15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Oakland
Named after the shady oak trees native to this area, Oakland is the smaller city across the San Francisco Bay that has become a hip, up-and-coming destination in its own right. Gertrude Stein would no longer be able to say: "there is no there there." While Oakland used to be considered a nondescript manufacturing city, nowadays the town has real style, and much of the locally-made goods are handcrafted artisanal products. A true melting pot, Oakland is home to a diverse population. The city's vibrant African-American community brought traditional soul food, and immigrants from all over the world have opened Ethiopian, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Thai, and other authentic ethnic restaurants that make visiting the city so interesting. Tourists will also enjoy the lively street fairs and summer festivals where multicultural music, dance, and gourmet food awaits.
See also: Where to Stay in Oakland
1 Lake Merritt
Surrounded by luxuriant trees and verdant lawns, Lake Merritt is an idyllic parkland in the heart of the city. In the late 19th century, the banks of Lake Merritt were graced by beautiful Victorian mansions. The last surviving of these, the Camron-Stanford House, is open to the public for tours on Sundays in spring and summer. Built in 1876, the Camron-Stanford House offers a traditional dessert tea served in the lovely dining room (reservations are required well in advance).
Where other grand estates once stood is now Lakeside Park, several acres of green space and lakeside paths. During warm weather, this area is ideal for taking leisurely strolls or playing summer games of frisbee. The lake is encircled by a 3.2-mile scenic path for walking and jogging, a boathouse and nature center. Romantics should take an Italian gondola ride across the lake, just like in Venice, or admire the little hummingbirds fluttering about in the Bonsai Garden. Because the lake is a tidal lagoon filled with seawater, it is home to a marvelous variety of birdlife such as Canadian geese, pelicans, the snowy egret, and black cormorants. The tranquil scenery is also perfect for picnics. Many locals can be seen in the grassy areas lounging on blankets while nibbling bread, cheese, fruit, and other snacks. To enjoy a more elegant meal, try the Lakeside Chalet, which has gorgeous views of the lake and music concerts on the dock during summertime. On Saturdays from 9am to 2pm, the Grand Lake Farmer's Market offers an extensive selection of locally grown fruit and other high-quality food products. Another casual option is available just east of Lake Merritt at the Taco Trucks parked on International Boulevard.
Children will love Lake Merritt because of its public playground and Fairyland, the whimsical storybook-themed amusement park that inspired Walt Disney. Kids will be excited to go on the adorable children's rides such as the Jolly Train and Wonder-Go-Round. A highlight of Fairyland is the Storybook Puppet Theater that brings puppet dramas to life with charming costumes, colorful sets, and music. The Storybook Puppet Theater is the oldest puppet theater in the US that has been continually operating. Since 1956, some of country's most talented puppeteers have worked here. Puppet shows are presented every day at 11am, 2pm, and 4pm.
2 Jack London Square
In a picturesque setting on the Oakland estuary, Jack London Square has a relaxing maritime atmosphere. This historic neighborhood was a stomping ground of famous American author Jack London, who worked at the docks of the Oakland port. In the center of the square stands a replica of Jack London's log cabin, where he lived during a wilderness expedition in Alaska. Today, Jack London Square is popular for dining or strolling along the boardwalk and waterfront trail. The area has many inviting restaurants along the European-style walkways, with waterfront terraces overlooking the marina. Enjoy the outdoor seating or relax at a bench and watch as sailboats and yachts sail out to the bay.
Be sure to see the historic USS Potomac vessel docked at the port (540 Water Street). This was Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential yacht from 1934 to 1945. Now the Presidential Yacht Potomac offers educational dockside tours and sightseeing tours. The yacht sails past the attractions of the bay such as the Bay Bridge and Angel Island. The Potomac also has romantic sunset cruises, evening cruises with live musical performances, and lunchtime history cruises. Many local companies also offer kayak tours of this area.
Jack London Square hosts a Farmers' Market on Sundays from 9am to 2pm at Broadway and Water streets, a scenic waterfront location. Nearby are a few shops worth visiting, including the cute pastel-painted Miette Bakery that sells old-fashioned candies, cakes, cupcakes, and cookies. Chocolate lovers must try Barlovento Chocolates available at the farmers' market or at their workshop (638 2nd Street). These exceptional handcrafted chocolate truffles are made with fresh ingredients from the farmers market. At the entrance to Jack London Square is the famous soul food restaurant Everett & Jones.
3 Oakland Museum of California
The Oakland Museum unveils the rich heritage and culture of California. Through its engaging exhibits and extensive permanent collection, the museum educates visitors about the natural sciences, arts, and history of the state. The museum has a special focus on the Oakland community and often features exhibits related to the city's social justice movements as well as the history of political activism. An interesting item on display is Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton's wicker chair.
Every Friday night from 5pm to 9pm, tourists have a chance to combine a museum visit with entertainment while mingling with the local community. The Friday Nights @ OMCA event includes half-off admission plus "curbside cuisine" (gourmet food trucks), a DJ or live band, dance lessons, games, and family art activities. Visitors are also free to check out the museum's galleries.
Address: 1000 Oak Street, Oakland
4 Historic Theaters
Visitors can experience the charm of a bygone era by attending a performance at one of Oakland's historic theaters. The Paramount Theater, built in 1931, is an Art Deco landmark in the center of town. This theater presents films as well as musical performances and comedy acts. On Classic Movie Nights, the Paramount features a live Wurlitzer organ serenade before the show. The Oakland Symphony and Ballet also perform here. In the happening area of downtown Oakland known as "Uptown," the Fox Theater is a renovated 1920s movie theater that is used as a venue for music concerts.
Near Lake Merritt, the Grand Lake Theater dates back to 1926 and was originally a silent movie house. Typical of Art Deco movie theaters, the building has Egyptian and Moorish architectural elements, but the most noteworthy feature is the 52-foot high by 72-feet long marquee illuminated by 2,800 light bulbs. The Grand Lake shows independent films as well as blockbuster movies. Before the shows on Friday and Saturday nights, the original Wurlitzer organ plays a few tunes to set a festive mood.
5 Redwood Regional Park
At this pristine redwood forest, a few miles outside of downtown Oakland, nature lovers can breathe in the fresh, pine-scented air. It's worth taking the drive out here to meditate in the redwood groves. Many of the stately coastal redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) soar to 150 feet. This area was once cleared by logging (for use as building materials), but the forest has been replaced and is now protected parkland with hiking trails. Within the park's 1,830 forested acres are deer, rabbits, and squirrels as well as rare species like the golden eagle and the Alameda striped racer. The park has restrooms, water fountains, reservable picnic tables and sites for overnight camping. Well-groomed paths invite visitors to amble through the redwoods, and detailed trail maps are available.
Address: 7867 Redwood Road, Oakland
6 Cultural Events and Festivals
Oakland's vibrant cultural events reflect the city's diversity. A popular monthly event is the Oakland Art Murmur gallery walk, held on the first Friday of every month. This event started in 2006 and has been going strong ever since, drawing big crowds. More than 30 galleries in West Oakland and Jack London Square participate in Art Murmur by opening to the public from 6pm to 9pm. The event also includes musical entertainment, gourmet food trucks, and local street vendors selling art and artisanal products. For a less crowded art walk, head over to the Temescal First Friday event. This trendy neighborhood has several local galleries as well as a great selection of restaurants.
Oakland's biggest festival, Art + Soul Festival, celebrates the city's rich heritage and culture. Held in downtown Oakland, the two-day festival in August features a fantastic lineup of live music, with a special focus on soul, blues, jazz, and gospel, as well as modern, hip hop, Afro-Fusion, and jazz dance performances by Bay Area troupes. The dazzling local acrobatic dance troupe BANDALOOP is a must-see sight in this festival. Other highlights of the Art + Soul Festival are the carnival rides, interactive art activities for kids, and artisan vendors' stalls. Foodies will enjoy the BBQ competition and the chance to sample delicious ethnic and local specialties.
Oakland also has many street fairs throughout the year. Many locals head to the Temescal Street Fair, a neighborhood event in July that includes live music, art, and food vendors as well as the Laurel Street Fair in August featuring live music, DJs, dance performances, artisan vendors, a children's carnival, and food trucks. Other events focus on ethnic heritage, diversity and the local food culture, such as the Chinatown StreetFest in August, the Oakland Pride Festival in September, the Eat Real Fest in September that showcases locally made artisan-food products, and the Black Cowboy Parade and Heritage Festival in October that honors the contribution of African Americans in the West.
In July, Jack London Square hosts Waterfront Flicks, free outdoor movies shown on the Ferry Lawn. People bring their blankets and chairs to the grassy area and enjoy a night of entertainment in the fresh air. Dancing under the Stars is every Friday night in July; the programming includes free dance lessons and a dance party.
7 Dining & Shopping in Rockridge & Temescal
Oakland's trendy Temescal neighborhood caters to a diverse crowd of foodies, hipsters, techies, and young families. The main drag of Temescal is Telegraph Avenue, and the happening area is from around 48 Street to 52nd Street, which is packed with excellent ethnic restaurants and pizza places. Just off Telegraph Avenue on 49th Street are two charming pedestrian alleyways with locally-owned specialty boutiques and artisan shops. Temescal Alley is lined with historic buildings that were once horse stables and carriage houses. Visitors who stroll this alley will find a favorite ice cream parlor, stylish clothing stores, boutiques selling handcrafted jewelry, and an old-fashioned barber shop. Temescal Alley has a popular Sunday farmers market from 9am to 1pm year-round. It's also worth strolling over to Alley 49. This tiny side street has quaint shops and Doughnut Dolly's fresh-baked donuts that always sell out. The Temescal Street Cinema program runs from mid-August to mid-September and is held on Thursday nights.
The Rockridge neighborhood has a fantastic selection of stylish shops and upscale restaurants along College Avenue, between Florio Street and Bryant Avenue. Some restaurants in this area were inspired by Alice Water's philosophy of cooking with fresh ingredients. For instance, the Oliveto is a highly rated Italian restaurant that uses local organic ingredients and even works with grain farmers and millers to create the flour for its pasta and pizza. The restaurant also offers community food events such as cooking classes. Other enticing offerings of Rockridge are the artisan coffee shops, casual American-style cafés, trendy Italian dining (as well as Zachary's famous Chicago-style pizza), and authentic ethnic restaurants. The Rockridge Food Tour company takes visitors on three-hour guided walking tours of the Rockridge neighborhood. Participants learn about the food culture and history, while sampling morning buns, pizza, ice cream, and other gourmet delights at six locations.
8 Oakland Rose Garden
Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, the Oakland Rose Garden is an enchanting spot that is especially delightful in spring and early summer. The garden is planted with thousands of roses in all different colors and varieties. Peak season is the end of May, June, the end of July, the beginning of August, and mid-September. Visitors may take a stroll through the gardens, admiring the landscaping around the stairways and walkways. The Oakland Rose Garden is sometimes rented out as a venue for weddings and special events. With its profusion of fragrant roses, the garden scenery makes for lovely photo opportunities.
Address: 700 Jean Street, Oakland
9 Chabot Space and Science Center
This state-of-the-art space and science center boasts a 70-foot domed digital projection planetarium that projects stunning, seamless images along with top-notch digital sound. Audiences will enjoy an engaging stargazing experience, with the sense of being immersed in the night sky. The Chabot Space and Science Center educates visitors about the solar system and the galaxies and is popular for school field trips.
Address: 10000 Skyline Boulevard, Oakland
10 Black Panther Tours
Black Panther Tours offers a unique bus tour of Oakland, focused on the history of the Black Panther Party. This special thematic tour is a must-do experience for anyone who is interested in social justice, the civil rights movement, and African-American history. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to protect African Americans from police brutality. The party later adopted a Ten Point Program with the goal of empowering disenfranchised blacks and created "Survival Programs" to provide community support such as education, transportation, and a free breakfast program for children. The small Oakland-based organization grew into an international group with chapters in 48 states as well as support groups overseas.
The tour begins at the West Oakland Library and covers 18 sites in Oakland that were significant to the Black Panther Party and the civil rights movement. For instance, stops include the Traffic Signal at the corner of Market & 55th streets, where a small group of armed Black Panthers stopped motorists and escorted children across the intersection; the Black Panther Party Office on Martin Luther King Jr. Way; the church where the party offered free breakfasts for children; the homes of Black Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale; and the site of a shootout in 1967 between Newton and a police officer. During the bus tour, the guides share stories and historical details that bring the group's political struggles to life. Tickets for the Black Panther Tours are available by advanced reservation.
11 Oakland Zoo
Inside the 490-acre Knowland Park, the Oakland Zoo is home to more than 660 native and exotic species, from the American bison to the blue-and-yellow macaw and the African elephant. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Oakland Zoo is its support for the Action for Wildlife Conservation Program, dedicated to protecting endangered wildlife all over the world. The zoo also has special activities for children such as animal feedings, birthday parties, "Teddy Bear Tea" events, Family Sundown Safari overnights, and Zoovie Nights with animal-themed or nature-themed movies for kids.
Address: 9777 Golf Links Road, Oakland
12 Lake Temescal Recreation Area
The Lake Temescal nature site lies five kilometers outside Oakland's downtown and used to be a reservoir for drinking water. Because of the peaceful scenery, the Lake Temescal Recreation area is popular for hiking, sunbathing, and picnicking. At each side of the lake, picnic areas with grassy lawns offer plenty of space to stretch out, and some of the tables are reservable. A paved wheelchair-accessible trail runs the length of the park, ideal for a gentle nature walk. Other paved biking paths are available for cyclists: the East Shore Trail and a path along the park's eastern border. Within the park, a lakeside venue is sometimes used for weddings, parties, and other events.
Address: 6500 Broadway, Oakland
13 African American Museum & Library at Oakland
The African American Museum & Library at Oakland is a unique resource dedicated to preserving and sharing the historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in Northern California and the Bay Area. More than 160 collections document the stories of prominent families and pioneers as well as the history of churches and social and political organizations. The Eternal Voices video library contains more than than 80 years of African American East Bay history. Scholars may use the microfilm collection to research special topics and key historical figures such as African American enslavement, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, and W.E.B. Dubois.
Address: 659 14th Street, Oakland
14 Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate
Nestled in the Oakland Hills, the Dunsmuir mansion was built in 1878 by the wealthy coal baron Alexander Dunsmuir. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this historic landmark was designed by San Francisco architect J. Eugene Freeman in the turn-of-the-century Neoclassical Revival style. The mansion features a Tiffany-style dome, 37 rooms, wood-paneled reception halls, and 10 fireplaces. The estate is set on 50 acres of lawns and has a pond, gazebo, and beautiful gardens. It's open to the public for visits and is a popular venue for weddings.
Address: 2960 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland
15 25th Street Collective Artisan Workshops
The 25th Street Collective brings together a talented group of local artisans including food producers, fashion designers, and jewelry makers. With a spacious warehouse, the collective provides studio space for resident artisans. The 25th Street Collective is also home to Oakland Sewn, a small-run clothing production company. Open studios are held every Saturday from 1pm to 6pm, on the 3rd Thursdays of every month from 6pm to 8pm, and on the First Fridays from 6pm to 10pm. For a festive afternoon featuring live music and food, attend "Saturday Soiree" on the first Saturday of the month from 1pm to 6pm.
Address: 477 25th Street, Oakland
Where to Stay in Oakland for Sightseeing
We recommend these conveniently located hotels in Oakland, near attractions like Jack London Square and trendy Temescal:
- Oakland Marriott City Center: mid-range pricing, contemporary decor, pool and fitness center, valet parking.
- Waterfront Hotel, a Joie de Vivre hotel: 3-star hotel, water views, nautical theme, free weekday social hour with snacks.
- Inn at Temescal: affordable rates, near BART station, helpful staff, bright rooms, comfy beds.
- Days Hotel Oakland Airport-Coliseum: budget airport hotel, breakfast included, outdoor pool, free parking.