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Located across the bridge from San Francisco Bay, Oakland is a city with several distinct neighborhoods. Locals refer to this side of the bay as the East Bay, a diverse area with fun family friendly attractions, festivals, and restaurants. Whether you’re traveling with tots or teens, this city has an array of fun and affordable family attractions.
Since our first visit many years ago, the East Bay city has blossomed into an exciting, emerging destination. There are plenty of family attractions, like the expanded Oakland Zoo and waterfront activities. Foodies will be impressed with the growing food and drinks scene. In addition, the Oakland Urban Wine Trail and Oakland Ale Trail feature top California wines and brews. Also, those who love the the nightlife will find creative cocktails, and live music.
If you’re traveling in the area, you’ll find it’s also the perfect home base while on a Northern California college tour or for spending one day in San Francisco, and the Bay Area. Oakland is also near Napa Valley, and Berkeley, if you’re headed to those areas.
From our home in Los Angeles, it’s about a five hour drive to Oakland. The Oakland International Airport offers 47 international and domestic nonstop flight destinations, so you can get here from almost anywhere. Once you’ve arrived, getting around the area is a snap via rail (BART), ferry, bus or bike.
Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods each offer something unique. Enjoy waterfront activities at Jack London Square, Grand Lake, and Lake Merritt. Uptown Oakland is home to the art deco Fox and Paramount theaters. Inspire young budding architects with Old Oakland’s restored Victorian architecture and boutiques. Traveling with teens? Introduce them to the hip Rockridge neighborhood, comprised of many Berkeley grads. Scope out the area on a Rockridge Heritage Food Tour and one-hour Rockridge Ice Cream Tour.
Jack London Square
Situated along the Oakland/Alameda estuary, stroller-friendly Jack London Square is a historic working waterfront named after the famous writer. With a variety of things to see and do, it’s no wonder this site is popular with all ages.When you’re there, plan to spend a few hours enjoying bay views, riding the ferry and grabbing a bite to eat. While there, check out unique floating White House (the U.S.S. Potomac, which served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s yacht). More things to do include boating, kayaking and riding bikes.
Dating to the 1850s, this is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States. Home to many ethnicities from throughout Asia, Oakland Chinatown has more than 45 restaurants and nine tea shops. Enjoy a smorgasbord of Asian flavors like Japanese Ramen, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, and Taiwanese boba tea, for instance.
On a stroll through this working neighborhood you’ll see ducks hanging in restaurant windows and hear native languages spoken. Peruse the farmers market for local foods and spices. In addition, be sure to visit the Oakland Asian Cultural Center for performances, festivals and workshops.
Home to more than 750 native and exotic animals, the Oakland Zoo (founded in 1924) recently doubled in size. That’s thanks to the new California Trail exhibit. This award-winning exhibit encompasses eight new native California animal species, such as the grizzly bears, gray wolves, and bison. Nestled in Knowland Park in the Oakland Hills, the zoo’s exhibits reflect the ecosystems of the animals’ native habitats. While you’re there, ride a gondola for some of the best Bay Area views.
Home to the United States’ oldest wildlife preserve (established in 1870), Lake Merritt is fun to visit day or night. Picnic sites and walking paths make this area a relaxing family outing. Outdoorsy kids can enjoy lake activities like pedal boats, kayaks and canoes. At night, there’s an outdoor installation with 126 lampposts and more than 4,000 light bulbs around the shoreline.
Situated on Lake Merritt’s shores, Children’s Fairyland has whimsical storybook attractions to spark young kids’ imaginations. Ideal for toddlers and preschoolers, the park has puppet shows, play spaces, and gentle rides.
Cultural Favorites in Oakland
Oakland Museum of California
Ranked a top Bay Area museum, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) spotlights the state’s art, history, and natural science. Interactive exhibits tell the stories of California and the people who shaped the Golden State. Friday nights feature local art, after-hours gallery access, music, dance lessons and food trucks from 5-10 p.m. Family activities include free hands-on art workshops from 5-8 p.m.
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Chabot Space & Science Center
Peruse exhibits about the universe, catch a show in the planetarium, and check out celestial wonders with three large historic telescopes.
Oakland Aviation Museum
Aviation buffs will be interested to see an Electra similar to the one flown by Amelia Earhart. In fact, the young pilot took off from this airfield and disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. Located in a vintage hangar at Oakland International Airport, the museum houses aircraft displays, artifacts, and a giant flying boat.
More Things to Do in Oakland
If you’re in town during football or baseball season, be sure to catch a sports game at the Oakland Coliseum. The city is proud of the Raiders football team and the Oakland Athletics baseball team.
The annual Black Cowboy Parade & Festival takes place each fall at Defremery Park in West Oakland. The event highlights people of color who contributed to the settling of the west. Activities include horse and pony rides, calf roping, and local bands.
Free and Cheap Things to Do
* Free admission to Oakland First Fridays. The monthly events feature street artists, galleries, music, food vendors, and DJs from 5 – 9 p.m. in the KONO district.
* Oakland Museum of California Friday nights features local art, after-hours gallery access, music, dance lessons and food trucks from 5 – 10 p.m. For families, free workshops from 5 – 8 p.m.
* The Redwood Regional Park is a hidden redwood forest just a few miles over the ridge from downtown. Parking: $5. Dogs: $2 per dog.
* Take a walk at Lake Temescal or Lake Merritt.
* Free tours of Mountain View Cemetery. The free tours happen twice a month. Learn about railroad builders, painters and architects who helped shape the Bay Area and surrounding communities. Docent-led tours last about two hours.