Visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco


From the shore, Alcatraz Island doesn’t look too far away.

I squinted into the distance and could just about see the tiny island 1.5 miles from mainland San Francisco. A low cloud hung over ‘The Rock’ giving it an eerily ominous appearance.

Despite the creepy air of mystery surrounding Alcatraz, I still thought I could swim the distance.

“Yea, I could swim it,’ I said cockily, making one of those brave statements I know I’d never have to prove, therefore making me say it with even more self assurance.

I wasn’t the only one with this self-belief in my non-existent swimming ability. Reportedly, 36 men attempted to escape from Alcatraz and “officially’ not one man made it.

But is this really true…?

Alcatraz at Sunset


Alcatraz 4

Alcatraz 6

Alcaztra was a military prison in 1868 and a federal prison from 1933 until 1963. It is situated on a rocky outcrop within San Francisco Bay. It may only be 1.5 miles to the mainland but due to the strong currents and cold water temperatures, it’s almost impossible for prisoners to escape. Or so they were told.

Prisoners were purposely fed on rich, fatty foods with plenty of bread and large portions. All this food combined with very little exercise led most prisoners to be unfit and overweight, making that 1.5 mile swim even more difficult. This was made even worse (or better depending on how you look at it) by the fact that prisoners were treated to luxuriously warm showers meaning they couldn’t become acclimatized to the icy temperatures of the sea. They were also told that the surrounding sea was teeming with sharks that circled the island and would gobble them up as soon as they dipped a toe in the water.

Alcatraz was reportedly one of the most secure prisons in the world and nothing could destroy that reputation faster than an escaped prisoner. So what happened when a prisoner escaped…? Well, it wasn’t reported.

Who knows how many people really escaped from Alcatraz. Five prisoners are said to have escaped in 1962 and their whereabouts are unknown. At the time, prisoners were told they drowned but maybe they survived. Maybe they’re living a quiet life in a sleepy little town in the US. Maybe they’ve gone back to their law-breaking ways and they’re living the lives of criminals in South America. I kind of hope they had treasure chests filled with gold and they’re living the hi-life somewhere exotic.

The Travel Hack at Alcatraz

Alcatraz cells

Alcatraz cell


Alcatraz views

Alcatraz 5

Alcatraz 3

Alcatraz cell 2

Alcatraz is now a popular tourist attraction thanks to our obsession with dark history. We want to know all about life in a high security prison and discover what the evil genius’ inside got up to.

Famous inmates have included Alphonse “Scarface” Capone (who was eventually sent to prison for tax evasion of all things!), George ‘Machine Gun” Kelly and Arthur “Doc” Barker.

Alcatraz may have been a desolate place of isolation, punishment and suffering but it’s now a national park – weird, I know. It’s now home to historic gardens, tide pools, bird colonies and beautiful bay views. While I wouldn’t recommend visiting purely for the flora and fauna, you might be surprised at how beautiful the island is. And you have to admit, it’s one of the most fascinating National Park sites you could wish for.

If you’d like to visit Alcatraz you can book tickets through Alcatraz Cruises for $30 for one adult. Some unofficial websites charge more than this so make sure you go through the proper site.

Tickets do sell out, particularly during peak travel times, so it’s worth booking in advance. The Early Bird Tickets and the Day Tours include the cell house audio tour and other tours will be available once you arrive. When booking a ticket and selecting a time, this is the time your boat will leave. You’re then pretty much free to explore the island at your own pace.

Keep in mind that you can’t buy food on the island so if you plan to stay a while I’d bring some snacks.

I visited Alcatraz while I was road tripping through the USA with Trek America. I took the Westerner 2 trip which included 2 days in San Francisco with plenty of free time to explore the city.

  1. hotmamatravel 7 years ago

    I have been to San Fran a number of times and have always wanted to visit the Rock, but every single time, weather gets in my way! I am determined to see it the next time even if that means staying an extra day!

    • TheTravelHack 7 years ago

      We were told we were so lucky with the weather because it rains so often. I hope you get the chance to visit!

  2. Bekka 7 years ago

    I’m going to San Fran for the first time in September. Alcatraz is definitely on my list of things to do! I’m hoping we can do it in half a day, and still have plenty of time to explore as we will only be there for two days too! Do you have any suggestions for “must visit” places in San Fran? x

    • TheTravelHack 7 years ago

      You have to see the bridge (obviously!). Go to Fisherman’s Wharf and have seafood chowder (it’s so good) and check out the sea lions while you’re there. Take the 400 steps up Telegraph Hill – it’s well worth it. And ride in a trolley, even if you only do it once.

  3. lauren hughes 7 years ago

    Great post, I have been to a few prisons in my time and I have to say if that doesn’t put someone off committing a crime, I don’t know what would.

    • TheTravelHack 7 years ago

      That’s true. Maybe they should have more school trips to prisons!

  4. I had heard from a friend about booking in advance too. She didn’t realize how busy it was and wasn’t able to get tickets. How far in advance would you recommend buying?

    The idea of prison tours generally creepy me out but Alcatraz has always been fascinating to me! It’s weird – your picture at the beginning of the post makes it look beautiful!


    • TheTravelHack 7 years ago

      We booked ours about 5 days in advance but this was in March so it was much quieter. Other people have commented saying months in advance if you’re visiting in the summer. I guess as early as possible is best.

  5. Dorothée 7 years ago

    You are right, the only reason I went to Alcatraz all these years ago is that I wanted to learn about the life in a high security prison. The trip is really interesting and I also thoroughly enjoyed the short ferry trip to the island. The views are stunning.

    • TheTravelHack 7 years ago

      They really are. I took a cruise at sunset too and that was beautiful.

  6. We were just recently in San Francisco with friends who had never been before. They wanted to go see Alcatraz and I told them that it would be impossible to get tickets at the last minute. Last time we visited we booked our ticket months in advance. When we went on our tour their was a guy signing books at the end. His name Jim Quillen, he was a prisoner of Alcatraz. ( Alcatraz from Inside: The Hard Years, 1942-1952). He told us his interesting story. One of the prison cells that you see doing the tour was his.

  7. I’ve heard the night tour of Alcatraz is a must do!

  8. Stevo Grubor 7 years ago

    I last visited Alcatraz when I was a kid and only remembered bits and pieces of our visit. We just recently visited again and the kiddies (7 and 9) really loved seeing the former prison and doing the audio tour, hearing about it (the escapes were their favorite). If you’re a history buff this is a really cool site to see as an adult too! If you’re thinking about visiting make sure you buy your tickets at least a month in advance – they sell out fast!

  9. […] Visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco […]

  10. Miss Classy 4 years ago

    I visited Alcatraz in Summer 2015 and it was absolutely amazing. Most I liked the Audio Tour, it was so interesting.
    Love your photos of The Rock!

    Kind Regards

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