Beyond San Francisco: How to Save Money and Avoid Crowds in Oakland

by  Laura Kiniry | Jul 31, 2017
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail /

Often overlooked for its bridge-side sibling, Oakland, California still remains one of the San Francisco Bay Area's best-kept secrets — at least among travelers. While the original “City by the Bay” is overrun with visitors attempting to capture its iconic views and vying for space at its well-worn sites, Oakland's many attractions fly under the radar. It's about time you explored the East Bay's largest city:

Forgo San Francisco's Kitschy Fisherman's Wharf for Oakland's Lively Jack London Square

While the souvenir shops and oddity museums of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf have their place, Oakland's revitalized marina offers prime waterfront views without skimping on local offerings or charging an arm and a leg. Over the past decade, this once-seedy port has transformed into one of the city's most vibrant destinations, with a weekly farmers market, full-moon kayaking excursions, and its own San Francisco Bay sightseeing cruise — this one aboard Franklin D. Roosevelt's very own presidential yacht, Potomac at $55 for a two-hour tour. Restaurants like The Forge Pizza and Plank provide a taste of the city with either supreme harbor views or—in Plank's case—an 18-lane bowling alley and beer garden. (And, games are a reasonable $6 per game per person.) Despite this revival, the square's bones are still intact: Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, an 1883 dive bar built out of an old whaling ship and where London himself tossed back drinks, remains its de facto watering hole.

Avoid the Hoards of Hipsters Along San Francisco's Valencia Street with a Stroll Along Oakland's Piedmont Avenue

It's easy to spend an afternoon wandering among the eclectic boutiques, cafes, used book stores, and eateries along the SF Mission District's Valencia Street, but Oakland's Piedmont Avenue houses an equally impressive selection of finds -- not to mention smaller crowds and a few stand-alone attractions to boot. The long (though still walkable) stretch between MacArthur Boulevard and Pleasant Valley Avenue is praised for its hometown feel. Individually owned shops selling everything from artisan jewelry to vintage dresses still prevail over the occasional chain, while restaurants like Homestead and Xyclo offer a wide range of affordable eats — not always the case on Valencia Street. You’re sure to spend less in Oakland, where you can catch an indie film at the century-old Piedmont Theatre for $9 a show, soak in one of the outdoor hot tubs at Piedmont Springs spa for $18 an hour, or savor a delicious hot fudge sundae for $9.25 at Fentons Creamery — a neighborhood institution that's been serving guests since 1894. The avenue also plays host to one of the city's most unusual destinations: Mountain View Cemetery — an Olmsted-designed necropolis that serves as the eternal resting place for numerous local luminaries, including railroad magnate Charles Crocker.

Skip the Fog-Shrouded Pedal Boats Along San Francisco's Stow Lake for a Gondola Experience upon Oakland's Lake Merritt

While renting a pedal or row boat to explore the waters of Stow Lake in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is a favorite local past-time, Karl the Fog can often wreak havoc on what was supposed to be a sunny day. You'll have a much better chance for blue skies and warm weather at Oakland's Lake Merritt, a 3.4-mile heart-shaped tidal lagoon that's one of the city's great scenic treasures. Along with pedal and row boats, the Lake Merritt Boating Center also provides kayak and canoe rentals, and even pontoon tours. However, it's the gondolas that really make this place a game-changer. Since 1999, Gondola Servizio has been offering up to one-hour excursions aboard authentic Venetian gondolas. And while the 30-minute tour comes in at $60 (one hour on a row boat at San Francisco’s Stow Lake is $22), somehow floating across the waters of North America's first-ever wildlife refuge on your own private cruise while your gondolier regales you with stories of the vessel's fascinating history seems more valuable. Afterward, swing by Shakewell on nearby Lakeshore Avenue for Mediterranean-inspired eats.

Save San Francisco's Painted Ladies for Another Time. Instead, Wander Among the Towering Trees of Oakland's Redwood Regional Park

San Francisco's Alamo Square may have an unbeatable view of the city's iconic Painted Ladies, but Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills boasts its own Instagramable wonders: the largest remaining natural stand of coast redwoods in the East Bay. Along with these towering giants, the 1,830-acre park is home to fern-lined pathways, serpentine grasslands, and a wandering stream that make you feel miles away from the city. Golden eagles occasionally fly overhead, and more than 40-miles of multi-use trails including portions of both the 550-mile loop Bay Area Ridge Trail, and the and 1,210-mile Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, chronicling the journey of the New-Spanish explorer from the Mexico-Arizona border to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ditch the Crowds at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences to Explore the Cosmos at Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center

San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences may be one of the world's largest museums of natural history, but Oakland's 86,000-square-foot Chabot Space & Science Center truly offers armchair astronomers and celestial students the universe. While both are family-friendly hubs of science and technology with their own digital planetarium and interactive exhibits, Chabot's primary focus is the cosmos. Use powerful magnets to sculpt your own sunspots, learn how much rocket putting three men on the moon once required, and explore the many wonders of the night sky. The center's highlight is its three giant telescopes — the largest of which is 'Nellie,' a 36” reflecting telescope with its own rolling roof. Oh, and did we mention it’s less expensive, too? Admission to San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences is $35.95 per adult while Oakland’s Chabot Space & Science Center is $18 per adult or $5 on Fridays after 5 p.m.

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