11 Unique Alcatraz Facts You Should Know Before You Go

Eleven unique Alcatraz facts you should know before you go. Learn why Alcatraz is famous, how Al Capone was transferred to Alcatraz Island and more.

Taking a ferry to Alcatraz Island has become a quintessential part of the San Francisco experience. People from all over the world come to San Francisco to learn more about Alcatraz Island, hear Alcatraz prison stories, and of course, listen to Alcatraz ghost stories. 

The hardest part of getting to Alcatraz is getting a ticket. Tickets to Alcatraz sell out fast, super fast, months in advance during the summer. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with an article on what to do if Alcatraz tickets are sold out.

No matter how you’re getting to Alcatraz from San Francisco, whether it’s from an Alcatraz tour or on your own, here are eleven Alcatraz facts that you probably didn’t know.

By the way, you can see Alcatraz with our 1-Day Alcatraz Experience. We think it is the best way to see Alcatraz and San Francisco in one day.

  Tour Includes

  • Explore the top neighborhoods with your local guide and learn the stories, history, and diversity of San Francisco.
  • 12 locations and 7 amazing photo stops including Alcatraz, Muir Woods, Golden Gate Bridge, and more!
  • Enjoy a leisurely lunch in the quaint town of Sausalito after crossing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge!
  • Spend over an hour in Muir Woods and stand in awe of the famous redwood trees. (Additional $15 fee for entrance to Muir Woods for guests 16 yrs+).
  • The Official Alcatraz Tour ferry will depart Pier 33 at approximately 3:00 PM during the summer months and 2:00 PM during the winter months.

Book your Alcatraz tour here

1. Alcatraz interesting facts: Isla de Alcatraces

How to Get Tickets to Alcatraz


The first of our 11 interesting facts about Alcatraz – the island was initially named Isla de Alcatraces, which translates to, Island of the Pelicans.

The thing is, there are rarely any pelicans on Alcatraz, and the name was meant for Yerba Buena Island. There was a miscommunication because reading a map is tricky, you know?

2. Native Ohlone Native Americans didn’t nickname Alcatraz island

Facts about Alcatraz, White seagulls on the rock,
White seagulls cover Alcatraz Island.


Native Ohlone Native Americans didn’t make an official name for the island. They only ever called it “The White Rock,” because so many seabirds roosted on the island leaving behind a white look to the sandstone island.

3. Alcatraz prison operated for less than 30 years

A cell at Alcatraz prison, facts about the rock
A prison cell, during the infamous prisons 30 years of operations.


Is Alcatraz still used? The island is currently no longer a prison, but instead a national landmark for tourists to visit. 

Another one of our Alcatraz island facts is that the infamous Alcatraz prison operated for less than 30 years, from 1934 – 1963. Why did Alcatraz close? The prison closed because the government found that it was too expensive to keep running. 

4. Facts about Alcatraz: Alcatraz and the Civil War

Facts about Alcatraz, history of Alcatraz prison and the island
The famous prison was once a military outpost, older than the Civil War.


Most of the island’s history was as a military outpost that predates the Civil War. Construction for the Fortress Alcatraz Citadel began in 1853, eight years before war broke out.

5. Alcatraz Fun Facts: the first lighthouse

Facts about the history of Alcatraz, the island was home to the first lighthouse
Before the infamous prison, the island was home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse.

A part of the Alcatraz construction in 1854 was the building of its famous lighthouse. Alcatraz Island was home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast.

See Alcatraz, San Francisco, and Muir Woods all in one incredible day on Dylan’s Famous Alcatraz Day Tour.  Explore the city’s top landmarks, walk among the towering Coastal Redwoods, have lunch in the charming waterfront town of Sausalito, and enjoy the Official Alcatraz Tour all in one day!

6. Alcatraz prison facts: the island became a military prison

The history of Alcatraz, the island housed prisoners in the civil war
Some of the first prisoners at Alcatraz Prison.


Fort Alcatraz’s nearly escape-proof island made it a fitting location for jailing everyone from military officials to Native Americans, and eventually become an official military prison in 1861. As the Civil War raged, Alcatraz was used to jail citizens suspected of being Confederate sympathizers.

7. Alcatraz famous inmates: The Birdman

Alcatraz famous prisoner, The Birdman's old cell room
The Birdman’s secluded cell room at Alcatraz prison.


Why is Alcatraz famous? One reason why the prison gained famed is because it housed so many famous criminals. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and of course Alcatraz prisoner 105 – John Kendrick, are among some of the notorious prisoners that were kept on the island.

One of the famous prisoners of Alcatraz, The Birdman, never actually kept birds on Alcatraz Island. The Birdman became famous while keeping birds at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

Unfortunately for him, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary had a strict no-pets-allowed policy. The Birdman was held away from the general population and was kept in seclusion in the hospital wing.

8. Alcatraz famous prisoner: Al Capone

Alcatraz history, Al Capone's transfer
The authorities were nervous that Al Capone would escape while being transferred to the Island, so they transported his three-car train car via barge.


Arguably the most famous inmate to serve time on The Rock was Al Capone. There was a realistic fear that Capone would bribe his way to an escape route during the transfer from his train to his boat to Alcatraz.

So, they never had Al Capone get off the train. Al Capone arrived at Alcatraz Island by placing his three-car train onto a barge, bringing the entire train to Alcatraz.

9. University students saved the island from private real estate developers

Alcatraz 1970, Native American's saved Alcatraz Island
Children playing at the beach during the occupation of Alcatraz 1970.


If it hadn’t been for a 19-month long occupation from Native American students at San Francisco State, Alcatraz Island would have fallen into the hands of private real estate developers.

Even though the Native American Occupation was an effort to build a university and cultural center, the occupiers succeeded in preserving Alcatraz Island for future generations.

10. Alcatraz facts: kids grew up on Alcatraz Island

History of Alcatraz, children lived on the island
Children of the guards lived and grew up on Alcatraz Island.


Some kids grew up on Alcatraz. Where else would the guards and their families live? Jolene Babyak, whose father was a correctional officer, grew up on Alcatraz Island and chronicled life on the prison island in her book, Eyewitness on Alcatraz, Life on The Rock as told by Guards, Families, and Prisoners.

You just might run into Jolene in the Alcatraz gift shop signing copies of her books and answering your most burning questions about growing up in the shadow of the world’s most infamous prison.

11. The last remaining guard tower on Alcatraz is a movie prop

Alcatraz San Francisco, the Rock
Movie prop on Alcatraz Island.


The last remaining guard tower on Alcatraz is a movie prop built for scenes on the famous Sean Connery and Nick Cage blockbuster The Rock.

Do these surprising 11 facts have you wanting to explore Alcatraz for yourself? Do you have questions about the island – are you wondering, “was Alcatraz haunted,” or “what life was like on the island?” The best way to learn is through experience, so come and enjoy an Alcatraz tour for yourself.

Book Your Alcatraz Tour Here

Looking for even more adventures? Enjoy a jaw-dropping combination of California’s historic redwoods and wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma on the Ultimate Napa & Sonoma Wine Tour, or take in the gorgeously scenic coastline on our Carmel & Monterey Tour.

Read the following posts for more information about Alcatraz:

10 Things You NEED to Know Before Visiting Alcatraz

8 Best Alcatraz Tours: How to Get Sold Out Alcatraz Tickets

Should you buy an Alcatraz ticket or an Alcatraz tour?

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