Oakland has taken revenge upon its ungrateful daughter, the poet Gertrude Stein, who once quipped about her California birthplace: "Oakland? There's no there, there." Gertrude may no longer be with us, but a witty rebuttal to her infamous insult lives on in Oakland's busy City Center shopping area where thousands of visitors regularly pass by a huge sculpture entitled, simply, "There."
Visit Oakland and be pleasantly surprised by just how much "there" there is. I admit that I went to Oakland with outdated visions of urban blight in mind. What I found instead was a progressive city with a renewed downtown, cultural projects springing up all over the place, and a feisty mayor--none other than the former governor of California and ex-presidential candidate, Jerry Brown--very much in charge. The city is being revitalized and families are returning to live instead of fleeing to the suburbs. Mayor Brown's goal is to get 10,000 people to move back into the downtown area. A major part of his plan involves enticing investors to put their money into Oakland business ventures.
Environmental consciousness is a big part of Oakland culture, as is demonstrated by the aggressive campaign for car pooling and riding your bike to work by locals. (Lockers and/or bike parking racks are provided at many transit stations There's even a Bicycle-Friendly Business Directory, issued by the city.)
Oakland is home to three major professional sport teams (the Athletics in baseball, the Raiders in football, and the Golden State Warriors in basketball). It also has a magnificent space and science center, a good zoo and several historic attractions. To me, the biggest surprise was a Venetian gondola ride on Lake Merritt. (See below).
Not only is Oakland in close proximity to San Francisco (just 12 miles to the East across the Bay Bridge, it's also an hour's drive from San Jose. If you wish to avoid driving into Oakland, you can take the Alameda/Oakland Ferry, which runs between San Francisco's Pier 41, Fisherman's Wharf and the SF Ferry Building daily for $5 one way, less for juniors, children, seniors, active military and disabled persons. Contact the Alameda/Oakland Ferry at 510/522-3300 or on the Web at www.eastbayferry.com.
Although Oakland is walkable, those of weary feet will be glad to know there's a free Broadway Shopper Shuttle in downtown Oakland, running from Jack London Square to Grand Avenue, with five stops in between. It operates weekdays (excepting holidays) every six minutes between 11 and 2. Look for a blue and white "Broadway Shuttle" sign and the curb stenciling reading "Shopper Shuttle." Phone 510/238-6246 for more information.
Oakland is inextricably tied to the legend of its most famous native literary figure, Jack London, who penned The Call of the Wild among other notable tomes. The real, invented and imagined parts of his legacy are everywhere in Oakland. The most fun place associated with him is Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, located right down on the waterfront amidst the gigantic Jack London Square, a conglomeration of restaurants, shops, a hokey statue and a few tourist traps.
The Saloon opened in 1883, and looks as though it hasn't changed much since its first keg was tapped. (It certainly hasn't been cleaned very thoroughly--nor has it been redecorated, although thousands of visitors have added their business cards to the ceiling.) Be careful walking in. The floor is slanted downward and the tables and chairs tilt as well--all legacies from the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Jack London studied at these same tables when he was still a schoolboy. Later, he would return to write notes for The Sea Wolf and The Call of the Wild. Other famous men who downed a drink or two here include Robert Louis Stevenson, William Howard Taft, Robert Service, Earle Gardner, Erskine Caldwell, Rex Beach and Ambrose Bierce. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Saloon still sports original gaslights (the last commercial operation in California to use them). 56 Jack London Square, phone 510/839-6761, Web site www.firstandlastchance.com.
Affiliated both with NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, the Chabot Space & Science Center is a perfect place for a family outing. Situated in the Oakland Hills, it has a fine planetarium, a MegaDome theater, and many hands-on exhibits, including the chance to peer through a huge telescope at the night sky. General admission is $8, less for youths, seniors. Separate fees are required to enter the Planetarium or MegaDome ($8.75 each). Closed Mondays. 10000 Skyline Boulevard, phone 510/336-7300.
Jack London Square has been built along Oakland's waterfront to provide visitors with a chance to get close to the water. Its restaurants offer a beautiful setting for a meal, with views of the bay and fair to fairly good food. Among the authentic historical highlights here is the former US presidential yacht, the Potomac, which served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "floating White House" during most of his presidential tenure. Be sure not to miss the special presidential elevator in the rear smokestack (which Roosevelt himself operated by hand). Forty-five-minute long dockside tours are available from January through mid-December for $5 (less for seniors and children). You can also take a $30 cruise that lasts for two hours and follow a 15-minute video shown in the Visitor's Center. The cruises depart twice daily on Thursdays and Saturdays. Located at 540 Water Street, phone 510/627-1502 for recorded information, 510/627-1215 for the office, Web site www.usspotomac.org.
The 15th Annual Chinatown Streetfest, which last year attracted over 100,000 people, is held on the 4th weekend in August. There will be close to 250 booths selling everything imaginable, plus a cultural village featuring stages for dancing, singing, kids' events, cooking demonstrations and much more. For more information, phone the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce at 510/893-8979.
The greatest glory of Oakland's Old Town district, in my opinion, is the Paramount Theatre--the best art deco cinema I've ever seen. Built between 1925 and 1931, then lovingly restored in 1972-73, it boasts Egyptian motifs in a dazzling lobby, impressive lounges on several floors and an auditorium of unbelievable glamour. On the National Register of Historic Places since the renovation, it is now used for music concerts (popular and classical), ballet and stage performances year-round. (The Oakland East Bay Symphony offers monthly performances, and the Oakland Ballet also performs here regularly. Tickets for both begin at $15.) Public tours on the first and third Saturdays of each month cost just $1, starting at 10 am and taking two-and-a-half hours. Contact them at 2025 Broadway, phone 510/893-2300, Web site www.paramounttheatre.com.
The Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau has organized seven different free guided walking tours of Historic Oakland, on Wednesdays & Saturdays at 10 AM from May through October. Tour 1 covers Old Oakland and meets in front of 821 Washington Street. Tour 2 takes in the City Center and meets in front of the City Hall. Tour 3 is of the Uptown to Lake District areas and meets in front of the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway. Tour 4 takes you to Preservation Park where you'll view a fascinating selection of restored Victorian homes: it meets at the Latham-Decel Fountain in the middle of the park, between 11th and 14th streets, Castro and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Tour 5 covers Chinatown (the fifth largest Chinatown in the US)and meets at the Pacific Renaissance Plaza Fountain, 9th and Webster streets. Tour 6 is of the Jack London Waterfront and meets at 101 Broadway, at the foot of Broadway at Embarcadero. Tour 7 covers Oakland's temples and churches and meeting in front of the First Presbyterian Church, 27th and Broadway. Phone for more details: 510/839-9000.
If you like Victorian houses, you will rejoice at the Pardee Home Museum, crammed full of original artifacts, costumes--you name it. A charge of $5 (less for children) will get you in on Friday and Saturday at noon for guided tours. Lived in for over 100 years by the family and heirs of former California Governor George Pardee, the home was constructed so that the first floor would always stay naturally cool, even in hot weather. (Oakland, by the way, is sunnier and warmer than neighboring San Francisco.) Be sure to note the famous Carleton Watkins chandelier in the downstairs hallway. It's like nothing you've ever seen before. 672 Eleventh Street, phone 510/444-2187, Web site www.pardeehome.org.
Oakland's outdoor sports activities are centered on the water, where you can rent canoes and kayaks from $15 per hour at California Canoe & Kayak, 409 Water Street, phone 510/893-7833. In the hills along the city's eastern edge and around Lake Chabot, there is opportunity for golf (three courses), hiking, biking and even rock climbing (Berkeley Ironworks, 510/654-2510). You can go ice-skating year-round at the Oakland Ice Center, 519 18th Street, phone 510/268-9000, www.oaklandice.com. Tennis courts are available downtown near Lake Merritt at the Davies Stadium, 198 Oak Road, phone 510/444-5663.
On a fine day, you may want to take a leisurely one-hour ride with Gondola Servizio, one of the authentic Venetian gondolas on Lake Merritt. Private tours are available year round and cost $55 per couple, plus $10 per extra person (the gondolas each hold up to six passengers, including a gondolier who sings to you and adds romantic lights in the evenings.) Contact Gondola Servizio at 568 Bellevue Avenue, phone 510/663-6603, Web site www.gondolaservizio.com.
If you're into shopping, consider the City Center, with its newly remodeled rotunda, a very elegant, nine-story retail and business center. Head to Chinatown for old accessories or to Main Street for genuine antiques.
If you enjoy street markets, check out the Farmers' Market in Old Oakland, 9th & Washington Streets, on Fridays from 8 to 2. While you're there, don't miss the Housewives' Market, also known as "Swan's Market," just down the street. The Oakland Artisan Marketplace on Frank Ogawa Plaza (in front of City Hall) is another option.
On Saturdays, there's a Grand Lake Farmers' Market at Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard from 9 to 2 (phone 800/897-FARM or 510/897-3276) and another Oakland Artisan Marketplace in Jack London Square. Finally, on Sundays, there's another general Farmers' Market at Jack London Square from 10 to 2, phone 510/814-6000.
Hours for these markets vary so see www.oaklandculturalarts.org for details.
There are just three rooms in A B&B on Fairmount, a spacious, renovated craftsman-style home. Each has a private bath, and the house has a sun porch, large garden and patio. It's just around the corner from the Piedmont Avenue shopping street. Rooms range from $70 to $95. Contact them at 510/653-7726, Web site www.bbonline.com/ca/berkely-oakland.
Near Chinatown and Old Oakland is the Howard Johnson Express Inn, with rooms for one or two people from $79 to $129. There are 115 rooms in this remodeled establishment, each with modem lines, free continental breakfast, free daily newspaper and cable TV. Other hotel facilities include a restaurant and a spa. Contact the inn at 312 7th Street, phone 800/446-4656 or 510/451-6316, fax 510/446-4656, Web site www.hojo.com.
If you want to stay in an authentically historic hotel that's been refurbished with modern amenities, try the Washington Inn, where a room for two people starts at $105, including full breakfast. It's Oakland's first hotel and is cozily redecorated with the unique attraction of a "sample" room right in the lobby. It's located at 495 Tenth Street, phone 510/452-1776, fax 510/452-4436, Web site www.thewashingtoninn.com.
If you want a huge room, try the Executive Inn, down along the commercial waterfront in Oakland but with beautiful views towards the Bay. A room for one or two people starts at $122. Bay view rooms start at $140. Hotel facilities include a heated pool, spa, restaurant and bar. Contact them at 1755 Embarcadero, Oakland, phone 510/536-6633 or 800/346-6331.
Right inside the Housewives Market is Allan's Ham & Bacon, a good place to get a sandwich for lunch or dinner. Pick up a sandwich for just $4 (any kind of meat, cheese, bread and condiments) and take it outside to the courtyard, where there are tables and chairs. Dinners to go (e.g., 3 pieces of fried chicken, with vegetables, yams, macaroni and cheese, plus cornbread) start from $9. The market is at 907 Washington Street. Allan's phone number is 510/893-9479. If they're too busy, cross the market to Jack's Meats, where similar sandwiches are available at about the same prices.
The Restaurant Peony, one of the best Chinese restaurants in downtown Oakland, is tucked away on the second floor of the Renaissance Center. Small dishes such as barbecued pork or crunchy, deep-fried prawn balls go for just $4.50, while there are large noodle dishes from $7, and dim sum items (spring roll, pork dumpling, etc.) from just $1.95. All these delicious things are at Peony in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza 388 9th Street phone 510/286-8866. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Kincaid's Fish, Chop & Steak House has one of the best views on Oakland's waterfront, right in Jack London Square. The fish is "flown in daily," not caught outside the window. The lowest-priced dinner entree is pork loin chops with mango-pineapple chutney at $18; the cheapest lunch sandwiches are Cajun meatloaf and smoked turkey, both at $7.95 (with choice of cole slaw, potato salad or French fries). Kincaid's is at One Franklin Street, phone 510/835-8600.
TJ's Gingerbread House is a fun place to dine, from its chockablock walls of curios, teddy bears and kitschy artwork to its big gingerbread cookies. In between is the delicious soul food, with an emphasis on Cajun, from spoon jambalaya to bayou catfish. The least expensive menu entrees are the $14.95 jambalaya mini-lunch and the red beans and rice with hot sausage, available for dinner for $14.95. Other entrees run from $19.95 to $29.95, except game dishes, which are even higher. With all entrees, you get "sassy" corn bread, salad, soft drinks and dessert. Most items can be ordered on arrival, but a few should be ordered a day in advance. Contact them at 741 5th Street, Oakland, right down under the interstate, phone 510/444-7373. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
For more information on the Oakland area, contact:
Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau
475 14th Street (Suite 120)
Oakland CA 94612