Alcatraz Island, located in the San Francisco Bay, a little over a mile off the coast of San Francisco, is home to one of the country’s most notorious prisons with a storied history. Did you know that you can explore America’s most infamous prison at night?! Tickets go quickly for the Alcatraz Night Tour, so make sure to plan ahead!
We booked our tickets wayyyyy in advance (90 days out!) so that we could ensure that the Alcatraz Night Tour would be available. While the National Park Service maintains Alcatraz itself, if you want to visit the island, you need to book tickets through Alcatraz City Cruises, the official concessioner of the NPS.
Tours depart throughout the day from Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33, conveniently located near Fisherman’s Wharf. In addition to the Day Tour, there is also the Alcatraz Night Tour with special activities and a guided tour, and the Behind the Scenes Tour (ages 12 and up only) goes even more in-depth.
The Alcatraz Tour Option Comparison Chart will help you determine which tour works best for your family. When you select a tour time, you don’t have to commit to a return time- you can return from the island on the next available boat, and they run hourly.
No matter what tour you’re interested in booking, the key thing to remember is that you need to book way ahead of time. It is nearly impossible to get a same-day tour as they usually sell out months in advance. Make sure to book your tour as soon as you know your travel plans to have the best availability.
Once you check-in at Alcatraz Landing,
stop by the Alcatraz Landing Cafe if you need to pick up a quick snack. While you can buy food on the boat, there is no food for sale on the island. Picnics and food are only allowed at the dock area on the island, though you can take bottled water into the prison. Currently, there is no food & beverage service available at Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing, or on the boat. Additionally, picnics are not presently allowed at the dock. Bottled water is the only beverage permitted on the island. The kids love these water bottles and we take them with us pretty much everywhere we go!
As soon as we boarded, the kids all said they wanted to stand on the outside of the boat to have a better view which worked well for me since I was taking pictures. The downside to standing on the outside of the boat is that you can get pretty wet– the kids didn’t seem to mind at all, though, especially since it was a warm summer day!
We were treated to a gorgeous boat ride to the island and none of the typical San Francisco fog.
One of the perks of the Alcatraz Night Tour is the onboard narration as you sail around the island before docking. Alcatraz is home to the first lighthouse on the US West Coast, originally built in 1854 and replaced by a taller one in 1909 after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 damaged the original.
The first lighthouse was built to guide ships sailing into San Francisco Bay at the height of the Gold Rush. When they realized the strategic significance, the US Army built a fort on the island (completed in 1859) to ensure the harbor’s safety. Alcatraz was the largest US fort west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War era. Eventually, the fort was no longer as important strategically and Alcatraz officially became a Military Prison in 1907.
In 1934, the Army transferred control of Alcatraz to the Bureau of Prisons. Then it was converted into the first maximum-security, minimum-privilege civilian penitentiary (the equivalent of a “supermax” prison) in the country. The rocky island offered a nearly escape-proof environment, and though there were 14 separate escape attempts, the reality is that no one ever made it off the island alive (probably!).
Alcatraz Penitentiary closed in 1963 because it was becoming overwhelmingly expensive to maintain and operate, and the island sat empty for six years.
Many may not realize that Alcatraz became the site of an American Indian protest in 1969. The group, which called itself the United Indians of All Tribes, demanded reparation for the treaties broken by the government over the years leading to a substantial loss of land for Indian tribes. This group of American Indians seized the land and claimed it as Indian Land, and they lived with their families on the island. The protest lasted over 19 months and left Alcatraz with several damaged and destroyed buildings as well as a legacy of reawakening American Indian culture and identity.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established in 1972 with Alcatraz Island in its boundaries. In 1973, the National Park Service opened Alcatraz to the public for the very first time, and people flocked to the island to learn its legends and lore.
When we arrived at Alcatraz, we disembarked in small groups (30-50) for the guided walk to the entrance of the Main Prison. One of the biggest perks of the Night Tour is that the tickets are VERY limited (only a few hundred are available), so there are hardly any people on the island (and the daytime visitors are completely cleared out before the Night Tour begins).
The walkways on Alcatraz are very steep, and while the distance from the dock to the Cellhouse is only about a quarter of a mile, the elevation change is 130 feet– the equivalent of walking up a 13-story building!! Comfortable walking shoes are absolutely a necessity. Those with mobility issues can catch a ride on the SEAT Tram though availability is first-come, first-served.
As we walked towards the prison entrance, the kids all commented on how worn the buildings looked. The National Park Service works tirelessly to preserve the buildings on the island, even rebuilding them as necessary, but it is a never-ending job. Because one of the draws to the island is that the facilities are ruins, they take special care to match the concrete and paint to the rest of the building, preserving that battered look that Alcatraz is known for.
Alcatraz was often referred to as the “prison within the prison system”. Since the Courts could not sentence anyone there, the Bureau of Prisons sent troublesome convicts to Alcatraz until they could safely return to a lower-security prison.
The Alcatraz Night Tour still includes the Award-winning Cellhouse audio tour offered during the day, giving an excellent overview of one of American history’s most notorious federal prisons. It brings that history to life with stories about its most famous prisoners like Al Capone and the “Birdman” of Alcatraz and interviews with former prisoners and correctional officers.
The 3-story prison housed four cell blocks: Cellblock A was not used during the federal penitentiary days, Cellblocks B and C housed the general population, and Cellblock D was reserved for those that couldn’t follow the rules and needed to be in isolation since it had segregated cells as well as solitary confinement.
The kids loved the audio tour and were able to follow along independently, though we did make sure to stay together so that no one got lost. It’s easy to pause the tour to spend extra time looking at an exhibit or explain something to the kids, and then start it back up again when you’re ready. Christopher, the budding photographer, took photos as he listened to the chilling tales from the inmates themselves.
Inmates could get outside and spend time playing baseball or have conversations at the Recreation Yard on the weekends. The prison yard had a great view of the mainland that the kids really seemed to envy.
However, once they saw the prison cells, they decided that living there wouldn’t be quite as much fun as they initially thought!
Ben and Lexie were too scared to go in “the Hole” by themselves so they dragged dad in, too! Isolation was reserved for the most dangerous and violent inmates, and they were confined to their cell 24 hours a day, for days, weeks, or even months at a time.
Ben said he would be totally fine living in solitary because then he would have his own bathroom– I guess he really doesn’t like sharing a bathroom with all of his siblings!
Inside a typical cell. Each cell was about 9 feet by 5 feet, and 7 feet high had a small sink and toilet, a cot, and a small table. Inmates were allowed to keep their personal belongings in their cells, and some were decorated with artwork.
The library at Alcatraz was home to around 15,000 books covering various topics, though anything with sex, crime or violence was banned. Well-behaved inmates were allowed to check out three books at a time from the library and some read upwards of 100 per year.
Ben and Lexie were excited to learn about visitation since they thought that life on “the Rock” sounded lonely. Inmates were allowed one 1.5 hour visit per month from an immediate family member or other approved visitor, and that’s it.
The corridors in the prison were named after famous US streets and landmarks: Michigan Ave, Broadway, Park Ave, Sunset Strip, and Times Square.
Broadway: The corridor running between Cellblocks B and C which housed most of the general population.
One of the best things about going to Alcatraz is the view– we were able to watch as the sun went lower and lower towards the Marin Headlands to our west.
And we watched the moon rise over the Bay Bridge to the east.
In addition to the lower crowds, the Night Tour of Alcatraz offers the chance to explore areas of the island that are not usually open to visitors. We were able to see the hospital and were VERY thankful that we have nicer hospital facilities if we ever need to use them.
The operating room looked incredibly eerie– I could not imagine having surgery in a place like this!
The hospital at Alcatraz provided medical and dental care to the inmates ensuring that they did not need to leave the island for any reason. The hospital also provided care for the prison employees and their civilian families that called the island home.
The sun was just starting to set when we boarded the boat for our ride back to San Francisco.
It was quite a bit cooler on the ride back to the city but luckily, we were prepared with light jackets. Layers are so important when visiting Alcatraz because the weather changes very quickly and it can get chilly when you’re out on the water– even in the summer!
Even with the cooler temperatures, the kids still wanted to ride outside and take in the sights as we traveled back to civilization.
We were treated to a glorious sunset and smooth sailing back to the city. There are two return times for the Night Tour (8:40pm and 9:25pm in the summer), and we opted to do the first one to watch the sunset. By the time the 9:25pm boat departed, it was definitely dark out, though the later departure would allow for more time to explore the island.
Sunset and the San Francisco Bay
As we approached the mainland, the city lights were just starting to come on. The Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower were easy to spot, even from a distance.
Goodnight, Alcatraz. We had a great time on the Night Tour of Alcatraz and would not hesitate to do it again the next time we’re in San Francisco. The kids were really interested in the content of the audio tour, and the entire experience seemed to hold their attention well, meaning that the adults were able to enjoy it as well.
Things to Remember for a Visit to Alcatraz
- Book early– 60-90 days ahead of time if you’re traveling during peak season or want a specific tour or departure time.
- There is no food allowed in the Cellhouse,
but you’re welcome to have a snack before departure, on the boat to/from the island, or at the picnic tables by the dock on the island.Bottled water is allowed anywhere on the island and is sold at the gift shops as well as on the boats.
- Wear layers as it can quickly go from warm to cool (or the other way!) during your visit. Also, comfortable walking shoes are a must given the steep walkways on the island.
- While you are locked into your departure time heading to Alcatraz, you are not for the return to the city so you can spend as much time on the island as you would like. Most people should allow at least three hours for the round-trip cruise and time to explore the island.
Have you been to Alcatraz before?? Would you brave the Alcatraz Night Tour or prefer to visit during the day??
If you’re looking for more things to do in the San Francisco area, check out these posts: