An island in the San Francisco Bay right off Oakland, Alameda feels like a different world compared to its distinctly urban neighbor. It has tree-lined streets, a charming historic commercial district, lots of parking and some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline in the whole Bay Area.
Originally a peninsula off Oakland, Alameda was transformed into an island in 1902 when a shipping canal was constructed. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, folks flocked to Alameda to enjoy Neptune Beach, an amusement park that was located in the current location of the Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach’s Crab Cove.
The man-made island was transformed once again with the opening of the Naval Air Station Alameda in 1940. Since the base closed in 1997, the former military lands have become known as Alameda Point and are home to popular attractions including Spirits Alley and the Alameda Point Antiques Fair.
1. Park Street
Park Street has long been the main drag of downtown Alameda. After 1864, Park Street became an important commercial district due in part to a railroad station located on the roadway. The Old Masonic Temple, which dates back to 1891, and a small newspaper hut from 1939 that still sells print periodicals are all that remain from those early days, while the current businesses are a welcoming mix of restaurants, thrift stores, boutiques and the High Scores Arcade, which features classic arcade games from the 1980s.
2. Pinball History
Photo by Stuart Thornton
Rather than interpreting the history of pinball machines through dusty displays, the Pacific Pinball Museum allows visitors to play over 90 different machines from 1898 all the way up to present day. Test your pinball prowess on pop culture themed machines including a Tron model, a killer Rolling Stones game and an inexplicable one based off TV’s police procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. As you play, songs like Parliament’s “Flashlight” and Devo’s “Whip It” play from the museum’s multiple jukeboxes. They rotate their jukebox selections regularly, so that on some days you can play with The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” as your inspiration.
Bay Area bargain hunters and antique pickers make monthly pilgrimages to the Alameda Point Antiques Fair, the largest antique show in Northern California. Over 800 booths sell artwork, furniture, jewelry, books and more at the fair’s site on the former Naval Air Station Alameda during the first Sunday of every month. Note that admission prices decrease during the day as some of the best collectibles are snatched up early. The folks behind the antique fair also do smaller, vintage fashion fairs twice a year.
4. Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach
Alameda has its own stretch of sand. Along its western flank, the Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach is a 2.5-mile fingernail of beach along a shallow, wading-friendly section of the San Francisco Bay. The waters offshore are one of the best places in the whole Bay Area for beginner kite surfers and windsurfers. Rent gear or take lessons through Boardsports California, who have a shack in the park that is open from late March to late September.
5. Spirits Alley
Photo by Stuart Thornton
In an inspired act of repurposing, the giant aircraft hangars of the decommissioned Naval Air Station Alameda are now home to a vibrant mix of artisan distilleries, tasting rooms and a brewery on a section of Alameda Point referred to as Spirits Alley. One highly recommended destination is St. George Spirits, where visitors can opt for a guided tasting or a distillery tour of one of the country’s longest running and best artisan spirits makers. The tour goes in-depth into the technical aspects of fermentation while you view the shiny, fluted stills that resemble an oversized horn section. The tastings include sips of the raspberry brandy, which is made with over 40 pounds of berries per bottle; and their Absinthe Verte, the nation’s first domestically stilled absinthe. Afterward, head next door to Faction Brewing to try their A-Town Pale, a brew that is only sold in establishments on Alameda Island to those taking in a stunning view of the San Francisco skyline and the lit-up Bay Bridge that from this establishment resembles a strand of Christmas lights strung across the bay at nighttime.
6. Alameda’s Military Past
The USS Hornet was active in World War II and the Vietnam War before retrieving astronauts from NASA’s Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 missions. Today, the 872-foot-long aircraft carrier is a hornet’s nest of activity as the USS Hornet Museum. Between its audio tours; guided tours; unique overnight opportunities; flight simulator; and exhibits on military history including the Battle of Santa Cruz, a major naval engagement between the Japanese and U.S. in 1942, there’s no shortage of exploratory options. Fighter plane buffs should not miss the aircraft displayed on the carrier’s flight deck.
7. Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails
You would not expect to find one of Alameda’s best restaurants in a shopping center behind a Trader Joe’s, but that is where you’ll find Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails, a stunning modern Italian restaurant hyped by Zagat and KQED’s Bay Area dining program Check, Please. Locally sourced ingredients fuel pizzas; wood-fired meats; and homemade pastas including a standout dish of squash, walnuts, Parmesan cheese and a brown butter sage sauce tucked into a ravioli pillow. The impressive cocktail list utilizes liquors made on the island by St. George Spirits and Hangar 1 Vodka.
Stuart Thornton lives in coastal California and is the author of the Moon Coastal California Handbook, the Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast Handbook, Moon California Road Trip, and the Moon Monterey & Carmel Handbook.