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A Tour of Alcatraz Island

tour of alcatraz island
Written by Edith & Juan

Tour of Alcatraz Island

Landing in prison is not exactly my vision of a fun trip.  However, on one of my visits to San Francisco our ferry landed at Alcatraz Island where along with some friends, I got to tour a prison full of interesting history.

The Alcatraz Penitentiary allows visitors to tour the building where America’s most difficult and dangerous felons were incarcerated!  Al “Scarface” Capone, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, are some of those notorious figures that once sat behind bars on this island.

Escaping from Alcatraz was said to be impossible and out of 14 attempts, 0 inmates successfully escaped The Rock. Many daring attempts were made however, and some of those attempts became quite famous.

Alcatraz became a popular prison because of its reputation as one of the harshest prisons in the country.  It once operated with almost 1,600 criminals who lived under confinement in a building that resembles modern-day prisons.

Now a tourist destination, Alactraz Island is one of the most enjoyed tours in San Francisco.  People are drawn to the history, architecture, and the amazing views of the San Francisco skyline.

tour of alcatraz island

History of the Building

Before being a regular prison, Alcatraz Island was a U.S. military prison in 1850-1933.  It later became the prison that held the most dangerous inmates from 1934 to 1963.  It was shut down due to high operating costs and it was later occupied by Native-American activists.

Nowadays, Alcatraz holds the Alcatraz Triathlon annually.  Only conditioned and trained athletes can accomplish this 1.5-mile swim to the shore with conditioning and appropriate gear.  It’s now also the popular tourist attractions that draws about 1 million people a year to its premises.

tour of alcatraz island

tour of alcatraz island

History of Failed Attempts to Escape

Battle of Alcatraz

One of the most famous attempts of escape, was in May of 1946 when 6 prisoners armed themselves taking the lives of two guards and injuring eighteen others.  Three of them were killed and three were captured by Marines.  During this attempt, the convicts forced officers to surrender their keys but were unable to locate the most critical key needed to escape.

A correctional officer had hidden the one key needed to escape the recreational yard.  He hid it in the toilet of the cell where the other correctional officers were being held hostage.  The cell block ended in a raging battle where violent rage exploded.  As gunfire was released many were critically injured.  This intent to escape became one of the most violent on the island.

tour of alcatraz island

tour of alcatraz island

The Great Escape

Another famous attempt was “The Great Escape.”  On June of 1962, Frank Lee Morris was the brilliant mastermind of one the famous attempts to escape.  The plan he designed took months.  Morris even fabricated a plan that included water survival gear.  After arriving at Alcatraz for a multitude of charges such as narcotics and armed robbery and spending many years in prisons, he learned the correctional system well.

Once on the island, he planned the “Great Escape” with three other inmates.   With a collection of several old blades and tools they found, they each dug their way out through vent holes that took much time to dig.  The day of their escape, they used the fabricated dummy heads constructed from material they got hands on to trick the correctional officers.

They then left the island with their life preservers, water rafts, and rain coats.  Despite this seeming a successful escape, it is believed they drowned on their escape because they were never found.

Remember me telling you few can survive the 1.5-mile swim?  I don’t know about you, but after finishing the audio tour, I can’t help but wonder if they did make it to the shore. Perhaps they spent many years looking at Alcatraz Island from San Francisco proud of their escape and laughing at how they tricked the officers.

This escape was so well-known that even a movie was made about it.  The movie is titled, “Escape from Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood.   I wish I had seen the movie before going to Alcatraz.  However, watching it afterwards gave me a better vision of the escape I heard during the audio tour.

Read about the other escapes here.

tour of alcatraz island

How to Get There: Visiting Alcatraz Island

A short and serene ferry ride from Pier 39 will take you to the island.  There, you will be given earphones to go on a self-guided audio tour of the main building that will take approximately 45 minutes.  You will learn how “The Rock” came to be known as one of the most famous prisons.

After learning about the prison, you can walk around the island to enjoy the views of the bay area.  You will even have views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

tour of alcatraz island

tour of alcatraz island

Times to visit:

Alcatraz Cruises book quickly in summer and near holidays and it is recommended to get tickets early.  My first visits to San Francisco I was not able to get tickets because they were sold out weeks in advance.  However, on my visit in January we were able to get tickets a week before because of their low season.


Tickets can be bought through Alcatraz Cruises.  Their hours of operation vary with season but their departures are every half hour beginning at 9AM.  It is best to look at their website to check closing times for the season you visit.  Alcatraz also has a special night tour where visitors can go on special guided tours after dark.  During this tour, you get to see locations that are off-limits during the day on the self-guided tours.


The weather on Alcatraz Island may be unpredictable.  It may be windy and cool on the island while the city is warm and sunny.  During the summer, it may get really cold due to thick winds and fog.  Dressing in layers is the best option while visiting Alcatraz.

Fees and Services:

No food service is available on the island but food that is brought in may only be eaten at the picnic area.  On the ferry, refreshments and food is available for purchase.

There is no entrance fee for the Island but the ferry service does charge for the ride there.  The price includes the cell house audio tour which is offered in many different languages.  The audio tour includes the voice of inmates, officers, and residents who recount their memories of life on Alcatraz.

Have you been on a tour of Alcatraz Island?

Leave us a comment!  What was your experience like?  If you haven’t been there do you plan to visit?  If so, here is a post about visiting San Francisco in 2 days and one about the best things to do in San Francisco.

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tour of alcatraz island

A Tour of Aclatraz Island


    California Globetrotter

About the author

Edith & Juan

From Arizona but temporarily based near California, Edith and her husband Juan created Life Beyond 520 to share inspiration from their local travels and adventures in California and beyond. Edith is the blogger behind these posts, but together they hope to inspire couples and others to get out there and explore new places, including their own city.


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