Mighty Oakland: Welcome to San Francisco's Brooklyn in the Bay
Oakland is to San Francisco what Brooklyn is to New York, says Deirdre Mullins. It's stepping out of a big city shadow.
So I'm strolling around Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, when a man jogs by sparring in a pair of red boxing gloves. His muscular chest is bare, his skin shiny. The pièce de résistance is a pair of tight, gold sequin shorts. I tell him he looks amazing. He graciously accepts my compliment and jogs on. Another day, another vibrant character in a city that has taken my heart from San Francisco.
I've been visiting San Francisco for many years. Until now, however, I've never taken the 15-minute BART journey across the bay to its sister city. I love San Francisco's beauty and the liberal attitude that stoked the Beatnik generation, the Summer of Love and the gay rights movement. But Oakland? Well, let's just say its industrial skyline and reputation for gang violence didn't sparkle quite so bright.
But now I'm here, and things are different.
Gentrification, propelled by the tech boom, has made San Francisco one of the world's most expensive cities in which to live. Over the years, Oakland has became a Bay Area option for the 'priced out', along with Silicon Valley employees who commute the hour-long drive to San Jose.
Naturally, artists and bohemians were the first to leave (many locals claim that Oakland has more artists per capita than any other American city). It's a city in renaissance, with a happening nightlife and edgy art and culinary scenes. Similar to Brooklyn and Manhattan, Oakland is stepping out from San Francisco's shadow, tempting visitors like me to cross the bridge to the sunny side of the bay.
Boasting an average of 260 days sunshine per year, Oakland is a great outdoors city. Lake Merritt, nicknamed the Oakland Riviera, is a lively place at the heart of things, with people jogging (in all sorts of attire) around its 5.5km circumference. On grassy areas, locals barbecue and picnic in the sun.
"I love the feeling of space," says my friend Ross, who moved to Oakland from San Francisco, where he still works, in search of more affordable living. "When I come home each day I instantly relax and take a deep breath and say ahh..."
The lake feels like the city's outdoor hub. A host of different languages can be heard, you can get sung to in Italian in an authentic gondola from Venice, and I even come across a 'silent disco yoga' class where the yogis wear headsets and listen to a live DJ. No doubt this craze will eventually make its way here.
Another of the city's natural treasures is the 1,830-arce Redwood Regional Park (ebparks.org, below). Set in the East Oakland Hills, it's got plenty of trails for hiking, biking and horse riding among the biggest and tallest trees in the world.
Downtown, you'll find another northern California-style attraction in the Oakland Urban Wine Trail (oaklandurbanwinetrail.com). Here, you can skip the traffic and pricey hotels of wine country by visiting 10 wineries housed in renovated warehouses and sourcing grapes from all over California.
The Rosenblum Cellars (rosenblumcellars.com), for example, has a stunning waterfront location at Jack London Square, where you can sip in the sun and enjoy a view of the San Francisco skyline.
Jack London Square is also home to Yoshi's (yoshis.com), an intimate jazz-dinner venue which has been around since the 1970s. Another great spot in the area is Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon (48 Webster St.; above), so named because it was the first and last chance for sailors to get drunk before or after their time at sea. The bar is teeming with atmosphere - it's still lit by gas and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 left its mark with a stopped clock and a very slanted floor. Good to know the latter before you question your sobriety.
In the past, locals crossed the Bay Bridge to San Francisco for its restaurant culture. Now the reverse is happening, with crowds coming to eat in Oakland's buzzing food scene. Oakland's buzzing food scene was ranked as one of America's ten best local food scenes by readers of USA Today last year, beating Napa Valley and San Francisco, and it caters for all budgets - from fine dining in Michelin-starred restaurants to top-notch street food.
Friday Nights @ OMCA (Oakland Museum of California; museumca.org) is a street festival that offers curbside cuisine from 'off the grid' gourmet food trucks. Check out Beyond the Border, who lather their hearty burritos with generous helpings of sour cream and guacamole. Fridays see the OMCA halve its entry prices and there is live music, dance lessons and art workshops too.
Any meal deserves to be followed by a trip to Fentons Creamery (fentonscreamery.com) on Piedmont Avenue. Operating for 121 years, this vintage parlour retains its old-world charm while serving up classic soda fountains and sundaes. Carl, the main character from Pixar's Up, enjoys ice-cream here.
He's not the only character familiar with the city. Pixar's studios are in the neighbouring city of Emeryville, so Oakland features in many of their films (the location for the last fight scene in The Incredibles, when Frozone freezes across the lake, was inspired by Lake Merritt).
Maybe this is a case of life imitating art, because Oakland is incredible, and there may well be superheroes on the lake. They just masquerade as joggers in red boxing gloves and gold sequin pants.
Eat like a local
Stock up on your fresh produce and people watch at one of Oakland’s farmers markets. Dig into a variety of Dim Sum at Shan Dong in Chinatown or splash out in Michelin Starred restaurant, Commis. Let the locals show you Oakland’s foodie neighbourhoods with tours from Savor Oakland, See Eat Love or Edible Excursions.
For the kids
Bring the kids trotting around the Oakland Hills on horseback, to the Chabot Space and Science Centre or if they have a head for heights to Trapeze Arts Circus School. Younger kids will enjoy Fairyland, a theme park on the shore of Lake Merritt which opened in 1950. Walt Disney visited and it’s said to have inspired Disney World.
Shakewell in the Trestle Glen neighbourhood (shakewelloakland.com) is a buzzy Mediterranean restaurant. They do great cocktails are recommended in the 2015 Michelin Guide. For a delicious Mexican brunch check out Calavera. Their tacos are to die for and it’s never too early for a margarita.
On the first Friday of each month, Oakland's Kono district hosts an immersive art and community experience called First Friday. Art galleries open their doors and street artists, performers, DJs and poets entertain the masses on the street. Elsewhere, be sure to check out one of Oakland's several vintage theatres which hark back to the 'Golden Age' of film such as the Fox, The Paramount and Grand Lake.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies daily from Dublin to San Francisco, with fares starting from €309 each way. The Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) operates a regular service from San Francisco International Airport to Oakland. The journey takes about 40 minutes.
For more information on Oakland, see visitoakland.org.
Where to stay
Treat yourself to the boutique Waterfront Hotel (jdvhotels.com), perfectly located on the water in Jack London Square.
For more moderate rates, try A Bed and Breakfast on Fairmount (abedandbreakfastonfairmount.com), a traditional-style homestay serving up its own hens’ eggs for breakfast.