Visiting “The Rock”: How to get Alcatraz Tickets and Everything Else you Need to Know

alcatraz island view from the distance

Everyone has heard of Alcatraz Island, but only those lucky enough to visit San Francisco get the opportunity to visit the famous rock. We think that everyone visiting, or even living in San Francisco should experience this historic place. 

But a visit to Alcatraz comes with lots of questions, like how to buy Alcatraz tour tickets and where to board the Alcatraz ferry. Maybe you want to know everything your Alcatraz ticket includes. 

In this article, we will include all of that and more. Below you will find an outline to help you navigate this page.

Alcatraz Island Basic Info

What and Where is Alcatraz?

Alcatraz Island, also known simply as “The Rock,” is an island in the San Francisco Bay. It has been many things over the years, but is most famous for being a maximum-security federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Notorious criminals were held in this inescapable prison, such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

Today, Alcatraz Island is part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area and managed by the National Park System. The Island offers visitors the opportunity to explore the history and natural beauty of Alcatraz at their own pace.

Alcatraz Island, also known simply as “The Rock,” is an island in the San Francisco Bay. It has been many things over the years, but is most famous for being a maximum-security federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Notorious criminals were held in this inescapable prison, such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

Today, Alcatraz Island is part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area and managed by the National Park System. The Island offers visitors the opportunity to explore the history and natural beauty of Alcatraz at their own pace.

Alcatraz Island Hours of Operation

Alcatraz Island is open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Their hours of operation change with the season and tours offered, but ferry departures are scheduled approximately every half hour beginning at 8:45am.

Note: Certain sections of the Island are closed to the public during seabird nesting season. For example, the Agave Trail is only open in fall and early winter.

How and Why You Should Visit Alcatraz Island

The only way to visit Alcatraz Island is to take a ferry. It is an island, afterall! Alcatraz tour tickets include this ferry ride, entrance onto the island, the cellhouse audio tour of the prison, and more. Details depend on which Alcatraz ticket you choose. More on that below. 

Once on the island, you have the freedom to explore as you wish. Take the Cellhouse audio tour to learn about the prison from past prisoners and guards, walk the scenic Agave Trail for beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco, or join in on a free Park Ranger presentation. 

A visit to Alcatraz Island is a San Francisco must do. The views are stunning and the history is intriguing. There really is nowhere in the world like it.

Alcatraz Tickets

a couple taking selfie at the golden gate bridge overlook

Morning Guided City Tour of San Francisco

  • 4 Hours
  • 65+

Most complete and entertaining San Francisco city tour available. Stops to explore Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, Land’s End, Twin Peaks and Mission Dolores.

More Info
Most Comprehensive
Alcatraz island view over the blonde girl's shoulder

Alcatraz Island and Guided San Francisco City Tour

  • 8 Hours
  • 139+

This full-day tour breaks you into Alcatraz and and explores the Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Bridge, Land’s End and Twin Peaks.

More Info
Popular Combo
people walking between cells in Alcatraz prison

So now that we have convinced you that you need to visit, let’s get to the Alcatraz ticket details you need to know. 

How to Buy Alcatraz Tickets

There is only one company that can dock on Alcatraz Island. You will see many other San Francisco Bay cruises and ferries mention Alcatraz, but these boats can only sail past or around the island. Make sure you buy the right ticket!

In order to buy the correct ticket, only purchase an Alcatraz ticket in one of the following ways:

  1. Online or over the phone through Alcatraz City Cruises. Tickets become available 90 days or more before the tour date. As soon as you know what date you want to go—buy the tickets! When buying Alcatraz tickets in advance, you will receive a QR code containing your tickets. Either print your tickets yourself or take a screenshot of this QR code and take it with you to the willcall ticket booth.
  2. In person on Pier 33 (Alcatraz Landing). If there are tickets available, they can be purchased in person at the Alcatraz City Cruises ticket booth on Pier 33. We do not recommend leaving this to the last minute, as the lines can be very long and many people are turned away when tickets sell out. 
  3. As part of a combination tour with a reputable company. Several tour companies in San Francisco offer tours that combine Alcatraz Island with a Guided City Tour. If you buy a tour through a site other than that link, make sure to read the fine print and confirm it includes access onto the Island, and not just a view of it.

Insider Tip: If Alcatraz tour tickets sell out for the date you want to go, try finding a combination tour like the one linked above. Often they have availability when City Experiences sell out. Plus you will get another awesome tour! Win, win. 

Alcatraz Tour Ticket Options and What They Include

When purchasing Alcatraz tickets through Alcatraz City Cruises, you will have 3 ticket options. Each comes with a different price tag and experience.

  1. Alcatraz Day Tour. This is the most popular Alcatraz tour ticket. This ticket includes the ferry ride to and from the island, the Cellhouse audio tour, Park Ranger talks, and free time to explore the island on your own, including the Alcatraz theater, several historic buildings, and interpretive exhibits. If you purchase a combo tour, this will most likely be the Alcatraz ticket you will receive. Adult day tickets are around $50.
  2. Alcatraz Night Tour. This tour takes you to the Island after dark and includes special tours, presentations, and activities not offered during the day. These Alcatraz tickets are limited, popular, and sell out quickly. Ticket prices are about $10 more than the Day Tour. Offered Tuesday-Saturday. 
  3. Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour. This is the Alcatraz Island ticket for the ultimate Alcatraz fan. Get access to off-limits areas within the Cellhouse on a live, guided tour. Groups are limited to 30 guests aged 12+. This experience also includes everything included in the Night Tour above. Ticket prices are over twice that of the Day Tour, and you can expect a tour duration of 4-5 hours. Offered Tuesday-Saturday. 

Before your Alcatraz Tour

alcatraz island view from the distance

After you have your tickets purchased, you can start looking forward to your visit! Here is what you need to know to prepare for your Alcatraz Tour. 

What to Bring to Alcatraz

  • Photo ID and the Credit Card used to purchase your tickets 
  • Ticket QR code and backup printed paper copy
  • Bottled water (no glass)
  • Jacket. The weather can be completely different on Alcatraz, and can change rapidly.
  • Comfy walking shoes

What NOT to Bring to Alcatraz

  • Big backpacks/bags. Nothing bigger than a standard size backpack will be allowed and there are no storage lockers available. 
  • Anything with wheels (Ex. skateboards, roller skates, wheelie shoes…). Wheelchairs are the exception of course.
  • Food. While they won’t stop you from bringing snacks to the island, you can only eat them on the dock. So we recommend most people just eat plenty beforehand and leave food at home. 
  • Alcohol. Alcoholic beverages can only be purchased on your return ferry trip.

How Long to Plan for an Alcatraz Tour

As a San Francisco tourist (or even a local!), we know that you probably have your day in the city planned out to the minute. So how long does a tour to Alcatraz take exactly?

The beauty is that the answer is mostly up to you! Once on the island you can choose any of the returning ferry departures offered for your Alcatraz ticket type. So especially if you purchase a Day Tour ticket for a morning ferry departure to the island, you could spend many hours there before heading back to San Francisco. 

Note: The Night and Behind the Scenes Tours have their own limited evening return ferry departures. This means there may be a little less flexibility with these options, depending on the season. 

We think the minimum time it would take to get to the island, walk up to the Cellhouse for the audio tour, and then catch a return ferry to the mainland is just under 2 hours. But that is without exploring anything else the island has to offer and assuming the return ferry is leaving at exactly the right time. 
We recommend leaving 3-4 hours free to fully explore and enjoy Alcatraz Island. You may only be there once after all! Watch the documentary in the theater, listen to a ranger talk, explore the special exhibits, pose with the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast, and peruse the shop for a souvenir.

The Alcatraz Ferry

Alcatraz cruises boat on the water with Alcatraz island on the background

Getting to Alcatraz Landing (Pier 33)

The ferry to Alcatraz Island leaves from Pier 33 along the Embarcadero, also known as Alcatraz Landing. Here it is on a map:

As you can see, it is right at the end of the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist area and under a ½ mile from Pier 39. This is great news because…

There is no parking lot at Pier 33.

There are pay-to-park lots nearby, the closest being the lot at 80 Francisco St just a couple blocks away. We would not, however, suggest you drive to Alcatraz Landing. Driving in San Francisco is often slower than other means of transportation, and the parking lots will definitely cost you more money. 

The best options to get to the ferry terminal include walking, the MUNI F line streetcar (Bay Street stop), bicycle rental, or rideshare app. Of course, if you book a combination tour, the tour guide will drop you off right where you need to be!

Insider Tip: There is limited, accessible parking at Pier 33 for vehicles with valid disabled placards. These spots are first come first served.

Even if you have your Alcatraz tickets in hand, you should arrive at the ferry dock no less than 30 minutes before your scheduled ferry departure. You will probably notice on arrival that people are already standing in line. While you can absolutely join the line if you would like, there is not much need. More on this later. 

Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing 

Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing consists of the ticketbooth, waiting and boarding areas, restrooms, and exhibits about Alcatraz. When you arrive, head to the willcall ticket booth line with your QR code and photo ID to pick up your tickets if you didn’t print them. Then you will be free to enjoy the area until boarding.

Basic Alcatraz Ferry Info

Now it is time to load onto the ferry and head to Alcatraz! There is a sign on Pier 33 that announces which departure is boarding. Just make sure to double check that sign and your ticket to confirm the departure time matches.

The Alcatraz Ferry has both indoor and outdoor sections, each with ample seating and great views. They do not oversell the ferry’s seating capacity, so if you have a ticket, you are guaranteed a seat on that ferry. 

When your ferry loads, all of the people standing in line usually rush straight to claim the best seats. But here’s the truth of the matter: most of those people end up standing along the railing to get the best views and take pictures anyway, especially on a nice day. 

And the ferry ride is only 15 minutes each way. So unless you have trouble standing that long, you will most likely want to stand along the edge and watch the views and ignore the seats entirely.

And boy is there a lot to see from the Alcatraz Ferry! The views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Angel Island, and, of course, Alcatraz Island itself are incredible. Make sure to bring a camera or a well-charged phone to capture the moment.

Onboard Amenities 

The Alcatraz Ferry is well appointed, especially for such a short boat ride. There are accessible restrooms and a snack and drink bar. 

Insider Tip: Don’t waste your precious time on the ferry standing in line at the snack bar! You only have 15 minutes to take in the views afterall. Eat before the ferry ride and enjoy the beautiful San Francisco boat ride you paid for. 

You can now preorder food and drinks for the return ferry journey. While this does maybe save you from waiting as long for your food, we don’t see much point. The Alcatraz Ferry is not known for their gourmet food or drink. So if you can wait until you get back on the mainland and have hundreds of restaurants and bars to choose from, that is our suggestion. 

Alcatraz Island Tour Details

Alcatraz island view over the blonde girl's shoulder

Now we have made it to the really exciting part of the tour — your time on Alcatraz Island! Here are all of the details you need to know. 

Arriving on Alcatraz Island

First, an Insider Tip: When you arrive on Alcatraz Island and step off of the ferry, you will see a sign on the dock listing the return ferry departures for that day. Take a photo of this sign, especially if you don’t have a brochure.  

When you walk off of the ferry onto Alcatraz Island you will be welcomed by a Park Ranger. They will introduce you to the Island and some of the things to see and do. It is a good plan to pay attention to the intro, even if you are an Alcatraz expert, as seasonal changes and closures do happen. 

Walking up to the Prison

The walk up to the prison for the Cellhouse Tour surprises some people. It is just a ¼ of a mile and paved, but it is steep. When you reach the top you will have climbed the equivalent of 13 flights of stairs. There are flat sections where you can stop, rest, and take in the views throughout the route, so make ample use of those if you need to. 
Those that have any trouble walking can reserve a spot on the electric tram. The S.E.A.T tram is a completely free service that transports folks up and down from the dock to the Cellhouse on a regular schedule.

The Cellhouse Audio Tour

The Cellhouse audio tour is the most popular thing to do on Alcatraz Island. It is a fantastic walking tour of the historic prison, including Al Capone’s cell, the recreation yard, the punishment cells, the prison library, and more. The tour is given by former inmates and prison guards. These narrators really bring a personal connection to the stories and bring the history to life. 

The audio tour is available in the following 11 languages: English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, German, Japanese, and Mandarin, Korean, Portuguese, and Russian. There are also large print, braille, and sign language versions of the tour available upon request. The Cellhouse tour is also wheelchair accessible, with elevators available to reach the upper floor. 

Remember that you can pause the audio tour at any time. The tour runs 45 minutes, but you can make it much longer if you wish to. Pause at any time to look longer at something or even to go back and listen to a section again. The recorded tour really gives you a lot of flexibility. 

After you have finished the audio tour and handed in your device, you will leave the prison through the gift shop and be right where you started the tour. 

Insider Tip: You do not have to do the Cellhouse tour first. Most people will get off the ferry, climb the hill, and immediately start the audio tour. You absolutely can do it this way, but it is 100% not a requirement. If big groups at each stop during the audio tour will detract from your experience, consider exploring the island a bit first. 

Check out the documentary playing in the theater, hike the Agave Trail and look for seabirds, or go check out the lighthouse. If you time your start of the audio tour for inbetween ferry arrivals, you will have more elbow room.

Exploring Alcatraz Island

There is more to do on Alcatraz than just the Cellhouse tour. 

Make sure to check out the exhibits on display. They cover a range of topics pertaining to the island like the Native American occupation, the American Justice system, and seabirds. You can find rotating exhibits in Building 64, the New Industries Building, and the Cellhouse. 

If you like old historic buildings, or at least the remains of them, you’ll be happy on Alcatraz. You can see the lighthouse (the first on the West coast!), Warden’s home, Officer’s Row, the Guardhouse, Officer’s Club, the power plant, the morgue, the water tower, and more, in just a quick loop around the island.

Don’t forget to check out Building 64 down by the dock either. This is where you will find the theater and bookstores. This is also where you can find out about the ranger programs on schedule for the day. The park rangers on Alcatraz are full of knowledge and they give great talks. 

Let’s not forget about the nature on Alcatraz! When you walk around you will see multiple gardens, some even planted by the inmates themselves. And if you are visiting from September-January, make sure to take a walk on the Agave Trail. The 0.7-mile trail is lined with eucalyptus and multiple species of agave. It begins near the dock and goes right down to the water where the birdwatching and views of the Bay are fantastic. 

Alcatraz Island Amenities

There are two public restrooms on Alcatraz Island. One is near the ferry dock and the other is up the hill near the Cellhouse and Lighthouse. 

There are basic snacks, water bottles, and hot beverages sold at the bookstore near the dock. Keep in mind that you can only eat in the designated area on the dock. 

The bookstore also sells… books! If you are interested in reading further about the island, definitely pick up a book for further reading. If you are looking for something a bit more souvenir-like, also take a look through the gift shop at the end of the Cellhouse tour. They sell things like inmate shackles, officer badges, and novelty clothing.

Key Alcatraz Takeaways

alcatraz signage with cumulus clouds as background

That was a lot of info! So here is a checklist of the most important takeaways from this article and things to remember:

  • Buy your Alcatraz tickets in advance
  • Bring your photo ID to the ticket booth
  • Eat beforehand
  • Leave large bags at home
  • Bring a jacket
  • Explore more of the island than just the Cellhouse

Alcatraz Island Ticket FAQ

When is the best time to visit Alcatraz?

Alcatraz Island is open 362 days a year, but that doesn’t mean it is always the same experience. The most crowded times on Alcatraz are Holidays and weekends during the summer. If you plan to go during those times, definitely buy your tickets way ahead of time and be ready to share the space.

The best time to go to Alcatraz may be in the fall months. San Francisco often experiences a second summer, and fall days are sunny and warm. The Agave path will also be open this time of year, for an added activity and bonus for nature lovers. 

Having said all of that, there is something a bit perfect about visiting Alcatraz on a dark and dreary day too. The spooky weather just adds to the atmosphere of the Island. Just bring a rain layer and your sense of adventure, and you will have a great time, no matter the weather.

Where can I buy an Alcatraz Island ticket?

Purchase your Alcatraz tickets directly through Alcatraz City Cruises, either on this Alcatraz City Cruises website, on the phone, or in person at the Pier 33 ticket booth. 
The other option is to combine an Alcatraz Ticket with another tour on a combo tour like this Alcatraz Island and Guided San Francisco City Tour.

What does an Alcatraz Ticket Include?

An Alcatraz tour ticket includes:

  • Ferry to the island
  • Cellhouse Audio Tour
  • Access to special exhibits and Ranger talks
  • Freetime to explore all open areas on the island
  • Ferry back to Pier 33
Published on: February 5th 2024
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