Updated: May 21, 2015

Alcatraz History

The Rock. Alcatraz. The world famous ex-prison sits in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, with multi-million dollar views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the rest of the Bay. The name Alcatraz comes from the Spanish word for pelicans -- when Spanish explorer first visited the area in 1775, that was the name the island was given. A hundred years later California had become a US state, and San Francisco the major west coast city. At that time, Alcatraz became more valuable as a defensive fort, its central location giving it a commanding position against any ships attempting to enter the bay. By 1853, a fort bristling with cannons occupied the site of Alcatraz. With the onset of the Civil War, Alcatraz became a prisoner of war camp. More prisoners were housed there during the Spanish American war, and by the early 1900s a cell block had been built



During the Prohibition era, when organized crime became more common, the Rock changed from a lax security isolated jail into a maximum security federal prison, with gun galleries, metal detectors, and tear gas canisters built into the structure. Alcatraz would be used as a prison for the next 30 years, closing in 1963 due to the high costs associated with maintaining an island.

Alcatraz Tour

Located just across the bay from the city of San Francisco, Alcatraz is an easy morning or afternoon site seeing trip. Alcatraz is serviced by ferries leaving from the SF wharfs, a short 15 minute boat ride. US National Park rangers lead the tours once on the island, telling you the lore of the ancient prison system with tales of escape attempts and failures, the cold isolated conditions on the island, and the history of Alcatraz. Several tours depart for Alcatraz from Fisherman's Wharf. Most Alcatraz tours spend about 90 minutes on the island, with 30 minutes spent on transportation. Keep in mind that San Francisco Bay can be foggy and windy even in the summer, so always bring an extra layer of clothing to keep the chill out. A number of ticket agents and brokers sell Alcatraz tickets, but the main company operating the ferries is the Blue and Gold Fleet (BlueAndGoldFleet.com). They also offer San Francisco Bay cruises and boat rides. They offer tours year round, with both a morning and evening Alcatraz tour. They run about every 30-45 minutes in the summer, and the Alcatraz ticket cost is $16.50 for adults, $10.75 for children. You can order tickets online or buy them at their dock on Fisherman's Wharf, actually on Pier 41 just down from the famous tourist spot, Pier 39. If you are coming from the south bay, take Highway 101 North, following signs to the Bay Bridge. Take the 4th Street exit and turn left on Bryant Street. Follow Bryant to The Embarcadero. Turn left on The Embarcadero and go just over a mile to PIER 39. Blue & Gold Fleet is just west of PIER 39.

Alcatraz Boat Tickets

If you choose to buy your Alcatraz tour tickets through another agent to book them in advance, you can try someone like AlcatrazTrips.com - they markup the standard tickets, charging $26.50 for adult tickets and $20.75 for childrens tickets to Alcatraz island. You will take the same ferries out to Alcatraz. Another site, AlcatrazTickets.com sells the same tickets, with an internet adult rate of $26.50 and $20.75 for children. If you have a flexible schedule, your best bet is probably to get tickets either on the day of your visit (just pick a boat that is vacant and enjoy your SF sight seeing until your tour departs) or buy in advance on the Blue and Gold site directly. While you are out at Fisherman's Wharf, you may want to check out a Segway rental. For $70, you can take a motorized scooter tour around the San Francisco waterfront. Check out ElectricTourCompany.com for details.