7 Essential Tips for Visiting Alcatraz

By: Megan Ellisor

PHOTO: Megan Ellisor

PHOTO: Megan Ellisor

In many ways, Alcatraz Island is full of contradictions. A prison with a skyline view. Former home of notorious criminals; current home of nesting seabirds. Where a building in ruins meets a garden in bloom.

The former federal penitentiary is located on prime real estate in the middle of the San Francisco Bay with a panoramic view that highlights the steep angles of the city’s streets and the vastness of the bay. It’s a view that some might kill for (I’ll see myself out) — but in fact, prisoners said the island’s proximity to San Francisco made their time behind bars all the more torturous. The city lights and sound of music and laughter traveling over the bay reminded them of all they were missing.

If you love history and/or true crime documentaries, then Alcatraz is probably on your travel bucket list. OK, so the conditions at Alcatraz are pretty overexaggerated in the movies, but the real history is still fascinating.

Plus, you can accomplish a lot with about three hours on this tour, which includes a boat ride on the bay, breathtaking views of the city and some freedom to explore the island.

If you’re planning to make the trek onto “The Rock,” here are a few things you should know…

How to Plan a Trip to Alcatraz

PHOTO: Megan Ellisor

PHOTO: Megan Ellisor

1. Plan ahead — buy your tickets early and don’t be late

The rest of the tips don’t matter if you can’t get on the tour! Tickets can sell out months in advance, so buy them as soon as you know your travel dates — and make sure you buy the right ones. While there are many companies that advertise Alcatraz tours, Alcatraz Cruises is authorized by the National Park Service, and it’s the only one that will let you onto the island. Once you have your tickets, figure out how long it will take you to get to the pier. The boats leave on time, so get there a little early, especially if you want to secure a seat on the boat.

2. The intro video is good, but skippable

If you are trying to do Alcatraz quickly before rushing off to your next San Francisco adventure — or if you’ve already watched an Alcatraz documentary or two — you can probably go without the introductory video. It’s about the history of the island, not about the tour or how to get around (listen to the park ranger’s spiel for these details), so it may be redundant depending on your Alcatraz knowledge. But if you have the time, it is a well-made and informational video, and it’ll give you an excuse to sit in a cool area for a while.

3. The entire tour of the prison is an audio guide

The cellhouse tour is not a group tour with a guide for every 15 people — it’s a literal boatload of tourists walking around with headsets. And it’s not like other audio tours where you enter a number to hear about an object or location — it is a fully woven together story that tells you where to walk. If you’re into podcasts, you’ll probably be into this. It’s a well-done production with interesting perspectives. However, if you’re visiting with children, they may find it boring depending on how well they take in information via audio.

photo: Megan Ellisor

photo: Megan Ellisor

photo: Megan Ellisor

photo: Megan Ellisor

4. You might lose your travel buddies during the tour

Make sure to press “play” at the same time if you want everyone in your group to stay together. That said, the space does get crowded quickly, with people walking in all different directions depending on when they started their tour. If you’re all grown adults and don’t mind being separated, it may be good to start a minute or two apart — the tour area isn’t all that big, so you can easily find one another at the end.

5. Don’t forget about the rest of the island

At one point during the tour, you have a spectacular view of hilly San Francisco, but the audio guide rushes you back inside. I highly recommend hitting “pause” here or taking a few minutes to soak it all in when the tour is over.

photo: Megan Ellisor

photo: Megan Ellisor

6. Visit during the summer

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them” — Henri Matisse is right, even on Alcatraz. If the garden is open, visit to see the fresh blooms and capture some ‘grams. The island is also known for being a haven for nesting seabirds, so you might see some sweet babies if you visit during hatching season in mid-June.

7. Support the National Park Service

Like any tour ever, you exit through the gift shop. We all know gift shops are overpriced, but I don’t mind paying a little more to support a National Park. From books about the Native American occupation of Alcatraz to frameable postcards, there’s something for every price range. And it’s a much better place to spend your money than one of those cheap souvenir shops with “Alcatraz Psych Ward” shot glasses. (Not only are these offensive, they just honestly make no sense.)

Have you visited Alcatraz? What do you wish you knew before your tour? Let’s chat in the comments below!

This is a guest post written by Megan Ellisor.

Megan Ellisor is a social media specialist and writer based in Raleigh, N.C. She will never say no to dessert and is always accepting podcast recommendations. You can follow her on Instagram at @megellisor

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