Oakland carries with it a big reputation, and like many of its inhabitants, it refuses to be put into a box. Those who’ve never visited may shy away from its urban neighborhoods, while those in the know clamor to the big East Bay city to discover food, art, culture, and more. A melting pot of ethnic cuisines, some of the best meals are found here, where celebrity chefs bring as much character to their establishments as the fresh spices sprinkled over their flavorful out-of-the-box meals. And when you’re not gorging on chicken and waffles and authentic BBQ, you won’t run out of activities. From the Chabot Space Center perched high above the city to the new section of Oakland Zoo dedicated to California wildlife, we bet there’s plenty you’ve yet to discover in Oakland.
First things first. When you visit an urban city center like Oakland, there are no shortage of restaurants. And with the concentration of eateries comes a lot of variety. Owners behind the joints have a deep understanding of their food and are happy to share it with customers.
Perhaps one of the best experiences to have in Oakland is at Everett & Jones BBQ & Blues. This rowdy restaurant has two experiences. The first, up front, keeps drinks flowing and late-night party jams blasting from the DJ booth more nights of the week than one would expect. The large space has plenty of tables to dig into the sauced-up meats and southern sides that make this menu standout. The real party, however, is in the back. Behind a closed door, you’ll transport from high-end, modern party to the type of jazz club of yore, an experience I didn’t even know existed anymore.
Live bands with histories almost as rich as their voices serenade the crowd, featuring passionate vocals and banging instrumentals. People get up and dance and hoot and holler along. A full bar brings drinks as overflowing plates of collard greens, candy yams, and macaroni and cheese accompany platters of sliced beef brisket and smoked chicken.
If you came for fare you can’t find everywhere, we suggest dipping into alaMar, a seafood-heavy restaurant with Cajun and Mediterranean roots. Chef Nelson German, a decorated celebrity chef, is at the helm, creating mouthwatering dishes just like his mother and grandmother used to make. Braised Oxtail is an obvious favorite, prepared Dominican style with yellow island rice, black bean stew, marinated cabbage, and late harvest corn. There’s also peel-and-eat shrimp, whole Alaskan snow crabs, mussels, and more. If you came with a group, order the feast—you won’t be disappointed. Fun fact: Outside of the restaurant is one of the remaining decorative Stompers.
Polmella offers a chance to dive into Middle Eastern cuisine. The open space feels airy and bright with a rooftop patio while the California-meets-Israeli menu is brimming with mezze, light and fresh salads, falafels, and more. Owner Mica Talmor calls the cuisine a mix of Levantine, Maghrebi, North African, Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern, a true melting pot of underrepresented cuisines.
If you’ve heard of Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, then you know Home of Chicken & Waffles in Oakland. This soul food spot, popular for both late-night and brunch, has familial ties to the Los Angeles joint. And while chicken and waffles may be available just about everywhere these days, there is nothing quite like having the original—especially after midnight.
Calavera is more than your average Mexican restaurant. The chic eatery is known for its Oaxacan fare and it stays true to its roots, even including seasoned grasshoppers in some of its dishes. A large outdoor patio offers a sunny spot to sip a Spicy Citrus Margarita while gorging on chips and guacamole. When you’re ready for dinner, the fresh seafood is a popular choice, taking advantage of the city’s position close to the ocean. A corridor just outside offers a pedestrian space to stroll after dinner and pick up coffee or ice cream under a dreamy display of string lights.
If you came for the ambiance, Lake Chalet on Lake Merritt is a can’t miss. Outdoor dining is coveted, offering sunset views from the wooden dock. Even on a chilly night, it’s a magical experience only amplified by the sophisticated menu of seafood, steak, and pasta.
After you’ve dined across the country within the confines of Oakland proper, stop by Oaktown Spice Shop where you can stock up on coveted blends to flavor your foods with at home. We mean it when we say you’ll underestimate just how much you’ll spend at the foodie haven.
New Thrills at Old Classics
Two of Oakland’s most notable attractions are the Chabot Space and Science Center and the Oakland Zoo. The first added a NASA Experience just one year ago, acting as a new visitor hub for NASA’s Ames Research Center based in Silicon Valley. The exhibit details space exploration from past decades and gives the general public a chance to learn about astronauts’ work beyond Earth.
In addition to the new exhibit, Chabot is also known for its planetarium shows, emceed by knowledgeable staff that can point out constellations and explain why the North Star is called the North Star. There are also opportunities to peek through one of three major telescopes on site, 1,500 feet above the Bay on the space center’s observatory deck.
The zoo has also added a few new features, most notably its California Trail, a dedicated space above the park (accessible by gondola) that includes native plants and animals. The new area is heavy in education and conservation efforts, allowing guests to walk above the animals, instead of meeting them face to face in their enclosures, along a secure pathway. Animals include California condors, bald eagles, jaguars, mountain lines, two types of bears, and more. Pro-Tip: Don’t miss the chance to take in the view from the San Francisco Bay Overlook, where you can see six counties from the deck.
Jack London Square has long been revered as one of the more popular destinations within Oakland. Known for housing nice restaurants and plenty of watering holes, the hub sits right on the water and often acts as a precursor to Oakland Athletics games. Through California Canoe & Kayak, you can slip out of the square and onto the water, paddling on everything from kayaks and canoes to stand-up paddleboards (SUP) and surfskis.
Art is Everywhere
It’s hard to look anywhere without catching an eyeful of something big, bold, and colorful on the streets of Oakland. The art in this town bleeds into the concrete; it’s part of the heartbeat of The Town. In addition to the overwhelming murals on every corner—and in between—there are also a collection of galleries, each with its own unique flavor.
Among our favorites are Joyce Gordon Gallery (a black female-owned hotspot filled with African American artists), E14 (which sells goods such as t-shirts, tote bags, stickers, candles, and more with a metropolitan flair), Tyranny Allen Gallery (where hip hop culture reigns supreme), and SLATE Contemporary Gallery (which feels simultaneously modern and high-end with textured wall art).
One of the more whimsical art projects in Oakland included the design and placement of 50 Stomper (the mascot of the Oakland Athletics) statues. The installation, which was created as part of a public art project ahead of the 2018 season, has lost some of its Stompers since, but it has become a fun scavenger hunt to find the remaining elephants.
Many are quickly surprised at just how green parts of Oakland are. Known mostly as a concrete jungle, it’s not hard to find open spaces to take in the natural beauty of the Bay. In addition to those stunning views, Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park offers a place to hike under the shade of towering trees away from it all (no, really, there’s no cell reception here).
Another ideal spot to soak in the sun (when it pokes out from behind the fog) is at Lake Merritt. Here, many gather to lounge in the lush grass that surrounds the lake or walk the trail around its perimeter.
Where to Stay
If you want luxury, book a room at The Claremont Club & Spa. While it dons a Berkeley address, the sprawling, four-star white estate sits right on the border of the two cities, making it a good homebase for a weekend in Oakland. Here, opulence meets urban. The Fairmont property features large suites and club-level amenities, including a gym and pool. Much of the clientele also carry an air of celebrity, so spotting a movie legend on your visit isn’t even a rarity.
When you’re hungry, Limewood Bar & Restaurant serves seasonal fare throughout the day, starting with breakfast at 7:30 AM and ending dinner service 9 or 10 PM, depending on the day. Bar service extends even longer. Brunch, however, is a favorite, served on weekends only. Every meal is the exotic brainchild of Joseph Paire III, who brings his eclectic style of culinary prowess to California after stints in Atlanta and Washington D.C.
If you’re looking to be more central, and soak up some of the vibey, big city culture that vibrates throughout Oakland, The Moxy is another solid choice for overnight accommodations. On Telegraph Avenue, you’ll be in the heart of it all where Bar Moxy serves as a social hub. The check-in desk shares space with a full-service bar where guests can mingle, even late night.
For those in it for the newness, Kissel Uptown is one of the city’s most recent additions, a boutique-style hotel with just 168 rooms. Settled in the heart of the entertainment and art district, Kissel itself is a work of art. The interior effortlessly melds historical references to Oakland’s car manufacturing past with modern design and an art deco flair.
When staying here, food and drink are easily accessible. Paul Canales has set up shop downstairs with his Southern French restaurant, Occitania, with Italian and Spanish infusions. The menu is always changing but often includes delicacies such as rockfish and escargot. It’s also home to the previously mentioned High5.