Out and About in Oakland Part I: Lake Merritt

Lake Merritt Oakland

By Marguerite Richards 

"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." This is the infamous Mark Twain quote the locals will tease you with when you've arrived in shorts and skirts, prepared for a warm weather in San Francisco. Our chilly, often foggy, San Francisco days can catch visitors off guard. 

Not so in Oakland. Just on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, you'll find the California weather you've been looking for in this East Bay city, even in the colder winter months. Just a few BART stops away from HI San Francisco City Center and HI SF Downtown, try exploring Oakland to get a more complete feel for the San Francisco Bay Area. Here's the first in our series of Oakland stops that can't be beat. 

Lake Merritt AcrobatsThere's something about the Lake Merritt area that reminds me of Echo Park and Silver Lake in Los Angeles, where I used to call home. It must be the happy mix of hipsters and hippies, and the generous variety of ethnic cultures, which for me represents the real California. It's a young group of friends picnicking on one corner, dancers spilling out onto the patio of Cuban café blasting salsa on another, and a blue-mohawked girl skate boarding down the wrong side of the street in between. The lake is situated right in the center of the city and surrounded by neighborhoods, freeway overpasses, and grassy park space—an appealing dichotomy of urban green space. But what really makes this area the epitome of cool?  It isn't trying too hard. 

Best of all, Lake Merritt is totally walkable, and easily accessible by BART. Get off at the 19th St. Oakland or Lake Merritt stop for a roughly 10-minute walk to the northern or southern part of the lake, respectively. There are enough activities here to fill an entire day: day trippers, get an early start.

Lounging around the Lake 

Lake Merritt picnicThe lake's circumference is about 3.5 miles, ringed by a well-manicured pathway and an excellent running trail. Beyond joggers, along the perimeter, you'll spot young families pushing strollers, lovebirds holding hands, and kids on bikes too. Locals treat the park like their own backyard: a solo twenty-something leans against a tree reading his book, and couples on blankets do aerial yoga tricks, launching their partners skyward. The northern end of the lake boasts seven acres of themed gardens, including a lovely collection of bonsai trees (small, but worth the visit). The gardens are open every day from 9:00 a.m. to dusk, and entry is free.

Best Boutiques 

Lake Merritt shoppingGrand and Lake Shore Avenues, just minutes walking from the park, are window-shopping heaven, boasting dozens of little boutiques full of interesting finds. Maribel is a vintage consignment shop with great style. The Sacred Well is a funky metaphysical supply shop: think magic crystals, readings, candles, and other curious elements needed for the healing arts. Urban Indigo is a concept shop with letterpress greeting cards, posters, and handmade jewelry. Oaktown Spice Shop is an Oakland mainstay that opened in response to the recent local culinary boom, with spices from all over the world and a knowledgeable staff to help you find just what you're looking for. 

Friday Night Museum Must   

A great way to end your Friday out and about at Lake Merritt is with a stop at the Oakland Museum of California, located at the southern edge of the lake. The museum's a block from the Lake Merritt BART, translating to easy access back to your hostel in San Francisco. Every Friday night the grounds open for hanging out and dining from Off the Grid food trucks, and there's a half-price discount on museum entry Fridays from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. ($7.50 for adults, $5 for students.) The permanent Gallery of California exhibit showcases culture and heritage through a study on immigration, global relationships, environmental stories, and dozens of interactive presentations, works of arts, photographs, and more. 

Eat Where the Chefs Go

The burgeoning Oakland restaurant scene has much to offer for the foodie. But let's face it: we travelers don't always have the budget for trendy gastronomy. Still, fear not: local chef and friend tipped me off to where the chefs go around Lake Merritt for a delicious bite that won't put a dent in the tender pocketbook. New King Restaurant is a Vietnamese pho spot known for its Bánh mì sandwiches, perfect for taking out and picnicking at the lake. Tacos Mi Rancho is a food truck open from 10:00 a.m. until the wee morning hours for fresh, delicious $1.50 tacos. 

If you're looking for California cuisine, well, these two authentic spots, Vietnamese and Mexican, are just about as California as you can get. 

If You Go 

Gather some new friends at HI SF City Center, HI SF Downtown, or HI SF Fisherman's Wharf, and ask the friendly front desk staff for directions to your nearest BART station!