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Discover why the locals croon about this vibrant, multicultural urban landscape.

jogger at Lake Merritt in Oakland California, image
Photo caption
A jogger takes in the cityscape around Lake Merritt.

Early on a Thursday night in Oakland, inside a kitschy little bar called The Alley, the locals have gathered around the piano. The air is thick with laughter and easy camaraderie, and after a rollicking version of "All of Me," the crowd is warmed up to sing a song about "the greatest city of them all."

Where did all the people go when Frisco burned? They all went to Oakland and they never returned. Oh, she's got pride! Hope! Oh, what a view! Oakland, we're for you!

Those unacquainted with Oakland's charms may find this display of civic pride perplexing. After all, the most famous quote about the city—native daughter Gertrude Stein's "There's no there there"—could hardly be described as an endorsement.

But explore this under-appreciated town and you'll discover what the natives are crooning about: a city center rich in history and architecture, a top-notch state museum, a vibrant Chinatown, a brand-new planetarium. Add in a Mediterranean clime and laid-back, real-folks attitude, and you have a city worth a visit—if not a show tune.

But don't take the local barflies' word for it. Slip on your walking shoes and head to one of the most scenic features of Oakland's landscape: Lake Merritt. Almost any day of the year, you'll find joggers, nature lovers, and baby carriages tracing the 3-mile footpath along the lake's serpentine edge. Sleek black cormorants and smug pelicans can also be spotted skimming the water. Their home, the country's oldest bird refuge, lies on the lake's northern end; bring a bag of bread and you've got an hour's worth of entertainment.

Kids can enjoy another lakeside attraction, Children's Fairyland, a tiny theme park that opened its gates in 1950. Its menagerie of talking dragons, grinning Cheshire cats, and moon-vaulting cows is currently benefiting from a much-needed $1.5 million renovation.

If Fairyland isn't fanciful enough, hire one of Gondola Servicio's gondolas, complete with aria-singing gondoliers, for a ride on Lake Merritt. Cruises at night, when a necklace of white lights illuminates the water, are particularly romantic.

The tranquil lakeshore is difficult to leave, but save time to explore the Oakland Museum of California. Under one roof, this highly touted museum encompasses the state's art, science, and history—from the paintings of Bay Area artist Richard Dieben-korn to a fire engine that saw duty in the firestorms that followed San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. Temporary exhibits, such as the current display of Dia de los Muertos altars, often highlight Oakland's diverse cultural heritage and history.

Just north of the museum, the stately period rooms of the Camron-Stanford House testify to the lavish lifestyle Oakland's wealthy citizenry once enjoyed. For a sense of a Victorian neighborhood during this heyday, head to Preservation Park, a cluster of Queen Anne and Italianate homes fronting green lawns and a burbling fountain. Businesses now occupy the buildings, but you can almost imagine women with parasols strolling the sidewalks.

Across 12th Street, the Pardee Home Museum was the residence of George C. Pardee, who served as both mayor of Oakland and governor of California. Tours of the 1869 Italianate home focus on its unusual furnishings, including a priceless Yosemite lamp given to Pardee for his early conservation efforts.

But the most stunning example of Oakland architecture may be the gilded, mosaicked, and ornamented Paramount Theatre, which still hosts such big-name entertainers as James Brown and Ray Charles. Classic movie nights here are a treat, often beginning with vintage cartoons, a black-and-white newsreel, and a concert on the Wurlitzer organ.

For more old-meets-new entertainment, pay a visit to Old Oakland, a cluster of historic brick buildings that house art galleries, funky restaurants, and the Pacific Coast Brewing Company. Be sure to duck into the venerable G.B. Ratto's & Co., an international grocery that was selling pastas, fine chocolate, and spices before Dean and Deluca were even in diapers. Order one of Ratto's teetering deli sandwiches for a hearty lunch; or head around the corner to French-Vietnamese Le Cheval and try its signature dish, lemongrass chicken and prawns.

For more than just a taste of Asia, walk east to Chinatown, where the city's close-knit Asian communities eat, drink, shop, and work. Visitors can enjoy an authentic experience here, haggling over bok choy at the corner market or feasting on a breakfast of savory dim sum at the popular Tin's Teahouse.

The waterfront south of Chinatown is where local boy Jack London once boozed and brawled before setting out on the exploits that inspired The Call of the Wild. A log cabin, brought here from Alaska, commemorates London's time in Oakland, as does the area's moniker, Jack London Square. Revitalization projects have turned the wharf into a thriving warren of galleries, shops, and, on Sundays, farmers' market booths.

To the east, Oakland's residential area gives way to slopes dotted with redwoods and the oak trees that gave the city its name. A fine zoo is secreted in these hills, as are two parks, Redwood and Joaquin Miller, offering hiking trails and picnic spots. But the star of the highlands is the new Chabot Space & Science Center. Along with an observatory, a mission control simulator, and a planetarium, the center boasts high-powered telescopes that bring the solar system into focus, providing glimpses of the Horseshoe and Crab nebulae and the Pleiades star cluster.

From high in the hills, you can also catch the sun setting behind the skyscrapers of San Francisco. Down below, the lights twinkle to life at Lake Merritt. The gondoliers are crooning "Santa Lucia" to their passengers. And in a kitschy little bar called The Alley, the locals have saved you a seat at the piano, knowing that after visiting their city, you're bound to join them in a hearty round of "Oakland, we're for you!"

Photography by cdrin/Shutterstock

This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.