If you are visiting San Francisco or live in the area, be sure to include Alcatraz on your itinerary! It is a fun trip to do with your kids, and really brings history to life. Here are our top tips for visiting Alcatraz for families.
Alcatraz for Families: San Francisco with Kids
Alcatraz is most well known as an infamous prison, but it was also a military garrison as well as the site of one of the most significant political protests of the modern American Indian movement. In addition, it is a spectacular way to experience San Francisco Bay.
Here are our tops tips for visiting Alcatraz for families:
Alcatraz for Families: Top Tips
Be careful of parking! Choose your parking lot/garage wisely. We parked very close by, and after we had already paid a large sum for all day parking, a bus driver took the time to flag us down, honking at us and warning us to be careful of thieves (!) We moved our car to the middle of the lot, took all our valuables with us, and hoped for the best, but when we returned in the evening, we did see two cars on the perimeter of the lot that had their windows busted out. Next time, we will probably choose a parking garage, even if it means a bit more walking.
Don’t worry, there are bathrooms on Alcatraz and on the ferry! There are also plenty of bathrooms at the dock back on the mainland, which is really convenient if you just drove in from outside the city.
Buy your tickets ahead of time.
Tours of Alcatraz sell out weeks ahead of time, so buy your tickets early. You will find plenty of companies offering tours: We chose Alcatraz Cruises because they are an official vendor with the National Park Service. You can find all the most up-to-date information about the tours on their website.
Plan on 3-4 hours.
There is a lot to see on Alcatraz, so allow for plenty of time on the island. The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes each way, and you need to queue up 20-30 minutes ahead of your departure time. (You won’t miss the boat if you get in line later, but you may not have a place to sit). On Alcatraz, the main attraction is the tour of the cells, plus there are special exhibits and gardens to see. We arrived on the 1 pm ferry (easy to do if you are coming from Sacramento, as we were), and left on the 4:25 pm ferry back to San Francisco. From there it is an easy walk to Pier 39, where you can have a bite to eat, look at the shops, or (if it’s the right season) see the sea lions.
Food and beverage (other than water) are not allowed on the ferry or most of the island, but they are allowed at the dock. Since you’ll be spending several hours at Alcatraz, I recommend at least packing snacks. (Keep in mind that as of this writing there isn’t any food for sale on Alcatraz either). We packed a light lunch and ate it on some of the benches looking out over the bay. It is a nice place to take a breather and enjoy the view.
San Francisco is notorious for its changeable weather, which can be quite cool even in the middle of summer. We were there in July, and it was cold, especially on the island! The best thing to do is wear layers. If the sun comes out, you can always shed a layer or two, but you are going to want some good jackets for most of your time on Alcatraz.
Wear good walking shoes.
There is a lot of walking on Alcatraz, and most of it involves hills. My husband and I didn’t have any problems (except I wished I had brought my real sneakers instead of my cute ones), but the kids needed to have some breaks in the walk up to the main cell block.
Everything on the island is wheelchair accessible. They even have a special shuttle service for those with mobility issues, but this does not include those with small children. So if you have little ones, be sure to bring a stroller or carrier.
Don’t miss the audio tour.
When I asked my kids what their favorite part of Alcatraz was, the audio tour of the cells won hands down. You can either use the devices available there, or download the app on your phone once you arrive. The tour really brings history to life, as you walk down the corridors and peer into the cells (you can even walk into some!) hearing the voices of former prisoners and guards.
Have you ever visited Alcatraz?