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Mostly known for its infamous 29-year tenure as a federal penitentiary housing the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Franklin Stroud “The Bird Man,” Alcatraz Island is a popular San Francisco-area attraction. However, it offers tourists more than the typical “cinematic” prison experience thanks to the island’s rich cultural history and fabulous tours. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that cannot be missed.


Located a mere 1.5 miles off the shore of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island, which is also known as “The Rock” to locals, has a rich cultural history that includes far more than the prison period that made it famous. Known to the Natives of the area as “Evil Island” because of a belief that it was cursed, Alcatraz was named by the Spanish explorer Juan Manual de Ayala in 1775. He called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces” or “The Island of the Pelicans.”

Later on, Alcatraz was acquired by the U.S. Government through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which facilitated the end of the Mexican-American War. The utility of the island as a military garrison was immediately recognized and Fortress Alcatraz was erected in 1858 along with the west coast’s first lighthouse, both of which are still present on the island today. The island and its buildings began to house prisoners from the Civil War as early as 1861, beginning its long tenure as a prison. The island was seen as an ideal location for a prison because of its relative distance from mainland California as well as the rough cut of the land and waters of San Francisco Bay.

The ensuing Spanish-American War in 1898 increased the holdings in the prison, but the San Francisco Earthquake of 1907 raised safety concerns and a stronger building could be erected, the Main Cell Block of the prison, still on the island today and one of its most prominent features, was erected in 1909. The location was officially designated a Western U.S. Military Prison in March of 1907.

The use of Alcatraz as a military prison location continued until October of 1933 when the control of the facility was transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was in operation from 1934 until 1963 and was specifically designated as the choice location for federal prisoners who caused trouble in mainland prisons. It was known as a “last resort prison” meant for those who were believed beyond help and therefore was home to the era’s most notorious criminals. It was the toughest prison in America at the time, known for its brutality both because of its isolated environment and the psychic energy that it created. Former inmates frequently cited witnessing acts of brutality and inhumanity at the prison which, they stated, tested their grip on reality. The stories of Alcatraz as a prison are among the biggest draws for those visiting the island and continue to be subject of movies, books, and television shows, most recently 2012’s Alcatraz.

Alcatraz prison finally shut its doors in March of 1963 following issues stemming from mounting costs, structural problems, and intense scrutiny following the first successful escape by Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin. Afterwards, the island sat idle for years. Then, a group of Native American students calling themselves the United Indians of All Tribes began an occupation of the island on 20 November 1969. Lasting almost two years, the goal of the occupation was to achieve awareness of native affairs as well as reclaim the area in the name of the native peoples. The stand-off was highly politicized and led then-President Richard Nixon to temporarily rescind the U.S.’s Indian Termination Policy. Remnants of the native occupation survive on the island to this day.

Since that time, Alcatraz has been elevated from its prison days to a National Historic Place (1976) and finally a National Historic Landmark (1986). It is now a part of the greater Golden Gate National Recreation Area and much of the island is open to the public for tours and viewing. Alcatraz has remained an important part of the cultural landscape of northern California and the U.S. in general often appearing in pop culture including movies such as Catch Me If You Can (2002) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).

Main Attraction

Visitors to the San Francisco area are almost universally attracted to Alcatraz and the history and cultural lessons that it offers.  The National Parks Services is in charge of the land, and transportation is offered exclusively through the private company Alcatraz Cruises. With boats leaving twice an hour, the company offers an all-inclusive package that takes visitors on a boat-led tour as well as through the gardens and cell blocks on the island itself. The tours cover both the rich cultural history as well as the current ecological role of Alcatraz as a home to unique tidal pools and bird colonies.

Tours offered by Alcatraz Cruises include both day and night options as well as a combination Alcatraz and Angel Island Tour. Tours leave from Pier 33 on the San Francisco Bay and are extremely limited during high tourist times; advance purchase is highly recommended.

Why It’s a Must-See

The lore of Alcatraz as a prison only scratches the surface of this amazing, quintessential San Francisco landmark. Through a tour of the island, its buildings, and the flora and fauna that call it home, visitors will see Alcatraz in a whole new way that will be a highlight of their trip to a city with much to offer in this respect.

Where to Buy It

There are a number of ways you can enjoy admission to this attraction.

Save up to 20% online at Smart Destinations. If you add more than one attraction to the cart, you will get an automatic savings of up to 20%. It’s called Make Your Own Pass.

Pay Full Price and purchase a ticket from Alcatraz either online or in person.