Visiting Alcatraz Island (The Inescapable Prison)

I first tried visiting Alcatraz Island when I arrived in San Francisco almost two years ago. That’s when I found out you need to book tickets weeks ahead or there’ll be no Alcatraz for you.

Exactly one year, eight months and 27 days after moving to San Francisco, I clambered onto the Alcatraz Flyer ferry with Mr M and a few friends in tow, ready for adventure.

About Alcatraz

Everyone who’s watched any movies from the “cops-and-robbers” genre already knows that Alcatraz Island is home to one of the world’s most famous penitentiaries. That’s a prison for the less fancy among us.

Alcatraz Island cellblock

From the time it opened its doors in 1934 to its closing in 1963, Alcatraz Island housed the worst of the worst from all over the US. Colloquially known as The Rock, the island was home to gangsters like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

Alcatraz Island was an ideal maximum-security prison purely because, as an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, getting out and swimming to shore was thought to be impossible. Hence its moniker as “the inescapable prison”. A nickname that was to be proven wrong.

What you didn’t know

Alcatraz Island has a much bigger history then just its prison. It was named “La Isla de Los Alcatraces”, after the pelicans that flocked to the island. The first lighthouse on the Pacific shoreline of America was built on the Island in 1854 to guide ships into the San Francisco bay.

Alcatraz Island lighthouse

It was fortified and used as an army outpost and 100 cannons were dotted around the island to protect the bay. Unfortunately their bark was much worse than their bite – with only a five per cent chance of ever hitting their targets.

The island was turned into a military prison, where those accused of treason during the American Civil War were held. It also housed “Confederate sympathisers” and some American Indians during the Spanish-American War. The Alcatraz prison we know today was built by those inmates.

Alcatraz Prison

The first thing I noticed were the tiny cells – 5ft by 9ft (1.5m by 2.7m). The cells stretch up three stories high and include a tiny basin, bed and small shelf. This place was not for the claustrophobic prisoner.

But at least the food was good. Apparently it was the best in the US prison system and inmates often applied to be transferred for the food and the promise of a single cell.

Alcatraz cell

There were a few escape attempts from Alcatraz Island, none more famous than that of Frank Lee Morris, which took months to devise. Morris wasn’t lacking in the brains department and he, along with three other inmates, created dummies, built rafts and made life jackets from rain coats.

After digging through the vents in their cells, they tucked the dummies into bed and broke out of the building through the utility corridor, using the rafts to escape to mainland. No one knows whether they survived the trip.

Alcatraz Island

It’s beautiful in the spring. Although the island is mostly made up of rock and bird excrement, there are some beautiful wild flowers growing today and even boasts a garden tended to by prisoners and guards. Unfortunately the gardens aren’t always open to tourists.

Alcatraz Island Officer's Club

Guards lived on the island with their wives and children, numbering about 300 civilians in all. An Officer’s Club was built as the centre of entertainment on the island, with its own bowling alley, bar, library, gym and dance hall.

The burnt out shell of a building on Alcatraz Island today is all that remains of the Officer’s Club. A fire ripped through it in 1970.

Book Your Visit

  • Open every day except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days.
  • Operating times vary, depending on the season. It opens at 9am and closes at 6pm in the summer and at 4pm in autumn, winter and spring.
  • The ferry leaves San Francisco’s Pier 33 every half hour.
  • Weather on the island can be unpredictable, so be sure to dress in layers.
  • No food is available for purchase, only water.
  • Tickets covering the ferry ride and entrance to Alcatraz Island start at $37.25 for people over 11-years-old, $23.00 for children aged between 5 and 11, and $35.25 for seniors.
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Alcatraz Movies (to get you in the spirit)

    1. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
    2. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
    3. The Rock (1996)
    4. Point Blank (1967)
    5. Murder in the First (1995)

72 thoughts on “Visiting Alcatraz Island (The Inescapable Prison)

    1. You’ll have to go one day. I know it took me forever and a day to get there, but it’s so interesting.

  1. Brought back a few memories for me of my visit. I found it all fascinating as I love history but it sure was tightly packed for the prisoners. I remember going into what was the dining area and wondering about the conversations that might have taken place. I got carried away and bought two big jigsaws and books from there..and spent my time lugging them from SF to LA back to Hawaii and then my hub didn’t even enjoy the jigsaws as much as I thought. IF I ever travel again no-one gets gifts! No-one. Thanks for linking up for #lifethisweek 18/52 Next week: “My Mondays”.

    1. Hahaha, the gifts are a bit difficult, aren’t they? I got my dad an audio book CD that he can listen to in the car if he wants. He loves watching old Alcatraz movies, so I’m HOPING that he likes it!

  2. I really enjoyed visiting Alcatraz, the audio tour narrated by ex-prisoners and prison officers was fascinating. I love your tip about watching the movies before you go! #CityTripping

    1. I think I enjoyed it more because Mr M watched The Rock a few months before and I caught bits of it (because cleaning).

    1. I’m so annoyed that I didn’t stop to talk to that guy, he was there when we visited as well! But we had a lunch booking with friends and were going to be late if we didn’t hightail it out of there. Maybe next time hey?

  3. You know, I did the same thing, I’ve only been to San Francisco once, and I didn’t realise you needed to book a ticket! Glad to hear it was interesting, though, because yikes, it’s not cheap to visit, is it? Especially when the price is in US dollars, and my own currency is….yeah…not so hot against the US dollar! 😉

    1. It is a bit pricey, although, having been there I think it’s worth it. They use the ticket price for the upkeep of the island and its buildings (which are disintegrating because salty air and concrete don’t work well together it turns out. But anyway, the first thing I tell people who are organising to trip to SF is to book Alcatraz tickets now!

  4. Visiting Alcatraz was one of the highlights of our visit to San Francisco – it was a beautiful summer day and all the flowers were blooming so it seemed the total opposite of a bleak forbidding fortress. The trivia was fascinating too, I especially remember the fact the prisoners had warm showers so they wouldn’t be able to swim back. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

    1. You’ve got such a great memory Cathy! I either didn’t hear the part about the warm showers or it wasn’t on my tour? Probably didn’t hear it. But I guess it makes sense that they wouldn’t want them to get used to freezing water. It’s interesting that they had the best food in the prison system though. Thanks for visiting!

    1. I wish we’d stayed a little bit longer, it was such a gorgeous day and there were heaps of boats out on the bay.

  5. I visited SF 2 years ago but Alcatraz didn’t make the cut. It’s nice to read about it, but was never fascinated enough to visit I guess. #wanderlustwednesday

    1. I’m sure there was no shortage of things that you wanted to do though Anna. San Francisco is pretty cool!

    1. San Francisco is big and beautiful enough that you’re bound to find heaps of things to do that you’ll like.

  6. Still haven’t been after many trips to SF, but it looks like fun. I didn’t realize children lived there with their families…strange way to grow up!

    1. Yeah I didn’t think about it until it was mentioned. I just assumed the guards would catch a ferry home at the end of their shifts.

  7. I’ve always wanted to visit here…. one day hopefully!
    Great post – I never knew the officers and families lived on the island etc! Glad you finally made it there 🙂 #citytripping

    1. I don’t think we would have gone if we didn’t get visitors who suggested it, so I’m glad that happened!

  8. I didn’t know somone had escaped properly. How very frustrating not to know whether they made it or not. But it doesn’t look that far to the mainland. Are there particularly bad currents or something?

    1. It’s about 3.5 miles to shore I think, but the water is freezing, which will knock the wind right out of you. Especially since the inmates were given warm showers so that they couldn’t get used to cold water.

  9. I’ve seen Alcatraz in the distance from a ferry but never had a specific tour, so it’s good to see it through your eyes and photos! Such interesting history.

    1. The ferry ticket over basically pays for your entry to the island and the audio tour, which is fantastic.

  10. I’m embarrassed to admit – but can you believe I’ve never been, and I lived out there after college! My older daughter really wants to visit, though, so I’ll finally get a chance when we plan a family vaca out there. #citytripping

    1. I can believe it. I work with people who’ve lived here for decades and have never been there! I hope you and your daughter have fun on your visit!

    1. I did tend to go with the more spooky photos for some reason. I guess they stood out to me. The island is beautiful though, especially in spring when the flowers have bloomed.

  11. Like you, I found out the hard way that you have to book tickets way in advance, which means I still haven’t visited Alcatraz 😐 … One day though! Looks so spooky! It’s weirdly been on my bucket list to visit this place for a while (I’m a big fan of crime movies/shows) How funny too that the historical canons only had a 5% chance of hitting their targets! What’s the point …. haha

  12. I’ve been to San Francisco a few times but never to Alcatraz. I actually didn’t know you had to book tickets ahead of time. I love abandoned structures, so I think that photo of what’s left of the officer’s club is beautiful!

  13. Visiting Alcatraz was a highlight of our San Francisco visit – it was absolutely fascinating. Booking in advance is so important unless you enjoy being disappointed!

  14. The Rock is one of these movies that the hub and I always watch if we catch it flicking through channels. I’ve always remained fascinated by Alcatraz and it’s interesting to read that it was much more than just the infamous prison.

    1. I’ll have to watch it again soon. Mr M was watching it a few months ago but I was doing washing and stuff so only caught bits of it. It looks really good though!

  15. I’ll be there in 5 days!! First time to California. We opted out of Alcatraz because we have three young kids in tow and decided now wasn’t the right age for this visit. Fascinated by it though, and definitely want to do it someday.

    1. Have a fantastic time Amanda, hopefully you’ll love it. I do! There are heaps of kid-friendly things to do here as well!

  16. Thanks for a fun trip down memory lane–we visited several years ago and had a great time! It’s surprising how many people and families actually lived on the island. Great photos and thanks for the movie suggestions!

  17. I remember Alcatraz as well, and the feeling of dread I felt inside the prison. And outside – it was freezing! My teenagers would love something like this. They have a sense of the macabre and are into history coming alive.

    1. I was lucky to go on a warm day Bronwyn. Although I’d heard how cold it is there and rugged up accordingly. You’re so right, teens wouldn’t get bored at Alcatraz.

  18. Alcatraz is on my bucket list since a very long time. I hope one day I’ll get to see it. This article is very informative! Thank you!

  19. Still kicking myself I missed it! Such a fascinating place and you’ve made me determined to be on the case next time I visit San Francisco. Thanks for joining #FarawayFiles

    1. There’s always next time! I say that about pretty much everywhere I go now. There’s never enough time to see everything!

  20. This is so fascinating, Katherine! I never got to Alcatraz when I went to San Francisco but I’d love to see this. I really enjoyed all the stories you’ve unearthed about the prisoners held there. Definitely pinning for future reference. Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

    1. Thanks so much Clare! It’s a must-see if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Although I can understand why some people would avoid it. The audio tour has lots of fascinating stories, so next time you’re here, it’ll be waiting for you!

  21. I’d love to get to SF one day, and when I do this is top of my list! I love a good historical tour, and a place with such a huge volume of pop culture references would be fascinating. Good tip about booking ahead… I’m v disorganised so would not have thought to check!

    1. It’s only a 14 hour flight from you now Rachel 😉
      Thanks for visiting, and hopefully you get here sooner rather than later.

  22. I didn’t know about the history of Alcatraz before it became a prison so this post has been enlightening.
    Now would I put up with a small cell in order to have a decent meal? Hmmm that’s a difficult one!

    1. Haha, well the other thing that you have to take into account is that you get a private cell in Alcatraz, whereas in other prisons you’re sharing with other inmates. That might sway me.

  23. I love Alcatraz, I lived in SF for years and would always take visiting friends there. There is so much history there. The night tour is supposed to be really awesome too!

  24. Oh my gosh how exciting! I’ve always wanted to visit Alcatraz but it’s sold out every time, even when I actually plan months in advance! Someday! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday! See you next week! xo

  25. We have been to San Fran many times, but I’ve never been out to Alcatraz – I had no idea you had to book in advance – good tip! There is an entertaining chapter book for kids called “Al Capone Does My Shirts” about a boy who’s family works for the prison and lives on the island. Thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles, Erin

    1. At least you know for next time you come to SF Erin! I mean, if it interests you, of course. Oh wow, thanks for letting me know about that book. I might get it for my nephew for his birthday!

  26. I have heard of Alcatraz before and it looks like a fascinating place to visit. Interesting that the guards and their families lived on the island too. Thanks for the tip about booking weeks in advance!

    1. I think I only knew about it because my dad loves places like this. And movies about gangsters and cowboys and stuff. Thanks for visiting Kat 🙂

  27. Alcatraz creeps me out on how the prisoners were treated. I saw this movie with Kevin Bacon being there in solitary confinement and it was hard to watch. It looks like a good tour though while in San Francisco! thanks for coming to Fly Away Friday! Hope to see you this week 🙂

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