Alcatraz: Life on the Rock – Hilton Union Square & Parc 55 – San Francisco

categories: USA Travel

The lobbies of both the Hilton Union Square and its sister hotel Parc 55 in San Francisco have a new look. For one thing, there is a jail cell sitting in the lobby of the Hilton Union Square. No, this is not some new “get tough on people who steal towels” approach. It is part of a mobile exhibit from Alcatraz National Park (sponsored by Alcatraz Cruises) which will be in both hotels through June of 2018.

Alcatraz: Life on the Rock

As you enter the Parc55 hotel from valet parking you will enter through a jail themed sally port. There is also a collection of photos in an exhibit on that floor on the last prisoner to leave the Rock.


The Parc 55 lobby on the 2nd floor has a number of different displays about Alcatraz including some large photos that at each end of the lobby.

The lobby has a small theatre which displays a video documentary on the history of the island.

  • It started as a barren rock in the  harbor with only sea birds on it.
  • Just before the Civil War the U.S. fortified the island as part of a series of 3 forts that guarded the mouth of the harbor. This was to protect San Francisco Bay which was the most strategic harbor on the west coast. In the process they also brought over soil and plants.
  • As soon as the war started the army detained suspected southern sympathizers on the island in its first use as a prison.
  • After the war the fort became a military prison but was eventually closed because of the expense of running a prison where even drinking water had to be shipped in by barge. Military prisoners built the jail block that dominates the island today.
  • It was reopened in 1934 as a Federal prison for the worst of the worst as a new crime wave of gangsters swept across the nation. The crime wave was fueled by prohibition and the Great Depression. It again was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to run.
  • It was taken over by Native Americans in 1969 as part of a protest.
  • It became part of the National Park system in 1972.

You can learn more about some of the many movies that have been filmed at Alcatraz from the Birdman of Alcatraz to The Rock.


There are more displays about the families of the guards and officers that lived on the island during the days or the prison and its role as the first lighthouse of the U.S. on the west coast. There are artifacts in display cases such as  the notebook of Robert “the birdman” Stroud, Civil War era artifacts, and more.

The 3rd floor also has some displays on the conversion of Alcatraz to a National Park and the bird life on the island.

Speaker Series

Along with the many  displays in the hotel, there is also a speaker series once a month that is open to the public.

  • February 28, 2018, – Former Prisoner William G. Baker – AZ-1259
  • March 21, 2018 – Former Guard Jim Albright and former resident Cathy Albright
  • April 26, 2018 – Historian John Martini – 100 Years on the Island
  • May 24, 2018 – Former Resident and Warden’s Daughter Jolene Babyak

Each talk will take place in the Cable 55 restaurant, which is also serving two Alcatraz themed cocktails for the duration.

The Hotels – Parc 55

I was invited by the PR rep for the Parc 55 to come and stay to enjoy the exhibit and to get the word out about it. Even if you don’t get a chance to experience the hotel while it is hosting this Alcatraz exhibit, it is a beautiful hotel.

The Parc 55 and Hilton Union Square are kitty-corner from each other and are operated as a cross site property. You can stay at one hotel and use the fitness center or dine at the other (and bill the dinner to your room).


Both hotels are located between the shopping area on Market Street and Union Square. From the window of our room on the 28th floor we could look down on Neiman Marcus and the Westfield San Francisco Centre. The other window on our corner room looked out on the financial district and Salesforce Tower.

There are hotels for getting away from it all, but this is not one of them. You are in the vibrant heart of the city. As we walked past a street musician playing buckets and bottles and into Union Square my wife heard the tour bus tout chanting “hop on, hop off” while a street evangelist was at the same time shouting something about “Jesus”. She turned to me and said “I love the city”. She is the kind of person who should stay here.


Our room had a modern clean decor with chairs so deep that they begged to be incorporated into some kind of pillow fort.

The room was well wired for charging your electronics on the desk or at each of the end tables. The large flat screen TV had an amazing array of inputs should you want to bring your home theatre system. There was also a tablet on the desk with information about what was happening at the hotel or in the neighborhood.


We crossed over to the Hilton for dinner at the Urban Tavern where we ate ourselves silly from their relatively small but very diverse menu. Don’t try and order all the appetizers like we did. Don’t get me wrong, from the Charred Spanish Octopus to the Smokey Pimento Cheese to the Kimchi Fries, they were all great. We simply ordered too much food.

You need to leave some room for your main course. Some of our party raved over the Salmon while some raved over the Bolognese or the “Peking Chicken”, but all raved. I went simple with the Urban Burger and the Smashed Fries. I am a cheap but appreciative date.

We ended our evening at the Cityscape Bar & Lounge at the top (46th floor) of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square. Even if you are not going to order a drink (until June they also have Alcatraz themed cocktails), you need to visit Cityscape for the spectacular views of San Francisco at night. It is a perfect way to celebrate your visit.

For breakfast we had the buffet at Poached in the Hilton Union Square. They have a good, if not bargain priced, buffet with food for a western as well as an Asian pallet.

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Alcatraz: Life on the Rock - Hilton Union Square & Parc 55 - San Francisco

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by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

5 Responses to “Alcatraz: Life on the Rock – Hilton Union Square & Parc 55 – San Francisco”

Charles Prevatte


Looks like you had a great trip. I wish I could have got out to “the rock” on my one business trip to San Fransico, hey it is a reason to go back right?



of course πŸ™‚

Lizzy rhdoes


That food looks great! It’s so interesting that they do mobile museum exhibits!



This place looks really fascinating! I’ll definitely add it to my list of places to visit when I make it out to San Francisco!



It really is πŸ™‚

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