I’d like to say I went on the first tour of the day to Alcatraz because it would to allow me to experience the island with less people. The truth is, I waited too long to book and it was the only option left. I purchased my ticket two weeks before my arrival and it was already too late, I was super bummed to be honest. I had been on the day trip six years ago and wanted to go at night after reading that it’s a completely different, slightly spooky experience. Still, I was not disappointed in the least. This is just an incredibly beautiful and interesting place to visit, no matter the time of day, and the Garden Tour, for obvious reasons, isn’t offered at night. However, if you have a particular preference, my first tip is to book your ticket months ahead of time!
While Alcatraz is managed by National Parks Service, the ferry service is operated by Alcatraz Cruises. This is the company you must purchase your ticket through. (You can click here to book your trip to Alcatraz.)
As I arrived at Pier 33, there were already crowds, but since it was so early everyone was quiet and peaceful, still trying to wake up. I guess I was still waking up too, as upon arriving at the ticket booth, I realized that I had left my ID in the hotel room on accident when switching out my backpack for the day. This was an issue as I needed to show ID and my electronic voucher to receive my printed tickets, but luckily, there was a very nice girl in the booth who let me get by with verifying my home address.
After that, I popped into The Cafe, got some fruit, a drink, and a breakfast sandwich to stash in my backpack for later.
As we boarded the ferry, I noticed everyone racing to the upper level, so I made a decision to stay on the lower level and walked out to the back of the boat. Here I found myself to be completely alone for most of the peaceful morning ride out to the island.
Upon arrival, there is a short briefing and if you’re lucky, a former prisoner named Bill Baker will also be there to speak. He has written a book titled, Alcatraz – 1259 which details his experiences in Alcatraz, and the reasons he ended up here. He will happily talk with you, sign your copy of the book and take pictures with you in the gift shop. (You can click here to listen to a fascinating NPR interview with Bill at 80 years old, as he returned to stay a night on Alcatraz many years after his incarceration.) He was definitely one of the biggest highlights of my day. I bought one of his books and talked with him for a while, but what I enjoyed most was listening to the stories and messages he shared with the children who came up to see him. He is quite a character who speaks candidly about his time in, and escaping from, various prisons.
If there happens to be a Garden Tour offered while you’re there, make sure you take it, whether you’re interested in gardening or not. I’ll admit that I am a bit of a gardening nerd myself, and I actually completed the Master Gardening Program from the University of Hawaii a few years ago, but I often forget this fun fact about myself because I don’t consider myself to be a true Master Gardener. I still kill plants much more often than I encourage them to thrive and my approach to gardening is really just a glorified survival of the fittest scenario.
The information shared in the garden tour encompasses the entire history of the island, personal stories of many of the prisoners and others who lived on the island, as well as, a brief education in composting practices. It also details the extensive restoration that has taken place to ensure the historical accuracy of the gardens, and you get to access many areas that you wouldn’t otherwise. This is honestly one of the best tours offered anywhere in my opinion, and it’s FREE, since it’s included in the price of your ticket! And…if you’re having an exceptionally lucky day, Dick Miner will be your docent. He leaves absolutely nothing out, is a venerable wealth of Alcatraz information and you can tell how much he loves every second of it. I honestly could have hung out with him hearing fascinating stories all day!
Make sure you plan to spend a minimum of half a day on the island, and bring a small backpack with sandwiches, sunscreen, and plenty of water, so you can take a picnic break and rest your feet. This is truly one of the most beautiful, and fascinating places to visit in San Francisco, and if you’ve found yourself here on a lovely day, you will want to linger. In addition to touring the gardens and the grounds, the island offers many great photo ops with downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and Angel Island as backdrops. You’ll want to have loads of additional time and maybe wear a nicer than normal outfit for photos, but super comfy shoes for walking. Having plenty of food, snacks, and drinks with you will also make it a much more enjoyable day. There’s nothing like a little peaceful picnic to give you a second wind. There are very limited, and expensive, food items for purchase on the island, so best to buy them beforehand. Just make sure that you only eat at the boat dock area where you were dropped off.
Oh, and…..don’t skip the self-guided audio tour! It is also included in your ticket price, is done very well and makes you feel like you are back in the days when the notorious gangster, Al Capone and several other infamous prisoners were in residence.
When you return to Pier 33, you’ll likely be hungry and a little tired after covering every inch of Alcatraz by foot. The perfect place to go is Fog Harbor Fish House at Pier 39. Just walk directly out to the sidewalk and turn right after the boat drops you back at Pier 33. Then follow the sidewalk until you get to Pier 39. This is a lovely short walk on a pretty day and once there, you will find loads of restaurants to choose from, some shopping, and mounds of barking sea lions! (You can click here to see all there is to do at Pier 39.)
*Make sure you get to Fog Harbor Fish House as early as you can (I made it by 4:30 and still got a window table with no reservation.) or, if you’re going to arrive after 5pm, best to make a reservation beforehand and REQUEST A WINDOW TABLE!
I can tell you that the Crab Cakes, Cioppino and Mixed Grill are divine! I saw the whole garlic dungeness crab at the table next to me and it looked and smelled wonderful, but I wasn’t in the mood for that much work and mess. For dessert, I had the Crème Brulée and Flourless Chocolate Cake Combo, and would do it again, several times over.
After dinner, take a walk further down the pier toward the water and the small lighthouse. You should see, and hear, piles of sea lions basking in the sun on the boat docks in front of lighthouse. This is a good spot to watch the sunset, if you have more time and any energy left to linger.
*Neither Alcatraz nor Fog Harbor House are paying me, or compensating me in any way for this endorsement. I am sharing my own experience and knowledge in the hopes that others can use it to plan a great day on The Rock as well.