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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's no place anywhere on the planet quite like Alcatraz Island. To help you make the most of your visit, we've created a list of some of the best things to do:
For many more things to do, peruse our San Francisco things to do page.
Hotel Zoe Fisherman's Wharf is 2 blocks from Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, and the Alcatraz Island ferry.
Located in North Beach, this boutique hotel is within a 5-minute walk of Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum and Pier 39. San Francisco Bay and Ghirardelli Square are also within 15 minutes. Ferry Building Station is 29 minutes by foot.
Located in North Beach, this hotel is within a 10-minute walk of Fishermans Wharf Cable Car Turnaround, Hyde Street Pier, and Ghirardelli Square. Lombard Street and Pier 39 are also within 15 minutes.
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.
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.
Located in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, San Remo Hotel is just 5 blocks from the steaming sourdough chowder bowls of Fisherman’s Wharf. Lombard Street and the ferry to Alcatraz Island are both within a half-mile, and guests need only walk 1 block to hop a cable car to Union Square.
This San Francisco hotel is within 2 blocks of Fisherman's Wharf and less than 2 miles from the Union Square District.