Summer Fun: Don’t Overlook Oakland and its East Bay Gems

by Alex Temblador on July 5, 2018 in Travel,
OMCA Facing LakeMeritt 1 1

Oakland is the place to be, y’all.

It’s a mere 20-minute drive from San Francisco, but for many Texans, we look past it, instead going for what seems bigger and better (and significantly more expensive). I’m talking about Oakland, California, and it shouldn’t be written off a Texan’s vacation list. I know because I visited this spring, and I’m here to say, it’s the place to be y’all.

The city of Oakland dates to the mid-1800s, flourishing in population and industry during WWI and WWII. Most people remember it as that place in the 1980’s and 1990’s when race relations and gang violence embroiled the neighborhoods. However, things have changed — significantly. The city has cleaned up, revitalized and rebranded to become something with a touch of posh and enough grit to give it the right kind of flavor that a vacation destination needs.

Lake Merritt provides a beautiful setting for slow-paced, outdoor adventures. Photo credit Visit Oakland

A Hotel on the Bay

My stay began and ended at the Waterfront Hotel, a nautical-themed property with a view that overlooks the boats and yachts in the bay. As a joi de vivre property, Waterfront Hotel has the pool, views and location that will call to any Texas vacationer. While this boutique hotel’s impeccable service and fun location made for a lovely stay, it will be exciting to see what comes of a decorative renovation set to occur at the end of 2018.

Discovering Oakland

My exploration of Oakland allowed me to see the city in all its glory. Just outside of my hotel was Jack London Square, an entertainment center with bars, restaurants and bay tours, lovingly named after the famous author of “White Fang”. A short 15-minute walk away took me to Old Oakland, a historic district that sent me back in time through its architecture, especially as I perused the farmer’s market on a Friday morning. With chic boutiques and lovely art galleries, Old Oakland offered plenty to keep me engaged. Perhaps my favorite neighborhood was Temescal Alley, Oakland’s hippest neighborhood, with a similar atmosphere to Dallas’ Deep Ellum.

With chic boutiques and lovely art galleries, Old Oakland offered plenty to keep me engaged. Photo credit Visit Oakland

While these districts were great to explore, I found myself drawn to three distinct city attractions. The first, was the graffiti art. It graced brick walls and warehouses throughout the city. They were especially breathtaking in West Oakland and easy enough to explore while running or biking through Memorial Park, a long green, flower-filled strip of park that runs from the north to south of the neighborhood. I couldn’t stop taking photos of the dragon murals in Chinatown, an art project by the Dragon School, a non-profit Oakland organization that lets youths create murals on businesses throughout the district.

I couldn’t stop taking photos of the dragon murals in Chinatown, an art project by the Dragon School. Photo credit Visit Oakland

The second most engaging aspect of Oakland were the outdoor activities. I strolled around Lake Merritt one morning, stopping occasionally to admire the bonsai trees, rowers on the lake and the diverse bird population. I saw families marveling at the rides and fantastical décor of Children’s Fairyland and couples enjoying romantic Venetian gondola rides across the lake’s surface.

While Lake Merritt provided a slow-paced outdoor adventure, I was drawn repeatedly to explore Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park and Redwood Regional Park. These redwood forests were marvelous featuring centuries-old redwoods and paths that gave a semblance of getting lost without actually getting lost in the foothills of Oakland, just a short 18-minute drive from my hotel.

Centuries-old redwoods fill Oakland’s stunning redwood forests. Photo credit Visit Oakland

On the way back to my hotel from a Redwood Regional Park hiking expedition, I stopped at Mountain View Cemetery, arguably one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the U.S., and hiked to the top of one of the hills. I sat quietly among beautiful stone structures admiring views of Oakland and catching a pleasurable sight of San Francisco in the distance.

My third favorite attraction of Oakland was the Oakland Museum of California. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy my time there as a Texan in a museum about California, but I found myself not wanting to leave. The exhibits – which were separated by art, natural science, and history – were interactive and engaging. The art section of the museum was my favorite permanent installation for its quirky modern pieces and larger-than-life sculptures in the outdoor areas. I also lost time in RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom, an exhibit that showcased the history of hip hop in the U.S. The special exhibit was a combination of art and video interviews with rappers and music video mashups. In the interactive areas I was able to scratch disks like a DJ and practice my hip-hop dance moves.

I enjoyed RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom, an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of Art that showcased the history of hip hop in the U.S. Photo credit Visit Oakland

Oakland Eats Good

Oakland’s food scene was beyond what I expected. One morning, I headed to West Oakland for chicken and waffles at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Set in a building that never looks open, I was delighted to find an old-timey style diner. Inside, I enjoyed delicious fried chicken and waffles with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup— a recipe from Chef Tanya Holland who appeared on the last season of Top Chef.

The day I explored Lake Merritt, I stopped for breakfast at Grand Lake Kitchen, located across the street from the lake. Pickled vegetables provided a great snack as I waited for a hunkering plate of French toast with fresh berries. With a tea in hand, I left the charming restaurant with a smile, ready to explore the lake.

Brown Sugar Kitchen features delicious fried chicken and waffles with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup. Photo credit Visit Oakland

Swan’s Market, a food hall in the historic Old Oakland, was an easy place to grab lunch. The same could be said of Bakesale Betty, a popular spot in Temescal Alley that serves a mean fried chicken sandwich to be eaten on the small restaurant’s outdoor tables (which are refurbished ironing boards). Fentons Creamery was a fun outing, offering good diner food like hamburgers to be topped off with their famous ice cream. Since I visited on a Thursday, I missed out on seeing their ice cream makers making ice cream, which occurs most every other day of the week and can be seen up close and personal through a tour.

I visited Shandong Restaurant twice in Chinatown. This hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant is famous for their hand-pulled noodles, which taste significantly different than those made from a package. Customers are provided hot tea and a bowl of sweet and sour soup, before being brought plates with large portions, perfect for sharing and tasting everything from stellar dumplings to vegetable plates to outstanding hand-pulled noodles in a variety of sauces.

Shandong Restaurant in Chinatown is famous for their hand-pulled noodles. Photo credit Visit Oakland

Dinner at Shakewell was especially a treat. This spot was stylish and classy and had delightful tapas with a Mediterranean twist. I ordered fried stuffed olives and Spanish octopus which I devoured enthusiastically.

Visit Oakland

If this trip to Oakland taught me anything, it’s that underrated cities like Oakland shouldn’t be written off your travel bucket list. If anything, they should be at the top. They offer a slower pace to explore and hidden gems like the most delicious hand-pulled noodles, redwood forests and engaging stories by mural art work. With direct flights from Dallas, Houston and Austin to the Oakland International Airport, it’s an easy vacation to take.

Oakland’s a place for Texans – with good food, outdoor fun and delightful attractions at every turn, I’m happy to put my Texas stamp of approval and tell y’all it’s worth a weekend visit.

Alex Temblador is a novelist and travel writer based in Dallas. Her work has appeared in outlets including Oyster, Matador Network, Culture Trip and the Huffington Post. @alextemblador