Oakland is consistently underrated. With a population of 400,000, it’s the same size as Minneapolis or Miami, boasting high-profile amenities, cultural institutions, and regional attractions (including three professional sports franchises) that you’d expect from a city of its size.
Alas, Oakland lies just a few miles from San Francisco, a bustling metropolis twice Oakland’s size. The Bay Area is big enough to support both cities, but Oakland will always be the region’s second city. (Third including San Jose, the region’s largest municipality down at the southern end of the Bay Area.)
Still, Oakland’s side of the bay has a lot going for it. The climate is a bit nicer than San Francisco’s – a few degrees warmer in summer, and a few more sunny days year-round, per U.S. climate data. Those numbers actually undersell the difference, as the Bay Area’s morning marine layer tends to burn off faster in Oakland, and the thick fogs that turn countless sun-drenched San Francisco days into chilly, gray slogs rarely make an appearance this far east.
Oakland is also more affordable than San Francisco and the suburbs immediately to its south, though local housing, grocery, and fuel prices are still high by national standards. That’s not to say that Oakland has resisted the powerful and problematic winds of tech-driven gentrification. In some ways, the problem is worse in diverse Oakland – its historically vibrant African American and Latino communities have seen prices rise as bargain-seekers migrate north from Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
It’s always good to be a mindful traveler. If you’re respectful of Oakland’s rich cultural tapestry, the city will reward you with a wealth of experiences you can’t have anywhere else – San Francisco included. Given the abundance of affordable hotels and hostels here, Oakland is a great home base for a longer vacation that includes trips around and beyond the Bay Area.
Here’s how to plan a successful, affordable trip to Oakland.
Planning Your Trip and Reducing Expenses
To get the most out of your trip to Oakland, devote plenty of time to planning your itinerary and mapping out your days, all while leaving some room for spontaneity. Use these tips and resources to stretch your dollars and experiences further.
Feeling overwhelmed by the planning process? Check in with Visit Oakland, the city’s official visitor bureau and the unofficial tourist portal to the East Bay.
Visit Oakland has a physical office in Jack London Square, but you can get a head start by using its website, where most of the organization’s printed material is available in digital form. Use the onsite hotel search and booking feature to find hotel rooms before you arrive. Check the Special Offers page for exclusive promotions not available elsewhere.
Keep in mind that Visit Oakland may have relationships with local businesses, including hotels, so also search independently on Expedia and elsewhere before booking through the site.
Discover & Go Pass
If you plan to spend a significant amount of time in Oakland, do as the locals do and join Oakland Public Library. Or, if you know someone in town, ask them to do you a favor and lend you their library card. Both options are free, though it can take some time to receive your card when you sign up for your own membership.
You won’t have to spend any time at the library – though Oakland Public Library’s branch system is excellent. Instead, you’ll join for the deals: the Discover & Go Pass, to be precise. Discover & Go offers free or reduced-cost admission to Oakland attractions and venues, including many listed here. Check the website (login required) for an up-to-date list of options.
Embrace Frugal Travel
Affordable travel doesn’t start and end with travel bureau recommendations and discount passes. If you know how and where to trim expenses, you can save money on virtually every aspect of your trip to Oakland. To get started, follow these recommendations:
- Easy ways to save money on vacation
- Reduce the cost of hotel stays on vacation
- How to eat for less on vacation
Historical Sights and Tourist Attractions
Oakland doesn’t wear its history on its sleeve like San Francisco, but the city does have more than a century and a half of historical structures and artifacts within its borders – not to mention some of the Bay Area’s most popular non-historical attractions.
1. University of California Botanical Garden
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm (last entry 4:30pm), except 1st Tuesday of each month
The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley isn’t technically located in Oakland, but it’s close enough – just a few miles north on the vast University of California system’s flagship campus. Don’t miss the stunning redwood grove, a rarity in the urbanized Bay Area. Be on the lookout for special exhibitions as well, such as the Food of the Americas marketplace that wowed visitors through October 2016.
2. Oakland Zoo
- Adult admission: $17.75 (parking $9 to $12)
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 10am to 4pm
Tucked away in Knowland Park, Oakland Zoo is a family-friendly destination with more than 650 animal residents and a bevy of large, park-like habitats. Highlights include the African Savanna habitat, which mimics the open plains of East Africa, and the California Trail, whose focus lies much closer to home.
The facility’s uncrowded picnic areas are perfect for frugal, self-catered family meals. And Oakland Zoo donates heavily to conservation and animal protection causes around the Bay Area and throughout the world, from the Golden Gate Audubon Society to organizations that protect elephants, giraffes, and lions in Africa.
3. Dunsmuir House (Dunsmuir-Hellman Historic Estate)
- Adult admission: Free to enter the grounds; $5 for a mansion tour
- Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11am to 4pm
Parked on 50 spacious acres at the edge of Chabot Park, near the Oakland Zoo, the Dunsmuir House is possibly the grandest mansion in all of Oakland. Built in the Neoclassical style back in the 1890s, it boasts 37 rooms with ornate furnishings and fine artwork.
After passing through two of the Bay Area’s wealthiest families during the first decades of the 20th century, and later falling into disuse, the house was purchased by the City of Oakland and refurbished as a living history museum. Call ahead before your visit, as Dunsmuir House doubles as a private event venue and is frequently closed throughout the year.
4. The Gardens at Lake Merritt
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5:30pm
The Gardens at Lake Merritt is a seven-acre expanse near the shore of centrally located Lake Merritt, Oakland’s most famous freshwater lake. It packs a lot into its slender frame: a formal Japanese garden, a pollinator garden filled with bee- and butterfly-friendly plants, a rhododendron garden, and a palm garden, to name a few. Mindful of California’s ongoing drought, much of the garden has been revamped to showcase water-sipping plants.
5. Peralta Hacienda Historical Park
- Adult admission: Free to enter the park; $5 to enter the museum
- Hours: Park open daily; Museum open Wednesday through Saturday, 2:30pm to 5:30pm
Peralta Hacienda Historical Park is a six-acre park in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, a diverse and ever-changing area that continues to serve as an important center for the local Latino community.
Occupying part of an old ranch that shaped the early history of the Oakland area, the park exists to promote “understanding, historical healing and community amid change and diversity…[presenting and interpreting] the untold history of the Peralta rancho and the stories of the Fruitvale community today, giving voice to the many cultures that have created – and are still transforming – California.”
If you have time, check out the museum in the main house, though be mindful of its limited hours.
6. Oakland Mormon Temple
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 9pm
This Mormon Temple isn’t quite as grand as the Salt Lake City flagship, but it’s impressive nonetheless – especially at night. Located high up in the Oakland Hills, the soaring Oakland California Temple‘s spires reach 170 feet into the air. The impeccably manicured grounds and extensive water features offer a stark contrast to the often-parched grasslands and dry forests further up the slope, but they’re worth seeing if only for the stunning, panoramic views of Downtown Oakland and the bay – on clear days, all the way to San Francisco.
7. Children’s Fairyland
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Variable, but generally Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm
In operation since 1950, Children’s Fairyland bills itself as “Oakland’s storybook theme park.” That’s a pretty good way to describe this whimsical, old-timey amusement park on the shores of Lake Merritt.
If you’re traveling with small children, Children’s Fairyland is a can’t-miss attraction – a reasonably priced way to spend a pleasant afternoon outdoors. Call ahead when the weather is iffy, as the park tends to close for rain and high winds.
8. Preservation Park
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: 24/7 (use caution at night)
Located in the middle of Downtown, Preservation Park is a two-block mini-neighborhood featuring 16 preserved Victorian structures, including several rambling houses once home to the city’s late 19th-century elite. If you have any interest in charming old architecture or Oakland’s early history, this free attraction is worth a quick stroll. However, depending on when you visit, some areas and indoor spaces may be off-limits, as this is one of Oakland’s most popular wedding and event venues.
Oakland has an impressive, underrated lineup of first-class museums and cultural institutions. Here’s a look at the city’s most popular and noteworthy art, science, and history museums.
9. U.S.S. Hornet Sea, Air, and Space Museum
- Adult admission: $20
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm
The U.S.S. Hornet Sea, Air, and Space Museum is built into a decommissioned aircraft carrier docked permanently in Alameda, an easily accessible island city just south and west of Oakland. The main attractions here are the old fighter planes housed on the flight deck and in hangars onboard the ship. Also worth checking out is the flight simulator, a perennial kid favorite. All told, the sprawling museum’s exhibits feature more than 10,000 military artifacts.
10. Oakland Museum of California
- Adult admission: $15.95
- Hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 5pm; Friday, 11am to 10pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 6pm
Oakland Museum of California, or OMCA, is an ever-popular institution worthy of its bold name. The museum’s eclectic permanent collection features exhibits on California art, history, and natural sciences. The temporary exhibits are even more interesting – and seemingly unafraid to tackle edgy and controversial issues, such as California’s burgeoning commercial marijuana industry and the impact of gentrification and racial tension in historically African American West Oakland.
If it works for your schedule, visit on Friday evenings, when Friday Nights @ OMCA turn the museum and a nearby street turn into a bustling night market replete with up to 20 food trucks (many serving up hearty meals for less than $10), live music, hands-on art workshops, beer and wine vendors, and more.
11. Chabot Space and Science Center
- Adult admission: $15 (includes two planetarium shows)
- Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm; Observatory open Friday and Saturday, 7:30pm to 10:30pm, weather permitting
The Chabot Space and Science Center combines the hands-on joy of a science museum with the magic of a first-rate planetarium and the simple wonder of an astronomical observatory. Admission includes two planetarium shows, whose far-out subjects range from the early history of the Space Age to plans for colonizing the Moon and Mars.
In the evening, the telescope observatory offers outstanding views of the planets and stars from a high vantage above the fog and smog of the Bay Area’s lower elevations. During the day, the solar viewing center features scopes and filters that allow visitors to safely view flares, prominences, sunspots, and other solar features, as well as a near-real-time satellite feed for even closer observation.
12. Blue Bottle Coffee Factory & Peerless Coffee Museum
- Adult admission: Free, not including coffee purchases
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 7am to 5:30pm; Saturday and Sunday, 7am to 6pm; Call ahead for tour info
Coffee connoisseurs laud Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee as a rising star in the increasingly competitive craft coffee niche. If you don’t mind paying a couple of bucks extra for a truly distinctive cup of pour-over Joe, check out Blue Bottle’s flagship location in Jack London Square. The intimate but well-designed space includes a training lab and vintage equipment, so you can see how the company roasts its beans and prepares its drinks. Check the website or call ahead for information about occasional factory tours.
13. Oakland Aviation Museum
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm
Located on a historic airfield on the outskirts of Oakland, Oakland Aviation Museum features a bevy of old, decommissioned aircraft, including super-old military and private passenger planes. Not all of the flying machines here are intact – for instance, one of the most popular exhibits is the nose section (including cockpit) of a Douglas DC-6B. There are also flight simulators and a gigantic Solent III Flying Boat, one of only two left in the world.
If you (or your kids) want to sit behind the throttles of OAM’s planes, plan your visit around the institution’s Open Cockpit Days. Check the website or call ahead for scheduling information.
14. African American Museum and Library
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 12 noon to 5:30pm
Part of the Oakland Public Library system, the African American Museum and Library is a unique institution “dedicated to the discovery, preservation, interpretation, and sharing of historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in California and the West for present and future generations.” It includes a sprawling archive with comprehensive records from more than 160 African American families who settled in Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area during the 19th and 20th centuries, plus more than 12,000 volumes pertinent to African American history and culture.
Free Urban Parks and Natural Areas
Oakland isn’t quite as hilly as its neighbor across the bay, but it still has an impressive arsenal of hilltop parks and natural spaces with breathtaking water, city, and countryside views. Oakland’s urban core has plenty of intimate green spaces as well. These parks are all free to enter and explore.
15. Redwood Regional Park
- Hours: Daily, 5am to 10pm
Behind and beyond the Chabot Space and Science Center, occupying a significant slice of the 1,500-foot ridgeline separating Oakland from the outer East Bay suburbs, is 1,830-acre Redwood Regional Park. As its name suggests, the park is dominated by towering coast redwood groves and is the closest reasonably well-preserved redwood forest to Downtown Oakland.
Redwood Regional Park’s 150-foot trees can’t measure up to the 350-foot behemoths found farther up the coast, but they’re still pretty impressive – and don’t require a multi-hour drive. If you want to make a day of it, use the 150-mile Interpark Regional Trail system to string together a mini wilderness hike.
16. Joaquin Miller Park
- Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk; Special events may extend past dusk
Just down the ridge from Redwood Regional Park, 500-acre Joaquin Miller Park offers stunning views of Downtown, the bay, and (on clear days) San Francisco and the Marin County highlands. During the wet season, the heavily forested landscape is unusually watery, at least by coastal California standards. If your schedule aligns, grab some culture on the cheap at the Woodminster Amphitheater, which hosts outdoor theatrical productions such as “Chicago” and “Shrek the Musical.”
17. Lake Merritt
- Hours: 24/7 (use caution at night)
57-acre Lake Merritt is all that remains of a much larger tidal estuary that once dominated central Oakland. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, before environmentalism worked its way into America’s cities, the bulk of the wetland area was drained for industrial or residential use. Today, Lake Merritt is surrounded by public parkland, high-rise residential and commercial buildings, and civic institutions such as Children’s Fairyland. At 3.4 miles in circumference, it’s ideal for a morning or evening jog.
18. Temescal Regional Park
- Hours: 5am to 10pm
Temescal Regional Park surrounds a small freshwater lake in the crook of a major highway interchange. That doesn’t sound like the best setting ever, but appearances can be deceiving – Lake Temescal is arguably the best swimming and fishing hole in all of Oakland, and is a popular outdoor wedding venue to boot. Note that it costs $5 to park here when the gatehouse is attended, so consider taking public transportation or parking on nearby residential streets instead.
19. Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve
- Hours: 5am to 10pm
240-acre Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve is a curious artifact amid the high ground of the Berkeley Hills, north of Chabot Space and Science Center. According to its website, “The native plant community here is found nowhere else in the East Bay. It represents a relic plant association found only in certain areas along California’s coast where ideal soil and climatic conditions exist.”
If you’re into botany at all, you must complete the 1.7-mile self-guided nature trail, a semi-strenuous walk that takes you through the park’s major ecosystems.
20. Anthony Chabot Regional Park
- Hours: 5am to 10pm; Camping permitted
Occupying a big chunk of Oakland’s ridgeline, near Redwood Regional Park, Anthony Chabot Regional Park is one of the true jewels of the East Bay’s park system. The 3,100-acre expanse is part of the Interpark Regional Trail system and boasts a 315-acre freshwater lake that’s popular with boaters. Kayaks cost $32 for up to five hours and $40 per day at Lake Chabot Marina & Cafe.
Chabot Regional Park also allows camping at rock-bottom rates: $5 per person, plus an $8 site reservation fee, per East Bay Regional Park District. If you don’t mind roughing it, that makes it a great option for discount lodging.
21. Wildcat Canyon Regional Park
- Hours: Variable, but roughly from dawn to dusk
Wildcat Canyon Regional Park occupies nearly 2,500 acres of wild uplands to the north of Oakland, between the cities of El Cerrito and Richmond. About 25 miles of walkable trails, mostly old fire roads with relatively easy grading, traverse open grasslands, scrubby areas, and cool forests. The elevated, open terrain attracts birds of prey in great numbers, and it’s not unusual to see (nonnative) cows grazing on the highly flammable brush here. Enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the many first-come, first-served bench sites, then spend the afternoon exploring the terrain and enjoying the views.
Notable Neighborhoods and Local Attractions
Oakland has an impressive, surprisingly vibrant downtown core, but you’re selling yourself short if that’s the only part of town you visit. If you have more than a few hours in Oakland, check out as many of these neighborhoods, local attractions, and events as you can.
22. Oakland Urban Wine Trail
Why drive out to Napa when you can try critically acclaimed, locally made wine right in Oakland – at far less than the cost of a fancy vineyard tasting room? Oakland Urban Wine Trail is steadily growing, gaining visibility, and racking up accolades from those in the know.
There are about a dozen wineries within Oakland’s city limits, many clustered around Jack London Square and other inner Oakland neighborhoods – and more open all the time.
23. Oakland Art Murmur
If you’re in town on the first Friday of any month, don’t miss Oakland Art Murmur, one of the country’s largest and most eclectic art celebrations. From 6pm to 9pm, nearly three dozen galleries in Jack London Square, Downtown, Uptown, and West Oakland throw open their doors and showcase their assets to the public.
The epicenter is on Telegraph between West Grand and 27th Street, where outdoor DJs, live performers, and food trucks cluster (weather permitting, which it usually does). You don’t have to buy anything, except maybe a reasonably priced food truck snack, to feel cultured here.
24. Farmers’ Markets and Night Markets
Oakland’s proximity to California’s bountiful Central Valley makes dreams come true for those who love fresh, locally sourced produce. The city has an above-average amount of farmers’ markets, most of which happen on the weekend, scattered throughout its neighborhoods. Highlights include the Chinatown market on Friday mornings and early afternoons, the Lake Merritt/Grand Lake market on Saturdays, and the Temescal market on Sundays. Visit Oakland has descriptions and current hours, which can vary seasonally and over time.
25. Kayaking and Stand Up Paddleboarding in Oakland Estuary and San Francisco Bay
One of Oakland’s best-kept secrets can be found offshore, in the calm backwaters of San Francisco Bay. Even if you don’t own a kayak or stand up paddleboard, you can cheaply rent one for an hour or two and push out into the water from any designated boat launching site. Start at California Canoe & Kayak in Jack London Square, where plastic kayaks and paddleboards go for $25 per hour. From the water, get ready to see an entirely different side of the East Bay.
26. Jack London Square
Jack London Square is the touristy heart of central Oakland – a pedestrian-friendly, immaculately landscaped waterfront district filled with restaurants, wine bars, venues, and retailers. Though designed for visitors, it’s not too upscale or snooty, and its central location makes it a natural staging ground for some of Oakland’s highest-profile events.
Check out the U.S.S. Potomac, docked here, once you’re done kayaking or stand up paddleboarding. And you can still experience author Jack London’s favorite bar, Heinold’s First & Last Chance Saloon, which is little changed since the early 20th century – though there are certainly cheaper places to find drinks nearby.
Oakland’s Chinatown isn’t as large or famous as San Francisco’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth a visit – especially because it’s conveniently located just west of Downtown, with no clear boundary separating the two. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, you can save a bundle by loading up on fresh veggies (including some hard-to-find Asian varieties) at the Friday morning farmers’ market and scratch-cooking a healthy meal or two.
28. Old Oakland
True to its name, Old Oakland is the best place in town to view Oakland as it was long ago. Much of this district’s 19th century building stock, from charming Victorian ramblers to red-brick storefronts, has survived to the present day. Old Oakland’s entire six-block frame is one big photo opportunity, but can’t-miss sights include restaurant-rich Swan’s Market and the growing cohort of independent businesses along 9th Street, courtesy of the popuphood small business incubator.
Uptown Oakland is an eclectic, resurgent area dominated by boutiques, performing venues, and volunteer-run organizations. According to Visit Oakland, more than 125 new independent shops and restaurants have opened in the area since the mid-2000s.
Thanks to social enterprise-focused Impact Hub Oakland and artsy OAKSTOP, the area is a haven for coworking – great for visitors on working vacations. Don’t miss Cafe von Kleef, a favorite bar with stiff drinks, reasonable prices, and bohemian roots.
Despite a steady influx of non-Latino transplants, the historic heart of Oakland’s Latino community remains largely true to its roots. Taco trucks are plentiful in many Oakland neighborhoods, but they’re especially easy to find here – look for locally renowned Tacos Sinaloa, which is typically parked at the corner of 22nd and International Boulevard (and open till at least 1am most days).
The cultural highlight of the year here is the post-Halloween Dia de los Muertos celebration, where the already-lively streets kick into even higher gear. Don’t miss Rue de Merde, a walkable path with about a dozen elaborate wall murals.
Located on Oakland’s northern fringe, this outlying neighborhood feels less far-flung than down home. Close to some of the East Bay’s best hiking and mountain biking, it’s an ideal place to grab a cheap bite after a long day on the trails.
Local entrepreneurs have gotten the memo, as unassuming Temescal is home to dozens of affordable restaurants from every corner of the world. Try Casserole House, a beloved Korean institution known for large, low-priced portions; Doña Tomás, a casual sit-down Mexican restaurant with deep roots in the area; or Juhu Beach Club, an Indian street food joint where fresh-made sliders stretch your dollar.
Adjacent to Temescal, Rockridge shares its neighbor’s vibe, though it’s regarded as more upscale and family-oriented. Techie gentrification has been a mixed bag for this especially walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood – with two independent bookstores (Pegasus and Diesel) and a slew of restaurants, the independent business community here is undeniably strong. However, soaring demand for historical hillside homes threatens the middle-income, long-term renters who’ve long stitched together the area’s social fabric.
Still, vibrant College Avenue is worth an hour’s stroll. Also, tucked-away Frog Park is a delightful (and uncrowded) respite from the surrounding urbanity.
33. West Oakland
The historic heart of Oakland’s African American community is in the midst of a heartening, if controversial, resurgence. Growing concerns about gentrification cloud the guarded optimism with which local and city leaders view the area’s rising fortunes. Nonprofit organizations work to ensure that the area’s longtime low- and middle-income residents aren’t washed out in a flood of tech money, and they’re redoubling their efforts after news broke that Uber would relocate its headquarters nearby.
Get a cheap pint and a flavor of the neighborhood at Linden Street Brewery, then head down to Middle Harbor Park, where you can gaze out at San Francisco in the shadow of the massive ship cranes that inspired “Star Wars'” iconic AT-AT Walkers.
Berkeley is an independent city just north of Oakland. Home to the University of California system’s flagship institution (known variously as “Cal Berkeley” or simply “Berkeley”), Berkeley has a deserved reputation as a cultured college town with an eclectic vibe and a vibrant independent business scene. It’s not unlike Boston‘s neighbor Cambridge, home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
You can kill an hour or more for free here by strolling the university’s beautiful campus. If you have children in tow, don’t miss Habitot Children’s Museum, a kid-friendly hub of inquiry and experimentation.
Regional Day Trips and Excursions
The Oakland Hills are just the beginning, as Oakland lies within easy reach of some of the Golden State’s finest scenery. It’s also a great jumping-off point for visitors looking to explore other central and northern California communities of varying sizes and pedigrees. If you are in the area for some time, consider adding one or more of these trips to your itinerary.
35. Mount Diablo State Park
Though it’s not far from Oakland as the crow flies, Mount Diablo State Park feels very remote. The main attraction is the 3,849-foot summit of Mount Diablo, a well-traveled peak that’s accessible to visitors in reasonably good physical shape. The view from the summit observation deck is a panoramic tour de force, stretching west to the Pacific Ocean, north of volcanic Lassen Peak, east to the high Sierra summits, and south to the many summits of California’s coastal mountain ranges.
36. Henry W. Coe State Park
Farther south, Henry W. Coe State Park is another rugged tract protecting northern California’s sensitive montane environments. There’s no singular summit experience here, but the drive-in campsites are a relative bargain at $20 per night, so this is a great jumping-off point for further exploration of San Jose, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and points south.
37. San Jose
Located at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, and traditionally associated with the Bay Area’s famous Silicon Valley tech hub, San Jose is Northern California’s largest city by population – bigger than both San Fran and Oakland.
You can spend a week in San Jose and still not see everything the city has to offer. If you have a day or just a few hours, hit San Pedro Square Market, a lively event and shopping space that you can enjoy without parting with your hard-earned money, and The Tech Museum of Innovation, a kid-friendly science museum with an unmistakable Silicon Valley flair.
38. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is an offbeat college town on the north shore of Monterey Bay, south across the coastal mountains from San Jose and the rest of the Bay Area. It’s blessed with an engaging mashup of attractions, from a beachfront boardwalk to the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot, a classic tourist trap whose bumper stickers you’ve almost certainly seen around.
While it might not be the soundest financial decision, no one can fault you for stopping by the Bay Tree Bookstore and buying the “UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs” T-shirt made (almost) famous by the film “Pulp Fiction.”
Monterey is a small seaside city across Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz – though that somewhat overstates their proximity, as it takes nearly an hour to drive between the two towns. It’s most famous as the home of the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium, which itself is worth the day trip from Oakland.
However, there’s plenty more to do and see in Monterey, from the historic architecture along Cannery Row, to the independent shops in the downtown core. South of town, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a great day hiking destination and offers near-guaranteed views of the area’s sea lion colony.
40. Highway 1 and Big Sur
Up for a longer drive? It’s well worth your while. South of Monterey and the seaside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California Highway 1 dives into a staggeringly beautiful coastal wilderness hemmed by towering redwoods and steep, bare mountains bulwarked against the angry Pacific.
At points, especially south of the artsy, out-there hamlet of Big Sur, the narrow two-lane road feels like it’s suspended above the sea. The show continues almost all the way to San Luis Obispo, a college town on the central California coast. You can turn around at any point, but there’s no way over the mountains into the interior – a true end-of-the-world experience. Due to the isolation and limited access, gas is extremely expensive along this route, so fill up in Monterey.
If you make it to San Simeon, check out the astounding Hearst Castle, an early 20th-century estate constructed by a fabulously wealthy newspaper baron. At $25 to $36, tours are a bit pricey. The free elephant seal rookery at nearby Point Piedras Blancas attracts hundreds of the fearsome sea beasts to fight, mate, and lounge (mostly lounge) on the sand here.
When to Visit and What to Bring
As a rule, Oakland is warmer, sunnier, and less crowded than its neighbor across the bay. That doesn’t mean it’s consistently hot, cloudless, or deserted, however. Like San Francisco, Oakland experiences morning and evening fogs and overcast conditions with regularity, though moisture tends to burn off earlier in the day and give way to more reliably clear weather.
Oakland experiences the same basic temperature and precipitation patterns as San Francisco too – chilly and often wet in the winter, and pleasantly warm and dry in the summer. Rain is virtually unknown in July and August, so high summer is your sweet spot if you want to avoid the threat of inclement weather.
Crowd-wise, Oakland has much more breathing room than San Francisco. Still, Oakland has its busy days and places. If you want to avoid crowds, stay away from Downtown around major festivals, such as Oakland Pride (usually mid-September) and Art + Soul Oakland (usually mid-August). City establishments also tend to be busier on football, baseball, and basketball game days, especially in the eastern half of town, where Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (home of the Oakland Raiders NFL team and Oakland Athletics MLB team) and Oracle Arena (home of the Golden State Warriors NBA team) live.
Though the Bay Area tourist industry’s center of gravity lies on the San Francisco Peninsula, tourists flow through Oakland in greater numbers when it’s busy across the bay, especially around U.S. spring break, the lunar new year (usually in February), the winter holidays, and high summer. For a lower-key experience, avoid those popular times.
Here’s what to bring on your Oakland trip, depending on the season:
- A Comfortable Second Layer. Oakland’s weather isn’t quite as changeable, nor as potentially raw, as San Francisco’s. However, mornings do tend to be cool, and mists can drop temperatures in a hurry. If you head down to the chilly waterfront after hiking in the warm hills, you’ll be thankful you brought a fleece or windbreaker.
- Rain Gear. Rain gear is not necessary during the dry summer months. From November through April, however, it’s strongly recommended. Bring a lightweight umbrella, waterproof rain jacket or poncho, and waterproof shoes (or shoes that dry quickly). True washout days are rare here, so galoshes are probably overkill, but shoes or boots with good traction aren’t a bad idea, as streets and sidewalks can become slick after the first rains of the season.
- Sturdy Footwear. Heavy shoes or sandals with good traction are essential for travelers who plan to see the sights on foot. If you’re planning a longer hike in the hills, consider bringing real hiking boots, as the terrain can be steep and loose.
- Backpack or Satchel. If you sightsee by foot, public transit, bike, and rideshare, you’ll be grateful for something in which to carry your wallet, extra layers, water bottles, shoes, and rain gear – and whatever else you decide to bring along.
- Hydration Gear. Oakland’s dry climate makes many a traveler thirsty. Don’t leave your hotel, hostel, or crash pad without a refillable water bottle for sips as needed. If you plan an extended foray into Oakland’s neighborhoods or a longer hike or bike ride, consider a larger container, such as a Camelbak.
How to Get Around Oakland
Many Oakland visitors arrive at the two closest international airports, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK). Though smaller, OAK is closer to central Oakland and boasts competitively priced flights (relative to SFO) to dozens of U.S. cities. The Bay Area’s other major air hub is Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC), but it’s farther from Oakland and is only ideal if you plan to spend time in the South Bay.
Once you arrive, you can choose from the slew of transportation options you’d expect in any major metropolitan area. Not all are created equal though.
Personal Vehicles and Rental Cars
Oakland is not quite as congested as San Francisco, where driving a private vehicle is a stressful, expensive, and very often time-consuming endeavor. Still, most of Oakland is heavily urbanized, so you should expect traffic to be heavy and parking to be scarce, especially in centrally located neighborhoods.
Ditching Your Car in Oakland
If you plan a quick swing through Oakland, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive Bay Area or northern California vacation, you may well stick to major attractions in centrally located areas. Under those circumstances, you can easily get by without a car.
When you arrive in Oakland, drop off your car at Oakland International Airport, whose off-site economy lot charges just $16 per day for long-term parking. Compared with SFO, where prices are about $10 higher per day, that’s a steal. You can further reduce your long-term parking costs at OAK to just $12 per day when you sign up for OAK’s coupons and deals mailing list. It costs less than $10 to take public transit (BART) from OAK to just about anywhere in Oakland.
It’s not advisable to ditch your car if you plan to spend lots of time hiking or exploring the East Bay’s natural areas, such as Redwood Regional Park, as these areas aren’t always well-served by public transit.
If you fly into Oakland or ditch your car at the airport, you can still get your hands on a private vehicle through Getaround, a P2P rental car service that connects car-less renters with car owners willing to rent out their vehicles for as little as $5 per hour. There’s a verification process involved, so make sure to sign up for Getaround before your trip.
If you’re not sold on Getaround, opt for a traditional rental car through one of the major companies, most of which have offices at OAK. Some have satellite offices around the city, and in neighboring cities as well. Expect to pay $30 or more for a daily rental, though online aggregators such as Kayak can halve that rate under ideal circumstances.
Street Parking Fees and Fines
In most outlying Oakland neighborhoods, save for local commercial districts with lots of storefronts, street parking is free. However, the city has a residential parking permit system, so residents get first dibs on street parking. Before leaving your car for long periods, check all posted signage to determine if you’re allowed to park in the area.
In Oakland’s central neighborhoods, including Downtown, Uptown, and Chinatown, street parking is metered at $2 per hour from 8am to 6pm most days. It’s free on Sundays and major holidays, per the City of Oakland. You can pay with coins, plastic cards, and smartphones.
Oakland’s parking fines can be steep, so make sure to keep your meter full and follow all posted rules. Common fines include $58 for expired meters and failure to display parking receipts, and $83 for parking in a red zone and parking in a residential permit parking zone.
Oakland is well-served by public transportation. In fact, several agencies operate in and around Oakland, complicating the transit picture somewhat. Before arriving in town, make sure you know how to get where you need to go without spending more than you should.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
Bay Area Rapid Transit is a regional rail system that serves much of the Bay Area, including the upper San Francisco Peninsula, most of the inner East Bay, and parts of the outer East Bay. Parts of Oakland are served by five BART lines, though there are only two trackways through the bulk of the city, as multiple lines run in parallel. Neighborhoods with convenient BART service include Downtown, Uptown, Temescal, Chinatown, West Oakland, Fruitvale, Oakland International Airport, and the entertainment district that houses Oakland’s two major sports venues.
BART is useful for getting from one end of Oakland (or beyond) to the other quickly and reasonably cheaply, provided your destination lies within walking distance of a station or has ample connections to other transit networks. It costs less than $10 to get pretty much anywhere within Oakland on BART, including from Oakland International Airport to downtown and northern neighborhoods such as Temescal. Trips to San Francisco International Airport and other far-out points can cost more.
AC Transit is a vast bus transit system that serves Alameda County, which includes Oakland, and parts of Contra Costa County, which lies to the north. Given the AC Transit system’s complexity, you’ll face a learning curve during your first couple of rides. Still, it’s worth putting in a few minutes before your trip to familiarize yourself with the system, as it can take you to most centrally located tourist attractions for far less than the cost of a rideshare round trip.
Single-ride adult fares cost $2.10 for local rides and $4.20 for trans-bay rides. Unlimited-use day passes cost $5.
Broadway Shuttle is a free, frequent bus service connecting Jack London Square and the Oakland waterfront with Old Oakland, Downtown, Uptown, and the KoNo district just beyond. For most of its length, it runs along the bustling Broadway corridor, though the day and night routes vary somewhat – nightlife-rich KoNo only gets service at night, for instance.
The Broadway Shuttle’s ability to ferry visitors through Oakland’s most popular tourist areas is unmatched, but bear in mind that the service doesn’t operate at all on Sundays. Buses run every 10 to 15 minutes from 7am until 10pm on weekdays, from 7am until 1am on Fridays, and from 6pm until 1am on Saturdays.
Other Agencies & the Clipper Card
The Bay Area’s complex transit landscape include some other transit agencies and partnerships that directly or indirectly serve Oakland. In your travels around the East Bay and beyond, you may encounter San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Altamont Corridor Express, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, all of which have separate schedules and fare schemes.
If you do plan to use a variety of public transportation options during your trip, pick up a Clipper Card, which bills itself as the “all-in-one transit card for the Bay Area.” Clipper lets you ride on any participating agency’s vehicles with a single, reloadable card, often at small but significant fare discounts.
You can purchase a Clipper Card for $3, plus your initial fare load amount, at Whole Foods, Walgreens, staffed transit stations, and some other retailers around Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area. I recommend Clipper – though I mostly used BART and the free Broadway Shuttle during my time in Oakland, Clipper’s effortless simplicity would have been valuable had I ventured farther afield.
Ridesharing and Carsharing
Oakland is located just a few miles from the heart of Silicon Valley, so it’s not surprising that it’s well-served by ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. In fact, Oakland may soon be synonymous with Uber, as the fast-growing company is planning to move its global headquarters to town. If you prefer driving yourself, Oakland is also well-served by Zipcar, a popular car-sharing service ideal for point-to-point trips and very short-term rentals.
Fares vary by distance, timed length, and local demand. When no demand surcharge is in effect, expect your regular Lyft ride to carry a $2 base fare, $1.75 trust and service fee, $1.16 per-mile fee, and $0.23 per-minute fee, or a $5 minimum ride fee. Costs for UberX, Uber’s budget-friendly service, are comparable.
If you’re not in a major rush, try Lyft Line or UberPOOL, which are carpooling services that charge fixed rates based on distance. Your ride may include other passengers and additional stops, but it’ll cost about half as much (on average) as a comparable Lyft or UberX ride.
Oakland and the smaller surrounding cities have dozens of Zipcar hubs. Most are located in public parking lots near major attractions, commercial centers, or institutions. They’re particularly plentiful in Downtown and Uptown, as well as on the north side of town, closer to the border with Berkeley. As a college town, Berkeley itself has plenty of hubs as well, so you can easily drive up there, drop your car, and take public transit back.
Depending on your chosen plan, Zipcar’s Bay Area rates run $6 to $7 per hour or $71 to $79 per day. An annual or monthly membership fee is required. This fee ranges from $70 per year for occasional drivers, who pay more by the hour and day to compensate for the lower upfront cost, to $50 per month for heavy drivers, who pay less to drive.
For existing Zipcar members, it’s probably cheaper to use the service on an as-needed basis than it is to rent a car. That said, it’s probably not worth the upfront expense or hassle to sign up if you don’t already use it or plan to start using it when you get back to your hometown.
By Bay Area standards, and especially compared to nearby San Francisco, much of Oakland is topographically boring. Many central neighborhoods, including Downtown, Uptown, West Oakland, and Jack London Square, are flat. As you move away from the bay, the landscape gets a bit more uneven, but it’s best characterized as “rolling” until you reach the real hills, which run northwest to southeast a few miles inland from the bay.
Long story short, bike commuting is doable in much of Oakland. However, getting your hands on a bike isn’t as easy as it could be, as the city came a bit late to the bikeshare party. According to Bike East Bay, Bay Area Bike Share (to be renamed Ford GoBike) is planning a trans-bay expansion that could bring 1,400 shared bikes to Oakland by the end of 2017. However, plans and pricing are not yet set in stone.
In the meantime, a slew of private bike shops operate in Oakland. Bay Area Bikes, with locations in Uptown and Jack London Square, rents cruisers and road bikes starting at $15 per day, including locks, helmets, and saddlebags. You can also try your luck on Spinlister, a sharing economy website that lets you rent bikes from private individuals. Rates are a bit higher here, and coverage can be iffy in Oakland proper, but bikes tend to be higher-quality and in better shape.
Oakland is an amazingly vibrant city that’s sorely underrated as a tourist destination. It’s not the most popular tourist city in the Bay Area – that honor goes to San Francisco – but Oakland has some unique must-see attractions and activities. Plus, you can always hop a BART train to San Francisco. Despite their proximity and shared history, the two cities offer a true study in contrasts.
What’s your favorite thing to do or see in Oakland? How does it compare with San Francisco?