From Interstate 880, through an ugly industrial stretch, across the bridge spanning the Oakland Estuary, Park Street teems with eateries, shops, a food hall, a couple bars, a coffee counter, a corner newsstand booth, a gym. Driving through, it’s tight. Traffic bottlenecks, pedestrians cross when they shouldn’t, restaurant tables choke the street and sidewalks—typical Bay Area congestion. Keep going for a few miles and Park Street begins to breathe, and when it dead-ends at Shoreline Drive, you’re at the beach.
This is Alameda, the island that sits in the East Bay across from San Francisco, separated from Oakland by a channel that houses multiple marinas. Boats loll in slips, empty masts standing sentry, while sailboats and powerboats cruise the channel and the bay, ducking around windsurfers and paddle boarders. Along the Shoreline Trail, which is sandwiched between waterfront condo and apartment buildings—most of which look like they went up in the ’60s—and the bay, people jog and walk and cycle. Going one direction, they face the San Francisco skyline; going the other, a bird sanctuary. A drive out toward Alameda Point (the land once occupied by the Naval Air Station Alameda) leads to the USS Hornet ship/museum, a new waterfront park and ferry terminal, and a series of hangars-turned-bars in Spirits Alley, one of the coolest drinking spots in the Bay Area.
Let’s explore the island.
Park Street and Alameda City Center—This part of the city is laid out on a grid, so it’s easy to park the car and walk. It’s also easy to spend a whole day just in this section of town, with Park Street’s shops and restaurants and the beautiful buildings and landmarks to admire on surrounding streets. Highlights include, believe it or not, ALAMEDA HIGH SCHOOL, on Central Avenue—you can’t miss it. On the National Register of Historic Places, the school was built in 1924 and underwent a $60 million renovation, preserving the original neoclassical revival-style façade, and reopened to students in 2019 after being shuttered for more than four decades. Another historic building, the Art Deco-style ALAMEDA THEATRE, built in 1932, has been beautifully renovated; you can see movies there today (COVID vaccine required). A favorite Alameda stop for foodies: ALAMEDA MARKETPLACE, with a salad bar, sushi bar, butcher counter (with seafood), coffeehouse, bakery (pick up the daily cheese stick pastry), Mediterranean takeout spot, cheese shop and natural foods store, all in one location. Park Street and surrounding downtown avenues teem with shops and restaurants. Another: DAN’S FRESH PRODUCE, a corner shed packed with organic produce, nuts, local breads and other goodies you can’t fi nd anywhere else. Stop in BOOKS INC. to check out the latest releases; play a few games at HIGH SCORES ARCADE; pick up a gift for a friend—or gain inspiration for reorganizing your own home—at the carefully curated DAISY’S MERCANTILE (most unique greeting card selection we’ve seen in a while); and peruse the used books, vintage records and throwback clothing at ROCKET REUSE. At OLE’S WAFFLE SHOP, a line forms out front on weekends—people amassing to indulge in breakfast (or lunch or dinner) that includes the waffles served since 1927. (The mix can be purchased as well.) Similarly, HOMESKILLET packs ’em in for breakfast and lunch, but the house specialty is . . . doughnuts. Matcha green tea-glazed, maple-bacon-topped, blueberry fritters, thick cinnamon ropes—no one goes hungry. MONKEY KING, renowned for its Asian fusion, serves some mean garlic noodles and dried fried ribs in a spicy Korean sauce, or go for something simpler, like salt-and-pepper tofu.
A little Vietnamese place on Encinal Street—SIDE STREET PHO—was takeout only at this writing, and a very worthy stop for banh mi pho or a vibrantly spiced turmeric fish vermicelli bowl. At the east end of Park Street, closest to the bridge over the estuary, COFFEE CULTURE has a lovely patio anchored by a brilliant blue wall mural—and decent Wi-Fi, should you need to settle in for a while with a latte or cold brew.
Webster Street—Another walkable district with restaurants and shops, Webster Street (part of Historic West Alameda) is home to CAFE JOLIE, where the specialty is French-inspired brunch. (Think croque-madame, Monte Cristo, beignets and the like.) The area is also home to Alameda’s second arcade: the PACIFIC PINBALL MUSEUM, with a collection of 1,500 games, many of them playable, some display-only ones going back to the 1930s. At the corner of Webster and Taylor, AL FRESCO PARK is a vibrant gathering spot—put into place during the pandemic—for people to safely eat, drink, listen to music, and attend arts exhibitions (including the Second Friday Art Stroll) and THE WEST END MERCANTILE makers market on second Saturdays.
Alameda Point Antiques Faire—The first Sunday of the month, Alameda Point fills with antiques vendors (800-plus booths) who ply their wares within view of the San Francisco Bay and skyline. Shoppers have the opportunity to negotiate for vintage jewelry, clothing, furniture, home décor, accessories, art and collectibles of all types. (Doorknobs, anyone?) Everything on-site is 20 years old or older. Admission ranges from $20 for early-bird VIPs to $15 and $10 for later-morning arrivals, and $5 for the afternoon. Dress in layers—the wind can whip through here; conversely, the sun gets mighty warm. (Alameda’s a warm spot in the Bay Area.) Also, save the date for May 20 21, when the Antiques Faire’s sister show, Vintage Fashion Faire, holds its “Tropicanaversary!” event. It’s a two-day extravaganza with a Friday-night theme party (tiki and tropical prints) and vintage designer clothing and accessories, held in the Michaan’s Auctions Showroom Annex.
USS Hornet Museum—Imagine the opening scene from “Top Gun,” backsounded by the burgeoning preamble to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” You may feel it as you walk up to the 894-foot-long USS Hornet, the mighty aircraft carrier that based fighter, bombing and torpedo squadrons during World War II and the Vietnam War, and later recovered Apollo 11 and 12 from the South Pacific after space missions. Parked at the southern pier of the former Naval Air Station Alameda, the immense ship, with its 147-foot-wide flight deck, houses more than 15 historic aircraft, memorabilia from the space program (including an Apollo test capsule), the Nisei Veterans’ Exhibit and restored spaces to give visitors the sense they’re on a working aircraft carrier. Plan to spend several hours. Open Friday–Monday; admission $10–$20.
Spirits Alley—Alameda Point is home to one of the island’s most-hopping hot spots: Spirits Alley, where the former naval warehouses have been transformed into tasting rooms, breweries and artisanal distilleries, and the booze is flowing. Most establishments have large outdoor patios with views of the San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge, and indoor spaces (some former aircraft hangars) with soaring ceilings and industrial windows. At THE RAKE PUB AT ADMIRAL MALTINGS, choose from 20-plus draft and cask beers. The HANGAR 1 DISTILLERY creates small-batch, farm-to-hangar vodka—go for a tour and tasting, or just a flight. Food trucks (SCOLARI’S GOOD EATS AIRSTREAM, with wild takes on burgers, and LOCO’S ONLY Mexican-Hawaiian eats) pull up near daily at ALMANAC BEER CO.—grab a pint and a bite and sit on the patio. FACTION BREWING has one of the best positions to catch an Alameda sunset, and regular food trucks include GRILLEDCHEEZGUY and SIP & SLIDE (“sliders with a twist”). Several wine-tasting rooms in the area invite visitors to sit on the tarmac or indoors, including ROCK WALL, DASHE and BUILDING 43. Check websites for hours, which can be iffy, and be ready to move to the next spot if the one you came for isn’t open.
Walk on the Water—One of the best parts of Alameda is its waterline. With several beaches and trails that skirt the bay, the island provides multiple vantage points to catch a sunset or just bask in the sun. SHORELINE PARK has a lovely trail that meanders past the Marina Village Yacht Harbor. WATERFRONT PARK, on Atlantic Avenue at Alameda Point, is part of a 3-acre plaza that recently opened near one of Alameda’s two ferry terminals. (You can catch the ferry from this one to San Francisco for $4.50.) The park, part of a mixed-use project that is also bringing in much-needed housing, includes a playground, picnic benches and a waterside promenade that sits on a Navy-built bulkhead. Near CROWN BEACH, BOARDSPORTS CALIFORNIA rents kiteboards, stand up paddle boards, windsurfers and other watersports gear and—most importantly—offers lessons so you can safely play on the bay. For calmer activities, park (for free) along Shore Line Drive, beside some circa-1960s apartment buildings, and cross the berm to the beach, or just take a long walk or bike ride. At the south end, at ELSIE ROEMER BIRD SANCTUARY, some really big brown pelicans wade and black clouds of smaller birds dip and swoop at sunset. A viewing platform invites visitors to wander out over the marsh. Warning: It’s smelly. Other beautiful spots for a walk: BALLENA BAY, which has one of Alameda’s loveliest marinas and a rocky beach with a trail right along the water’s edge, and CRAB COVE, where a visitors center educates kids and grown-ups about Alameda’s wildlife with an 800-gallon aquarium and interactive exhibits, and a trail leads to nearby CROWN BEACH. Finally, a drive out to HARBOR BAY brings you to a pretty waterfront park near the ferry terminal—and a walking path that cuts behind a residential area and past a children’s play area, providing bay views all the way.