Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz is one of California’s most popular tourist attractions. Located on a rocky island in the San Francisco Bay, its dramatic location is iconic. The infamous former prison that once held some of America’s most notorious prisoners has a rich and fascinating history.

History of Alcatraz

The history of Alcatraz is often told as starting in 1775 when the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed in and chartered it. However, what’s often not told is that Alcatraz was originally occupied by Native Americans, who used Alcatraz as an area for gathering food and as a place to isolate members who violated tribal laws.

To read more about the history and how it impacted Indian activism in the area, you can explore resources on the Alcatraz Island National Park website.

The island came under U.S. government control in 1849. In 1853, due to its strategic location, a fortress was built as a defense against a foreign invasion of San Francisco. During the Civil War, Alcatraz played an important role in protecting S.F. against Confederate raiders.

In 1934, Alcatraz became a federal prison and became widely known as one of the most secure and unescapable prisons in history.

In November of 1969, a 19-month-long protest ensued. During that time, Native Americans who named themselves Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) occupied the island. The protest forcibly came to an end by the U.S. government in June of 1971. 

Fun fact: The movie The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, was filmed on Alcatraz.

In 1963, United States Penitentiary Alcatraz was closed due to the expense of running it.

Since then, Alcatraz has become a national park and a fascinating historical site for visitors from around the world.


San Francisco can be chilly, and being out in the bay on a ferry is even chillier. Bring a jacket and plenty of layers. If it’s an especially chilly day, bring a hat. Remember, the wet cold in San Francisco can be quite jarring!

Getting There

You’ll need to take a ferry to get to Alcatraz. The ferry can be picked up at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. Get there well in advance, especially if you’re driving. Parking can be very difficult in the area, as can traffic. I recommend that you take public transportation

You’ll get a great view of San Francisco from the dock before heading out across the bay. A visit to Alcatraz is great to do when visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Tour Options

I recommend purchasing tickets through Alcatraz City Cruises, which is the official provider. Your ticket will include the short ferry ride to the island and an audio tour. Tickets are often sold out in advance, so book well in advance.

What You’ll See

When you arrive at Alcatraz, you’ll be greeted by a tour guide who will give you a quick rundown on the history and allow you to get your bearings, and then you’ll be sent on your way.

For visitors with mobility issues, there are accommodations to help you get around the island.

Once inside, you’ll be given your audio tour and then you’ll be on your way. You’ll hear about many of the famous prisoners there, including Birdman, Al Capone, and, as you walk through the various corridors that these notorious men walked through every single day. The entire place feels eerie and surreal, and you can feel the history and the spirit of the past.

You’ll see the recreation yard, solitary confinement, and the stations where inmates visited their families through glass partitions. Each part of the prison offers a glimpse into the harsh realities of life on “The Rock.”

You’ll see the recreation yard, solitary confinement, and the stations where inmates visited their families through glass partitions. Each part of the prison offers a glimpse into the harsh realities of life on “The Rock.”

The Store

Stop in at the store before leaving. It’s small but has a selection of books, souvenirs, and memorabilia related to Alcatraz and its history. It’s a great place to pick up a memento of your visit.

A visit to Alcatraz is not just a trip to a former prison; it’s a journey through a significant piece of American history. From its early days as a fortress to its years as a federal prison and its role in Native American activism, Alcatraz offers a unique and compelling experience for all who visit. Be sure to plan ahead, dress warmly, and immerse yourself in the fascinating stories of this iconic island.

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