Alcatraz Island has a dark and fascinating history as a prison, a military garrison, the sight of a native activist movement, and much more. The island is home to the oldest lighthouse on the west coast of the United States. There is so much history here to take in, from gripping tales of prisoner escape to inspiring protests. Alcatraz has long served as a guardian of the San Francisco Bay. Here are the best sights to see and things to do on your visit to one of America’s National Historic Landmarks.

Photo Credit: Mather Fournier on Unsplash.comThe Alcatraz Ferry
Alcatraz is only accessible via a short ferry trip from the mainland. It’s normally about a 15-minute trip, but as they say, getting there is half the fun. Get a great view of San Francisco from the water with the majestic Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Ferries depart regularly every half hour and you can take any ferry back to the city. If you take the evening ferry, you can circle the island while listening to live commentary.

Photo Credit: Constante Ken Lim on
The Cellhouse
See firsthand where prisoners slept, ate, and lived. The prison dates back to the American Civil War where prisoners of war were held in these very cells. You can even visit cell 181 where Al Capone was held. Guided audio tours are available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Mandarin.

Photo Credit: Carles Rabada on
The Lighthouse
Alcatraz is home to the first lighthouse built on the west coast of the United States. The original was completed in 1854, but was later replaced by a taller concrete version in 1909. It served not only as a lighthouse but also a sinister guard tower overlooking the entrance to the prison. Climb to the top for great views of San Francisco Bay.

Photo Credit: Nadine Shaabana on
Watch Seabirds
Most people are familiar with Alcatraz as a prison, but few know it as a natural bird sanctuary. The first inhabitants of the island were not humans, but colonies of seabirds. Alcatraz’s inaccessibility from the mainland makes it the perfect place for these birds to mate and build nests away from predators.

Photo Credit: Quentin Dr on