Exploring the Mysteries of Alcatraz Prison

This article may contain referral links. Read our DISCLOSURE

Although we normally prefer to venture out to off-the-beaten-path destinations whenever possible, we’re not above seeing the main sites of a city. It’s true that San Francisco abounds with incredible experiences, including an Alcatraz Prison tour.

A trip to this beautiful California city isn’t complete without exploring the mysterious Alcatraz prison. Noel Morata, from Travel Photo Discovery, shows us how to best experience this unique landmark that is administered by the National Park Service

Where is Alcatraz Prison?

One of the most popular must do attractions in the city of San Francisco is the ferry ride and tour of Alcatraz prison and island. Once known as the prison that hosted the worse and most notorious criminals of US society, Alcatraz prison was the most isolated maximum penitentiary of its day.

What is not well known is that before Alcatraz was a prison it was originally the first lighthouse and a civil war fortress built on the west coast of the United States from 1830 to 1934. It was not until 1934 that the federal penitentiary converted the base into a prison and it was used as such until 1963.

Alcatraz prison tour
Alcatraz watch tower

Even though some visitors to San Francisco may think this tour is a tacky tourist attraction it really is worth the effort. The national park service administers all the activities and tours on the island and you are free to participate on any tours or wander around at your own leisure.

Visitors arrive at Alcatraz by ferry

The short but scenic ferry ride to the island is a nice way to enjoy views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. If you go all the way to the top deck, you’ll have unobstructed views for taking photographs of the bay area.

The trip to Alcatraz island is a very short ferry ride from Pier 33 along the waterfront of San Francisco. It’s less than a 15 minute ferry ride to the island. You’ll be at the landing in no time.

After disembarking the ferry, a ranger that will greet you to give a quick orientation about the day’s events, tours and general rules, if you decide to explore the island on your own. At the visitors desk and gift shop, there is a chalk board with current activities that are happening during the day so make sure you check that for anything interesting.

Alcatraz prison tour
Original Alcatraz Lighthouse

What to see on your Alcatraz Prison Tour

The main attraction in visiting the island is the actual penitentiary located at the top of the island. An inclined walkway leads uphill with scenic views of the entire bay area.

When you enter the main door you’ll see a golden eagle with the 13 stars representing the original colonies of the United States. Once inside, the dark rooms open up quickly to the prison cells which looked like they are stacked up to the top of the building.

Alcatraz was known as the “prison within the prison” where the worst criminals were transferred from other federal prisons. Upon entering you can take a video tour (extra fee) with actual voices of correctional officers or inmates sharing stories of life on Alcatraz. You can also do a self tour with access to all the floors and rooms that are open for viewing.

Alcatraz prison tour
View of the beautiful bay from Alcatraz island.

There are a few other decrepit buildings, the lighthouse and some adjunct buildings that are currently used for special exhibits. Outside on the grounds, be sure to visit the gardens of Alcatraz which is a perennial and annual garden that was planted and cared for by the prisoners to soften the harsh elements of the island penitentiary.

Today, local garden volunteers come regularly to work on the gardens to keep them fresh and beautiful for all the visitors to enjoy. There are plenty of trails and open areas to explore around the island especially for those who want to take some photographs from different vantage points.

Things to know before you visit Alcatraz:

  • Book your ticket in advance because tickets sell out several weeks in advance.
  • There is no food service on the island and eating/drinking is only allowed around the dock area.
  • No disturbance of birds or any wildlife is allowed on the island which is a sanctuary.
  • The weather on the bay is unpredictable, so wear layers that you can easily put on or take off.
  • Most of the walk areas are hilly, but there are shuttles that leave from the boat dock to the penitentiary. They are available on a first come first serve basis.
  • When arriving, note all the return schedules for departure.

A trip to Alcatraz can be combined with bike tours and other guided experiences. Viator offers an assortment of experiences.

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

Boomer travelers rely on our weekly email newsletter for fresh travel inspiration, tips, and advice. It's free! No spam, unsubscribe anytime.