7 Things to Do in Oakland, CA

lake merritt oakland skylineOakland skyline Lake Merritt
Andrei Gabriel Stanescu/Dreamstime

This design-forward, richly diverse city belongs at the top of your Bay Area to-do list.

Ask my kids what they liked best about their visit to California last July and they’ll both answer without hesitation: “Oakland!”

My daughters spent a week attending an exceptional summer camp at Studio One Art Center, in Oakland, and some of their finest creations from that week now grace the walls of our suburban New York apartment, a reminder of all that our family discovered about Oakland on our trip. It’s also a great reflection of Oakland’s justly deserved rep as an epicenter of artistic creativity on the West Coast.

From cool arts and cultural programs to great food and beautiful natural spaces, here are seven of the many ways you can - and should - get to know the city that’s just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco.


Studio One Art Center (studiooneartcenter.net), offering art classes for adults and kids and the great summer day camp my kids attended last year, is just one example of how Oakland embraces art and community. If you want a firsthand one-stop experience of Oakland’s art scene, attend First Fridays, the immersive art and community event that takes place each month on Telegraph Avenue from West Grand to 27th Street, with the city’s galleries, artist collectives, street artists, artisans, performers, and more participating.

We also visited the Oakland Museum of California (museumca.org), an unusual hybrid that brings together superb collections devoted to art, history, and natural science with the goal of telling the multitude of stories that make up California from prehistoric times to the present. I loved the ways in which the museum brings various disciplines together, and my wife and I spent an entire day exploring the history timeline exhibits and photographing replicas of the state’s native communities, Gold Rush opulence, Steinbeck-era memorabilia associated with the Great Depression, and much more. The art collection ranged from Edward Curtis’s extraordinary photographs of Native Americans to brand-new conceptual installations that challenge viewers to redefine the very concept of art.


One word: Yoshi’s (yoshis.com). While the legendary jazz club is by no means the only music venue in town, it exemplifies, perhaps better than any other, the Oakland community’s deep understanding and commitment to jazz music not only as satisfying entertainment but also as a gorgeous, swinging, ever-evolving manifestation of America’s diverse cultures, especially the creative African-American communities that helped give birth to the “West Coast Jazz” movement in the 1950s. Upcoming shows by Resonance Classical Jazz Ensemble on January 10 and Grammy-winning Latin percussionist Pancho Sanchez on January 26 and 27. Other great places to catch fresh music in Oakland include The New Parish, the Fox theater and the Paramount.


Oakland is a wonderful city for walking, and visitors get a mosaic of architectural styles just strolling downtown and beyond. Take your pick from Art Deco to Victorian, Arts & Crafts (many of Julia Morgan’s iconic designs are here), and Millennial Modern, and don’t miss the lakeside Cathedral of Christ the Light.


Sure, many of us associate Oakland with big-city style and urban music, but the city boasts some surprising delights for outdoor adventurers as well. With 19 miles of coastline and downtown’s beautiful Lake Merritt, Oakland offers opportunities to kayak, stand-up-paddleboard, and even sail on the bay. More than 100,000 acres of parkland and trails up in the hills are a weekend and vacation paradise for hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, and off-road Segways (yes, that’s a thing that exists here).


We loved the way Oakland’s eats range from Michelin-starred restaurants to food trucks, making the city one of the West Coast’s hottest new culinary destinations. Of course you expect great Mexican fare in Northern California, and Oakland delivers with Nido, Tamarindo Antoneria, and Dona Tomas. With the fourth largest Chinatown in the U.S., Oakland also delivers perfect dumplings at Restaurant Peony and Shan Dong. You’ll also find classic Southern dishes at Pican, comfort food (think mac & cheese made with a local artisanal twist) at Homeroom, and great BBQ at B-Side BBQ. Cuisines of Ethiopia and Eritrea are gaining popularity at Addis, Cafe Colucci, and YaYu. We opted to explore the city’s Vietnamese cuisines, and Le Cheval is a standout with its classic Vietnamese blend of French, Chinese, and Southeast Asian traditions.


While my kids happened to love their art camp experience, Oakland offers many other family-friendly experiences, the storybook-themed park, Children’s Fairyland, said to have inspired Walt Disney to explore the theme park concept. The Oakland Zoo is a favorite with little ones, and the Chabot Space & Science observatory keeps kids and grownups looking up. One of the top family experiences that deserves its closeup in 2018 is the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, allowing visitors to step back in time to immerse themselves in California’s early history.


If you’ve worked up a thirst diving into the six previous Oakland musts, it’s time to grab a beer. The Oakland Ale Trail, is a celebration of Oakland’s craft beer scene, one of the tastiest in America. Get a “passport” at one of Oakland’s brewery taprooms, and if you visit all of them, you’ll earn a free growler. (If beer isn’t your thing, you can hit the Oakland Urban Wine Trail to explore local wineries.)


Oakland lodging starts at well under $200 (with some airport hotels under $100), and I thoroughly appreciated our stay at the Best Western Plus Bayside Hotel.

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