm.
Thus, you are on Alcatraz Island during sunset and see exceptional views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco city during sunset.
Days when Alcatraz night tour is available
If you are in San Francisco from 12 March to 4 November, you can book night tours only from Thursday to Monday.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are ruled out.
From 5 November to March 11, the tours are available from Tuesday to Saturday.
That is, no night tours to Alcatraz are scheduled on Sundays and Mondays.
What Alcatraz night tours include
Your Alcatraz night tour includes the round-trip ferry ride to and from the Island.
Before you land on the island, you enjoy a guided tour around Alcatraz Island.
The onboard narration points out the hidden spots used for attempted prison escapes and prison structures unreachable by foot.
Once the ferry docks, a Ranger will lead you up a steep 400 meters (1312 feet) uphill walk.
The walk up to the Cellhouse includes a lot of stops to explore the history from pre-Civil War, Military cannon, family life on the Island etc.
You will also stop to take in breathtaking views of San Francisco city and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Once you reach the Cellhouse, you start exploring it at your own pace using the Alcatraz audio tour.
The Award-winning audio presentation ‘Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour’ helps you learn about the Cell House, the inmates, the living conditions, the escape attempts, and the riots.
Once the audio tour is over, you can explore the optional programs and exhibits at the Alcatraz Cell House.
Alcatraz night tour tickets
Since the night tour of Alcatraz is a limited-edition activity, there is huge demand, and the tickets get sold soon. Sometimes several weeks in advance.
During the winter months of January to March, the demand dips a bit, and it is possible to get the same week Alcatraz night tour tickets.
Alcatraz night tour tickets price
Adult ticket (18 to 61 years): 45 USD
Youth ticket (12 to 17 years): 44 USD
Child ticket (5 to 11 years): 26.75 USD
Seniors ticket (62+ years): 41.75 USD
Infant ticket (0 to 4 years): Free entry
Even though Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing and all Alcatraz Cruises boats are fully accessible, there is no disability discount for Alcatraz tours.
Where to buy Alcatraz night tour tickets
You can buy Alcatraz Night tour tickets at the Alcatraz Cruises website.
However, since these Alcatraz night tour tickets are limited, they get over well in advance.
But worry not, for there is a workaround.
You can always book a combo ticket which includes a night tour to Alcatraz.
Check out four of the best such combo tours –
>> Alcatraz Night Tour + Silicon Valley Tour
You visit Alcatraz Island at night and the next morning you explore the offices of Google, Apple and Facebook. It costs USD 209, including transport.
>> Alcatraz Night Tour + Visit Napa and Sonoma wineries
This tour of Alcatraz and award-winning wineries costs USD 242. The price includes transport both ways.
>> Alcatraz Night visit + Muir Woods and Sausalito tour
This is one of the popular tours in San Francisco and costs USD 159. Price includes transport both ways.
>> Alcatraz Night visit + Yosemite Park
This tour costs USD 269, which includes transport. Besides Alcatraz, you get to witness Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls and hike in Yosemite Valley for 4 hours.
Alcatraz night tour reviews
According to Tripadvisor, Alcatraz Island is the number one landmark in San Francisco.
It is rated 4.5, with some very positive reviews.
The Alcatraz Night tour has also got some great reviews. Here are two such reviews –
I highly recommend the night tour and recommend it to anyone visiting the city, or even a resident of the city that has never been. It’s worth it just for the gorgeous views of San Francisco.
The narration of the self-guided tour is interesting — they even have former Alcatraz inmates discussing their time at ‘The Rock’. Read More
It is by far the best tour of Alcatraz I’ve been on, and my teens loved it! The Night Tours open parts of the prison that are normally off limits and offer evening programs. We could see the prison hospital that was creepy. The programs were excellent. Read More
During your visit, it will help to have the Alcatraz Island map.
Even though there is no chance of you getting lost, you will know where the facilities, or where Agave trail or where the bird watching space is etc.
We recommend you take a print out of this map. Else bookmark this page to return to it later.
Download Alcatraz map (pdf)
Alcatraz audio tour
The Alcatraz Cellhouse audio tour is at the core of your Alcatraz experience.
If carried on at its pace, this is a 45 minutes tour. However, you can decide your own pace.
The Cellhouse audio tour begins with an introduction of 4 former Alcatraz officers and 4 former inmates.
The whole tour is narrated by these eight exciting personalities.
In one of the first prison cells, you will be shown a photograph of each man, with a short biography.
Having a face to each personality adds that extra zip to the narration.
You get to hear both sides of life in the Island prison.
This audio tour also covers escape attempts, the Battle of ’46, food riots at the jail, how the prisoners survived solitary confinement etc.
The Cell House audio tour is available in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
You can check out a sample of the Alcatraz Cellhouse audio tour here.
The Cell House audio tour is available in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.