Word’s out: Oakland, California, is giving its famous neighbor across San Francisco Bay a run for its money.
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Thanks to a slew of new businesses and attractions, the thriving city is seeing a tourism renaissance. Visitor numbers to Oakland have surged 27 percent in just the last four years; more than 3.7 million travelers arrived here in 2016.
The vibe here is urban, artsy and modern all at once, and the city’s cultural and historical highlights make it an especially unique destination.
Here are some of the special things to see and do in Oakland.
Skip SFO, fly into OAK
If you’re headed to East Bay destinations, like Oakland, flying into Oakland International Airport can be a no-brainer. OAK doesn’t have as many nonstop options as the much larger and busier SFO, across the Bay. Various low-frills carriers, though, service OAK, making fares competitive, and experiences like renting a car and going through security can be a whole lot easier. OAK is less than 10 miles, or a 15-minute drive, from downtown Oakland.
Skip the walking tour, take off
Want a bird’s-eye view of famous San Francisco Bay? Take off with San Francisco Air Tours, which operates Cessna 207s out of OAK and takes guests soaring over Oakland, San Francisco and Sausalito and landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Pier 39. Flights are perfect for families, since they accommodate up to six people, and snacks like popcorn and cookies come standard. Every seat is a window seat and pilots are fluent in English, Spanish and German. The popular Golden Tour lasts about an hour total, with at least 30 minutes of air time.
Skip the hotel, snooze at the zoo
The Oakland Zoo offers some awesome sights, too: the Landing Café offers panoramic views of the Bay Area and a new gondola whisks guests high above the still-expanding California Trail. This popular animal haven also offers the unique chance to spend the night among your favorite wild animals. The Family Sundown Safari is offered throughout the year, running from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. the next day. Families bring their own tent and sleeping bags and, after setting up camp, enjoy an all-you-can-eat dinner, a twilight behind-the-scenes tour of the Children’s Zoo, make snacks for animals, catch a show and enjoy smores by the campfire. The morning after includes breakfast and animal encounters. Come 10 a.m., guests can stick around and enjoy the zoo the rest of the day; more than 700 exotic and native animals live here.
Skip room service, nosh in town
The Claremont Hotel & Spa, A Fairmont Hotel, is easily one of area’s the top places to stay. It features a prime and super unique East Bay location: the property’s front door is in Oakland and the back door is in Berkeley. And dining at the onsite Limewood Bar & Restaurant (with Happy Hour $1.50 oysters and half-off martinis every weekday) is top notch. Some the best food discoveries, though, are in the city.
“No trip to Oakland is complete without good food and drink!” says the hotel’s Chef Concierge, Jennifer Circelli, who’s in the business if pointing discerning guests toward the best spots in town to nosh. “Try Flora, Plum, The Wolf and A16,” she suggests. “But the list goes on and new restaurants and star chefs are constantly popping up thanks to skyrocketing costs across the Bay in San Francisco.”
Can’t settle on just one restaurant? “The Hive, an industrial space transformed into a hub for restaurants, artists and merchants, is home to Calavera, Drake’s Brewery, Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream and more,” says Circelli. “You’ll also get a good feel for the diverse and engaged community that makes up Oakland here.” Circelli also recommends locally-owned Local Food Adventures, which offers walking food tours of the Grand Lake and Rockridge neighborhoods.
Skip the bar, sip the beer
Thirsty? Oakland is now home to a dozen breweries, nine of which have taprooms open to the public along the Oakland Ale Trail. Circelli likes Diving Dog, Temescal Brewing and Pacific Coast Brewing Company. But visit them all and earn a free branded growler! There are several guided tour options, including Velocipede Tours, which peddles brew fans around in a custom 14-person bike. Look for four more brewery tasting rooms to open by the end of the year.
Skip the beer, taste the wine
In just the last couple of years, I’ve seen several wineries pop up in Oakland, mainly inside repurposed warehouse buildings. Ten wineries currently make up the Oakland Urban Wine Trail, most of them conveniently located near Jack London Square and the city’s Amtrak station. These up and coming labels, like Brooklyn West, Jeff Cohn Cellars and Urban Legend, source grapes from all over California and are open to the public mostly on weekends.
Skip the gym, take a hike
There are hundreds of hiking trails in the East Bay. The Claremont’s Circelli recommends the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve, just behind the resort. “It’s a fairly short, albeit steep hike, but the views from the top are incredible,” she says. “You can see all of Berkeley, Oakland, and across the Bay into San Francisco. Spot the Golden Gate Bridge on clear days!”
Skip the shore, visit the lake
“I seriously love living in Oakland,” says Jessica McNally, a producer in Travelzoo’s San Francisco offices. Her favorite weekend escape is Lake Merritt, a heart-shaped lagoon with 3.4 miles of shoreline and plenty to do. “Grab a drink on the dock at Lake Chalet, catch impromptu salsa dancing or capoeira dancers at the pergola, stop in at the botanical gardens, or take the kids to Children’s Fairyland,” says McNally. ”It’s a great place to get a feel for the Oakland community.” Circelli suggests a gondola ride on the waters of Lake Merritt, and a visit to its Grand Lake Farmers’ Market. “Buy some fresh California produce, cheese and baked goods, and grab a spot on the grass on a sunny Sunday afternoon,” she says.
After the museum, do the murmur
The spotlight is squarely on the Golden State at the Oakland Museum of California, near Lake Merritt, which is dedicated to the state’s art, history and natural sciences. McNally likes visiting on Fridays, when the museum features food trucks, live music, dancing, an artisan marketplace, hands-on workshops and after-hours gallery access. “It’s a great options for families, couples and everyone in between!” she says. Adult admission is half off and kids 18 and under get in for free. The every-Friday event runs 5-10 p.m.
“Oakland also has great museums and attractions for younger visitors,” adds the Claremont’s Circelli. “Kids can look through the largest research-quality telescopes open to the public west of the Mississippi at Chabot Space & Science Center or play pretend in the whimsical storybook sets at Children’s Fairyland.”
For more cultural immersion, join the Oakland Art Murmur (OAM) the first Friday of each month, held rain or shine. More than 50 art galleries and mixed-use venues throughout the city open to the public and feature free guided tours and exclusive events. OAM features a street festival Uptown, along Telegraph Avenue between Grand and 27th Street.
Reconnect with Jack London Square
What’s probably Oakland’s most popular entertainment destination “is in the midst of a revitalization,” says McNally. Jack London Square “is a great spot to watch boats sail by, wander the Sunday farmer’s market or eat dinner al fresco at a number of tasty restaurants, from wood-fired pizzas, to Latin-inspired tapas.” Set along the scenic Oakland/Alameda Estuary, this vibrant waterfront spot also features kayak rentals and sailing charters. The USS Potomac, FDR’s presidential yacht, offers dockside tours year-round and two-hour narrated history cruises from March through November.
Skip the megaplex, visit Grand Lake Theater
The historic Grand Lake Theater dates back to 1926, when it opened as a vaudeville show and silent movie house. You can see first-run films here, but the real draw are intimate auditoriums with their lavish décor, including Egyptian and Moorish motifs. All shows before 5:45 p.m. are $6, even 3-D screenings, and Wednesday is free popcorn day. Pop into the main auditorium on Friday and Saturday nights to see pre-movie performances on the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.
Snap a selfie at the wall
As part of an ongoing push to encourage custom mural projects throughout the city, Visit Oakland debuted an official visitor “selfie wall” in 2016. The colorful mural features myriad Oakland landmarks and attractions, like Lake Merritt, Children’s Fairyland and the Oakland Urban Wine Trail. Visit the wall in front of the Oakland Marriott City Center and post your selfies with the hashtag #oaklandloveit.
Skip Uber, ride for free
Catch free rides around Oakland aboard the Broadway Shuttle, known to the locals as the “Free B.” Sponsored by the City of Oakland, these green buses run along Broadway from Jack London to 27th Street and provide free hop-on, hop-off connections from BART, the San Francisco Bay Ferry and Amtrak stations to downtown restaurants and shops. Look for the signs with the green “B on Broadway” logo.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals in Oakland at www.travelzoo.com. Got your own favorite Oakland experience? Let him know on Twitter or Instagram: @gabesaglie.