Lake Merritt is one of Oakland’s prime tourist attractions and is a favorite among locals. The tidal lagoon, 3 1/2 miles in circumference, was bridged and dammed in the 1860s and is now a wildlife refuge that is home to flocks of migrating ducks, herons, and geese. For a romantic, pre-dinner stroll, catch a sunset at the lake and watch as the “Necklace of Lights,” the 126 lampposts and a 3,400 bulbs that encircle the lake, dance on the water. Just don’t linger too long after dark as it becomes less safe the later it gets. The 122-acre Lakeside Park (www2.oaklandnet.com), a popular place to picnic, feed the ducks, and escape the fog, surrounds the lake on three sides. To get out on the water, you can rent a boat from Lake Merritt Boating Center (tel. 510/238-2196), in Lakeside Park along the north shore. Or, perhaps, take a gondola ride with Gondola Servizio (tel. 510/663-6603; www.gondolaservizio.com). Experienced gondoliers will serenade you, June through October, as you glide across the lake. The clear skies, sparkling lights, city views, and old-world gondolas make for a romantic excursion. Prices start at $60 for the first couple and $10 for each additional person, depending on the time and gondola style. Also along Lake Merritt’s expansive shores is the fantastic, simple pleasure that is Fairyland (699 Bellevue Ave.; tel. 510/452-2259; www.fairyland.com). Before Disneyland or any other childhood fantasy park, there was this “storybook theme park.” Founded in 1950 and featuring fairytale sets, farm animals, and live entertainment, it’s an interactive flashback to a simpler time, complete with live puppet shows, tiny toddler rides, the ability to walk into a (fake) whale’s mouth, play structures, picnic areas, and fun interactive fairytale sets with recorded storytelling boxes that work at the turn of a plastic key you can buy onsite. This spot is so child-focused that adults can’t get in without one. So bring a child and a sense of sweet, relaxed adventure to this mellow, charming spot.
Also worth visiting is the Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway (tel. 510/893-2300; www.paramounttheatre.com), an outstanding National Historic Landmark and example of Art Deco architecture and decor. Built in 1931 and authentically restored in 1973, its intricately carved walls, plush carpet, beveled mirrors, and gilded details will transport you to Hollywood’s Golden Era. As the city’s main performing-arts center, it plays host to big-name performers like Smokey Robinson and Alicia Keys, but is just as popular for its old movie nights, where guests can see a classic film, complete with a pre-show organ serenade, for a mere $6. Guided tours of the 3,000-seat theater are given the first and third Saturday of each month, excluding holidays. No reservations are necessary; just show up at 10am at the box office entrance on 21st Street at Broadway. The tour lasts 2 hours, cameras are allowed, and admission is $5. Children must be at least 10 years old.
The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St. (tel. 510/318-8400; www.museumca.org) is a favorite with Bay Area fourth graders studying the history of our fair state. While the Galleries of Art and Natural Science feature the expected paintings and specimens, I particularly like the Gallery of History, which focuses on “Coming to California,” with interesting displays of Native American baskets, the Spanish influence, and, of course, the Gold Rush. While the SFMOMA is closed for expansion, important works from the likes of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Ansel Adams will be displayed through April 15, 2015 in the “Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California” exhibit. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 seniors and students, $6 youth, free ages 8 and under. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday 11am to 5pm, Friday until 9pm.
To experience the avant-garde and burgeoning Bay Area art scene as the locals do, check out Oakland’s Art Murmur, a free monthly gallery stroll in which the galleries and multi-use venues are open to the public for artist receptions (http://oaklandartmurmur.org). Wander in and out of exhibits while enjoying a lively street festival complete with food trucks, live music, and spontaneous dance circles on Telegraph Avenue between Grand and 27th streets on the first Friday of every month from 5 to 9pm.
FDR's Floating Lighthouse
For those interested in naval history and presidential trivia, this tour is a must-do. The 165-foot presidential yacht, the USS Potamac, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s beloved “Floating White House” is open to the public thanks to the work of hundreds of dedicated volunteers. It took 12 years and $5 million to restore the yacht, but now visitors can be steeped in World War II history while cruising the San Francisco Bay or learn little-known facts about FDR during dockside tours while taking in sweeping views of the city’s skyline. The dockside tours are available Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday from 11am to 3pm mid-January through mid-December. Admission is $10, $8 for seniors age 60 and over, and free for children age 12 and under. See the website for information about various historic cruises.
Hours and cruise schedules are subject to change, so be sure to call the Potomac Visitor Center before arriving. Tickets for the Dockside Tour can be purchased at the Visitor Center upon arrival; tickets for the History Cruise can be purchased in advance via Ticketweb (tel. 866/777-8932; www.ticketweb.com) or by calling the Potomac Visitor Center (tel. 510/627-1215; www.usspotomac.org). The Visitor Center is located at 540 Water St., at the corner of Clay and Water streets adjacent to the FDR Pier at the north end of Jack London Square.
If you take pleasure in strolling sailboat-filled wharves or are a die-hard fan of Jack London, you’ll likely enjoy a visit to Jack London Square (tel. 510/645-9292; www.jacklondonsquare.com), the waterfront area where the famous author spent most of his youth. The square fronts the harbor, and at press time was undergoing a $400 million revival, which will bring, among other things, restaurants, entertainment, shops, a farmers’ market, and a hotel to the property. In the center of the square is a small model of the Yukon cabin in which Jack London lived while prospecting in the Klondike during the gold rush of 1897. In the middle of Jack London Square is a more authentic memorial, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon (tel. 510/839-6761; www.heinoldsfirstandlastchance.com), a funky, friendly little bar and historic landmark. Here a clock remains frozen at the exact time the 1906 earthquake shook this little dive, forever making the bar slant at 10 degrees. Watch your step, too, because the ‘quake warped the floors, adding even more eccentricity to this topsy-turvy establishment. This is where London did some of his writing and most of his drinking. Jack London Square is at Broadway and Embarcadero. Take I-880 to Broadway, turn south, and drive to the end. Or you can ride BART to the 12th Street station and then walk south along Broadway (about half a mile). Or take bus no. 72R or 72M to the foot of Broadway.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.