A Bite-Sized Guide to Oakland
Welcome to the second installment of our new Bite-Sized Travel Series! After starting off in the bucolic Catskills and the small town of Hudson, New York, we’re now traveling 3,000 miles to the coast of Northern California to visit the city of Oakland, my hometown for over five years.
I’m very excited and proud to bring Oakland to you — and a little intimidated, too. How can I begin to capture this beautiful, complicated city of contrasts in just a few words? Well, if I’m totally honest, I can’t — but I can offer you a small bite or two in hopes that it will entice you to come out to explore and discover the many treasures to be found here.
Why Oakland, Why Now?
Oakland is the second-largest city (after San Francisco) in the Bay Area. It is located just across the bay from San Francisco in a subregion called the East Bay (it shares the county of Alameda with Berkeley, as well as several other cities).
Up until about 10 years ago, San Francisco and Berkeley were the cities where people went to experience the amazing food born of California’s food revolution, at restaurants such as Chez Panisse and Coi and Slanted Door. But when chefs from Chez Panisse and other fine-dining places sought to open their own establishments, they discovered that Oakland was a less expensive option.
Ground-breaking restaurants like Camino, Pizzaiolo, Cosecha, Dona Tomas, and Brown Sugar Kitchen paved the way (and they’re still interesting and relevant today). A more recent wave of restaurants includes FuseBox, Duende, Juhu Beach Club, Homestead, and Michelin-starred Commis.
But these newcomers are only part of the story. There’s also many traditional neighborhoods and foods to explore in Oakland: Chinatown for hand-pulled noodles and jook, the savory rice porridge that’s delicious topped with sautéed greens and slivers of crispy duck.
Look for Vietnamese pho and banh mi sandwiches on International Boulevard, or hit up one of the many taco trucks parked there. Fruitvale, in general, is the place to go to for a wide variety of food, from farm-to-table vegan (Two Momma’s) to Burmese to dim sum.
And we haven’t even begun to talk about farmers markets, pop-up cafes and restaurants, specialty shops, butchers, brewers, corner stores, coffee roasters, and street festivals!
But this is a Bite-Sized guide, so I’ll keep it simple.
- While Oakland is a tab warmer and sunnier than San Francisco, it’s still chilly year round so always (always!) dress in layers. And don’t assume just because you’re in California it’s time for shorts — the average temperature here rarely goes above 72 and is likely to be much cooler.
- Oakland was already a tangle of angled streets and boulevards before the freeway system ran roughshod through the city in the 1950s and 60s. So be prepared to use your phone or other forms of maps to make your way. And maybe remember your charger if you plan on being out all day.
- The Bay Area has an excellent recycling and composting program, so please be sure to sort your garbage in public areas: Recycle is for cans, bottles, paper, and plastics; Compost is for food waste and compostables which may include some of your food packaging; and Landfill is for anything that doesn’t fit into the other two.
- Oakland is a sprawling city and public transportation can be spotty, but Uber and Lyft can get you to where you need to go quickly and affordably. Or look for the Bay Area Bike Share kiosks which will be expanding heavily into the East Bay in 2017.
- Planning on driving in Oakland? Pedestrians are assertive about their right of way and will boldly walk out into crosswalks and even into streets, knowing cars have no choice but to stop, so be prepared.
5 Things to Know Before You Go
A Less Obvious Destination
There are two ways you can look at visiting Oakland: either as a day visit from your stay in San Francisco or as a destination onto itself. In my view, Oakland is a destination city, hands-down! If you come for a day, you’ll want to come back and if you come for a week, you’ll still want to come back!
Someone recently told me that the best way to visit Oakland is when you have a friend who lives there. I think this is true, in part because most of the interesting things in Oakland are a little more subtle and hidden, a little less obvious, than your average tourist destination. There’s no Golden Gate Bridge, no Statue of Liberty, no Epcot Center here.
To unlock Oakland’s secrets, you’ll need a friend to show you around, to take you on a picnic in Piedmont Cemetery or on a stroll around Lake Merritt, to show you the best place to buy baguettes at the Temescal Farmers Market.
In this way, Oakland is perfect for a Bite-Sized Guide, and I’m happy (thrilled) to step in as that friend and show you around a little.
Getting There & Staying There
There are two airports that serve Oakland. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about an hour ride away via BART, the local subway system, and potentially longer by car if you get caught in traffic. Most locals prefer the Oakland International Airport (OAK), which is much quicker — closer to a 30-minute BART or car ride.
Oakland has a few boutique-class hotels such as the Waterfront Hotel at Jack London Square and the Washington Inn in Uptown, but most people prefer to rent an Airbnb. Here are a few of our favorites.
What Is a Bite-Sized Guide?
Have you ever gone on a vacation and returned only to discover that you need a vacation to recover from your vacation? Well, that’s not what we’re offering here. Our Bite-Sized Guides are intended for the curious traveler who is seeking a more relaxed experience, more of a meander through a little neighborhood than a mad-dash to the next thing on the guidebook checklist.
In this guide I’ll share with you my love story with Oakland, how I grew to love and appreciate all of Oakland — the good, the great, and the challenging parts, too.
There’s a walking tour of my neighborhood, which has changed a lot even in the five years that I’ve lived here, getting even more spiffed up and on trend while still remaining a true neighborhood.
I also visited three Oaklanders to check out their kitchens and their favorite places to eat in Oakland. One I knew (she lives upstairs from me!) and two were strangers at first, but quickly and easily shared their life and passion for living here.
Finally, you’ll find recipes from my favorite local establishments and a few things you might want to tuck into your bag to bring home.
Through all of these bite-sized pieces, I hope to share with you my love and enthusiasm for this culturally rich and diverse city. I’ve fallen big for Oakland and I think you will too.