No visit to San Francisco is complete without a visit to the most infamous prison in America, Alcatraz, known as The Rock. This former prison sits in San Francisco Bay, with the lights of San Francisco beaming ever so close but out of reach for those prisoners who were incarcerated here.
Taking your kids to Alcatraz is a fun way to step back in history. Even though it is not a prison anymore, the site is still very creepy and really gives you the feeling of being in a wind-swept, isolated place. Don’t worry, though, it is still kid-friendly, and its history as a scary place shouldn’t keep you from visiting with your family!
Alcatraz is an island and therefore, access is only by boat. Tickets for the boat and tour sell out very quickly, particularly in the summer. When we arrived for our tour, the next available tour date for purchase was over a week away! Buy your tickets ahead of time through the National Park Service authorized provider, Alcatraz Tours. The ticket will include your ferry ride to and from the island and your audio guide for touring the island. I recommend buying tickets for the morning tour or mid-afternoon tour so you do not have to worry about eating on the island.
You will need to arrive 30 minutes before your tour time and you will wait at the ferry building, located at Pier 33 in San Francisco. There is room for the kids to explore a few exhibits while you wait in line. Don’t miss the huge replica model of the island! Once they begin boarding for your tour time, take your seats on the boat and get ready for your adventure!
The weather in the Bay is notoriously windy and unpredictable so I recommend sitting inside during the trip to the island. The views of the Golden Gate bridge and the city are beautiful from the boat and may be worth a quick peek outside if the weather cooperates! Definitely bring a coat, hat, and gloves for the trip, even during the summer. San Francisco has very unpredictable weather and the boat trip to Alcatraz is even more unpredictable! We went in August and were thankful for our fleece coats.
Once the boat docks at the island, you will have as much time as you want to explore. The island is large and very hilly so a stroller for little ones is highly recommended.
There are restrooms, a small gift shop, and theater located at the dock but I recommend skipping these for later when you are waiting on the boat back to the city. You will want to get to the boat area in plenty of time for your return boat as the boats only hold a certain number of people. You can always wait on the next boat but with kids, that is not ideal!
Ask the park ranger who greets your boat about the Junior Ranger brochure for your children. This is a fun way to keep them engaged throughout the tour! Also check with the ranger about the next guided tour. This is a great way to learn more history about the island and to hear some of the unbelievable stories that have happened here! This tour is short but informative and gives you a better sense of the layout of Alcatraz. They really bring the island alive before you get into the actual jail.
After the tour ends, continue the long walk up a pretty steep hill to the cellhouse entrance, where you will receive your audio guide. This room, the former shower room, is large, and the line looks long but it will move quickly. The audio guide is definitely necessary to understand the prison and is narrated by former guards and inmates.
You will then work your way through the self-guided tour. Depending on the ages of your children and interest level, you can linger as long as you want or skip sites as needed. The cells are pretty grimy and dirty, which gives you a sense of atmosphere but may scare young children.
There are also opportunities to head outside if you need to take a break or the kids need to get some energy out!
Some of the highlights for my children were the actual jail cells, the dining room with the last morning’s breakfast menu still displayed, and the stories of the escape attempts. The audio guide does a great job explaining the multiple escape attempts and my kids still discuss their opinions on if anyone ever truly got away!
The tour ends outside with an amazing view of San Francisco. This is a great spot for pictures if the weather is nice.
You can head back inside to return your audio guide and to end your tour at the large and extensive gift shop. My kids loved all of the souvenirs, including books and a jail cell key replica!
The rest of the island can be explored if you have older children who want to see more exhibits or who want to try some additional walking trails. Be warned that these trails are steep and can be dangerous in bad weather.
If you have time while waiting on the ferry, the theater provides a nice break. Before you leave, be sure to have your children ask the park rangers if they have seen any sharks at the Alcatraz dock! Our ranger told us about a recent great white shark at the dock that was captured on video, which is quite terrifying but thrilled our young shark enthusiasts!
Your kids will always remember their tour of Alcatraz. Something about the place just really stays with you and the stories told on the tour are very memorable. It is a must-see historic site while visiting San Francisco!
- Cost: $40/adult and youth (12+); $24.40/children 5-11; Free for children 4 and under; family tickets available ($120.25/2 adults, 2 children)
- Recommended: ages 6 and up (site has steep hills and rough terrain)
- Cell block tour takes an hour; plan on spending 3-4 hours total at the site, including the boat rides
- Gift shops are located at the pier, dock, and at the end of the cell block tour
- Transportation: Pier 33 is located along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The F Line trolley and MUNI buses run right along the Embarcadero-use the Bay Street stop. Parking garages are nearby but are expensive and can fill up. Your best bet if you are staying in a San Francisco hotel is to walk or take a cab/car service there.
- Dining options: The boat has some food options for sale. There is no food service on the island and limited picnic sites. The touristy Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf is only a 6 minute walk away from Pier 33. There are lots of family-friendly food options there.
- Hotels nearby: The hotels of the Fisherman’s Wharf area are very close by. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency, which is a 30 minute walk along the Embarcadero.
- Nearby attractions include: Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf (shopping, dining, kids’ activities, sea lions), Aquarium of the Bay, all types of sightseeing and whale cruises at Piers 39, 41, and 43, and the Exploratorium
Books to read:
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- 6 and up:
Have you been to Alcatraz? Do you think anyone escaped? Comment below!