Geek tour of the San Francisco Bay Area

People come to San Francisco, still, in pursuit of the technoutopian dream, but also they like to pay homage to an idea of “Silicon Valley”. Now that the Mozilla monument has gone to storage, there aren’t a lot of public monuments out there to visit. We really need enormous, beautiful public monumental art to celebrate Internet and computer history!!

But we don’t have that. So, where to go on your nerd pilgrimage? I have a list of recommendations for the computer nerds with a romantic soul!

The Computer History Museum heads the geek tour list of course! It is in Mountainview and the public transit options aren’t ideal, but are doable. You can take Caltrain to Mountainview and look for a city bus or a shuttle bus, or just take a cab/rideshare for the last leg of your trip.

The MADE – The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment – is a hands-on video game history museum where the retro games are all playable, often on incredible and well maintained old hardware! It’s in downtown Oakland, a few easily walkable blocks from the 12th Street BART station.

The Exploratorium, while a broad tech and science museum, is gorgeously hands on and participatory. There are actual experiments you can do (not like so many science museums where interactivity means pushing a button or watching a video). And the techy things are elevated to really beautiful art in many cases (look for the creations of Ned Kahn, for example!)

Noisebridge hacker and maker space is open daily in the afternoons and evenings, and it’s basically a long running, large, donation supported and volunteer run, workshop. It is free, but cash or online donations are very much appreciated and needed! It’s a bit like going into a giant, messy, anarchic, collaborative garage. People are generally friendly, you can show up any time, and someone will give you a tour. If you feel like soldering something, or using the 3D printers, or learning a new skill, or just want a co-working space for an afternoon, this is a great spot to meet new people and hang out. Check the meetup page for classes and workshops!

San Francisco Railway Museum – this is a tiny but fabulous museum near the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero in SF. It tends to appeal to computer geeks!

Historic Ships at Hyde Street Pier – Now, this has nothing to do with computers but if you are the sort of nerd who like me, enjoys transit and infrastructure and history, you might like this very quiet park on the waterfront at Aquatic Park (avoid the Fisherman’s Wharf maelstrom). Seriously you will be the only person on some of these ships. Giant pulleys and block and tackle arrangements! Lie down in an actual ship’s bunk! You can walk onto the sailing ship Balaclutha and onto a huge paddlewheel steamship and a couple more interesting ships. Notably — the Balaclutha is wheelchair accessible, with a (very steep) ramp onto the ship, and a scary-fun lift down into the cargo hold!!!

The US Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model in Sausalito. Nerd heaven if you like this sort of thing. It’s a giant relief map of the entire Bay Area with its waterways, the size of two football fields, and you can walk around it to learn geography and history. Sadly there is no longer water flowing in it because it is now cheaper to run computer simulations of the water flow in the Bay. You can take the ferry there and walk (a fairly long walk but doable) to the Model!

Google! If you’re walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Hills Brothers Building plaza is a nice place to sit, and you can take a picture with the Google sign if that appeals to you. Coming up soon in October 2023, the Google Visitor Center will be opening up in Mountainview – maybe good to combine with a visit to the Computer History Museum!

Apple Park Visitor Center in Cupertino is an hour or so away from San Francisco by car. If you’re already down there or in San Jose and you’re a huge Apple fan then maybe it’s worth going to see. I’ve never been to it, but I see people asking about it often in the bay area subreddits.

The Intel museum in Santa Clara! If you want to read some corporate stuff about how chips are made, this is for you, but I am not sure if I actually recommend it since I’ve never been there and it seems to be mostly for school kids.

Hiller Museum of Aviation in San Carlos. If you love planes, or you kind of like them and you’re already on the Peninsula south of SF, this is a fun and cool little museum. Also great for little kids as they can run around very freely, and there’s entire sections of planes they can go into and climb around in.

More transit! Historic aircraft! Moffett Field (ie, the Bay’s own little part of NASA!) offers tours led by a docent and they have a small visitor center.

If the Mare Island shipyard museum ever opens up again, i highly recommend it because it is HUGE and super old fashioned and sort of clearly beloved by the people who used to work there and created a lot of the exhibits. They used to build nuclear submarines ! There’s a little periscope in the cockpit of an old nuclear submarine (or whatever you call the spot in a sub where there’s a periscope) that you can look up into Vallejo from!

There must be more. And there should be more! Add suggestions to the comments and I’ll add them to the post!

10 thoughts on “Geek tour of the San Francisco Bay Area

  1. These are all so great! I would add

    – Centennial Light, Livermore – fire station lightbulb burning for over a century, the famous star of 17776
    – Nike Missile Site, GGNRA – there’s no Silicon Valley without Cold War defense contractors
    – Yoda Fountain, Presidio – there’s no digital filmmaking without George Lucas
    – Sun Microsystems logo on the back of the Meta sign at 1 Hacker Way – our best memento mori

    I don’t know if they’re still preserved at 1501 Page Mill but I got to tour Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s offices back in the day, and it was wild.

  2. I love these and the later suggestions! A few more for consideration:

    – The Market Street Railway museum. It’s tiny but streetcars are fun! Also they are the ones to know when the special streetcars are going to come out, like the boat car!

    – for the boating nerds there is the Spaulding marine center: in Sausalito. They say they are Ada accessible but some of the areas I remember involved steep stairs. But those were for a specific class I took.

    1. Hi Gina!!
      I have the Railway Museum already listed above, it’s a fave of mine!

      I did not know about Spaulding but it sounds neat.

      You would think we might have some murals, but, hmmm….

      There was the green egg circuit board thing in Palo Alto, which was neat but it looks like it is now at Harvard business school, dammit!

  3. It is only open on Saturdays and Tuesday evenings but the Santa Clara Train Station has a model railroad museum and exhibit which is a huge hit with anyone into old trains (they have a lot of old train items as well as two massive model train layouts – with club members running their own trains on the layouts. Huge hit with my son since he was a toddler and still loves it now as a fifth grader. I suspect in a year or two he will want to join the club. (Admission is free but donations welcomed)

    San Jose History Park is also notable – they have a trolley barn with lots of old (and working) trolleys. But also a sometimes open printshop with old printing presses which is very cool. In San Francisco the San Francisco Center of the Book might also appeal to many geeks.

  4. Not Internet or computers, but possibly of interest.

    In San Jose, Winchester Mystery House; what happens when a project doesn’t have a good spec or definition of done. : -)

    In San Francisco: Cartoon Art Museum It’s an art museum…for comics art. Both some permanent pieces and special exhibits. For example, there’s currently a Rocketeer exhibit.

    Not strictly a geek thing (save for movie geeks), but The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto is something rarely seen these days. A restored movie theater from the 1920s, complete with a Mighty Wurlitzer organ played for silent movies and sometimes before the main feature starts. Only shows movies from before, I think, 1964. $7 for a double feature, similarly reasonably priced concessions, with real butter on the popcorn. Next door is an exhibit of classic movie posters. Geek connection; it’s funded and run by David Packard, the son of the Packard in Hewlett-Packard.

    Probably also worth listing The Tech in San Jose and Exploratorium in SF.

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