The Best Things to Do in Oakland, California

The 15 Best Things to Do in Oakland, California

Oakland is a vibrant city full of culture and buzzing with an energy that’s palpable to both locals and visitors alike. There’s no shortage of fun things to do in Oakland, from paying a visit to one of the many museums to hiking in a redwood-studded park or paddling around Lake Merritt. Yep, that’s right: even though you’re right in the middle of a city, you’re also never too far from nature!

So whether you like hiking, history, or food (or all of the above), Oakland has something for you! Spend an afternoon walking around Lake Merritt or learning about science at the Chabot Space & Science Center. See epic animals and views from the Oakland Zoo, or follow a beer or wine trail to sample some of the best brews in the city.

The Oakland Airport makes travel easy too. The relatively small airport has plenty of options for flights in and out of the area and is easy to navigate. Plus, the hub of San Francisco is just across the San Francisco Bay. 

With so many amazing things to see, do, and eat, it can be tricky to know where to begin. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of the absolute best things to do in Oakland. Add these activities and attractions to your Oakland bucket list, and you’re guaranteed to have a fantastic time exploring this Bay Area gem.

15 Fun and Unique Things to Do in Oakland

1. Walk around Lake Merritt

Unique Things to do in Oakland, California: Lake Merritt

A casual stroll around Lake Merritt is one of the most popular things to do in Oakland. You’ll discover plenty of interesting places to stop along the 3.5-mile loop.

Kids will love the Children’s Fairyland, a fairytale-themed park. The Gardens at Lake Merritt is certainly worth a stop, with seven acres of themed gardens. And of course, it’s a great place to people watch too! As you walk, you’ll come across plenty of people enjoying the sunshine – joggers, roller skaters, musicians, cyclists, yogis, and more.

There’s no shortage of activities you can do on the water, too. For example, you can book a gondola ride or rent a boat from the Lake Merritt Boating Center. You’re also more than welcome to use your own boat if you have one, although you’ll need to get a permit from the boating center first.

Technically, Lake Merritt isn’t a lake at all – it’s a tidal lagoon. This means it’s actually connected to the ocean and is home to a diverse array of wildlife. In fact, it’s the oldest designated wildlife refuge in the United States!

You might see some sea animals, like jellyfish and leopard sharks, along with more than 30 species of fish. You’re likely to encounter some feathered friends, too, as roughly 140 bird species live in the area. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot American white pelicans, Anna’s hummingbirds, or snowy egrets!

2. Hike in the Redwoods at Redwoods Regional Park and Joaquin Miller Park

Best Things to do in Oakland, California: Redwoods Regional Park

Redwoods Regional Park and Joaquin Miller Park are two different parks that connect to each other. You really can’t go wrong with either one: both have plenty of gorgeous trails with large numbers of redwoods, of course! 

Everyone should see redwoods at least once: there’s something otherworldly about the way they tower over you. You’ll never feel smaller, and these giant trees are easily one of the top things to see in Oakland.

These parks have trails for every level. If you want a more relaxed jaunt, try the relatively flat Sequoia Bayview Trail at Joaquin Miller Park. This trail is a 3-mile loop that’s popular with joggers and mountain bikers, so it might be busy on weekends.

Fun Things to do in Oakland, California: Redwoods Regional Park

If you’re looking for a more difficult hike, try the 8-mile French, Bridle, and Stream Trail Loop. Expect steeper hills and greater elevation changes. We promise it’s worth it, though – the views are amazing! Pro tip: wear shoes you don’t mind getting dirty; trails tend to be muddy because of the shade.

If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch a show at Sundays in the Redwoods, an outdoor concert series that takes place at Joaquin Miller Park.

3. See the Animals and Take a Gondola Ride at the Oakland Zoo

What to do in Oakland, California: Oakland Zoo

If you love both animals and scenic vistas, head to the Oakland Zoo! The zoo is one of the best places to find amazing views of Oakland and the surrounding Bay Area. Ride the gondola to the top, where you can eat at the Landing Cafe for even more panoramic views!

You’ll find over 850 animals at the zoo, split into several areas. Stop by the California Trail for bald eagles, the Tropical Rainforest for sun bears, the African Savanna for elephants, or Wild Australia for wallabies. And if you love farm animals, you should definitely check out the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo!

But the fun doesn’t stop there because the zoo even has plenty of rides, like a carousel and train. Check out the website for fun events, like the popular Glowfari. This exhibition includes giant animal lanterns and runs from November to January. If you aren’t in town during these months, don’t worry, there’s almost always something fun happening at the zoo!

As one of the best Oakland attractions, the zoo has something for everyone, and both adults and kids will enjoy spending the day here!

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4. Learn About Astronomy at the Chabot Space & Science Center

Unique Things to do in Oakland, California: Chabot Space and Science Center
Images courtesy of VisitOakland

If you’re obsessed with the night sky, spending some time at the Chabot Space & Science Center is one of the coolest Oakland activities! Definitely check out the three telescopes and catch a show at the full-dome planetarium.

Planetarium shows play every hour on the hour, and you can learn about everything from the Earth to the moon to the Milky Way. One show, called “Bay Aerial,” even gives you a bird’s-eye view of many famous landmarks in the area, like Mount Diablo. It’s a great introduction to Oakland and the surrounding region!

Along with permanent exhibits, you can attend some of Chabot Space & Science Center’s unique events. These may include star workshops, meteor shower viewings, and educational programs.

See what NASA’s up to at The NASA Experience, where you can learn about the latest Ames research and space missions (NASA Ames is a research center located in Silicon Valley). Engage in hands-on activities, check out unique artifacts, and get stoked about science!

5. Visit the Oakland Museum of California

Best Things to do in Oakland, California: Oakland Museum of California

Interested in California history, art, climate, or geology? Check out the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)! You can browse the art galleries, with works divided into three different themes: California Land, California People, and California Creativity.

Learn about the different people who have lived in California, from indigenous people to the current population, in the history section. Engage in the natural sciences, and learn about animals, climate, geology, ecosystems, and more. This museum truly has something for everyone!

If you love plants, you’ll enjoy a stroll through OMCA’s terraced gardens. Each level pays homage to a different region of California, complete with native plants. Treat yourself to beautiful views of Oakland and geometric sculptures. 

The best part? The garden is completely free, even if you decide to skip the exhibits inside. However, we definitely recommend checking out the OMCA! It truly is one of the most unique things to do in Oakland, and with rotating exhibitions, there’s always something new to see.

Visit on the first Sunday of the month for discounted admission prices. Technically, it’s free, but the museum suggests a donation of $5 for general admission. While you can wait in line for first come, first serve tickets, First Sundays are extremely popular. To skip the line, reserve your tickets online with your preferred visit time.

6. Dine at Jack London Square

Unique Things to do in Oakland, California: Jack London Square

Jack London Square is a great place to grab a bite to eat! Choose from over 10 amazing restaurants, like Scott’s Seafood Grill & Bar. This popular joint serves seafood classics that you can enjoy accompanied by stunning views of the harbor! If the weather’s nice, you can dine outside to soak up the sunshine.

After you finish eating, take a walk along the waterfront on the Bay Trail. Your jaunt can last 2.5 miles, ending at Union Point Park. The trail is paved, so bikes are welcome too!

Fun Things to do in Oakland, California: Jack London Square

The outdoor opportunities don’t end there, though. You can explore the estuary if you’d like, as well. Rent a kayak or standup paddleboard from California Canoe & Kayak, and explore the area via the water.

Pop over to their website to see if any of their events interest you. Jack London Square hosts maker’s markets, farmer’s markets, and even some holiday happenings, like “Selfies with Santa” and a tree lighting ceremony.

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7. Check Out a Show at Fox Theater

Cool Things to do in Detroit, Michigan: Fox Theatre

If you’re looking for things to do in Oakland, the historic Fox Theater is arguably one of the most beautiful venues in the Bay Area. It was first built in 1928 as a “movie palace” and renovated in 2009. Today, it’s elaborately decorated with bright colors and golden accents and is described as having “Indian, Moorish, medieval, and Baghdadian” design influences.

Before your show starts, head to The Den at the Fox for food and drinks. If you want to try a local restaurant instead, you’re in luck. The Fox Theater sits in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland, so you’ll have an abundance of fun bars and restaurants to choose from. We suggest Drake’s Dealership, where you can grab a wood-fired pizza and locally brewed beer in an old Dodge dealership.

Best Things to do in Detroit, Michigan: Fox Theatre

You’ll have plenty of shows to choose from, too. The theater hosts over 250 every year, with up to half a million people in attendance! It’s almost certain that you’ll find a show to see if you visit on a weekend.

The Paramount Theatre is also close by, and its beautiful art deco-inspired design makes it one of the top Oakland attractions and well worth a visit.

8. Get a History Lesson Aboard the USS Potomac

Oakland, California Things to do: USS Potomac

All aboard the USS Potomac! Take a ride on this renowned boat to learn about history while enjoying unparalleled views of the bay. If you’re a history buff, this is a must on your Oakland bucket list!

This boat belonged to multiple important people, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Elvis. However, the famed ship’s luck soon ran out, and it was impounded after being used to smuggle drugs. After that ordeal, the USS Potomac was abandoned before the Port of Oakland rescued the ship and restored it.​​

What to do in Oakland, California: USS Potomac

In 1995, after its restoration, the boat was opened to the public. Today, you can choose between dockside tours and one, two, or three-hour cruises through the San Francisco Bay. This is a great way to learn about history while enjoying gorgeous views of the Bay Area!

During your cruise, docents are available to give tours, although you can also choose to walk through the boat yourself. Public cruises usually last from May to December, but you can also hire the boat for a private charter for special events of your choosing!

9. Marvel at the View From the Mountain Hill Cemetery

Best Things to do in Oakland, California: Mountain Hill Cemetery

While a cemetery isn’t usually the first activity on everyone’s list, the Mountain Hill Cemetery is definitely one of the must-do things to do in Oakland.

At this historic cemetery, you’ll be treated to stunning views of Oakland and the Bay Area. It’s also the final resting place of many important figures in California history. See the graves of Ernie Lombardi, a Major League Baseball player in the Hall of Fame, Mac Dre, a popular Bay Area rap artist, and Domingo Ghirardelli, the founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.

Cool Things to do in Oakland, California: Mountain Hill Cemetery

The cemetery is open to visitors on Wednesday or Saturday, and you can walk this 1.8-mile loop or simply explore the many meandering pathways. Because it’s on a hill, you may have to walk up stairs or some steeper sections, although there are certainly flatter areas.

The cemetery is decorated with marble statues, towering obelisks, and giant tombs. And if you get lucky, you’ll visit when the cemetery has a special event, like the annual pumpkin festival or holiday circle of lights.

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10. Catch an A’s Game at the Oakland Coliseum

Oakland, California Bucket List: Oakland Coliseum

If you’re a sports fan (and even if you’re not), no visit to Oakland is complete without attending an Athletics game at the Oakland Coliseum! Also called the Oakland A’s for short, you’ll see people wearing the signature emerald green A’s hats and jerseys everywhere. There’s certainly no absence of team spirit in Oakland!

You’ll even see colorfully painted statues of their mascot, Stomper the elephant, all over town. One of the best parts of A’s games is definitely the food! Grab an A’s helmet with loaded nachos to complete your experience. And make sure you stay for the fireworks at the end!

The season runs from the end of March until the beginning of October, so definitely grab tickets if you’re looking for fun things to do in Oakland during those months! Tickets are pretty affordable, especially if you buy them early. Depending on the game, you can expect to pay as little as $18 for pretty decent seats!

11. Follow a Boozy Trail to Beer & Wine

Fun Things to do in Oakland, California: Beer & Wine
Images courtesy of VisitOakland

There are plenty of breweries and wineries in Oakland. Follow the Oakland Ale Trail on this interactive map to experience some of the best beers in the area. With over 10 breweries and 20+ craft beer destinations, there’s an almost endless number of drinks to try! You can even check out the two cider houses in the area too.

If beer’s not your thing, you’re in luck! Oakland is home to four wineries and almost 20 wine bars, which you can find on the wine trail’s map. And since California is world-renowned for its wine, you definitely have to check out at least one!

Oakland, California Bucket List: Beer & Wine

If you want a really immersive experience, you can take a walking wine tour with East Bay Wine Tours. Your small group will visit several wineries and learn about the different wines in the region.

If you like to get crafty, Wine & Design Oakland offers paint-and-sip nights. This way, you can create a masterpiece to bring home and remember your trip!

12. Participate in First Fridays

Oakland, California Things to do: First Fridays
Images courtesy of VisitOakland

First Fridays are an Oakland staple! On the first Friday of every month, people gather in the evenings on Telegraph Avenue from West Grand to 27th Street to shop at the street stalls, watch live performances, eat at food trucks, and more.

Each month has a different theme and usually focuses on the various communities of people living in the city, like LBTQ Pride or Women in Oakland.

The Oakland Art Murmur, also known as the First Friday Art Walk, also takes place on the first Friday of every month during the same time as First Fridays. While you may feel the pressure to choose one, it’s still possible to go to both!

During Oakland Art Murmur evenings, visual arts venues are open to the public. Some of them host artist talks, lectures, and even live music.

The idea is to connect the Oakland community, so First Fridays are completely free. If you happen to be in Oakland on the first Friday of the month, consider yourself lucky. This is one event you don’t want to miss and easily one of the most fun things to do in Oakland!

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13. Get Educated at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland

The African American Museum and Library at Oakland is dedicated to preserving and educating the public about African American history, specifically in California. Their collection contains about 12,000 books by African Americans on topics like religion, the military, and famous historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr.

The museum is on the second floor, and you can either go on your own self-guided tour or request a guided tour. They have special events too, like talks with different authors or artists. Check out their events page to find out what’s happening while you’re there!

There’s plenty to learn about, and you can easily spend an entire afternoon perusing the museum.

14. Stroll Through the Morcom Rose Garden

Fun Things to do in Oakland, California: Morcom Rose Garden

If you’re visiting Oakland between May and October, don’t skip the Morcom Rose Garden, originally known as the Morcom Amphitheater of Roses. The garden contains over 6,000 rose bushes and 400 different kinds of roses across eight acres. If you’re looking for free things to do in Oakland, this is the place!

The garden is still worth seeing even if you’re there outside of bloom season. Wander through the pathways, and you’ll come across a gorgeous pool, climbing stairways, and bubbling fountains. When you walk through the winding trails of sprawling rose bushes, it’s hard to believe that the bustling city lies just outside the garden’s walls.

You’ll find secret staircases throughout Oakland, and one of the best views is behind the Ace Center on Grand Avenue. Climb up this staircase to see the roses blooming from above! It’s truly a gorgeous view, and one of the coolest things to see in Oakland!

15. Dance, Eat, and Drink During Art + Soul Oakland

Best Things to do in Oakland, California: Art + Soul Oakland
Images courtesy of VisitOakland

One of the most fun Oakland activities, the Art + Soul Oakland festival returns to Frank Ogawa Plaza every summer. People usually gather in late July for a cultural celebration of music, dancing, shopping, and more.

Dance to live jazz music playing on two different stages, shop ‘til you drop for locally-made goods, and grab some local food and beer! Be sure to stay hydrated because it gets hot in Oakland in the summer.

Come join the fun and dance the afternoon away. The festival usually starts around noon and lasts until the early evening.

Check out the murals around the area, and if you’re lucky, you’ll even see some breakdancers. Bring your roller skates, too, because there’s an outdoor roller rink where you can show off your moves. 

The whole point of this festival is to connect with the community and, of course, have fun! The lively and exciting energy of the city and the people living there make it possible to do just that.

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So there you have it! The 15 best things to do in Oakland, California. What’s your favorite thing to do in Oakland?

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About the Author:

  • Valerie Wheatley

    Val grew up in Portland, Oregon but moved to Oahu on a whim back in 2013. She sold her house and all of her belongings and bought a one-way ticket. Since then she’s taken two around-the-world trips and has visited 60-ish countries while living out of a duffel bag.

    Val started documenting the Wandering Wheatleys travels back in 2013 as a way to update friends and family about her whereabouts and to relay humorous daily interactions. The only readers were her mom and her mother-in-law but that didn’t stop her!

    These days you’ll find Val dreaming up future trips, creating new travel content, managing a team of amazing travel enthusiasts, and chasing around her two adorable but naughty kids.

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