Before we tell you about all the great things to do in Oakland on a vacation, let’s have a look at some of the city’s facts and figures. Oakland is a major port city in northern California and the biggest city in the East Bay area of San Francisco. The city was once a major West Coast hub for car production, with General Motors, Fageol Motor Company, and Chrysler all having factories there. Such was the level of production until the 1960s that Oakland was named ‘the Detroit of the West.’ Over the past few years, Oakland has seen a spike in tourism. This is likely to be the result of it being named one of the Coolest Cities in America in 2013 and Top North American City to Visit in 2012. It has a great art scene and is popular for its nightlife. The current population of Oakland is around 425,000 people.
So, let’s take you on a quick journey and explore all the great things to do in Oakland during your visit.
Jack London Square
Jack London Square is the city’s premier meeting place and its only mixed-use waterfront. The area is named for legendary American writer, Jack London, who was one of the first authors in the United States to make a good living from full-time writing. His novels include White Fang and The Call of The Wild. As a young man, London spent a good chunk of his time on the waterfront that now bears his name. He is memorialized in the square with a life-sized bronze statue. The waterfront is a great area for hanging out, eating and drinking, and is popular with all ages. It’s a great thing to do in Oakland on a sunny evening.
Situated in the Grass Valley area of the city, Oakland Zoo is a leading conservationist for elephants and is home to a state-of-the-art veterinary zoo. The vet zoo is the largest wild animal clinic in Northern California. The zoo proper cares for more than 700 exotic and native animals from around the world. Some of its most popular residents are lions, tigers and bears…oh my! Sorry, we just had to do that. However, if furry with big teeth and claws doesn’t do anything for you; feel free to check out the various species of Tarantula, Black Widows, or the rather leggy Dark Fishing Spider. A day at the zoo is a great thing to do in Oakland with your kids, but a lot of them will NOT enjoy looking at spiders, so probably take them to see the ring tailed lemurs instead. This way, you may be able to avoid having to check under their hotel room beds before they go to sleep. You’re welcome.
Tickets required, available online or from the entrance, $20-24
Lake Merritt sits a little east of Downtown Oakland and is the United States’ first official wildlife refuge, dating back to 1870. The lake is a tidal lagoon and a very popular place for meeting friends and spending time with family. Due to the nature of the park, there are plenty of things to do in Oakland for water enthusiasts. You can rent canoes, paddle boards, kayaks, or row boats and spend some time chilling out on the water. Lake Merritt is also a popular spot to take a walk at dusk and watch the beautiful Californian sunset.
Sather Tower is located on the University of California Berkeley campus and is the symbol of the school. It supposedly resembles the bell tower of San Marco Basilica in Venice, but without all the water and pigeons, we couldn’t really be sure. Sather is the third largest bell and clock tower in the world, coming in at a very respectable 307 feet tall. As well as being viewable from miles away, it can also be heard from miles away when its 61 bells go off several times each day. Visitors can ascend to the top of the tower for a 360-degree view of the surrounding Bay area. Sather has an elevator to take you almost to the top, and there are 38 more steps until you’re at the highest point. The views are great on a clear day, so it’s a cool thing to do in Oakland. While you’re there, also take some time to wander around the prestigious university’s surrounding campus.
Tickets required, available from the entrance, $3-$4.25
Children’s Fairyland is like a vintage version of Disney and is based on the waterfront of Lake Merritt. In fact, before Disneyworld was even a thing, Walt visited the Oakland fun park to get some inspiration. The park’s Open Storybook Puppet Theater is the oldest continuously running puppet theater in the United States. The park was first opened in 1950, with the Puppet Theater opening a little later, in 1956. The Theater runs three shows each day, and it’s extremely popular with kids. It’s not often they get to see old school puppet shows these days, so it’s a great thing to do in Oakland with them. There are a total of 60 storybook sets throughout the park, as well as the Jolly Trolly train and a range of slides and rides.
Tickets required, available online or from the entrance, $12
Chabot Space and Science Center
Chabot is 86,000 square feet of space and science fun for all the family. Based within Redwood Regional Park, it has a full-dome Planetarium, a theater, a learning center, and a ton of interactive exhibits for kids to get their hands on. The Center also has three research grade telescopes for getting a closer look at all those planets. Spending the day there is a good thing to do in Oakland with kids. Don’t forget to pop outside and have a look at the solar clock and the natural amphitheater while you’re there.
Tickets required, available at the entrance, $14-$18
University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley
This 34-acre garden is located within the boundaries of the University of California’s Berkeley campus. The garden grows and cares for plants and flowers from all over the world, but has a special focus on those native to California, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin. UCB has one of the largest and most diverse collections in the United States. They have flowers we’ve never seen before in our lives and the colors, and different species are quite dazzling. Some of the highlights are Asian and South American Gardens, as well as the gorgeous Tropical Garden. If you love bright colors and vibrant plants, it’s a great thing to do in Oakland on your vacation.
Tickets required, available online or from the entrance, $7-$15
Off-beat things to do in Oakland
Evergreen Cemetery is the site of a mass grave for 412 unclaimed bodies from The People’s Temple cult massacre at Jonestown in 1978. Until the attacks of September 11, 2001, Jonestown had been the single biggest loss of American lives as a result of a deliberate act. A simple memorial of four plaques has been established at the cemetery, with the names of all who died. This includes the cult’s leader, Jim Jones, and the inclusion of his name has been (understandably) controversial.
FAQs About Oakland
We’ve compiled answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the city and things to do in Oakland, CA. These will help your research, planning, and general education about all this northern Californian city has to offer.
Is Oakland safe for tourists?
Hmmm… Oakland sits at the top of the list of the most dangerous cities in California, we’re afraid. It’s also the second most dangerous in the US. However, there are areas of the city deemed perfectly safe and, as a visitor; there are plenty of sensible actions you can take to keep yourself safe. Stick to well-lit areas, keep your valuables hidden, and stay in populated streets and neighborhoods. If you don’t know the city well, make sure you take a cab or Uber at night and don’t take any unnecessary risks.
What is there to do in Oakland for free?
One of the best free things to do in Oakland is to visit Redwood Regional Park in the East Bay. The park is home to majestic Redwood (Sequoia) trees, some of which measure up to 150 feet tall. The park has 40 miles of trails, so is a popular place to walk, hike, ride, and picnic. Redwood Park is also home to Golden Eagles, so it’s a favorite of wildlife watchers.
Things to do in Oakland when it rains
Head downtown to the classic Tribune Tower and view a piece of Oakland’s history. The tower was built in the 1920s and is the former home of the city’s newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. The building has been bought and sold numerous times and spent a number of years abandoned before being bought over and renovated. These days, you can visit the 22 story tower and even go for coffee in its ground floor café. The Tribune Tower is the most recognizable building in Oakland and a great place to be when it’s raining out.
Things to do in Oakland when it’s hot
When it’s hot, you have two options. Either cool down, or enjoy basking in the sun. Either way, Oakland has you covered. Head out to Crown Memorial State Beach or Alameda Beach to take advantage of the good weather and have a little break from the city.
Oakland has a long history of shipping and manufacturing and is understandably proud of its roots. It is part of the San Francisco Bay area and lies just 6 miles east of the city. Tourism has increased dramatically over the past few years, and the city has established itself as a great place to be. The population has also grown over the past decade, with more people moving in and recognizing the area as a great location for living and working. The city is served by Oakland International Airport, and the city has a good range of inexpensive and high end accommodation to suit a variety of budgets. We hope we’ve convinced you of all the great things to do in Oakland and hope you enjoy your visit to this beautiful west coast city.