Alcatraz Island – one of the quintessential tourism experiences in San Francisco. I wasn’t really sure what to expect since this was my first time experiencing the tour. I also wasn’t too familiar with the Island’s history specifically, mostly just the residents. Overall, we really enjoyed ourselves as we got to experience what it may have been like to live on Alcatraz.
Now, first and foremost, I will say that you should book your tickets as soon as you decide you want to go. I booked our tickets in October for a December tour. When we showed up for our ferry, there was already a stand-by line. So make sure to book early so that you don’t miss out.
It is a fairly large vessel so if you’re concerned about motion sickness, it was tolerable. There are multiple decks you can explore. The lower deck is where you will find a small café. The upper decks are outside and boast amazing views of the Island and downtown San Francisco. It’s pretty easy to navigate around the ferry and they even have a stroller parking zone. So you can leave your stroller behind to see the views.
(I will mention that the smaller the stroller the better. In true San Francisco fashion, there are some pretty challenging hills. So you may not want to add too much weight to your push load (or pull when walking downhill). Also, if you choose to do the audio tour (which you should), it’ll be easier to navigate the passageways with a smaller stroller. There is elevator access available to get you to the second floor, but it can get very crowded in the hallways.)
Once you reach the Island, you are herded toward an open courtyard area where you are greeted by an employee who gives you the basic rundown of what to expect. It is a self-guided tour where you can wander around and explore. Areas that are off limits are clearly marked so you don’t have to worry. At first, I was a bit annoyed with no tour guide but they have an auditorium where they show a 20-minute video about the Island’s history. It also allows more flexibility with a toddler since you aren’t necessarily interrupting someone else’s experience. Although we did have issues sitting still and watching the introduction video. It was okay in the end since they have well written plaques letting you know what you’re looking at.
The views along the pathways are breathtaking. We were treated to a pretty good view of the bridges and downtown, even though it was an overcast day. There are quite a few open areas and courtyards so the little guy was able to run out his energy. There are some crumbled buildings and ruins so you don’t want to stray too far from the paths.
Once you get to the prison cells at the top of the Island, you have the option to take an audio tour (included in the cost of the ticket). You line up around the outside of what used to hold the communal showers before receiving your audio player and headphones. They also gave my toddler his own set of headphones and an audio player and he loved it. It managed to keep him entertained him for quite a while which allowed us to enjoy our audio tour.
You are then herded up a narrow flight of stairs (or escorted to the elevator with the stroller), which leads to the cells. Now, imagine a massive group of people shuffling around in a big, open, cold space, barely uttering a word. It was pretty creepy but really cool that you had your own personal tour without interruptions or missing anything the guide was saying. I will mention that it’s very crowded since you are led to specific cells and told stories of the inmates. This was annoying as different people were working at different paces and generally getting in everyone’s way. So be prepared to be extra patient. This is where it’s great to have the smaller stroller allowing you to navigate better.
One of the most interesting features of the audio tour is that part of the tour is told by actual inmates themselves. The other 2 narrators were prison guards. This gives the experience an added element of authenticity since you can hear the emotion in their voices as they re-tell their stories.
The tour is self-paced (you can pause whenever you need), so you can take as long as you want or just run through. The toddler’s patience was running thin by the end of the tour and we were all getting hungry. We finished up and headed back to the ferry. The ferries leave the Island every half an hour so you can leave whenever you need.
Around the Departure Pier
Once we got back to Pier 33, we were a short walk to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. So, we were able to grab some lunch (many, many options) and then explored Pier 39. Our little guy LOVED this portion of the trip since we went to the candy store and then took a ride on the carousel.
Overall, our little guy managed the trip fairly well. We did use my phone to distract him a couple of times so I can report that there is good wireless signal along the pathways and walkways. But everyone was very patient and accommodating (especially with the audio tour). I will definitely be reading more about the Island and its inhabitants. I definitely didn’t appreciate the uniqueness of this Island before.
We would strongly recommend this tour and don’t worry about about bringing the little ones along. It will be just fine.