Regularly scheduled day tours to Alcatraz are a great way to tour the grand but spooky prison perched on an island in San Francisco Bay, but for a different look at “The Rock,” try one of these tours.
Night tour: Eerily beautiful Alcatraz looks even more intriguing on guided night tours. This is when the island is most photogenic—you can get amazing sunset shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline lighting up as the sun goes down. The Alcatraz by Night tour includes a narrated ferry ride around the island, a ranger-guided walk up the hill from the ferry dock to the prison, and the same self-guided audio tour that is available on day tours. Night tours leave San Francisco around 6 p.m. and last about 2.5 hours. Bundle up before you go—the island can be bitterly cold after sundown, especially when fog rolls in.
Behind-the-scenes tour: If you think you've “been there, done that” at Alcatraz, sign up for the 4.5-hour behind-the-scenes tour, offered in the evenings. You’ll walk with a small group on a two-hour ushered tour of the island, gaining access to places not seen on regular tours—the prison industries building, the Officers’ Row gardens, the upper levels of D Block, and the hospital, citadel, chapel, or theater. (Visitor sites change regularly and are not guaranteed.) Afterward, your guide hands you a headset and you can take a self-guided audio tour of the cell block. The behind-the-scenes tour leaves San Francisco around 4 p.m.; you won’t be back until 9 or 9:30. Bring snacks and water (no food is available on the island).
Garden tour: While Alcatraz prisoners paced in their jail cells, the prison guards and their families formed a gardening association, imported topsoil from nearby Angel Island and exotic plants from around the world, and set out to make the island grow. Their work paid off: Tall, stately agaves, roses, fig trees, agapanthus, pelargonium, succulents, and other ornamental flora flourished, and today they brighten the island’s incomparable views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. More than 230 species of introduced plants grow in seven major garden sites on Alcatraz. The nonprofit Garden Conservancy, in partnership with Golden Gate National Parks and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, leads guided garden tours on Alcatraz—including flower-filled spots that are usually closed to most visitors, such as the Rose Terrace and Officers’ Row—on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:45 a.m. Tours are free and start from the ferry dock.
In 1854, the West Coast’s first lighthouse was built on San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island to guide the ships coming and going through the Golden Gate. Government officials quickly decided that the tiny, 22-acre island aptly nicknamed “The Rock” was also an ideal location for a federal penitentiary—so close and yet so far from bustling San Francisco. The island’s sheer cliffs were surrounded by perilous currents, extreme tides, and hypothermic water temperatures, so escape from this prison seemed impossible.
Alcatraz served as a military prison from the time of the Civil War until 1934, when it was converted to a civilian penitentiary. Although it operated for only three decades, The Rock remains fixed in the American psyche as the ultimate penal colony—thanks in part to Hollywood films such as the Clint Eastwood classic Escape from Alcatraz. The prison housed some of the country’s most notorious bad guys: Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “Bird Man” Robert Stroud, a murderer who became an expert in ornithological diseases.
Take a ferry to the island and explore the abandoned prison by day or by night. The 20-minute boat ride is reward enough with its invigorating salt spray and expansive bay views, but your ferry ticket also covers admission to the island, an optional ranger-led tour, and a 40-minute self-guided tour of the cell house with an audio headset. The narrated program, “Doing Time,” weaves together voices of actual inmates and prison guards with actors’ reenactments, making the prison’s empty walls come to life with tales of food riots, solitary confinement, and escape attempts. A total of 23 prisoners tried to break out of Alcatraz, but all were killed or recaptured except for three men who escaped in 1962. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
As you tour, step inside the open cells and imagine the tedium and loneliness. Walk around the guardhouse, exercise yard, and the surprisingly lush gardens that surround the buildings. Alcatraz may seem sinister from the inside, but outside you’ll find dazzling views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, lush Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island, a California state park.
Insider tips: Get to The Rock via the Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero near Bay Street. Ferries usually fill up on weekends and holidays, so book your tickets at least three weeks in advance. Plan on two or three hours for the entire trip. Wear comfortable shoes for the steep walk from the dock to the prison, and bring a jacket or windbreaker for San Francisco’s famously cool weather.
—Ann Marie Brown