10 Things You NEED to Know Before Visiting Alcatraz

What you need to know before Visiting Alcatraz, the most popular tourist attraction in San Francisco

Coming across Alcatraz tickets is not an easy task during the summer and fall months. Even the best Alcatraz tours will sell out fast during the busy season! But, if you were lucky enough to snag yourself some sold out tickets to Alcatraz, here’s what you need to know before visiting the prison. 

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10 things you need to know before visiting Alcatraz

#1 Get there early, the boat won’t wait for you

San Francisco Alcatraz Tours You’ll find the ferry to Alcatraz Island at Pier 33. AKA Alcatraz Landing. If you’re on an Alcatraz tour and need to pick up tickets, you’ll want to arrive at least 30 minutes early. This will give you time to pick up your Alcatraz Island tickets, use the restroom (it’s not very fun using a bathroom in choppy bay waters), and see one of the biggest replicas of what the island looked like during its years as Alcatraz Federal Prison.

alcatraz guide

#2 You’ll need a photo ID

San Francisco Alcatraz Tours

If you’re going to Alcatraz via a combo San Francisco Alcatraz tour, everyone over 18 will need to provide photo ID to pick up their tickets from will call. Please note, if you’re bringing printed tickets with you, or if you purchased tickets directly from Alcatraz Cruises, then only the person who booked the tickets will need to show their photo ID to pickup the Alcatraz Island tickets.

#3 There’s no food on The Rock

San Francisco Alcatraz Tour

Most folks are surprised to learn that Alcatraz Island is one of the largest nesting grounds for waterbirds in the San Francisco Bay Area. Which is taken pretty seriously considering Alcatraz is a National Park. This means there isn’t any food available on Alcatraz. There’s a few picnic tables on the dock — in case you decide to pack a picnic. But aside from a few pre-package cookies in the gift shops, there isn’t much in the way of food on The Rock. Be sure you don’t head out to Alcatraz with an empty stomach! Luckily, if you’re visiting from our Alcatraz San Francisco tour we’ll be sure you stop for lunch before exploring Alcatraz Island.

#4 Don’t forget to travel with layers

San Francisco Alcatraz Tour We don’t care how warm it is out. You always need to bring layers when you’re in San Francisco, especially if you’re on The Rock. Bringing a jacket with you is a must for any Alcatraz tour! It wouldn’t hurt to bring a beanie or scarf along too. You are going to a rock in the middle of a windswept bay, make sure you come prepared. If you want to arrive to Alcatraz Island in true San Francisco style, check out our blog on surviving summer in San Francisco.

#5 Once you arrive on Alcatraz Island, check for bonus tours

San Francisco Alcatraz Tour Throughout the day there are various ranger led tours, behind-the-scenes experiences with historic interpreters and cell door demonstrations in the cellhouse. Once you’ve arrived on the dock of Alcatraz, there will be someone on a microphone greeting you. Right behind that person, will be the daily schedule of Alcatraz tours around the island. Different tours begin at different locations throughout the day. Snap a photo of the schedule on your phone, that way you can refer back to it while you’re exploring around the island.

#6 Ask about the Junior Ranger Program

San Francisco Alcatraz Tour Traveling with someone around the ages of 5-13? Be sure to ask about the Junior Ranger activity book while you’re on the dock of Alcatraz. As you explore Alcatraz Island after your San Francisco tour, the activity book helps kids experience Alcatraz in a fun and educational way. Be sure to give yourself an extra 15 minutes getting in line for a ferry back to San Francisco. This is so that one of the Alcatraz Park Rangers can go over the activity book with the kids in your group before they are sworn  in as official Junior Rangers and given a special Alcatraz Island Junior Ranger Badge!

#7 You might run into someone who grew up on Alcatraz

San Francisco Alcatraz Tours The cellhouse audio tour ends at the entrance to the biggest gift shop on the island. It’s easy to breeze through and pass up the most precious gem hidden in the Alcatraz prison, someone who spent their childhood in the shadow of the cellhouse. In between replicas of prison keys and old timey tin mugs, is a small desk. This is where you’ll frequently find guest authors. Before his passing a few years ago, former Alcatraz inmate turned dedicated foster parent, Darwin Coon was a regular guest author on the island. These days, you can hear thrilling tales from prominent Bay Area author Jolene Babyak — whose father was acting warden during the most famous prison escape in the island’s history. Ya’know — the one that inspired the Clint Eastwood movie 😉

#8 The former Alcatraz Prison cellhouse is at the top of a hill with three steep switchbacks

San Francisco Alcatraz Tours There is plenty to see along the way up to the cellhouse — but it is a bit of a hike. For anyone with mobility concerns, there’s a free mobility tram that will bring you to the top of the hill to the cellhouse. The mobility tram doesn’t make any stops along the way. The mobility tram is not an Alcatraz tour. But, it does leave regularly from both the top and bottom of the hill regularly.

#9 Former inmates and guards of Alcatraz narrate the cellhouse audio tour

San Francisco Alcatraz Tours
Photo by Emily Orpin via Flickr

The best San Francisco tour is actually on Alcatraz Island. In 1987 local non-profit theater company called Antenna Theater created an immersive walking tour of the Alcatraz Cellhouse by interviewing former inmates of the prison, along with guards who patrolled of the island and kids who grew up in the shadow of America’s most infamous prison. In the decades since the Alcatraz cellhouse audio tour was created, many of the narrators have since passed away. Voices of now deceased narrators create the effect of ghosts leadings you through the cells and alleyways of Alcatraz.

alcatraz guide

#10 Queue up early to escape from Alcatraz

San Francisco Alcatraz Tours

If you thought getting tickets to Alcatraz was difficult, try catching the Alcatraz ferry back to San Francisco! Even though your departure to Alcatraz is scheduled,  getting back to SF is a different story. Travelers are welcome to stay on Alcatraz as long (or as little) as they like. But the catch is: the ferry has a limit to how many passengers it can take.

During the busy summer months, it is not uncommon for Alcatraz ferries to reach capacity while there are still people in line. This means, if you HAVE to catch a certain ferry back to SF, get there early! If you stroll up to the ferry a few minutes before it departs back to SF, you might not make it on the boat back to SF.  We recommend getting there 30 minutes before departure time. Be sure to check the departure schedule before exploring the island. Are you having trouble finding Alcatraz Tickets? You can often get sold out Alcatraz Tickets by booking through a local tour company instead of through Alcatraz cruises. Book our #1 Alcatraz and San Francisco tour below!

How to get Alcatraz tickets

Grab your tickets to Alcatraz here

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I visit Alcatraz?

There is only one way to visit Alcatraz that is through a ferry operated by Alcatraz Cruises. However, you can tickets through a 3rd party if and when Alcatraz Cruises sells out. All ferries leave from Pier 33 at Fisherman’s wharf.

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Looking for more info about Alcatraz? Check out our related blog posts below!

11 Things You Didn’t Know About Alcatraz Island

 8 Best Alcatraz Tours

What to do if Alcatraz Tickets are Sold Out