An absolute must-do attraction for families with school-aged kids in San Francisco, Alcatraz Island, run by the National Parks Service, is a half-day tour that will wisk families across the bay by boat to the most famed island in the Bay Area. Departing from Pier 33 on the Embarcadero, the tour is self-guided, which makes it flexible for families, and utterly fascinating, which makes it an unbeatable way to spend half a day in the city.
Our boys, all school-aged, agreed touring Alcatraz was the highlight of our three days in San Francisco with kids. What made it so great? First off, the boat ride over and back is fun, and on clear days, like we lucked out with, it’s beautiful. We got a great glimpse of both the city skyline and the bridge, and from the top deck of the boat, were able to watch Alcatraz approach.
At the dock, boat passengers are greeted by a park ranger, who gives a brief overview of the island’s history. (I knew Alcatraz was a military fort before it became a prison, but had no idea it had also been the site of an American Indian social movement in the ’60s.) From there, families walk up the ramp to the old fort, where they can watch a short video. (This is a great orientation to what you’ll see in the prison, and it’s only about 15 minutes long.)
The tour of the prison is an audio-tour, and it’s fantastic. (I found out later it’s actually award-winning.) It was easy for even our youngest child (seven years old) to follow along, and the narrative is peppered with first-hand accounts from innates and guards alike (and even some of the children of the guards, who lived on the island). We were engrossed, and loved how easy it was to walk through the grounds following the directions on the audio tour. (A few times, we had to steer our kids in the correct direction, but the tour can be ‘paused’, so it wasn’t a problem.) The tour takes about 45 minutes, and deposits you in the gift shop (surprise, surprise). This is a very nice gift shop however, and I promise you’ll be tempted by something.
There’s no food or drink up at the prison area, but snacks and drinks are allowed by the boat dock. (Bring your own.) Also nearby is a visitor’s center with bookstore, and an info station where kids can earn Junior Ranger badges.
Tip: Pick up Junior Ranger booklets right after getting off the boat, before your tour. The activities are throughout the island, so you’ll want to do them as you go. The info station is not always manned (usually by the same ranger leading talks) so ask in the bookstore if no one is present. They didn’t have the booklets there, but could point us in the direction of another ranger.
Boats return to the mainland about every 30 minutes, so after the tour, families can walk around the island at their leisure (various outdoor areas are open in various seasons), and return whenever they want. Allow for a full morning or full afternoon from start to finish. You’ll want to bring sweatshirts if the weather is chilly (which is almost always) and keep in mind that while regularly sized day packs are allowed, large suitcases and large coolers are not.
Date last visited:
Distance from the interstate:
Pier 33 is on the Embarcadero, a few minutes by car from I-80 or Highway 101. Parking in the area can be found in parking garages, or both MUNI and the cable cars stop nearby.
Alcatraz tickets can be purchased ahead of time online through Alcatraz Cruises, the private ferry company that works in tandem with the National Park Service (recommended, as it does sell out). Tickets are $28 for adults and $17 for kids 5-11. Detailed pricing is here.
Alcatraz CityPASS option: By far the best deal for touring Alcatraz is to bundle it with a San Francisco CityPASS. CityPASS booklets grant admission to San Francisco attractions at an almost 50% discount, and have recently created an option to substitute their Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise admission for an Alcatraz admission. To include Alcatraz in your San Francisco CityPASS, families MUST call Alcatraz Cruises and reserve their tour time, letting the operator know their intention of using CityPASS. Unlike the ‘regular’ CityPASS booklets, which can be purchased online, the pass including Alcatraz must be purchased at Alcatraz Cruises. Therefore, if you’ll want to make Alcatraz your first San Francisco stop (to pick up your CityPASS booklets when boarding the boat).
Hours of operation:
Tours run all day and into the evening, depending on season.
Pier 33 is easy to find (and clearly marked) on the Embarcadero.
As I disclose whenever applicable, we experienced Alcatraz using provided CityPASS booklets, for the purpose of review. This compensation came with no expectation of a positive review.