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14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Oakland

Written by Lisa Alexander
Mar 27, 2019

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. 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 provide an immense variety of culinary options. Tourists will also enjoy the lively street fairs and summer festivals, with multicultural music, dance, and gourmet food. For ideas on how to spend your time, see our list of the top things to do in Oakland.

See also: Where to Stay in Oakland

1. Lake Merritt

Lake Merritt

Lake Merritt | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Surrounded by luxuriant trees and verdant lawns, Lake Merritt is an idyllic parkland in the heart of the city of Oakland. Because the lake is a tidal lagoon filled with seawater, it is home to a marvelous variety of bird life such as Canadian geese, pelicans, the snowy egret, and black cormorants. Established in 1870, this is also the oldest designated wildlife refuge in the country.

Surrounding the lake is Lakeside Park, where several acres of green space and a 3.2-mile scenic path for walking and jogging encircle the lake. Couples can take a romantic gondola ride across the lake, and the tranquil scenery is also perfect for picnics. 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.

The park hosts many special events throughout the year and also offers regular programs and things to do like guided bird walks and "ask a master gardener" sessions and events, including a farmer's market and lawn bowling. The park is also home to seven acres of beautiful themed gardens, including a Bonsai garden, sensory garden, and an edible garden. Regional themes include the Japanese garden and Mediterranean garden, and others focus on certain plant species, like the rhododendron and palm gardens.

Nearby, the family-favorite Children's Fairyland also has some lovely gardens and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region for those with young children.

The last surviving of the beautiful Victorian mansions which graced the banks of Lake Merritt in the late 19th century, 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).

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Oakland

2. Jack London Square

Jack London Square

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 the 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.

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. 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 on 2nd Street. At the entrance to Jack London Square is the famous soul food restaurant Everett & Jones.

3. Oakland Museum of California

Oakland Museum of California

Oakland Museum of California | Daniel Hartwig / photo modified

The Oakland Museum unveils the rich heritage and culture of California through its engaging exhibits and extensive permanent collection. The museum's galleries include areas dedicated to the natural sciences, California arts, and history of the state. It 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. Among these is a look at the city's Black Panther movement, and artifacts include 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, California

Official site: http://museumca.org

4. Children's Fairyland

A storybook house at Children's Fairyland | Ted Eytan / photo modified

Adjacent to Lake Merritt's Lakeside Park, Children's Fairyland has been entertaining young children since 1950. This whimsical storybook-themed amusement park is known to have inspired Walt Disney, home to a variety of diversions that bring classic fairy tales to life. In the storybook sets, each tale comes alive and becomes a play space for the imagination, like Alice's rabbit tunnel and a kid-sized Jolly Roger pirate ship out of Peter Pan's world.

There are also an assortment of kiddie rides, a favorite being the Jolly Trolly, a 1954 mini railroad that rides through the park and through a tunnel. Other popular rides include the 1956 Wonder-Go-Round; an Alice In Wonderland-themed carousel; and a mini Ferris wheel called Anansi's Magic Web, named for an African children's tale.

Another highlight of Fairyland is the Storybook Puppet Theater, the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States. Since 1956, some of the country's most talented puppeteers have worked here, and the theater brings puppet dramas to life with charming costumes, colorful sets, and music. The puppets also expose kids to a variety of cultures, utilizing not only classic European hand puppets and marionettes but also Japanese bunraku and Balinese shadow puppets.

Address: 699 Bellevue Avenue, Oakland, California

Official site: https://fairyland.org

5. Redwood Regional Park

Sunlight streaming through redwood trees in Redwood Regional Park

This pristine redwood forest is just a few miles outside of downtown Oakland, and 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 timber, 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, California

Official site: www.ebparks.org/parks/redwood

6. Oakland Zoo

White-handed gibbon at the Oakland Zoo

Inside the 490-acre Knowland Park, the Oakland Zoo is home to more than 660 native and exotic species residing in natural habitats, including an African savanna, tropical rain forest, and the Australian outback. For younger visitors and those who love to get up close, the children's zoo is home to a variety of exhibits including bats, lemurs, river otters, a petting zoo, and wildlife theater. The zoo is also home to several native species including gray wolves, mountain lions, and both black and grizzly bears.

Park visitors can get a bird's-eye view of the California Trail educational area and its herd of bison as they ride a gondola from the park entrance to Adventure Landing, where you can also hop on the Sky Ride gondola that stretches over the African savanna, home to giraffes and elephants. The zoo also has several amusement rides and adventures, including a carousel, a train that meanders through the park, a roller coaster, jeep safari, and more.

Address: 9777 Golf Links Road, Oakland, California

Official site: www.oaklandzoo.org

7. Dining & Shopping in Rockridge & Temescal

A vibrant mural on Telegraph Avenue, Oakland | Ted Eytan / photo modified

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, a tiny side street with quaint shops; be sure to show up early if you want to get fresh-baked donuts at Doughnut Dolly's - they sell out fast.

The Rockridgeneighborhood 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. Other enticing offerings of Rockridge are the artisan coffee shops, casual American-style cafés, trendy Italian dining, and authentic ethnic restaurants.

8. Morcom (Oakland) Rose Garden

Oakland Rose Garden

Oakland Rose Garden | David Ashleydale / photo modified

Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, the city-owned 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 seasons run from the end of May through the end of July, and the beginning of August through mid-September.

Visitors may take a stroll through the gardens, admiring the landscaping around the stairways and walkways, however on weekends, you may find that some areas are in use; 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, California

9. Chabot Space and Science Center

Chabot Space and Science Center

Chabot Space and Science Center | Don DeBold / photo modified

This state-of-the-art space and science center is full of exhibits and interactive labs where all ages can learn and explore, educating visitors about the solar system and the galaxies. The center's Planetarium has a 70-foot full dome, which presents shows using digital projection for 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.

In addition to the simulated experience in the planetarium, the center has several observatories, which visitors can use to peer into the sky, all manned with knowledgeable docents. Exhibits include an exploration of near space, including the properties of the sun and a trip to the moon, as well as a look at the expansive universe beyond our perception.

Address: 10000 Skyline Boulevard, Oakland, California

Official site: https://chabotspace.org/

10. Black Panther Tours

Black Panther Tours

Black Panther Tours | Eric Fischer / photo modified

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. Stops include the Traffic Signal at the corner of Market & 55th streets, where a small group of armed Black Panthers stopped motorists so that they could safely escort children across the intersection; the Black Panther Party Office on Martin Luther King Jr. Way; and the homes of Black Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.

11. Cultural Events and Festivals

Cultural Events and Festivals

An Oakland festival | Sonny Abesamis / photo modified

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. 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.

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. Other highlights of the Art + Soul Festival are the carnival rides, interactive art activities for kids, and artisan vendors' stalls. Foodies will enjoy the barbecue 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. The Laurel Street Fair in August features 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, which showcases locally made artisan-food products; and the Black Cowboy Parade and Heritage Festival in October, which honors the contribution of African Americans in the West.

12. Lake Temescal Recreation Area

Egret at Lake Temescal

Egret at Lake Temescal

The Lake Temescal nature site lies about three miles outside Oakland's downtown, formerly a reservoir for drinking water. Because of the peaceful scenery, the Lake Temescal Recreation area is popular for hiking, sunbathing, and picnicking. The beach is open for swimming from April through October, and lifeguards are on duty during scheduled hours.

At each side of the lake, picnic areas with grassy lawns offer plenty of space to stretch out, and some of the tables can be reserved ahead of time. 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, including 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, California

13. African American Museum & Library at Oakland

African American Museum & Library at Oakland

African American Museum & Library at Oakland | George Kelly / photo modified

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 80 years of African American East Bay history. Scholars may use the microfilm collection to research special topics such as African American enslavement and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, and key historical figures like W.E.B. Dubois.

Address: 659 14th Street, Oakland, California

Official site: http://oaklandlibrary.org/locations/african-american-museum-library-oakland

14. Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate

Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate

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, and also hosts themed events throughout the year, including a variety of special activities during the Christmas holiday season.

Address: 2960 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland

Official site: www.dunsmuirhellman.com

Where to Stay in Oakland for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: The four-star Oakland Marriott City Center is located just off Broadway between downtown and Chinatown, within walking distance of Jack London Square. Many of the hotel's modern rooms have excellent views of the bay and its bridges, Berkeley Marina, or Lake Merritt. Amenities include an outdoor pool, fitness center, and room service.

    For a romantic stay, try the Waterfront Hotel, a Joie de Vivre hotel. Among their nautical-themed rooms, guests can stay in a balcony suite, which overlooks the bay, complete with a fireplace. The hotel has a free weekday social hour with snacks; is dog-friendly; and has amenities, including room service, a pool and sauna, and a fitness center. It is conveniently located within a block of both Jack London Square and the U.S.S. Potomac.

  • Mid-Range Hotels: You wouldn't know that the Best Western Plus Bayside Hotel is a three-star hotel by looking at it - here you will find top-notch service and modern decor, with guest rooms that each feature a separate shower and soaking tub. In addition to an airport and shuttle service, parking is free and there are even electric vehicle charging stations available. Other value-adding amenities are a large self-service laundry area and complimentary breakfast, and the kids will be happy with their large outdoor pool.

    Warm and inviting, the Executive Inn & Suites overlooks the estuary and also offers free shuttle services for guests, as well as free parking. Breakfast is included, and there are microwaves and mini-fridges in each room. The hotel also has a heated outdoor pool, hot tub, and fitness center, as well as self-serve laundry facilities and send-out laundry service.

    The Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites is a dependable mid-range option located close to the Oakland Aviation Museum and Metropolitan Golf Links. It offers clean and efficient dog-friendly rooms with fridges and microwaves, as well as wired and wireless internet. Breakfast and shuttle service is complimentary, and the hotel has a fitness center and laundry facilities.

  • Budget Hotels: An excellent budget option located on the outskirts of Oakland closer to the zoo, Quality Inn Oakland offers a complimentary hot breakfast, Wi-Fi, and an airport shuttle. Family rooms are available, so you can fit the whole gang - even your dog. There is an outdoor pool for the kids, and parents will enjoy the large Jacuzzi.

    Just off the junction of I-980 and I-580, the Imperial Inn may have an admittedly dated decor, but that is made up for in cleanliness and service. A small hotel, all rooms open onto a lovely central courtyard with a fountain and seating, providing a relaxing and quiet space. Parking is free, and rooms have free Wi-Fi, as well as a fridge and microwave.

    For a dependable chain budget hotel, book Days Hotel by Wyndham Oakland Airport-Coliseum. Here, you will find clean and efficient rooms, a fitness center and pool, and a clean and spacious self-serve laundry room. Parking, Wi-Fi, and an airport shuttle are free.

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San Francisco and Nearby: Oakland sits opposite San Francisco, across the San Francisco Bay, connected by the Bay Bridge, and is a popular day trip from San Francisco. It can also work well as a less expensive home base for a trip to the Bay Area, convenient to the neighboring college town of Berkeley and laid-back Sausalito.

Smaller Cities: Those who prefer to vacation in smaller cities will enjoy the Monterey Bay area, best known for the city of Santa Cruz, which sits on its northern edge. At the opposite side of the bay, you will find even quieter tourist destinations like historic Monterey, once the capital of Spanish California. Just next door to Monterey sits the romantic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a place where tourists will lose themselves in the old-world atmosphere.

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