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Across the Bay: a beginner’s Oakland guide

Famous for its indie spirit, quirky boutiques and craft cocktail scene, Oakland is San Francisco’s cool little sister across the Bay. Take a look at our beginner’s Oakland guide for the lowdown on the area’s top attractions. 

One of the most noticeable features of the Oakland skyline is the collection of cargo cranes at the Port of Oakland. Their giant size and creature-like shapes are said to have inspired filmmaker George Lucas to create the AT-AT Walkers in the Star Wars trilogy.

The city’s history goes back far further than seventies science fiction, though. In the late 1800s the Central Pacific Railroad built its terminus in Oakland, linking the East Coast to the West. Risk-taking Americans who sought their fortunes arrived in the brand-new territory. In fact, “innovation” and “fearlessness” quickly became the buzzwords that defined the city. In the sixties, Oakland’s Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station spearheaded the funk-music genre, while the city’s Black Panthers led many rallies that changed the course of Civil Rights.

Today, Oakland continues to attract artists, writers and other creatives who nowadays can no longer afford their own studios and storefronts in San Francisco.


Oakland attractions

Declared America’s first game refuge in 1870, Lake Merritt remains the only natural saltwater lake in the heart of a city, with a necklace of lights ringing its 3.1-mile perimeter. Joggers and rowers are a common sight. On the shores is the nation’s first 3-D park for children, Children’s Fairyland, which opened in 1950 and was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Disneyland.

If you’ve seen the 2011 movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt, you may want to catch an Oakland A’s baseball game at the Oracle Arena (more commonly called Oakland Coliseum). Coach Billy Beane, the character Pitt played, is now the General Manager.

The Oakland Museum of California houses a fascinating and large collection of the state’s history that spans the centuries with oddball highlights like the rise of Silicon Valley, with a model of a garage similar to the one Apple was born in.

Jack London Square, along the waterfront, sits across the Bay from San Francisco and ferries whizz between the two cities many times daily. In the past two years, JLS has become a notable food hub, with spaces being renovated by acclaimed chefs like New York Times food writer Daniel Patterson. 

There may be research-grade telescopes for public use and a first-rate planetarium at the Chabot Space & Science Center, but don’t let that distract you from Oakland’s thrilling views and redwood forest setting. 


Oakland neighbourhoods

The current “it” ‘hood in Oakland is probably Uptown. Original art deco storefronts have brightened with small businesses, including creative co-ops and restaurants booked solid most evenings.

The neighbourhoods ringing Lake Merritt have started attracting a young professional crowd who linger along Grand Avenue, the main artery with its coffeehouses, chocolatier and indie bookstore. Arts and craftsy bungalow-heavy Rockridge is the best place to shop for clothing, shoes, and home accessories. Its sweet main street of College Avenue sways upscale, with many families settling here. It borders Temescal, a gritty area in transition but worth exploring for the food and “hipster alleys” – converted horse stables-turned-storefronts.

Oakland food scene

When the Mai Tai cocktail was first concocted in Oakland in 1944 at Trader Vic’s restaurant, famous newspaper columnist Herb Caen wrote, “the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.”

Although few San Franciscans will admit it, the same can be said of Oakland’s current red-hot dining and drinking scene. Many Chez Panisse alumni departed Berkeley and found their places here, serving up ramen, pizzas and pintxos among others, with their Panisse philosophy of pure ingredients intact. Craft cocktails shake on most corners, and something else seen on most corners? San Franciscans, who have travelled to Oakland for a night out. 


Written by Christine Ciarmello

Image credits:

Waterfront © iStock

Oakland BG Rockridge © Travis D Jackson, Visit Oakland

Oaklnd Duende © Duende