12 miles E of San Francisco
While the fog belt drifts over the Golden Gate and across the bay to parts of Berkeley, the weather in Oakland is more likely to be warm and sunny. The clime, combined with (slightly) lower housing prices and an impressive and rapidly growing food scene, is evolving Oakland from a city known for being one of the nation’s most dangerous into a hip, lively, and diverse destination for both visitors and those looking to put down some roots.
Nowadays, proud locals claim that Oakland has more resident artists per capita than any other U.S. city, and it has become a mecca for young, socially conscious individuals fleeing San Francisco’s increasingly sterile and exclusive tech scene.
What many don’t know is that the city we call Oakland was once inhabited by the Ohlone people before the Spanish colonizers took over the land. (The Oakland Museum, p. ###, provides a fascinating and immersive history of the development of this city.) Initially little more than a cluster of ranches and farms, Oakland exploded in size and stature practically overnight, when the last mile of transcontinental railroad track was laid down. Major shipping ports soon followed and, to this day, Oakland remains one of the busiest industrial ports on the West Coast. The price for economic success, however, has been Oakland’s lowbrow reputation as a predominantly working-class city; it is forever in the shadow of chic San Francisco. Still, now that the City by the Bay is so crowded, “Oaktown” is in the midst of a renaissance.
Walk the labyrinths at Sibley Volcanic Preserve, take a behind-the-scenes tour and gorge on ice cream at the famous Fenton’s Creamery (where I served up mammoth sundaes while attending Cal), stroll along the scenic Jack London Square waterfront, see a show at the phenomenal Fox or Paramount Theatres, explore the fantastic Oakland Museum—they’re all great reasons to hop the bay and spend a fog-free day exploring one of California’s largest and most ethnically diverse cities. By the end of your visit, you’ll be feeling positively “Oaklandish”!
Getting There - BART (bart.gov; tel. 511) connects San Francisco and Oakland through one of the longest underwater transit tunnels in the world. Fares are just under $4 one-way, depending on your station of origin; children ages 4 and under ride free. BART trains operate Monday through Friday 4am to midnight, Saturday from 6am to midnight, and Sunday from 8am to midnight, although timing varies depending on when the last train arrives at a station. Exit at the 12th Street station for downtown Oakland.
By car from San Francisco, take I-80 across the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and follow signs to downtown Oakland or merge right to remain on 580 E for other areas of Oakland. It’s a large city, so it’s a good idea to bring along a map or a map app if you have a smartphone.
For a calendar of events in Oakland, contact the Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau at 463 11th St. (oaklandcvb.com; tel. 510/839-9000). The city sponsors eight free guided tours (Wed and Sat at 10am), including a fascinating African-American Heritage tour. Call tel. 510/238-3234 or visit www2.oaklandnet.com and click on the “Visitors” tab and then “Walking Tours” at the bottom left. Reservations are recommended, but drop-ins usually work fine unless you’ve got a large group.
Downtown Oakland lies between Grand Avenue on the north, I-980 on the west, Inner Harbor on the south, and Lake Merritt on the east. Between these landmarks are three BART stations (12th St., 19th St., and Lake Merritt), which are handy for visiting City Hall, the Oakland Museum, Jack London Square, and Old Oakland, where you’ll find a farmers’ market at 9th Street and Broadway every Friday, 8am to 2pm.
What to See & Do - The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), 1000 Oak St. (museumca.org; tel. 510/318-8400), a favorite of adults and children alike, completed a 4-year gallery-by-gallery renovation in 2013. The stunning 25,000-square-foot Gallery of California Natural Sciences boasts more than 100,000 research specimens and artifacts, showcasing much more than just Oakland—it explores the entire state’s biodiversity, from Yosemite to Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary to Coachella Valley. 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. There are also some very entertaining “wheels of fortune” you can spin to see what your fate might have been during the Gold Rush and other historic times featured in this gallery. Admission is $16 for adults, $11 seniors and students, $6.95 ages 9 to 17, free for ages 8 and under. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, opening at 11am and closing at 5pm Wednesday to Thursday, 10pm Friday, and 6pm Saturday and Sunday.
Also worth visiting is Oakland’s Paramount Theatre ★, 2025 Broadway (paramounttheatre.com; tel. 510/893-2300), 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 the Oakland Ballet and Symphony, as well as big-name performers like Chris Rock and Tori Amos. But it is just as popular for its old movie nights, where guests can see a classic film, complete with a pre-show organ serenade, a cartoon, and a chance to win prizes with “Dec-o-Win,” all for a mere $5. 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.
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 ★ (jacklondonsquare.com; tel. 510/645-9292), the waterfront area where the famous author spent most of his youth. The square fronts the harbor and features restaurants, entertainment, shops, and a farmers’ market. 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 (and built in 1883!) is a more authentic memorial, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon (heinoldsfirstandlastchance.com; tel. 510/839-6761), 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.
The Insider Scoop - While the rest of the world first heard about Fenton’s Creamery & Restaurant (4226 Piedmont Ave.; fentonscreamery.com; tel. 510/658-7000) when it was featured in the Pixar film Up, Oaklanders have been flocking to this historic spot since 1894. In addition to ice cream, it serves lunch and dinner, but the sizable sundaes here are incredibly filling, so you can always skip dinner and go right for dessert. All of the ice cream is made on-site, and the “Arctic Tours” of the ice-cream-making process are a must for all ages. Once you’ve had your fill, you can stop at Myrtle’s Lodge across the street for Fenton’s memorabilia, handmade candy, and toys. Located north and east of downtown Oakland, Piedmont Avenue is filled with interesting shops—the perfect opportunity to walk off all that ice cream! If you’re a comic book fan, check out Dr. Comics & Mr. Games down the street, at 4014 Piedmont Ave.
Lake Merritt - is another 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, home to flocks of migrating ducks, herons, and geese. 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 (gondolaservizio.com; tel. 510/663-6603). Experienced gondoliers will serenade you as you glide across the lake. 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 shores you’ll find the simple pleasure that is Fairyland ★ (699 Bellevue Ave.; fairyland.org; tel. 510/452-2259). 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, play structures, picnic areas, and a chance to walk into a (fake) whale’s mouth. Fun interactive fairytale sets feature 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.
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 on the first Friday of every month, in which the galleries and multi-use venues are open to the public for artist receptions (oaklandartmurmur.org). This event takes place throughout Oakland, so be sure to check the website for specific locations. Now a separate but related entity offered on the same day, Oakland First Fridays invites you to 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 from 6 to 9pm.
Volcanoes in Oakland?! - If you’re interested in all things volcanic, definitely visit Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve (6701 Skyline Blvd.; tel. 888/327-2757). Aside from the constantly changing, made-by-locals labyrinths scattered throughout this park in the Oakland hills, Round Top, one of the park’s highest peaks, is comprised of lava and volcanic debris left behind by a volcano 10 million years ago—a Pliocene epoch volcanic center, to be exact. Download a map at ebparks.org/parks/sibley.htm before you visit, or pick one up at the (unstaffed) visitors’ center.
The park is an interesting place to hike, not just because of the volcanic rock but also the varied terrain and numerous smaller trails that break off from the main ones and meet up again farther along your walk. In 1 hour, you’ll hike through forest, up onto ridges that offer up gorgeous 360-degree views, and down into ravines holding intricate labyrinths that will make the hike worth it for little ones and kids at heart. Bring a picnic lunch and a blanket, find a shady spot, and kick off your shoes while enjoying the view. Be sure to bring water, however, as it gets hot on the many exposed parts of the hill. The park is open March through October from 7am to 10pm, and November through February from 7am to 6pm. Another reason to like this park? The restrooms are in good shape and generally clean!
Where to Eat - The city of Oakland has become a dining destination in its own right, and if you really want to start at the top, look no further than Commis ★ (3859 Piedmont Ave.; commisrestaurant.com; tel. 510/653-8902). Chef James Syhabout, an Oakland native, has garnered two Michelin stars for this tiny yet elegant restaurant that offers a price-fixed, eight-course tasting menu and is opened Wednesday through Sunday. The wine list is fantastic, in case you were wondering.
You really can’t go wrong at Wood Tavern ★ (6317 College Ave.; woodtavern.net; tel. 510/654-6607), a contemporary and convivial spot known for its great selection of wines by the glass and contemporary American food (think seasonal, farm-fresh cooking). Vegetarians won’t find tons of offerings on the menu (it veers more toward pork belly and duck but always offers at least one stellar fish dish), but don’t let that dissuade you; when asked, the chefs will put together spectacular animal-free dishes. If you want to know where the in-crowd dines, Duende ★ (468 19th St.; duendeoakland.com; tel. 510/893-0174) is the place to be. With a hip Oakland edge and Spanish flair, the food and cocktails are absolutely delicious. Like its sister Berkeley, Oakland also has a slew of wonderful, spectacularly affordable ethnic restaurants dotting its streets.
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.