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For decades (between 1934 and 1963) the name Alcatraz uttered in a courtroom brought up fear, terror and visions of being sent to this austere island fortress. Even from the mainland the rocky island, now a National Park, still evokes powerful images of bleak isolation. It is a foreboding place that once held some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis.
Alcatraz Island, located in San Francisco Bay, is accessible by a 15-minute ferry ride operated by Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33 at the Embarcadero. The round trip ticket price includes an informative cell house audio tour. On the island, take a free tour with one of the National Park volunteers or guides, or pick up a brochure at the ferry landing for a self-guided tour.
Unlike the former inmates, you’re free to roam the island. Discover the site of the first lighthouse on the U.S. West Coast, which was originally erected in 1854 and rebuilt in 1909. Your tour within the walls of the notorious penal colony passes through cellblocks that once held the worst of the worst, and into the walled exercise yard where you’ll see just how tantalizingly close San Francisco appears to be.
During Alcatraz’s 29 years of operation as a maximum security prison, 36 people attempted to escape. Six were killed, 23 caught and the rest are presumed to have drowned, victims of the icy waters and treacherous currents.
The most famous escape attempt occurred in 1962 after three inmates managed to dig through their cell walls with crude materials including spoons. They left lifelike dummies of themselves in their beds to act as decoys. Presumably they made a swim for the mainland and their bodies were never found. A year after the escape the prison closed.
You can stay on the Rock until the last ferry of the day departs at 4:25 p.m., and most people spend two to three hours here. In summer, a night tour is also available. It’s a popular sightseeing destination, so be sure to buy your ferry tickets in advance.
There are so many ways to get the most out of this place. We've put together a list of things to do at Alcatraz Island:
If you're after more options, take a look at our San Francisco things to do page.
Across the street from San Francisco Bay, this boutique hotel occupies a creatively converted 1909 brick warehouse; fun-filled Fisherman's Wharf is right outside; the Alcatraz ferry is 6 blocks away.
This smoke-free San Francisco Sheraton is within 2 blocks of the cable car turnaround and Pier 39, 5 blocks from Ghirardelli Square, and within 1 mile of Lombard Street and Chinatown.
Located in North Beach, this hotel is within a 10-minute walk of Powell and Market Cable Car Turnaround, Fishermans Wharf Cable Car Turnaround, and Hyde Street Pier. Ghirardelli Square and Lombard Street are also within 10 minutes.
Located in North Beach, this boutique hotel is within a 5-minute walk of Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, and Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum. Aquarium of the Bay and Ghirardelli Square are also within 15 minutes. Ferry Building Station is 29 minutes by foot.
Hotel Zoe Fisherman's Wharf is 2 blocks from Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, and the Alcatraz Island ferry.
Guests can hop a cable car right outside this hotel; stroll 2 blocks for fun on Fisherman's Wharf; explore the delights of Ghirardelli Square, 3 blocks away; and walk 5 blocks to the Alcatraz ferry.
This elegant and historic 1904 hotel offers a prime location across from San Francisco's Union Square; cable cars stop right at the front door, and the Financial District and Chinatown are both just 4 blocks away.
This San Francisco hotel is within 2 blocks of Fisherman's Wharf and less than 2 miles from the Union Square District.