We are big advocates for buying tickets in advance, but sometimes it is essential and Alcatraz is no exception here. If you turn up and try to buy tickets on arrival you may well be sorely disappointed as tickets can sell out weeks in advance. The only company that offers tours is Alcatraz Cruises and you can book the tickets on their website. Note: they can only be reserved 90 days in advance. If you are planning your trip further out than that as we were, you’ll want to make a note to come back and reserve your tickets as soon as they are available.
There are four tours offered: The Standard Tour, which is also available in combination with Angel Island. The Night Tour, which we had booked, and the Behind the Scenes tour. We decided to book the Alcatraz by Night tour as it meant the island would be less crowded, though there were still plenty of people on it. We also figured since we’d be doing it in the evening then that gave us time do other things during the day.
Arriving at the quay, our tickets were scanned and we quickly joined the queue to board the boat to the island. As we queued for the ferry, jet lag started to hit home and I started to think that maybe such a full first day wasn’t the best idea in the world. Thankfully once we got out onto the water the sea air gave me a second wind and I was fine for the tour. There is no food and drink available on the island so either eat first, or as we did, buy some snacks on the ferry over. They aren’t stupidly priced and the hot dogs we had were plenty filling to keep us going for the evening.
The Ferry Ride to Alcatraz
The ferry skirts the west side of the island and loops round the north to the dock on the east side. By doing this you get plenty of time to see, and take pictures of, the island as you get closer and sail around it. The night tour has narration on-board the boat as you sail towards the island which the other tours don’t include.
The Night Tour
Once docked you step out onto the quay and visitors are split into smaller groups and assigned a tour guide for the initial part of the tour. This is unique to the Night Tour where they provide information on the way up to the cell block. On the Standard Tour you just head to the cell block under your own steam. Be aware it is a long hard slog up to the prison from the dock- the equivalent of climbing 13 flights of stairs apparently. Because we had a tour guide, we had short stops for the guide to give us information as we headed up the hill which gave us nice little breaks.
The Audio Guide
Once inside the prison, the tour becomes self-guided by audio guide, like the Standard Tour during the day is. I’m not a big one for audio guides, but the Alcatraz one is essential as there is not a huge amount of written information. It is also very well put together, with tonnes of interesting information- but most importantly, it is what tells you how to get from point to point on the tour!
As everyone moves at their own pace and are all at different points in the tour, it never seemed overcrowded. There may be short waits at specific cells as there is limited space to peer inside. Overall it was one of the better audio tours we’ve used and is very well done. The actual voices of the correctional officers and inmates who lived on the island tell their stories, and sometimes the sound effects used sounded so real Stacey would take her headphones off to see if they were actual sounds coming from the prison. They tell the stories of food riots, surviving solitary confinement, escape attempts, and “The Battle of ’46”
If you were hoping to be “locked up”, then that no longer seems to be a thing unfortunately. Probably after the incident when some tourists got stuck in the cells??
The tour moves through the prison through various types of cells, from standard cells (that could be made quite homey) to the dreaded isolation cells called “the hole“, where inmates could be kept for days at a time on a restricted diet and in complete darkness.
Exploring “The Rock”
Some of the most interesting things on the tour are the different events that happened at Alcatraz over the years. From escape attempts, to holding guards hostage and the scars that are still in the floor from grenades thrown in by the people re-taking the prison.
Whilst some areas of the former prison are in ruins, there is much still remaining to be explored. Inside you will tour showers, laundry areas, back offices, visitors area, medical rooms and the dining room– all with the excellent audio guide leading the way and explaining each room.
Include on the tours is some time to do some exploring outside too. Here you’ll find the ruins of the Governor’s House and the lighthouse.
And of course the San Francisco skyline…
There are a couple of extras on the night tour such as short seminars/lectures which you can partake in if you wish. All in all we thought this was an excellent tour, though whether it is worth the extra over the normal tour is hard to say since we haven’t done both. For us it worked as it meant we could fill the day doing other things.
Have you taken a tour of Alcatraz?
If so, we’d love to hear in the comments your impressions, especially any differences you notice between the Night Tour and another one you may have taken.
To read more about our adventures on our California Dreamin’ Road Trip, please feel free to check out these posts:
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