My best tips for visiting Alcatraz – get it all to yourself!

Tickets to Alcatraz usually sell out in advance. If you plan on putting this old prison, turned into a major tourist attraction, on your list of things to see in San Francisco, you’re far from the only one. Imagine spending hours among hundreds of tourists listening to the same audio tour – I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound too tempting to me. Luckily, there’s a way to get Alcatraz to yourself without paying anything extra. We did it last year when we visited, and I’m about to reveal how – this is my very best tips for visiting Alcatraz!

Alcatraz Ferry
You’ll start your visit by taking the ferry to Alcatraz.

What should I know before visiting Alcatraz?

If you didn’t know it already, this prison in San Francisco Bay is situated on an island, as seen in the photo above. It’s accessible by a 15-minute ferry ride, which is included in the price of the ticket. There are a few different kinds of tours and experiences to choose from, such as a night tour and a behind the scenes tour. We went on a self-guided audio tour.

Alcatraz used to be full of prisoners, some of them have you likely already heard of, but don’t worry – the prison closed in 1963, so you don’t need to feel anxious about any unpleasant encounters. All you will find today is a place with a lot of stories to tell you.

Not only is Alcatraz a perfect destination for anyone interested in history (or tv-shows such as Orange is The New Black, or why not movies such as The Rock), but you’ll also find a seabird colony on Alcatraz Island. In addition, Alcatraz also offers beautiful views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Visiting Alcatraz
Going on a self-guided tour around Alcatraz is perfect for any history lover. If you follow my advice, you could even get Alcatraz to yourself!

Where do I buy my tickets to Alcatraz?

You can buy your tickets online on the official website. Have in mind that they often sell out in advance.

What is the Alcatraz self-guided tour like?

The self-guided tour lets you explore Alcatraz at your own pace. Your ticket will allow you to stay on the island for as long as you like, until the last ferry leaves to take you back to San Francisco. In other words, there’s no need to hurry.

Upon arrival, you will queue to get a headset. After that, you’re free to roam around Alcatraz while listening to your audio tour.

Self-guided tour Alcatraz
Alcatraz gets very crowded, but there’s a way to get it all to yourself.

My best tips for visiting Alcatraz – how to get it all to yourself

Finally, it’s time for the secret I said I’d share with you – how did we get Alcatraz to ourselves?

Take the first ferry to Alcatraz in the morning

To begin with, you’ll need to take the very first ferry of the day. When we booked our tickets, they were called “early bird tickets”. They cost just as much as regular day tour tickets.

Taking the first ferry of the day will give you great opportunities to explore Alcatraz before the big crowd of tourists arrive. Stay close to the exit on the ferry so you’ll be one of the first to set your foot on Alcatraz Island. This will give you a huge advantage, and you’ll soon see why!

Arriving at Alcatraz – know where to go

When you arrive at Alcatraz, make your way directly towards the prison, up the hill. Some people will probably go this way directly as well, while some is staying down at the information centre for a while. Follow the people that are heading to the start of the audio tour, where you’ll later get your headset.

This is where you part ways from everyone else – don’t queue for the audio tour, but look to your left instead. If you see a staircase and an open door, like in the photo below, head over there directly! We were a bit unsure if we were allowed to go there, since nobody else did, so we asked one of the tour guides working at Alcatraz. “Yes, of course, you can go there, but then you might have to queue for a longer time to get your audio tour headset later”, he replied.

My best tips for visiting Alcatraz
My best tips for visiting Alcatraz is going directly through that open door instead of queuing for the audio tour!

We didn’t hesitate and left for the “secret passage” directly – which immediately let us into Alcatraz and let us have the prison for ourselves for over 15 minutes. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were!

The best way to see Alcatraz

To me, this is the absolute best way to see Alcatraz. Take your time, wander around and take photos of Alcatraz without any tourists in sight. Then, when you’re done exploring on your own or when people start arriving with their headsets, you can make your way back to the place where the audio tour starts. Luckily, we only had to queue for about 10 minutes before we got our headsets.

If you want to get a unique experience, this is definitely my best tips for visiting Alcatraz. Wandering around the prison by ourselves was the highlight of our self-guided day tour!

Since we’re travelling on a budget, we rarely spend money on tours and tourist attractions. However, Alcatraz was one of the must-sees in San Francisco and I’m extremely glad we decided to go!

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This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. madhu sharma

    Missed visiting Alcatraz during my visit to SFO ..will definitely visit next time

    1. Amanda

      Yes, I can highly recommend it!

  2. Ophelie

    When I visited SF a long time ago I didn’t know I should have booked my ticket 2 months in advance therefore I couldn’t visit it. I was so frustrated so I swear to myself that the next time I will visit SF I will make sure to anticipate. Thanks to your super tip now I even know how to get it all to myself: amazing! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Amanda

      Yes, I was lucky enough to check out the website in advance, otherwise i might not have got any tickets either. Next time you’ll be super prepared!

  3. Sandra // BlueMarble Vagabonds

    Oh, that’s a great tip! Always try to visit places when less people is around – we even managed to get to Louvre with halls practically empty. So, thanks for the tip, will definitely keep this in mind 🙂

    1. Amanda

      Oh you did, that’s quite the accomplishment – it’s been super busy every time I’ve been there!

  4. Sharyn

    This is one place I really want to go. I’m so looking forward to being able to travel again.

    1. Amanda

      Yes, me too. I hope you get to go when all this is over!

  5. Joanna

    The audio tour of Alcatraz is the best I have ever done.

    1. Amanda

      Yes, it was a really interesting one!

  6. Alexandra Booze

    I visited Alcatraz in 2017 and it was one of the best experiences! I loved taking the Ferry over to the island. I wish I would have read your post before I went!

    1. Amanda

      Yes, I agree, it was a cool experience. I also loved taking the ferry, such a beautiful environment!

  7. Natalie

    Alcatraz is definitely on my list! I am curious about the history of Alcatraz.. were the prisoners treated poorly there? It seems almost ironic to have a massive prison on such a beautiful place.

    1. Amanda

      From my understanding, there were different types of punishments for prisoners not behaving. One was being isolated in a completely dark room for days! Yes, I agree, the views from Alcatraz Island are stunning. I hope you get to go there one day!

  8. I love a bit of dark tourism and visiting prisons and things like that are so fascinating! Useful information for someone planning to go!

    1. Amanda

      Yes, it’s definitely an unique experience!

  9. josypheen

    What a genius tip!! The main reason I tend to avoid super popular sights like this is because they are so flipping busy, it’s not so fun. Your way might be early, but it makes the whole experience sound more fun!!

    1. Amanda

      Yes, same here – we either wake up really early or just skip the super busy attrations. So really gad we managed to get Alcatraz to ourselves, that was a surprise!

  10. Audrey

    This is by far the most useful post I have ever seen! Tips to have an attraction to myself, yes please!

    1. Amanda

      Thank you so much Audrey, I’m glad you like it! Totally agree, I prefer to have it that way haha!

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