Will I be able to see anything recognizable on Alcatraz from shore? Like from Pier 39 in San Francisco.

  • I do not have binoculars, and the idea I had @pnuts is that I wouldn't look at a photograph, I would just go there (at Pier 39) and discover Alcatraz! I remember when I was in Meteora and saw the "landmark" through the fog...it was stunning!
    – gsamaras
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 19:29
  • I did my research on the map @pnuts! :/ I had tried to figure out the distance, but I don't know what would be something eligible for this. For example, when you said 2.5 miles, this didn't mean anything to me, without your explanation... ;)
    – gsamaras
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 19:34
  • Great @pnuts, thank you for letting me know. But yes, fog is horrible here in San Francisco!!! :/
    – gsamaras
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 19:42
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    I am not exactly sure how can this be answerable. If you don't want to visit Alcatraz Island yes it does. If you want to tour inside no it doesn't. If you want to know whether you'll be able to see details of the building and island will depend on your eyesight or available optics.
    – Karlson
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 20:03
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    There used to be coin-operated binoculars on the SF shore. Haven't checked in a long time. Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 20:25

3 Answers 3


Yes. Assuming a reasonably clear time of day with visibility of a couple miles (which is not at all a given, see comments about fog above), the island and the prison building are easily visible from along the northern waterfront or from a building with a view of the northern waterfront.

For example, let's Google Street View ourselves to the Pier 39 area. That island with the white building is Alcatraz. The big building in the middle is the prison. Just look out over the Bay and there it is. There should be some coin-operated binoculars around if you want a closer look.

I'd embed the Street View photo, but since you want the "element of surprise," I'll link it instead. I've provided some annotations.

You can see it from much further away too. Here's the view from the Top of the Mark cocktail bar at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill. A building obscures half of it, but there's Alcatraz right in the Bay.

Or go all the way back to Twin Peaks, and you can still see it on a clear day, albeit from a greater distance. That's about 5.5 miles.

Wondering if the weather is cooperating? There are a number of webcams around the Bay you can consult. There's supposed to be two on Alcatraz itself, though they aren't working for me at this moment. Alcatraz is clearly visible on this webcam at the South End Rowing Club (despite the name, it's located on the northern edge of the city) when it's clear, and obscured by fog when it's not. Note that this camera moves around on its own sometimes; when it's pointed at the prison with the ship's masts in the foreground, you have the right image.

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    The Street View photosphere is a very low resolution image, which renders Alcatraz as a blob. I was in San Francisco on a clear day in May and took a photograph from around the same location. Even with just a 40mm lens (i.e., not any sort of telephoto "zoom" lens and not a terrible approximation to what you'd see with the naked eye), you can make out the windows on the main prison block without zooming in to the image. By the way, the big hump to the right of the prison in the Street View image is Angel Island, which is another couple of miles behind Alcatraz. Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 21:03

With the naked eye from the shore nearby the island is visible, though without much detail and subject to weather conditions (eg fog) etc.

Being a small island and 2.5 miles offshore a small coin held at arm's length onshore would probably be just about enough to obscure the whole island. Though It does not occupy much of the area of sight, from there at least a building and a tower should be discernible, together with some other details, even if it is not clear what these other details are.

With vision assistance (eg binoculars or camera) the island might well fill the field of view without loss of much definition.

For me a visit to the island has very little appeal but seeing it from shore is something I would like to do. The cost/time/administration involved with a tour just does not seem worthwhile to me but I feel a sense of significance and marvel achievable just by live observation from a distance. Prisons are mostly four (probably drab) walls and a lot of security the world over. Alcatraz's USP was its location in the bay and how effective a mere 2.5 miles of water was as a 'moat'. That can be seen when looking towards the island almost as well as when looking from the island.

I have not posted an image because the OP has indicated a desire to keep sight of it as a surprise until there. However photos can easily be found on Google Earth that indicate how much can be seen from shore.

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    It's been a while since I've visited, but I personally found the tour rather worthwhile, at least if you get tickets well in advance and can just show up and hop on the boat. They have a really well done audio tour with commentary on the prison by former guards and inmates and have done a nice job of trying to give you a feel for the place when it was operational, without being too cheesy or dramatic. At the end of the day, it is just a prison, and I don't think it's a significant disappointment for someone not to visit, but it's a quality tour (and you get a short bay cruise out of the trip). Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 20:48
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    Also note, there are sometimes special exhibitions. We visited (twice) in conjunction with an installation on political prisoners by Ai Weiwei. As China had confiscated his passport, the installation was done by volunteers directed by phone. (I believe, iPhone.) Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 20:52
  • It does require booking far in advance, and I certainly think you can come to San Francisco and have a great visit without going out to Alcatraz, so it's not the end of the world if you can't get tickets, and like you say, it's expensive. For the day tour, you can wander around at your own pace and use the audioguide, so if there are strange people around, you can simply move away from them. I should also mention there are additional exhibits on the Indian occupation, which are an attraction for some visitors. Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 21:04

Besides the view from shore at the various points mentioned by Zach, if you go to the Alcatraz ticket office, you can also see quite a large model of the island. This would allow you toview the island and be able to identify exactly what parts of it you're seeing.

I've been to Alcatraz twice and I definitely think it's worth a visit. It's so striking being on the island and seeing the locations you would be aware of from the movie.

If you really want to get a feel of the idea of escaping from the island, you can sign up for a swim from Alcatraz (actually from a boat just off the island) to the mainland. Here's one company that organises them. It's on my todo list.

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