San Francisco Travel Tips and Ideas: Alcatraz

The Rest / Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

My family just returned from a six day trip to San Francisco. While my husband and I had been twice before, this was the kids’ first trip, so we did all of the touristy stuff.

Over the next few posts I’ll share with you some of our experiences in San Francisco, in case you’re planning a trip there in the future or just want to travel there virtually.

I’m starting with one of San Francisco’s top visitor attractions: Alcatraz.

How to Get Tickets to Alcatraz

The first thing you need to know about visiting Alcatraz is to get your tickets early. As in weeks or even months early.

The photo below was taken on July 14. It is the sign next to the Alcatraz tour walk-up ticket booth.

If you don’t have your tickets in hand when you arrive in SF — and we didn’t — you have two basic options:

1. Book a tour through a tour company that packages the Alcatraz visit with another tour. This is great if the other tour is of interest to you. If not, you’ll be spending lots of extra $$ to take the Alcatraz tour.

2. Get to the Alcatraz ticket booth early in the morning. Very early in the morning. The booth opens at 7am, and the concierge at our hotel advised us to be there no later than 6am if we wanted a good shot at getting tickets. My sweet family hopped into a cab at 5:30 am for a trip to the wharf and let me sleep. Just one problem: each member of your party had to be there in order to buy tickets. A nice girl named Zoe stood in for me and then jumped back into line with her family, but be advised of this rule if you plan to use this option.

All of this maneuvering was for a day tour of Alcatraz. The night tour tickets are even harder to come by, so if you’d like to take that tour, I’d suggest booking tickets right after you make your plane and hotel reservations.

Dressing for the Weather at Alcatraz

Another thing to be aware of on an Alcatraz visit is the weather.

Tourists are sometimes surprised by how cool San Francisco is. (The highs on the days we were there ranged from the upper 50’s to the low 70’s.) The ride on the ferry to Alcatraz is even colder, however. And windy…very windy.

While standing in line to board the boat we saw more than one family duck into the gift shop to buy sweatshirts and sweatpants because they were surprised by the temps.

What You’ll See at Alcatraz

When you reach the island, you’ll likely be struck by how beautiful the vegetation is. This is such a surprise, considering the location. There are volunteers who maintain all the plants and flowers.

And the birds definitely own the island. They’re very vocal about it and if they have babies nearby you’ll want to keep your distance.

Once inside the prison, you’ll have the option to take a free audio tour. It’s excellent. It walks you step by step through the prison and the history associated with it.

You’ll visit and learn about the different cell blocks, the cafeteria, the library, and the prison yard.

Friends of ours who took the night tour reported visiting the prison hospital and operating room, which they described as especially creepy feeling.

You’ll also get to see the burnt out remains of the warden’s home, which sits right next to the prison, and the living quarters for the guards’ families. Can you imagine living and raising your children on Alcatraz? Although by all accounts, the families felt safe and enjoyed their tight knit community.

Finally, make sure to leave some time to enjoy the breathtaking views of the city, the bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz. They’re amazing.

Have you visited Alcatraz? What tips and experiences do you have to share?

14 Replies to “San Francisco Travel Tips and Ideas: Alcatraz”

  1. Julie, these are great photos! We took a tour of Alcatraz this past spring and really enjoyed it, too. The audio tour is totally worth doing and really enriched the visit.
    Glad you had a great trip!

    1. We definitely did, Sara. So much to see and do in San Francisco. And the break from our 100+ Kansas temperatures didn’t hurt either. :)

  2. I took the family to Alcatraz roughly 20 years ago. We went with friends and had a ball! I got a chance to share my military experience which gave me special insight into Alcatraz. I was stationed at the USDB (Armed forces prison). It is amazing that prisons are quite similar which made me the start tour director for the families.

    1. Krantcents, I’m sure your background made the experience great for everyone involved. We live in the Kansas City area, so Leavenworth is nearby. We were surprised at how many of Alcatraz’s most notorious “residents” came from Leavenworth.

  3. I’m a native northern California girl and SF is my favorite city. I really recommend buying the tour package that includes the bay tour – they take you out under the golden gate bridge and then back and drop you off at Alcatraz – magnificent views! You can also get a picnic lunch (nearby Boudins bakery) and go out early in the morning and stay as long as you want exploring. You just have to make sure you know when the last boat departs! Thanks for the pics and the memory lane trip!

    1. Those are great suggestions, Janet! We did something similar in taking the ferry to Sausalito. Wish we would have thought of the picnic lunch. Next time!

  4. Julie,

    Glad you had a good trip! I used to live north of San Fran in Santa Rosa. I LOVE San Francisco. I’ve done the Alcatraz tour a couple of times and it was great—except for the seagull poo smell! Did that bother you? Or maybe I just happen to be there on some rough smelling days! haha!


    1. Mandy, the only time it bothered us was in the prison yard. Other than that, not so much. But I know what you mean…we sure didn’t hang around the yard too long!

  5. Thanks for the great tips. My husband and I have been to SF several times, but not to Alcatraz. We’re planning a trip with teens next summer. I was surprised to see the flowers on the island, very pretty.

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