Why Alameda, California Is One of the Coolest Suburbs in America

published May 22, 2019
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Alameda was chosen as one of Apartment Therapy’s Coolest Suburbs in America 2019. We showcased the burbs nationwide that offer the most when it comes to cultural activities, a sense of community, and simply a good quality of life. For more on how we define “cool” and what exactly counts as a suburb, check out our methodology here. To view Apartment Therapy’s other Coolest Suburbs in America 2019, head here.

Most people who live in San Francisco can tell you about hip new restaurants in Oakland or the best way to get to Berkeley. But ask them where Alameda is, and they might pause to check their phones. It’s too bad, because this low-key island city, located off the coast of Oakland, is a friendly-family town with lots of coastline and charm.

A former vacation destination for wealthy San Franciscans, Alameda was host to Neptune Beach, a major attraction similar to Coney Island in the early 1900s. Fun fact: The popsicle was invented in Alameda! Later, in the 1940s, a large portion of the island was taken up by Naval Air Station Alameda. The station, which closed in 1997, is now home to a mashup of endeavors, such as a monthly antique fair, soccer fields, artisan distilleries and breweries, and transitional housing.

Today, Alameda has shaken off much of its military vibe. The island is a place for families who want to live in a small town that’s close to San Francisco, with bikeable streets, beaches, and a lively downtown shopping district. Get ready to know your neighbors. Just make sure you drive under the 25 mph speed limit!

Credit: Courtesy of Margaret Lee (@frauhauslee)

Median rent price:

$3,600, according to Zillow.

Median house price:

$906,200, according to Zillow.

Price per square foot (compared to city):

$567 in Alameda vs. $1,068 in San Francisco, according to Zillow.

Walkability score:

71, according to WalkScore.com.

Median household income:

$89,045, according to Census data.


79,177 according to Census data.

What the suburb is known for:

Parts of “The Matrix” movie trilogy, as well as episodes of the television show “MythBusters,” were shot at the former naval air station in Alameda.

Hidden gem:

Alameda’s Got Talent. Before movie screenings at the Alameda Theater & Cineplex on Fridays and Saturday, catch the live pre-show, where locals sing, dance, perform magic tricks, and show off their talents. You never know who’s going to perform, or what skills will be on display that night. It’s both the best, and occasionally the worst, of small-town entertainment, and has a distinctly Alameda feel.

Place that makes you happy to live there:

The San Francisco Bay. Alameda is surrounded by water, and the San Francisco Bay is what gives the town its stunning views and beachy vibe. Alameda is only accessible by bridge or tunnel, and it feels like its own little island, far removed from San Francisco and Oakland.

Favorite activity for families:

Crown Memorial State Beach. On any given day, families will be wading in the water, digging in the sand, riding bikes, and picnicking along the shore. This is the perfect place for an outing with your little ones, especially when the weather is warm.

Credit: Courtesy of Margaret Lee (@frauhauslee)

Favorite hangout for young professionals:

Spirits Alley. Alameda’s former naval air station now houses a number of breweries and distilleries, including Rock Wall Wine Company, Faction Brewing, the Hangar 1 Vodka, and St. Georges Spirits. Take a tour, visit the tasting rooms, and kick back with a drink, while enjoying beautiful views of the Bay.

Credit: Courtesy of Jenn Heflin (@jennheflin)

Favorite place to catch a movie:

Alameda Theatre & Cineplex. The only theater in town is the historic art deco Alameda Theatre & Cineplex. It’s the anchor to the Park Street shopping district and was designed by Timothy Pflueger, who also designed San Francisco’s famed Castro Theatre. Take in a movie, and order dinner and drinks from the restaurant next door.

Favorite teen hangout:

T4 Alameda. School crowds jam into this Taiwanese chain every afternoon for boba (bubble) tea, a sweet milky tea drink with small gelatin balls.

Favorite outdoor lounge spot:

Faction Brewing. Bring your sunglasses and spend a sunny afternoon drinking beer and sampling different food trucks, all against the stunning backdrop of the Bay and San Francisco. Check out the beer flight of the day and be sure to catch the sunset as your afternoon winds down.

Favorite date spot:

Pappo. Owner and chef John Thiel serves up California-inspired classic dishes in this cozy restaurant. Treat your sweetie to Pappo’s seasonal menu and excellent wine selection, without breaking the bank. Pappo is known among locals as one of the best places to eat in town.

Average commute/traffic report:

Unfortunately, there are only four driving routes to get off the island. The Webster Tube is a two-lane tunnel that connects to downtown Oakland and from there, to the freeway to San Francisco. And yes, it is almost always jammed on weekday mornings. If there isn’t an accident, expect about an hour-long morning commute to San Francisco.

The Park Street, High Street, Fruitvale Avenue and Bay Farm Island bridges aren’t usually backed up, and will take you to East Oakland and San Jose. Commutes to Silicon Valley are worse, and can take up to two hours in the morning.

AC Transit buses run reliably through the Webster Tube and over the bridges, but are still subject to traffic delays. The best way to reach San Francisco is by ferry. There’s always room on the boat, you can cruise to the city in as little as 20 minutes, and cocktails are available on board.

Favorite local bookstore:

Located on Park Street, Books Inc. is great for browsing late in the evening after a dinner date, and the shop’s staff recommendations are always on point. Check Book Inc.’s calendar for readings and author signings

Credit: Claire Monnier (@clairemonnierphotography)

Favorite place to get coffee:

Julie’s Coffee & Tea Garden. The outdoor garden patio and wide selection of teas make Julie’s a popular spot to meet up with a friend. The scone with cream is to die for and pairs perfectly with a latte or macchiato.

Favorite bar for when you want to be around people:

The Fireside Lounge. There’s always something happening at the Fireside, like Trivia Tuesdays, open-mic nights, ‘80s dance parties, drag shows, and live music. Come on down and join the party! Then grab tacos from Taqueria Calafia, which is conveniently located two doors down.

Favorite alone spot:

The benches at Crab Cove. The benches at Crab Cove are often surprisingly empty, meaning you can sit in peaceful solitude and look out over the water. It’s also the perfect spot to bird watch. Coots, cormorants, pelicans, and egrets are just a few of the shorebirds that call Crab Cove home, and if you’re lucky, you might spot a seal or two.

Favorite free cultural activity to take part of:

Second Friday Art Walk. Every second Friday evening, art galleries across Alameda open their doors to the public. It’s a fun way to check out art, run into friends, and support local artists.

Signature food:

Blueberry bacon blue cheeseburger au poivre. For a town of its size, Alameda has a number of tasty and diverse dining options. Scolari’s is a local favorite, and you won’t find their blueberry bacon blue cheeseburger au poivre anywhere else.

Favorite boutique:

Aphrodite’s Closet. You never know what designer treasures you’ll find at this boutique and upscale consignment store. They carry shoes, accessories, and locally made jewelry, in addition to clothing. Bring in your old Gucci shoes, walk out with a new Louis Vuitton bag!

Most walkable area:

Downtown Alameda’s Park Street business district. Most of Alameda’s restaurants and locally owned shops are clustered on a 10-block stretch of Park Street, with Alameda Theatre & Cineplex as the focal point.

Favorite bike trails/parks/outdoor activities:

Shoreline Cycle Track. Start at the Crab Cove Visitor Center and enjoy a flat, kid-friendly 2.2-mile bike ride along the Bay.

Favorite spot for an Instagram:

The walkway at Crab Cove Marine Reserve. This walkway is at sea level and dependent on the tides. At low tide you can cross, but at high tide, it’s flooded over, with submerged handrails poking out of the water.

Favorite brunch:

Ole’s Waffle Shop and Neptune’s. Alamedans line up on the weekends for Ole’s old-school diner favorites. The new kid in town is Neptune’s, which features contemporary takes on brunch standards, like biscuit eggs benedict with a side of greens.

Favorite free activity:

Alameda Peeps Facebook group. Alameda’s population is around 79,000 people and 10,575 of those people are members of the Alameda Peeps group Facebook group. Get the dirt on everything in town while debating the latest election measures, grousing about cars that drive faster than the island’s 25 mph speed limit, and organizing help for neighbors in need.

Favorite grocery store:

Al-Jazeera and Aria. In addition to Alameda’s large chain grocery stores, it also has Al-Jazeera Market, which specializes in Middle Eastern foods and spices, and nearby Aria Market and Bakery, which carries Eastern European groceries. Since the stores are only a block away from one another, you can treat yourself to Turkish delight at Al-Jazeera and then go down the street for a bar of European chocolate at Aria.

Favorite place for a workout:

Mike’s Paddle. For a unique workout, take a class at Mike’s Paddle. Mike’s offers beginner lessons and rentals for stand-up paddle boards, as well as stand-up paddle board yoga, and pilates sessions. Yoga on the water!

Credit: Courtesy of Pacific Pinball Museum

Favorite place to take an out-of-towner:

Pacific Pinball Museum or High Scores Arcade. Whether you’re feeling analog or digital, Alameda has two great options for taking out-of-town guests. Both the Pacific Pinball Museum and High Scores Arcade have large and varied collections of vintage games set on free play. (Admission fee is required.)

Worst place to find parking and easiest place to find parking:

People complain about how hard it is to find parking in Alameda, but it’s easy compared to San Francisco. Oh, no! I had to park, gasp, two blocks away!

What the neighbors say:

“I love living here because it has the amenities of an urban environment (good food, retail, coffee shops), but with a small-town vibe, with its walkable streets, independent businesses and coffee shops, and many parks. There’s a strong sense of community that makes this the place we wanted to raise our kids.” —Margaret Lee, 15-year resident, designer

“I love how the Alameda Peeps community rallies to help its members, like Coast Guard families during the government shutdown, fire victims, someone whose home was destroyed by squatters, and students who need backpacks. And of course, the annual turkey donation drive during Thanksgiving.” —Christina Spiegel, 16-year resident, business owner

“I like how Alameda has this small-town vibe that is tucked away from the bigger cities near us.” —Manuel Valenzuela, 7-year resident, graphic designer

“Growing up in Alameda, I love seeing friends all over town. It gives me the feeling of community. I also love that I reconnected with old friends through the many youth sports programs offered. The many dining, shopping and entertainment options leave little reason to leave the island. I’m proud to call Alameda my home town!” —Alex Sadie, 30-year resident, real estate professional

“To say we fell in love with Alameda is an understatement. We found our home and our family here. Our Alameda family happens to be made up mostly of struggling artists. I can not say enough how much each and everyone one of these artists has touched my life in some way.” —Jessica Warren, 6-year resident, co-founder (with husband Wesley Warren) of Studio 23 Gallery and coordinator of Second Friday Art Walk

Favorite annual event:

Fourth of July Parade. Alameda boasts one of the longest and largest Fourth of July parades in the nation. Anyone can sign up to have a float or march, and residents do not hold back! This is the event of the year in Alameda. The entire town is either in the parade or watching from the sidelines.

What I miss about the city living in a suburb:

Anonymity. In Alameda, everybody knows your name.

What I never miss about the city:

Everybody knows your name.

Favorite local home store:

Pagano’s Hardware. Serving Alameda since the 1950s, Pagano’s Hardware has it all. The knowledgeable and friendly staff will help you locate exactly what you’re looking for, whether it’s one screw, a toilet seat, a barbecue grill, or a personal hair remover.

Favorite local garden store:

Ploughshares Nursery. Stock up on plants and supplies for your garden while supporting Alameda Point Collaborative (APC), a non-profit that helps formerly homeless families. Ploughshares is a nursery that is run by APC and trains and employs residents of the APC community. They have a great selection of drought-tolerant plants, fruit trees, veggies, herbs, and succulents.

Favorite neighborhood for yard sales:

Bay Farm Island. Cross the bridge over the San Leandro Bay and head to Bay Farm Island. Yes, it’s part of Alameda. And no, it’s not actually an island, despite its name. This largely residential area of Alameda is where you can land the good stuff at yard sales. Be sure to check out Thompson Avenue and High Street. During the holidays, all the houses are decked out in full-blown Christmas decor, and at other times of the year, Christmas Tree Lane has sweet yard sales.

Favorite house/garden walk:

Alameda Backyard Growers. In addition to picking backyard fruits and veggies and donating that homegrown produce to the Alameda Food Bank, this network of Alameda gardeners organizes backyard garden tours. You can check out people’s chicken coops and gardens, as well as volunteer to help pick fruit.

Favorite dog park:

Alameda Small Dog Park. Let your tiny canine companion run off leash and meet other small dogs. Even if you don’t own a dog, this dog park has plenty of cuteness to spare.

Favorite salon/spa:

Al’s Barber Shop. In 2014, Nick Vlahos, Brad Roberts, and Joe Polissky took over this 1950s barber shop from original owner, Al. The updated shop is hip, but not annoyingly so, and offers haircuts, straight razor shaves, and beard trims.

Favorite resale and antique store:

Alameda Point Antiques Faire. Every first Sunday of the month, more than 800 vendors show off their wares at this massive antique show in Northern California. Come early to get the best picks. (Gates open at 6 a.m.)

How would you sell your suburb to the coolest person you know?:

Alameda has small-town charm with big city amenities. And it’s an island!

Credit: Apartment Therapy