Aside from the fact that it always seems to be a few degrees warmer and sunnier in the East Bay, there are plenty of reasons to include a visit Oakland to your San Francisco trip. The somewhat overlooked city is a haven for those looking for something a little off the beaten path and for the chance to get a glimpse of local California culture. The best part is that Oakland is easily accessible by BART, and it doesn’t take any extra effort to get from HI San Francisco Downtown or HI San Francisco City Center hostels for a day of East Bay exploring. So, if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, grab a gang of fellow travelers and check out these five awesome things worth crossing the bay for.
Friday Nights at the Oakland Museum of California
Every Friday, the Oakland Museum of California hosts a giant block party featuring live music and entertainment, a tempting selection of Off the Grid food trucks and half-price admission to the museum’s fascinating gallery displays. The lively affair also includes demos and tastings from local beer brewers, coffee roasters and organic farmers, as well as various workshops and dance lessons for those looking to get a hands-on experience. After you’ve had your fill of gourmet eats from the trucks and had a dance with the crowd of locals, head into the museum for a look at the impressive collections of California art and history artefacts and be amazed.
BART Stop: The Lake Merritt BART station is a block away from the museum.
Breakfast at Pretty Lady
For a truly local experience, make your way to Pretty Lady, a breakfast and lunch spot with old-school charm and great coffee. The sort-of secret spot seats no more than about 30 diners on a U-shaped counter, which makes it great if you happen to be dining alone since it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the person next to you. And the food? You can get a simple two-egg-and-hashbrown plate with a couple of extras for less than $10, or splurge on an indulgent benedict for brunch with a Pretty Lady mimosa (where the champagne-to-juice ratio favors the champagne). Though breakfast is served all day, you can also come here for a good old-fashioned burger for lunch too.
BART Stop: Pretty Lady is a 15-minute walk down Center Street from the West Oakland BART station.
The Rooftop Garden at the Kaiser Center
See another side of Oakland’s downtown from the serene and rather off the beaten path rooftop garden at the Kaiser Center. The beautiful green space has a mix of trees, shrubs, flowers and a reflecting pool where you can while away a couple of hours in the East Bay sun with a good book and a snack, or with some friends from the hostel. The garden is actually on top of the parking garage adjacent to the center, and to get to it, you use the elevators in the garage. The Kaiser Center itself is a good place to get a coffee or a snack to enjoy in the garden, which is only open on weekdays between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
BART Stop: The Lake Merritt BART Station is less than five minutes from the Kaiser Center.
The Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt
You should definitely set aside a good chunk of time to spend at Lake Merritt, the urban oasis in the heart of Oakland’s downtown which not only has the man-made lake as its centerpiece, but also has a fascinating series of themed gardens to explore. There’s the Sensory Garden featuring fragrant herbs and flowers, the zen and shady Japanese Garden and the popular Bonsai Garden, to name just a few. The Bonsai Garden has an ever-changing display of miniature trees, some close to 100 years in age, and is Northern California’s only public bonsai collection. Volunteer docents are on hand with self-guided key sheets so you can take a serene stroll through the garden while learning the story behind each mini tree.
BART Stop: The Lake Merritt Bart station!
If you’re a fan of the authentic Chinatown experience, but looking to get away from the tourist crowds, then Oakland is your best bet. Spanning about five blocks near downtown, Oakland’s Chinatown has all the staples, including open markets with fresh produce and live fish, plus countless hole-in-the-wall spots for mouthwatering dim sum. A good strategy is to look for anywhere that has a line coming out the door, or head to Sum Yee Pastry for delicious dumplings and warm steamed custard buns at traveler-friendly prices. Our suggestion? Stock up on a spread of treats and walk the couple of blocks to Lake Merritt and enjoy your feast on a grassy patch while people watching.
BART Stop: The Lake Merritt BART station is just a block away from Chinatown.
HI USA Tip: Try to avoid getting on BART during peak commute hours – between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. in the mornings and 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the evenings.
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