Alcatraz is one of the most infamous prisons in the United States. It’s well known for the high profile criminals it housed, its location right by a major city, and its part in pop culture. When we visited San Francisco, it was the number one thing we wanted to see. We did get a chance to visit and go on the Alcatraz tour. After looking at its history, an overview of the tour, and how to visit Alcatraz, we’ll answer the question: Is the Alcatraz tour worth it?
Alcatraz Island sits out in the San Francisco Bay and can almost always be seen from the city. In fact, it’s only 1.25 miles from San Francisco. It’s most famous for being a federal prison where many of the country’s most notorious criminals were locked up, but Alcatraz also used to be a lighthouse, military fort, and military prison.
The prison is not operational today. However, it still gives off a creepy feeling because many of the country’s most notorious criminals were locked up there, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, Robert Franklin Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz), and Al Capone. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was in operation from 1934-1963.
Although Alcatraz was known for being almost inescapable, there were several escape attempts, 36 attempts by 14 prisoners to be exact, with the most famous being the 1962 escape attempt. In that escape attempt from Alcatraz, the prisoners made dummy heads of themselves and put them in their beds. They had chiseled away at an air vent and escaped through it during the night, leaving the fake heads so the guards wouldn’t know they were gone.
By the time the guards discovered the dummy heads and sounded the alarms, the 3 prisoners had already climbed through the air vents, up the utility corridor onto the roof, down from the roof on a pipe, over a couple fences, and out to shore where they inflated their makeshift raft.
It’s not known if their escape was successful or not because the prisoners were never found. Although in 2013, someone sent a letter to the police saying:
“My name is John Anglin. I escape from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes we all made it that night but barely!”
To this day, it’s a mystery as to whether the 3 prisoners from the 1962 Alcatraz escape attempt was successful or not.
In 1963, shortly after this attempt, Alcatraz was shut down. The buildings at Alcatraz had deteriorated and were in bad condition, and it cost the federal government more money per prisoner than in other prisons.
It’s also been said that the government changed its views on prisoners too. Alcatraz was meant to exist as a place to simply remove dangerous criminals from society, not to rehabilitate them. Closing Alcatraz was a sign of the change in the government’s viewpoint. However, it’s clear that rehabilitation has not been successful in US prisons, and one could argue that it has not even been strongly attempted. Either way, onto the Alcatraz tour. . .
The tour of Alcatraz itself was much better than either of us expected. Included in your ticket price is an audio tour of the Alcatraz cellhouse, which is available in 11 languages and is narrated by both former guards and prisoners. Having former guards and prisoners give the tour gave it a real personal feel that the typical tour guide couldn’t have done. On the flip side, you couldn’t ask questions that an actual guide could have answered.
Alcatraz was pretty eerie because most of the former prison was left untouched. The prison cells, cafeteria, and shower room were all in seemingly the same condition as when Alcatraz shutdown. You could walk into a couple different prison cells, even the solitary ones. While it’s impossible to understand what the prison actually felt like without having been there, the narrated tour, the condition of the buildings and island gave visiting Alcatraz a truly authentic feel.
The complete tour of Alcatraz lasted about an hour and a half, not including the 15 minute boat ride to Alcatraz Island. We took a ton of photos and paused the audio tour to get better photos and really just stopped and soaked in the eerie atmosphere and history. Aside from the tour, there are amazing views of San Francisco and the Bay from Alcatraz Island, on a clear day at least.
Overall, the Alcatraz tour was very educational and informative. We both left feeling like we learned a lot.
Is the Alcatraz Tour Worth it?
So, is the Alcatraz tour worth it? The short answer: Yes, the tour of Alcatraz is worth it.
We would even visit again. It was creepy, educational, historic, and eye-opening all in one. The ticket price of $38 is a little steep but considering you need a boat to get there and get a high quality audio tour, it’s worth it.
Keep reading for details on how to book a tour of Alcatraz.
How Book an Alcatraz Tour:
Due to Alcatraz’s close proximity to San Francisco, it’s very easy to get to. It’s actually one of the most popular National Parks in the United States with about 1.4 million people visiting every year. While Alcatraz is a National Park, it is only accessible by boat. Alcatraz Cruises is actually the only company that can dock on Alcatraz Island, and they are the company you book an Alcatraz Tour through. The adult day tour ticket to Alcatraz is $38 per person.
Book your Alcatraz Tour in advance! Tours can fill up about 90 days in advance, especially during peak travel times.
If you forget to book your tour to Alcatraz in advance, like we did, you’re not out of luck! Go on the website and look at the dates and time you want to go. Most likely, their schedule will look like this:
If this is the case, keep refreshing this page until one becomes available. It helps if you’re not locked into one specific day or time. We refreshed it about 10 times over a 24 hour period and 2 tickets to Alcatraz became available, and we immediately bought them.
Sure, we might have just been lucky. However, when we refreshed it later out of curiosity, some tickets for other days and times were available, so it’s worth a shot!
Another option that we have heard about is going directly to the Alcatraz Cruise office early in the morning to see if you can get a “stand-by” like ticket.