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The 10 best things to do in Oakland

Scenic hikes, splashy block parties and mind-blowing meals are just some of the best things to do while in Oakland

Photograph: Flickr/ Kenneth Yu
By Lauren Sheber |

No trip to the Bay Area is complete without time spent in San Francisco’s sister-city to the east, Oakland. From the vital art scene to the globally-inspired food, there’s a reason all your SF-based friends are suddenly relocating to the East Bay. Here are the best things to do in Oakland, California. 

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Best things to do in Oakland

First Friday at Oakland Art Murmur
Photograph: Flickr/Amir Aziz

Party like a local at First Fridays

What started out as a small gallery walk over a dozen years ago has since morphed into a vibrant block party of food, music, crafts, and immersive art. The monthly event spans five blocks of Telegraph Avenue and features artists, street performers, galleries, DJs, poets, drum circles, and more. Local restaurants serve wide-ranging fare spanning tamales and fried chicken to barbecue and burgers, and drinks are available in the Sake Garden at 26th and Telegraph (or the many bars along the strip). The free event is a great way to plunge into Oakland’s thriving art and culture.

Crimson Horticultural Rarities in Temescal Alley
Photograph: Courtesy Crimson Horticultural Rarities

Detour down an alluring alley

Temescal Alley is lined by colorful doorways, each opening to another local indie business. Pop into Crimson Horticultural Rarities, a Secret Garden-like nook filled with plants and succulents of all varieties, as well as covetable housewares and gifts. Try on precious baubles at Marisa Mason—known for her handmade boho brass, turquoise, and leather jewelry—and jewelry by New York and California designers at Esqueleto down the street. Ali Golden makes NorCal clothes perfect for foggy-weather layering, while the sweet-smelling Homestead Apothecary is stacked with jars of exotic herbs and spices. In addition to purveyors of clothes, accessories, books, and housewares, you’ll find cozy spots for ice cream, pastries, and coffee when you need a pick-me-up.

The Fox Theater
Photograph: Courtesy The Fox Theater

See a show and ogle the architecture

To immerse yourself in Oakland’s rich history, look no further than its theaters. Built in 1928, The Fox is a cinema-turned-stunning concert venue. The original details were carefully restored in a renovation that reopened in 2009 with a new state-of-the-art Meyer sound system. The venue draws classic and contemporary acts like Animal Collective, Beach House, David Byrne, Lily Allen, Joan Baez, and Neko Case. Three blocks away, gaze upon the Art Deco glory that is the Paramount Theatre. Built in 1931 by famed San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger, the theater was restored to its original splendor in the ‘70s. The storied spot is a delightful mix of highbrow-lowbrow culture. It’s the home of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Oakland Ballet, but it also screens cult movies like Animal House, Spinal Tap, and The Breakfast Club

Lake Merritt
Photograph: Flickr/ Daniel Ramirez

Take to the lake

Lake Merritt is the oldest designated wildlife refuge in the US, and throughout the year, it's become home to over 100 species of birds. Wander the surrounding park’s array of gardens, which include a bonsai garden, an edible community garden, a Japanese garden, a Mediterranean garden, a succulent garden, and more. The lake is a popular meet-up spot for various sporting and athletic clubs, from croquet and lawn bowling to biking and rowing. Boat rentals are available, and free concerts often take place on the shore. On hot weekend days, join the throngs of Oakland residents settling in the grass with picnic blankets and portable grills.

Oakland Museum of California
Photograph: Courtesy OMCA

Get artsy

The exhibits at the Oakland Museum of California are unfailingly fresh, whether examining the art and culture behind hip-hop or reveling in the strong lines and fine grain of famed NorCal sculptor J.B. Blunk. The museum’s permanent collection encompasses more than 1.9 million pieces and includes artifacts, ethnographic objects, photographs, original artwork, and natural specimens. Admission is half-price every Friday from 5pm to 10pm, when Off the Grid food trucks congregate outside.

Spread from Swan's Market in Oakland
Photograph: Yelp/Ivy W

Sample some local flavor

Boisterous, eclectic Swan's Market is a mishmash of the old and the new. You’ll find casual seafood spots alongside high-end sushi, traditional Mexican fare and late-night sausages and beer. Order izakaya at the counter at B-Dama, a traditional Japanese spot with sake and Japanese beer on tap. Cosecha makes handmade tortillas, pastries, and mole-drenched Mexican dishes from scratch every day. The Cook and the Farmer shucks fresh oysters, while Deep Roots serves locally-made wines and craft cocktails. Whatever you’re in the mood for, order at the counter and chow down at one of the hall’s communal tables.

Redwood Regional Park
Photograph: Yelp/Tim B.

Discover Oakland’s rugged side

Just a few miles from downtown Oakland, you’ll find yourself in the hushed sanctuary of Redwood Regional Park. The natural grove is lush with 150-foot sequoias, evergreens, and grasslands. The park’s 1,830 acres are crisscrossed by hiking trails and populated by a woodland menagerie of rabbits, deer, and squirrels and Redwood Creek is rife with rainbow trout. You can reserve a picnic site for larger groups, or book an overnight campsite. For a vastly different terrain, trek to Sibley Volcanic National Reserve, formed by lava from a 10-million-year-old volcano. It’s peak, Round Top, is one of the highest points in Oakland. Take the Round Top Loop Trail for panoramic views.

Beer Revolution Oakland
Photograph: Yelp/ Hank C.

Go on a beer-centric bar crawl

Oakland has some of the best beer bars in the Bay Area. Start at the Trappist, a 10-year-old mainstay that’s known for stocking unusual brews from around the world. You’ll find 25 beers on tap, plus dozens of others on the sprawling bottle list. If it’s sheer variety you’re after, head to Beer Revolution, which boasts more than 50 brews on tap and a lively back patio. Get cozy in the fire-pit equipped beer garden at Drakes, where there are 32 beers on tap and live bands several days a week. And sample fare from local breweries at Lost & Found, a stylish bar with a light-strung patio.

Neighbor Oakland
Photograph: Courtesy Neighbor

Boutique-hop on Piedmont Avenue

This once sleepy strip has been transformed by the impossibly stylish duo of Dana Olson and Karen Anderson-Fort. Anderson-Fort launched Mercy, an expertly curated vintage shop, in 2009. The racks are lined with timeless gems spanning the ‘20s to the ‘90s, including labels like Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, and Comme des Garçons. Meanwhile, Olson opened Good Stock in 2011, a boutique specializing in handmade jewelry, handbags, sunglasses, shoes, and beauty products. In 2013, the pair teamed up to open Neighbor on the same block: an Instagram-worthy general store selling home decor, kitchenware, planters, toys, gifts, and furniture. Don’t miss the twinkly backyard, the site of regular pop-up shops and artisan workshops.

Warriors parade
Photograph: Flickr/Amir Clark

See the Warriors before they move

Oakland may be Warrior's ground, but this is your last year to catch the NBA champs at Oracle Arena before they make the move to the newly built Chase Center in San Francisco’s Mission Bay in 2019. Up your odds of running into one of the players by stalking Draymond Green's favorite spots to eat, drink and get a haircut in the Bay Area.