It’s likely a cliche, but mention that you’re traveling to the Bay Area to most people, and the answer inevitably comes back, “Oh, I love San Francisco!” Okay, I love San Francisco too, but Oakland, its sister across the bay, has much to offer on its own.
From a landmark museum, to its own zoo, to a wealth of restaurants of every stripe, we discovered a lot to like there, Gertrude Stein notwithstanding. Okay, that’s the last overused Oakland joke.
We traveled north by Amtrak from Union Station by bus to Bakersfield where we caught a train to Oakland, the last stop on the line. Traveling by train? Be patient. Enough said.
Arriving on a midweek morning, we met our liaison for some shrimp pasta and salad at The Forge Jack London Square across the water from The City—a perfect setting to begin our short week. While we longed to catch a ferry across the bay to cover the Giants-Dodgers series, we couldn’t make the schedule work. As it turned out, that was probably a good thing. The Giants stomped the Dodgers three games in a row. We might have jumped off the ferry into the bay by the third game.
But we began our visit with culture at the award-winning Oakland Museum of California (OMCA).
Opened in 1969, the museum seeks to bring together art, history, and natural sciences under one roof to celebrate the many facets, faces, flaws and fascinations of California.
The museum holds more than 1.9 million objects including landmark artworks, historical artifacts, ethnographic objects, and natural specimens.
The smart, carefully curated collections run the gamut from railroads to the Gold Rush to the early beginnings of the Hollywood film industry, as well as California’s car culture, in all its incarnations.
The newly renovated 300,000 square-foot Museum’s collections feature a wealth of hands-on tools and interactive features as well as new gathering spaces and program areas. Like the best museums, you can easily lose yourself there for an afternoon, emerging squinting into the sunlight, bursting with knowledge and culture, if you will.
We checked into the Kissel Uptown Oakland hotel following the museum. Hyatt’s sparkling signpost of a new Oakland combines “right now” styling, with Beaux-Arts architecture and locally commissioned artworks, with a friendly attitude and beautifully designed rooms, along with plenty of outlets and chargers. Seems like a small detail, but as we all admittedly travel with too many gadgets, there’s no such thing as too many USB ports.
Our beautifully furnished, vaguely Mid-Century- designed rooms offered tech and comfort with a cruelly comfortable bed that was bound and determined to keep you there as long as possible. I’m okay with that. (Note to management: Perhaps lose the stylish but too-heavy desk chairs? They’re impossibly uncomfortable, essentially immovable, and all form versus function. Not a dealbreaker, but maybe have a look?)
Our first dinner on arrival day found us at Calavera Mexican Kitchen and Bar. Located in the Hive, a multiuse complex on Broadway, Calavera is welcoming and friendly-stylish with exposed brick, sky-high ceilings, an open kitchen, and every drink you can likely think of.
While the traditional Mexican menu is filled with a wide range of classic options, we opted for the redundantly named Queso Quesadillas with shrimp. In a word, magnificent. Simply, the best quesadillas you’re going to find almost anywhere. Bursting with cheese, and wrapped in specially-ordered blue corn tortillas, they are music on a plate.
Order what you like from the expansive menu, we’re going with the quesadillas.
Breakfast at Otto’s in the downstairs lobby the next morning after the Dodger loss, was a heaping helping of perfect. We opted for a simple breakfast of fruit, croissant, coffee and juice, all delivered quickly and stylishly. Otto’s decidedly hip design with mini-booths and comfortable tables gets the form and function equation spot on.
Lunch was a glorious sparkling day on the edge of Lake Merritt at Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill, where we feasted on crabcakes, salad, hash browns, coffee and juice, and everything prepared perfectly. The setting on the dock of this renovated boathouse overlooking the gleaming water was postcard-like. Don’t ask me what a postcard is. Just plan your own visit.
Later that day we found ourselves on the Sky Ride high above the African Savannah in the Oakland Zoo, now celebrating its 100th year, since its founding by Henry A. Snow, and then later operated by his son Sidney Snow. Originally located at 19th and Harrison streets in downtown Oakland, the Zoo has changed locations several times over the last century, opting for more verdant surroundings in Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland hills.
Divided into several areas—Wild Australia, the Children’s Zoo, the Tropical Forest, and the African Savanna—animals are displayed in large, naturally native, open areas, easily traversed by walking. But it’s gonna be a whole afternoon. Change those shoes.
Because we had to go head across the bay to watch the Dodgers lose to the Giants (again), our visit to the Oakland Zoo was not as long as we had hoped. Yours will be longer.
From the grasslands to the sky, we ended our visit with the fascinating Chabot Space and Science Center. The Center is a non-profit institution and community resource on 13 acres in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, set amid the largest stand of coastal redwoods in the East Bay. It features a 241-seat full-dome planetarium, interactive and hands-on exhibits, space artifacts, a giant screen theater, and the largest research-level observatory complex, featuring three large-scale telescopes, regularly available to the public for weekly live viewing in the Western United States.
We sat for a fascinating “Big Sky” show in the planetarium, and wondered around like the schoolchildren we all essentially are. We watched grade school students construct their own air-powered rockets in a hands-on studio, after which they would be sent into the sky from a launch pad out on the observation deck.
We asked the museum staffer how far the pump-propelled how high the young rocketeers’ project would actually travel into the outer reaches.
“See that tree behind you?” he responded. I looked up about 20 feet into the branches. “That rocket got stuck up there mid-flight.”
‘Wow, how long has that been there?” I asked, thinking it would be discovered by astronomers for decades to come.
“About twenty minutes,” he said. “The wind might blow it down soon.”
But it’s the inspiration and the science that matters. As a child, I would have begged to go to the Chabot every day. As an adult, it’s equally fascinating, from the Soyuz rocket capsule to the huge telescopes.
I’m sure my rocket would have cleared the trees.
Calavera, 2337 Broadway, Oakland, CA. (510) 338-3273. email@example.com
Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill, 1520 Lakeside Drive on Lake Merritt http://www.thelakechalet.com/
Oakland, CA 94612. (510) 208-5253. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Rd, Oakland, CA 94605, United States. 510-632-9525