Standing at Eagle Plaza on Alcatraz Island, looking back at Nob Hill and the waterfront, San Francisco feels so, so close.
But anybody who’s swam in those waters will tell you just how far away it is.
Right now, if you go to Alcatraz, you’ll get that photogenic spot almost entirely to yourself, no swimming required. While the Alcatraz Cellhouse and other indoor areas are currently closed, this is still a perfect time to visit the island for the Bay Area’s most unique daytrip. Get your Alcatraz tickets here.
In this article, we’ll get you set up with some tips to explore Alcatraz like a seasoned park ranger. Visit for those views, for the lush gardens, and the history that ties into present-day social justice movements. You can take a deep dive into that history, learn about peregrine falcons on the island, and read special stories behind the colorful gardens, on our Escape to Alcatraz page.
Here are some of our insider tips:
Tip 1: Get ready for a new experience
Your safety is the top priority for the Parks Conservancy and our partners at Alcatraz Cruises and the National Park Service (NPS). Boats to the island are running at 20% of regular capacity, so there’s plenty of space to spread out. You’ll see social-distance markers at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing and at the Alcatraz dock on the island side.
When you arrive on the island, there are plenty of options to kick off your adventure. You can stop by the dock bookstore, get your free “Discover Alcatraz” map at one of several stations next to the bookstore, or stop by the ranger station under the guard tower to chat with your friendly NPS rangers—from a distance. Sorry, they can’t take that selfie with your camera.
Once you start wandering, you’ll see one-way signs at some points and hand sanitizer stations around the island. Common surfaces like benches are regularly disinfected. Enjoy the wide-open spaces of Alcatraz Island!
Tip 2: Take the brand-new outdoor tour
Our new audio tour is perfect for socially-distanced exploring. Download the tour onto your phone before your trip, and once you step foot on the island, you’ll be able to listen at your own pace, through your own device or your headphones.
The stories on the audio tour are crafted by Alcatraz staff, based on interviews with those formerly incarcerated, correctional officers and kids who grew up on the island, as well as decades of research into Alcatraz’s lesser-known history. The tour will only play on your phone once, so make sure to soak in this once-in-a-lifetime chance while you can! Find out more and download the new Alcatraz audio tour.
Tip 3: Find views and history
Looking for some specific spots to track down? Check out the aforementioned Eagle Plaza, at the very top of the island on the south side of the cellhouse, for great views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. Take the trail around the west side of the island to the Recreation Yard for a once-in-a-lifetime shot of the bridge. And make sure to stop along the path up to the cellhouse for views of the Bay with the colorful Alcatraz Historic Gardens in the foreground.
As soon as you land on the Alcatraz dock you’ll start seeing political slogans like “Indian Land” that were first painted during the Occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes in 1969. The slogan at the dock was repainted in fall 2019 by original Occupiers during an anniversary event. You’ll also see political slogans on the water tower, and there is another slogan on the water-facing side of the storehouse. The Occupation was a turning point for Native American rights that has many echoes to present-day social justice movements. Come back to Alcatraz when indoor spaces reopen to check out the exhibit Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspectives 50 Years Later in the New Industries Building.
Tip 4: Bask in the gardens
Another piece of history is all around you as you walk up to the cellhouse: The Alcatraz Historic Gardens. These gardens were first planted around the turn of the 20th century when the island was a military fort, and have gone through various ups and downs since. Right now they’re colorful and thriving, thanks to 17 years of dedicated work by volunteers with the NPS and Parks Conservancy.
Take the one-way path under the water tower to descend into one of the five gardens, and marvel at the dichotomy of bursting plant life amid the historic buildings all around. Take a look for the compost piles as you exit this garden, Alcatraz compost is award-winning and has its own story to tell.
Tip 5: Prepare yourself for a great trip!
There are several ways you can prepare for your visit to make sure you have an enjoyable and memorable daytrip.
First, make sure to download the audio tour app, charge your phone fully, and bring headphones for the best audio experience.
Also, make sure to bring your camera, bring layers for the wind, and bring comfortable shoes as the walk up to the cellhouse is steep. There is a tram on the island for those with mobility impairments. That’s one of many accessible features, find out more on the NPS Alcatraz accessibility page.
Make sure not to bring food, as there’s currently no food allowed on the island. You should plan on about 2-3 hours total for your trip, at least, to enjoy everything the island has to offer.
And remember, the only place to get tickets to Alcatraz is via Alcatraz Cruises. Get your tickets from Alcatraz Cruises and enjoy a wonderful day out on the island!