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Out and About in Oakland Part II: Downtown

downtown oakland flower sculpture

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. 

Oakland fox theaterNot 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 second in our series of Oakland stops that can't be beat. 

Much like San Francisco's Financial District, downtown Oakland empties out completely after the workday and on the weekends. But there is a charm to the stillness: Once the office-dwellers head home, the neighborhood reveals itself as a raw and real panorama of striking old landmark buildings mixed with more newly developed high rises, excellent murals and street art, bizarre metal sculptures, and vacant shopping areas just dying for a flash mob. Whether you want to witness this vibrant neighborhood in a state of eerie quiet or bustling activity, here are our top downtown picks for your next trip across the Bay.

When to Go

Downtown Oakland skyscrapersTo avoid commuter rush hour on weekdays, make your way to the East Bay on BART from HI SF City Center or SF Downtown before 5:00 p.m. Get off at the 12th Street Oakland City Center stop to step right into the heart of downtown, then walk Broadway in both directions to easily get your bearings on foot. As soon as the work day ends, you'll see hundreds of people pounding the pavement on their way home. An hour later, you can still feel the heat.

If you want to watch a particularly epic shift from busy to barren, go on a Friday early enough to see the Farmer's Market. You'll get in your people-watching (8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) on Ninth Street between Broadway and Clay. Chat up the local vendors to learn about California's yearlong produce paradise. 

Where to Break out the Camera 

The Downtown Oakland Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the city has done a sweet job of preserving it. Some of the areas especially calling for your camera include the corner where Telegraph Ave. and Broadway intersect at 14th St. Here, find Oakland's version of the Manhattan Flatiron building, Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, and the 1914 Beaux-arts City Hall. Everywhere you turn, you'll find historic buildings reflected in newer, mirrored skyscrapers. The neon lights of the Tribune building and the Fox Theater make for gorgeous images during the sunset golden hour. 

For green space nestled in amongst the high rises, get to the Kaiser Center's beautifully maintained rooftop garden. (Open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.). It is so off the beaten path, you may even find yourselves enjoying this secret garden alone. 

Where To Eat & Drink 

Lake Merritt is an Oakland destination worth a full day trip, but if you've picked up some locally baked treasure at the farmer's market on a Friday, Lake Merritt is still a great pit stop for a picnic with your hostel pals. It's only a ten-minute walk from Downtown Oakland to the edge of the lake. Or, consider the little rooftop garden mentioned above.

oakland trolley muralFor drinks with the locals, try Cafe Van Kleef, the perfect example of Oakland weird: It's small, dim, and decorated with a fanciful mess of Mardi Gras beads, baby dolls, and old romantic paintings of naked ladies. Go for the Greyhound as their specialty is fresh grapefruit juice, squeezed to order on a hand press behind the bar. They have great live music for a modest cover charge on weekend nights—from jazz to soul and big band. Gather the gang and get in before 9:00 p.m. to avoid paying the cover.

If you'd prefer a more traditional vibe, try the Trappist, a specialty beer spot with a nice Belgian selection set in a Victorian building. 

For dinner, Downtown Oakland's China Town is the place to be. Spices 3 (369 12th St.) is always lively, and service is friendly. If you're an adventurous eater, try the Stinky Tofu, otherwise trust the server to steer you in the right direction. 

For truly authentic Dim Sum, try Sum Yee Pastry (918 Webster St.), a real mom-and-pop spot with excellent portions at very inexpensive prices. 

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If You Go 

Stay at HI SF City Center or HI SF Downtown, but located within minutes of BART stops.