Oakland often gets overshadowed by its more populated Bay Area sibling, San Francisco, but the East Bay's largest city has so much to offer it's practically bursting at the seams. From a revitalized waterfront to redwood-filled parks and some of the region's finest restaurants, Oakland has got its gameface on. Want to discover this hip urban hub for yourself? Here are 15 things you won't want to miss:
Known as "the Jewel of Oakland," Lake Merritt is the country's largest humanmade saltwater tidal lake and the United States' first official wildlife refuge—a 155-acre body of water with a 3.4-mile circumference that attracts joggers, walkers, picnickers, and all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts. The Lake Merritt Boating Center rents out kayaks and canoes, as well as rowboats and pedal boats for use on the water, and even offers classes in sailing. But for a truly unique experience, hop aboard one of Gondola Servizio's authentic Venetian gondolas for a guided scenic tour. Afterward, take a stroll among the Gardens at Lake Merritt, seven acres of themed gardens that include swaying palms, precious bonsai, and flowering rhododendrons—all free to enter.
Visit the City's Revitalized Waterfront
Over the past decade or so, Oakland's historic waterfront has seen significant changes—with fine gift shops and eateries adding to its already stellar views. The mixed-use Jack London Square (named for the city's infamous local author) is home to Yoshi's music venue and Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, a relocated 1883 cabin built out of an old whaling ship and where London himself once tossed back drinks. Embark on a two-hour sightseeing cruise aboard Franklin D. Roosevelt's former presidential yacht, USS Potomac, peruse the goods at a weekly Sunday farmers market, or indulge in an evening activity—including outdoor "Waterfront Flicks" in summer and full-moon kayaking excursions. The square is also known for restaurants like Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine and Forge Pizza, as well as a movie theater and Amtrak station, and runs ferries to and from San Francisco's Embarcadero daily. Oakland Assembly, a massive food hall, is scheduled to open here in summer 2020, and even the A's are considering a waterfront relocation.
Dedicated to telling California history through art, history, and science, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) boasts everything from Gold Rush era artifacts to Arts & Crafts-style paintings to bird eggs. Over the past several years, it's been primarily known for its cutting-edge exhibits, such as "Queer California: Untold Stories," the first exhibit of its kind exploring the state's LGBTQ+ history and culture, and "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man." Locals also love its weekly Friday Nights at OMCA, a massive 'block party' with its own artisan market place, dance lessons, food trucks, and both acoustic music and DJs.
The city's many neighborhoods are known for their individual charms and diverse offerings, whether it's Grandlake's ample shopping or Chinatown's pan-Asian eateries. At the heart of Oakland's Piedmont neighborhood, you'll find Piedmont Avenue, a walkable stretch that's home to fun spots like Piedmont Springs, where you can soak in outdoor hot tubs or indulge in a deep-tissue or Swedish massage, and the iconic Fenton's Creamery, an ice cream institution that's been open for well over a century. Catch an avant-garde flick at the historic Piedmont Theatre, or browse among the avenue's many boutique shops. At the foot of the Oakland Hills, you'll find Oakland's popular Rockridge neighborhood, with its indie bookstores, Frog Park, and European-style Market Hall, as well as a bevy of fun shops and eateries, including the Italian A16 Rockridge, Wood Tavern bistro, and Millennium, the Bay Area's landmark vegan restaurant.
One of the Bay Area's most scenic final resting places, Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery features rolling hillsides and a lovely park-like setting, thanks to its designer: famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose better-known works include NYC's Central Park and the UC Berkeley campus. As its name suggests, those finding a permanent home here will have views galore, but it's visitors like us who get to appreciate them. The cemetery is a virtual "who's who" of Bay Area elite, with "residents" like architects Julia Morgan (Hearst Castle) and Bernard Maybeck (San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts), former California governor Henry H. Haight, and Domingo Ghirardelli, the founder of Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, whose remains reside in a mausoleum along Mountain View's "Millionaires Row" (as do those of Railroad Magnate Charles Crocker). If you're interested in learning more, the cemetery offers docent-led tours at 10 a.m., the second Saturday of each month.
Nestled in the Oakland Hills, 1,830-acre Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park is home to the East Bay's largest remaining natural stand of coast redwoods, not to mention golden eagles, wide-open grasslands, and more than 40-miles of multi-use trails including portions of both the 550-mile loop Bay Area Ridge Trail and the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, a 1,210-mile trail commemorating the land route of Spanish commander Juan Bautista from the Mexican border in Arizona to the Bay area. Redwood RP is part of the more extensive East Bay Regional Park District, which also includes Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley and Robert Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve.
Experience the skies at the 86,000-square-foot Chabot Space and Science Center, a family-friendly center that focuses on celestial bodies—with a digital planetarium and interactive exhibits like the Sky Portal and Touch the Sun, in which you can zoom in on the sun's active hot spots. A highlight of the center is its three giant telescopes, the largest of which is 'Nellie,' a 36-inch reflecting telescope with its own rolling roof. Chabot even hosts 'after dark' events for adults, which include everything from fermentation tastings to simulated space missions. It's located within Oakland's Joaquin Miller Park.
Catch a Show at an Historic Theater
Oakland is a hotbed of historic theaters ranging from the Fox, initially opened in 1928, and now a wholly refurbished Art Deco concert hall for live acts like Lucinda Williams and local boys Green Day, to the Paramount, a National Historic Landmark that hosts theatre shows, musical acts, and such events as Pop-Up Magazine and Baby Shark Live! You can even catch a film or two or a performance by either the Oakland Ballet or Symphony, both of which call the Paramount home. With its Egyptian and Moorish Art Deco décor, Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre stuns its moviegoers, especially on Friday or Saturday nights when a working Wurlitzer organ rises from the floor pre-show to entertain guests.
Become a kid again at Children's Fairyland, an old-school, 10-acre storybook theme park featuring dozens of playsets, including the water-spouting Willie the Whale and The Old Lady in the Shoe, rides like the Jolly Trolly train and a spiderweb Ferris Wheel, and the country's oldest continuously operating puppet theater. Children's Fairyland opened in 1950 and has been going strong since—even serving as inspiration for Walt Disney when he was toying with the idea of creating Disneyland. One of the park's most popular events is the annual Fairyland for Grownups, a summertime 21-and-over event with DJ spins, beer & wine, and food vendors. It sells out quickly, so keep an eye out for tickets early on in the season. There's also the annual Fairy Winterland, featuring tap-dancing Christmas trees, a nightly Festival of Lights parade, and visits by Black Santa, not to mention plenty of hot cocoa.
When those planning the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge were considering designs, one thing they wanted to include was a multi-use trail for pedestrians and cyclists, similar to the ones on the Golden Gate Bridge. What's now known as the "Bay Bridge Trail" is a 4-mile path that begins in Emeryville and works its way to Yerba Buena Island, which connects the bridge's eastern and western spans. Two 15.5-foot-wide trails meander below the east span's signature 525-foot tower—one for either direction—and while they don't run to San Francisco, they do offer a whole new way of experiencing Oakland. There's ample space for both cyclists and pedestrians, as well as a vista point with benches, restrooms, and bike racks.
The Bay Bridge Trail is actually part of the much larger San Francisco Bay Trail, which currently has 356 of its more than 500 miles completed. It will eventually link 47 cities across nine counties and includes sections in Tiburon and San Mateo.
Take a Tour
Walking and cycling tours are both great ways to explore a city, and Oakland has plenty to choose from. The city hosts complimentary 90-minute walking tours from May to October, with itineraries that meander through several different neighborhoods, including Old Oakland and Preservation Park, where you'll find a style of Victorian architecture similar to San Francisco's Painted Ladies. If it's Oakland cuisine that excites you, Local Food Adventures hosts culinary tours through neighborhoods like Rockridge, home to French pastries, house-made sausages, and wood-fired meats, and Grand Lake. Thirsty? Embark on a self-guided wine or ale trail, or head out on a "rolling pedal party" aboard one of Velocipede Tours' 14-passenger party bikes, stopping to savor some of the city's top brew spots as you go.
Although recently renamed RingCentral Coliseum, this historic eyesore—opened in 1966—is much better known as Oakland Coliseum, a multi-purpose stadium that's both old and outdated, but still beloved to many. It's the only stadium still left in the U.S. that is shared between a pro baseball (The A's) and pro-football (The Raiders) team, though the former is hoping to get a new home in Jack London Square soon, and the latter is planning a Las Vegas move (so get here quick!). With seat numbers ranging from 46,867 to 63,132, depending on the sporting event, the cavernous park is often half-empty, but on the plus side tickets to a game are typically much cheaper than say, at SF's Oracle Park. You can often enjoy a night out for a mere fraction (seriously!) of the price of other ballparks or stadiums. Besides, if it's been good enough for The Grateful Dead, The Stones, and The Boss, it's good enough for you.
Enjoy a Thriving Art Scene
Whether it's taking a fire and performance workshop at The Crucible or savoring a live jazz show at Yoshi's in Jack London Square, there are ample ways to experience Oakland's flourishing arts scene. The city hosts First Friday Art Walks in its Uptown and KONO neighborhoods, or swing by East Oakland's Eastside Arts Alliance any time of year for a rotating showcase of exhibits highlights cultural movements around the world. During warmer months, the WPA-era Woodminster Amphitheater in Joaquin Miller Park excites with summer musicals like "An American in Paris" in spectacular forest surrounds, and with the stars overhead. The city's streets are brought to life through more than 1,000 murals, all easy to locate (with pics and descriptions) on this handy map.
Indulge in a Food & Drink Smorgasbord
Oakland's diverse food scene makes it a whole different beast from its neighbor across the bay, and one that is drawing diners in droves. From mom & pop eateries to multi-course tasting menus, there's something to suit your palate. Don't miss the Burmese Teni East Kitchen, or the prix-fixe Commis, a Michelin two-star restaurant with an experimental kitchen serving up an eight-course menu featuring small plates that are out of this world. There are top-notch omakase to choose from, and the tiny Nyum Bai, creating Cambodian street food with local produce and offering a selection of local brews. Of course, the employee-owned Zachary's in Rockridge is a deep-dish pizza institution, and Miss Ollie's whips up Caribbean soul food such as island-style pork and skillet fried chicken, that will leave you dreaming about it for days.
Cocktails rule the scene at spots like Oakland's beloved watering hole Cafe Van Kleef, Plum Bar, and Starline Social Club, while Temescal Brewing is known for its housemade beers best enjoyed on the outdoor patio in the sun.