Alcatraz guide: what to know before a trip to Alcatraz Prison

Alcatraz Prison on Alcatraz island

Alcatraz. The Rock. The most famous high-security prison in the world located on Alcatraz Island, only a mile and a quarter away from San Francisco. We’ve read about Alcatraz prison in books, we’ve seen it in movies (Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz is featured on our Best movies set in San Francisco post!) and we’ve heard endless stories about its famous inmates.

Almost everyone visiting San Francisco has Alcatraz prison on their bucket list. To make it easier for you, I’ve created a complete Alcatraz guide, including important information and everything you need to know to plan your trip to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz barracks and guard tower

1. Alcatraz history

Alcatraz Island is mostly known for its use as a high-security federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Before that however, it was a military fort, a military prison and even a lighthouse (the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast from 1854!). During its time as a federal penitentiary, it was home to not only inmates, but also to the correctional officers, the warden and their respective families.

Alcatraz was closed in 1963 by order of US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The last prisoner off Alcatraz island was Frank C. Weatherman, a gun smuggler. The Rock was briefly occupied by American Indian activists (you can read more about this further down). It’s now managed by the National Park Service and is part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory, holding a huge historical significance.

Alcatraz prison showers

2. Famous Alcatraz inmates

Since its opening in 1934 until its closure in 1963, a total of 1,545 men did time in Alcatraz. The majority of them were incorrigible prisoners coming from other institutions, either violent or considered escape risks. They remained here an average of 8 to 10 years until they were no longer considered dangerous.

Some of the most famous Alcatraz prisoners include:

  • Al “Scarface” Capone (whose exact cell is unknown)
  • George “Machine Gun” Kelly
  • Robert Stroud (aka the “Birdman of Alcatraz”)
  • Alvin “Creepy” Karpis
  • “Doc” Barker

Famous Alcatraz prisoners - Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly

3. Alcatraz Escape, June 1962

A total of 14 escapes from Alcatraz prison were attempted, but there’s one that stands out as the most elaborate. On the evening of 11 June 1962, prisoners Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin were able to escape from their cells and left Alcatraz Island thanks to a makeshift raincoat floating raft, homemade wooden paddles and life vests. They are thought to have drowned, but since their bodies were never found, the true result of the most famous Alcatraz escape remains a mystery!

Their plan consisted of escaping through a loosened air vent in their cell wall. This led into an unguarded utility corridor and up to a concealed area above the the cell block where they set up a secret workshop. To fool the night guards, they created dummy heads out of plaster, paint and pieces of their own hair and arranged them in a sleeping position on their beds.

  • When in Alcatraz: See the cells of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, as well as their makeshift dummy heads inside the cellhouse.

4. American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island

After the prison closed in 1963, Alcatraz Island was occupied by a group of American Indian activists as a statement for the American Indian rights movement. In fact, The Rock was occupied a total of three times: once in 1964 for just four hours, and twice beginning in 1969 and ending in 1971.

They reclaimed Alcatraz Island in the name of the “Indians of All Tribes” and offered to buy it from the Federal Government for $24 in trade goods. However, they were finally removed from The Rock after the struggle to supply them with food and water became imminent.

  • When in Alcatraz: Check out the Alcatraz Water Tower next to the Military Chapel to see this iconic graffiti: “Peace and freedom welcome. Home of the free Indian land.”

Alzactraz water tower - Indian occupation

Alcatraz United States Penitentiary sign

5. Battle of Alcatraz

Also known as The Battle of ’46, it resulted in the death of three inmates and two prison guards. Prisoner Bernard Coy took advantage of Alcatraz prison’s security flaws, used a makeshift bar spreader to squeeze between bars and entered the gun gallery to access some weapons. Five other inmates joined him and helped hold guards hostage. By the time they located the key to the recreation yard (which would secure their escape), the door was jammed from trying the wrong keys. The recreation key had been previously concealed (against regulations) by officer Miller, later killed. This resulted in the prisoners being trapped in the cellhouse.

  • When in Alcatraz: Keep your eyes peeled for the grenade marks on the cellhouse floor and the spread iron bars leading to the gun gallery.

Alcatraz escape bar splitter

6. Important information for before you visit Alcatraz Island

  • How to get to Alcatraz Island?

The only way to access Alcatraz Island is through Alcatraz Cruises. This is the official ferry of the San Francisco jail and includes a roundtrip to The Rock and back, as well as a selection of tours to visit the island’s buildings.

The Alcatraz cruise leaves from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing on The Embarcadero waterfront, just a stone’s throw from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Alcatraz Cruise and Alcatraz island

  • Alcatraz ticket prices

Alcatraz tickets can be bought either online or at the Alcatraz Cruises Ticketbooth and include the ferry ticket and access to Alcatraz. We recommend buying them online in advance, as Alcatraz cruise tickets can sell out and same-day tickets might not be available to purchase onsite.

Alcatraz ticket prices range from $24.40 for children to $39.90 for adults for Day Tours. Senior and family pack tickets are also available.

Visit www.alcatrazcruises.com for more information.

  • Alcatraz opening hours and departure times

Alcatraz opening hours vary between seasons – from around 8.40am to 6.30pm in spring/summer, and 9.10am to 4.45pm in autumn/winter. Make sure you check the Alcatraz Cruises website in advance to plan your trip.

Ferry departure times are available around every half an hour.

Alcatraz is open every day expect for Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s day.

  • What to wear to Alcatraz Island?

San Francisco’s weather is unpredictable and changes constantly. You can expect fog, clouds, rain and sun on the same day. We recommend bringing comfortable shoes, suncream, layers and a raincoat if possible. This also comes in handy when travelling on the ferry, as the cold water from the waves often makes its way onboard.

7. Visiting Alcatraz

  • How long does it take to see Alcatraz?

We recommend allowing around 2.5h-3h to explore Alcatraz. The Day Tour is the best way to see Alcatraz at your own pace. It includes a round boat trip from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing to Alcatraz Island and back, as well as exploring the outside buildings and the prison cellhouse.

An Alcatraz Night Tour, Behind the Scenes Tour and a combo Alcatraz and Angel Island Tour are also available throughout the year.

  • What to see at Alcatraz?

Apart from the areas mentioned above, you’ll be able to explore:

  1. Dock
  2. Guard Tower
  3. Guardhouse and Sally Port
  4. Military Chapel
  5. Post Exchange and Officers’ Club: Which included a recreation hall with a dance floor, gym, bowling alley and a soda fountain! Unfortunately, a fire in June 1970 destroyed several of the buildings but you can still see their remains.
  6. Electric Repair Shop
  7. Baracks/Apartments: Where the prison guards and their families lived.
  8. Alcatraz Water Tower
  9. Military Morgue
  10. Warden’s House: A large Mission-Revival style house initially used by the military prison commandant was later occupied by the warden.
  11. Lighthouse
  12. Alcatraz Cellhouse
  13. Recreation Yard
  14. Model Industries Building
  15. The Gardens of Alcatraz: One of them, “The Children’s Garden”, was used to plant small pots to keep the children occupied. It’s now part of the historic Alcatraz Gardens project.
  • Cellhouse audio tour

Audio guides are available in different languages and are provided at the entrance of the cellhouse. The Alcatraz cellhouse audio tour is a great way to learn more about life in the prison thanks to excerpts narrated by former inmates and correctional officers. Once inside Alcatraz prison, you’ll be able to enter some cells and solitary confinement cells, as well as the showers, library, cafeteria, recreation yard and the warden’s office. You’ll also be able to see the cells of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers. Also, the grenade marks on the cell house floor and the spread iron bars from the Battle of ’46.

Remember to also visit the Alcatraz shop to get a souvenir to remember your visit too. I bought a postcard to add to my postcard collection!

  •  Map of Alcatraz 

Have you been to Alcatraz before? Is there anything that I’ve missed and you would recommend or anything else you’d like to know about Alcatraz? I’d love to know! If you loved our guide to Alcatraz, please leave us a comment, pin some photos and show us some love on social media using the buttons below.

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70 comments

  1. Alexis Farmer

    Really interesting post with lots of good info! I would love to see Alcatraz at some point.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you Alexis! Hope you get to visit Alcatraz soon – it’s a must!

      Reply

  2. Britt K

    Alcatraz has been near the top of my bucket list for most of my adult life. I am fascinated by it’s history, reading every book and watching every documentary that I have been able to find. To be able to walk around and see the location first hand would be amazing! Thank you for sharing – I loved seeing all of your photos.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Britt! Everyone visiting Fan Francisco should have Alcatraz on their bucket list. It’s definitely a place worth exploring. It’s strange walking around what was once a high-security prison; I’m sure it’ll make a huge impact on you as it did on us!

      Reply

  3. Graham Crosby

    Excellent post. Really detailed and helpful. We went to Alcatraz years ago and I’d love to go again.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Graham! Alcatraz was always a place I was curious about. I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting San Francisco.

      Reply

  4. Dominique

    Awesome post with a lot of interesting stuff to know. I was there when I was 17, I think. Loved the experience. I’d love to go back.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Dominique! So glad you liked the experience, it’s one I would absolutely recommend to anyone visiting San Francisco.

      Reply

  5. Emma

    Alcatraz is one of the best tours I’ve taken. I usually hate the recorded tour with the headset but this was amazing, and loved the super creepy vibe of the island. Great informative post, and such great info on all the history. I’d love to do a night tour next time I’m there

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you Emma! I agree, Alcatraz is such a must for everyone visiting San Francisco. Great content and very informative audio guide!

      Reply

  6. Alghashiyah

    This was cool but I think I’ll accept your tour as my visit… lol very interesting though I couldn’t imagine living there with my family like huh who?@&$ I love how the Indians tried to reclaim their land and left their mark! thanks for sharing,

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks for the comment! It can be quite sinister indeed, but definitely a place full of history!

      Reply

  7. Under flowery sky

    Looks so charming like it’s not a prison. Really secluded island..

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      It’s actually pretty eerie inside! But a great place to explore nevertheless (now that it’s no longer a prison)!

      Reply

  8. Sophie

    I would love to visit Alcatraz if I ever get the chance, I hadn’t read anything about the escapees in 1962 before so I am going to have a little look online! Great post, really enjoyed reading it.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you Sophie! You should absolutely visit Alcatraz when you get the chance. The audio guide is a fantastic way to learn more about the building and how it became to be what it is today x

      Reply

  9. Travel Addicted Unicorn

    Great post and pics!! We visited Alcatraz like 7 or 8 years ago and it was such an interesting experience!! The headset tour was very informative and we really liked the boat ride to and from!!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you! Alcatraz is definitely worth visiting if you love learning about exceptional buildings!

      Reply

  10. Liz Martin

    Alcatraz is on my must visit bucketlist! I’ve known about it from series and movies and ever since learning about its history, I’ve wanted to go!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      I’m so glad Alcatraz is on your bucket list! It’s an eerie place to visit, but it has so much history!

      Reply

  11. Kate

    I got to visit Alcatraz a few years ago so loved reading your post! The audio guide was really informative.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      The audio guide content was fantastic!

      Reply

  12. Jenny Farmer

    This is such an amazing place to visit.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      It really is!

      Reply

      1. Ann

        This is so informative! Enjoyed reading it and felt like I was there on tour too! Looking forward to more tours like this 🙂

        Ann | http://www.annchoi.me

        Reply

        1. blushrougette

          Thanks Ann! I’m glad you liked reading this post – hopefully it has inspired a little visit next time you’re in SF!

          Reply

  13. Vinn

    That’s a load of information and tips! Will be part of my itinerary when I visit SFO. Thanks for sharing the photos!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      That’s amazing, glad you liked this post Vinn!

      Reply

  14. Musa Creativa Magazine

    Wow! I didn’t even know this was an actual spot to visit. I thought it had been closed down and that was that. Very interesting and I loved all the facts that you mentioned.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you! It’s a very interesting and eerie place to visit, but I’d absolutely recommend it if you have the time!

      Reply

  15. Shikha

    OMG! 😳What kind of punishment they give?

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Being in prison is a punishment in itself!

      Reply

  16. Patty Gordon

    I’ve lived in the Bay Area since I was 13 and have never gone, we never plan ahead and getting tickets day of never seems to work out. Gonna put this on my bucket list again to take my kids. Hopefully that will inspire me to get tickets in advance this time around.

    Thanks for the great virtual tour!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks for the comment Patty! We actually booked the tickets a couple of months in advance to make sure we had them. I’d recommend planning this trip beforehand and pick a day when you know you’ll be free!

      Reply

  17. Aislinn Short

    Great post!! My husband and I traveled cross country and hit San Francisco right before Covid hit and that was one place we unfortunately didn’t get to visit. I heard about the escape however I never heard about the battle of Alcatraz. Very interesting! Next time I go to San Fran that’s on my list! I also thought I saw tickets for spending the night in Alcatraz 😶

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Aslinn! I didn’t know you could spend the night there! But if that’s the case, I don’t think I’ll be doing it anytime soon lol!

      Reply

  18. Janie

    Loved reading this post, Ive wanted to visit Alcatraz since I was little and makes me want to even more.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you! Hopefully you can visit soon and tick it off your bucket list!

      Reply

  19. MagicandBliss

    Wow! Never thought I’d say this but really want to visit this prison. LOL.
    Looks like such an interesting place to visit.

    Thanks for sharing!

    MagicandBliss | https://magicandbliss.com/

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      It’s a strange place indeed, but very interesting to to visit!

      Reply

  20. Tamra Elizabeth Cater

    Good post! We really enjoyed our trip to Alcatraz when we went!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Tamra! Glad you had a great time exploring Alcatraz too!

      Reply

  21. Guide your Travel

    Wow I’ve always wanted to go! Looks like such a good trip

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      It is! Definitely one to add to your bucket list.

      Reply

  22. Cheyenne

    Very interesting information in this post! I was unaware of a lot of the history. I’ve never been, but I would love to check it out one day!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Cheyenne! Alcatraz is definitely a place worth visiting!

      Reply

  23. Aimsy

    If I ever visit the US, this is one of the places I would love to see. It looks like a great tour, if not a little spooky! You have packed so much information into this post, so it will definitely help with planning the trip!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Aimsy xoxo
    Aimsy’s Antics

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks for the lovely comment, Aimsy! I’m glad you’ve found it helpful and inspiring x

      Reply

  24. Jenny

    Oh my gosh this was so interesting! If I ever went to San Francisco, this would definitely be up there on the top things I’d want to do. I can imagine it’s so interesting but also pretty eerie at the same time.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Definitely! It’s a bit spooky to be in a former prison, but it’s very well done and you always know you’re on a tour! Definitely worth visiting when you’re in San Francisco! x

      Reply

  25. Kayleigh Zara

    This is a really interesting post! I know a little about the history, but not the same amount that is mentioned here x

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you Kayleigh! I’m glad you’ve found this post interesting x

      Reply

  26. Jess

    So amazing!
    Sometimes with the lore of it all you forget it really existed!
    Great post!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Awe thank you!

      Reply

  27. Kalin

    This looks so cool! I love true crime and I would have to listen to a million true crime podcasts before taking a visit here haha. I’d love to go to San Francisco one day and this is definitely near the top of my list!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks Kalin, I’m sure you’ll love visiting Alcatraz! Hopefully you get to do soon x

      Reply

  28. Pratyusha Sen

    Wow!! This is an interesting article. You’ve put in all the information available quite efficiently.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks so much!

      Reply

  29. NavigatorNick

    Very cool and what creativity to escape! I’m surprised they allowed inmates to have ukulele’s in their cell?

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Inmates were allowed some personal items, so I guess it was up to the prison to decide which ones they could possess!

      Reply

  30. Rosie Ireland

    I have always wanted to go to San Fran & Alcatraz! My sister went last year and told me lots of this stuff! I love films about escaping from prison and I love The Rock!

    Rosie

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks for the comment Rosie! Hopefully you can get to visit soon yourself! x

      Reply

  31. Lindsay Stevenson

    Somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. Even more so after reading this!

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Yay! I’m sure you’ll have a great time exploring!

      Reply

  32. Lee

    Isn’t it a little sadistic that we all want to go to Alcatraz

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Very much so!

      Reply

  33. Irelandandelsewhere

    Thanks for sharing, this was a really interestijg overview of the history! Yiur advice in how to get there Nd what to see arw great. Maybe when travel opens up again we will get to visit 😊

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thank you! I’m glad you’ve found this post interesting!

      Reply

  34. PRIYANKA JOSHI

    very interesting and informative post.

    Reply

    1. blushrougette

      Thanks!

      Reply

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