33 Essential Experiences You Can’t Miss in Oakland

From historic landmarks to dance parties and outdoor adventures, you’ll want to add these activities to your Oakland bucket list.

The term “melting pot” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s a fitting description for Oakland, also known as “The Town”—not to be mistaken for “The City.” Seated on the lands of the Ohlone Tribe, Oakland has long served as a safe haven for immigrant communities and counterculture movements. It’s the home of the Black Panther Party, and the birthplace of the phrase, “Power to the people.” In a truly cinematic, full-circle moment, Black Panther’s Wakanda was even brought to life on the big screen by an Oakland native, director Ryan Coogler.

Here in Oakland, we enjoy nearly perfect weather, are one of the happiest cities in America, and stand out for our commitment to sustainability, with a wealth of nature to explore. Whether you’re lucky enough to call Oakland home or are just passing through, we’ve compiled 33 can’t-miss experiences that represent the diversity and richness of The Town.

fox theater
Flickr/Jaeger Moore

Originally opened in 1928 as the Oakland Theater, the venue was renovated in 2009 and reopened after a nearly 40-year closure. This moviehouse turned concert venue has an art deco interior that begs you to marvel at the ceiling right before the curtain call of a show. This fall, catch big-names like Franz Ferdinand and Jorja Smith playing alongside indie acts like Little Feat and Shakey Graves.

Indigenous Red Market
Indigenous Red Market

Oakland is seated on the land of the Ohlone Tribe, and one way to support them is to visit the Red Market. Every first Sunday of the month, Indigenous artists and designers gather, pray, and honor Native American culture. Wondering what “Fry Bread” tastes like? Maybe this event can quell your curiosity.

The annual parade celebrated its fifth year of Black joy and celebration in 2022. Closing out Black History Month, community groups and organizations ride, skate, and dance in the streets of Oakland. Celebrations include a wellness center, performance stage, and vendors across the African Diaspora.

This Fruitvale bar is a century old and believed to be one of the oldest in Oakland. They also boast one of the longest bars in the city, as well as a patio area with umbrellas. This isn’t a craft cocktail spot, but you can order up from a selection of cold tap beers as well as signature cocktails like mojitos and margaritas—which are also available by the pitcher. If your happy place is watching the sunset on a patio with a margarita while dancing to old-school favorites, then we will find you here.

Garden gnomes

Magical creatures hiding all over Oakland add a touch of whimsy to neighborhood walks. On the light posts throughout Oakland, there are over 2,300 anonymously painted wooden blocks featuring gnomes, mushrooms, and other garden characters. The gnomes remind us to slow down for a little bit of magic in the most unexpected places.

The co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party (BPP) was honored with a bust for the 55th commemoration of the Black Panther Party. Seeing the lifelike bronze bust of Newton is a reminder of the BPP’s ten-point program, and that prioritizing education, free healthcare, fair and decent housing, and equitable employment are still present-day needs.

West Oakland Mural Project
West Oakland Mural Project

Two blocks from the bust of Huey P. Newton, you can visit the West Oakland house that served as headquarters for the BPP in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The mural honors the often overlooked women who organized and led within the organization and also holds the museum of BPP memorabilia. Stop by to read the names of hundreds of Black women who organized free breakfast programs, wrote their newspaper, and marched for the liberation of all people.

A night out in Oakland is not complete without a plate of street tacos from the food truck, Tacos El Ultimo. The meat is cooked over mesquite and oak for a sweet and fragrant smokiness, then served on handmade flour tortillas with a side of radish and lime. Using ingredients sourced from Oakland purveyors, this food truck knows that Tuesdays are not the only day for tacos.

Sports fans can’t miss out on seeing when the Oakland A’s go head-to-head against our friends across the bridge in the “Battle of the Bay.” Even if you’re not a fan of baseball, you can still eat hot dogs and drink beer in the nosebleed seats with your friends as the Oakland A’s take to the field.

Oeste rooftop bar

Located on a picturesque rooftop in Old Oakland, you’ll feel like you’re in a movie while sitting under the night sky for dinner at Black- and Latina-owned Oeste Bar, which specializes in a soulful comfort food that runs the gamut from Cheesy Shrimp and Grits to Steak Frites and Street Tacos. Make sure to book a reservation in advance, but if booking ahead isn’t your thing, you can enjoy a side of small bites and a cocktail at the bar or order takeout or delivery online.

Blk Girls Green House
Blk Girls Green House

Getting a new plant can also be an opportunity to make a fashion statement. This Black women-owned plant and specialty goods shop is a great place for catching up with your friend over a cup of java at the on-site pop-up coffee shop. Before you leave make sure to pose for a pic with your new plant babies.

Red Bay Coffee
Red Bay Coffee

Founded in 2014 by artist and food entrepreneur Keba Konte, this coffee shop and retailer has been shaking up the industry by championing a “fourth-wave” of coffee that pushes sustainable sourcing, diversity and inclusion, social and economic restoration, and entrepreneurship. With locations across the Bay and a mobile truck that serves fresh hot coffee all around town, Red Bay has quickly become a household name.

Morcom Rose Garden
Michael Roumph/Shutterstock

This eight-acre garden was opened in the 1920s and today, more than 6,000 roses of countless varieties bloom here during the spring, surrounded by a reflecting pool and fountains. While wandering the winding rows of roses, you may stumble upon a memorial or wedding.

Oakland Fortune Factory

This Asian- and woman-owned fortune cookie factory creates custom fortune cookies by hand with a recipe and methods that date back to the 1950s. With 65 years in business, they’re the oldest fortune cookie maker in the Bay Area and one of the last remaining fortune cookie factories. They even use some of the original equipment from the 1950s. Be on the lookout for limited flavors like matcha and strawberry chocolate cookies or pumpkin spice.

Dope Era
Dope Era

Located in Downtown Oakland, Dope Era clothing has colorful designs with nostalgic touch with limited run clothes featuring pop culture references but “The era way.” Owned by Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B, the apparel shop gives fashion a bit of hyphy and a lot of “Town business.”

America’s oldest Black-owned bookstore is named after activist Marcus Garvey, and opened over 60 years ago in San Francisco. In 1976, they opened a second location in Oakland that’s still around today. In addition to stocking African-American literature, history, and culture, the bookstore has been known to have a few out-of print-copies from Black authors. It will be tough to choose from a wide selection of books written by Black authors, from children’s books to Afro-futurism.

Rocky’s Market Brooklyn Basin
Rocky’s Market Brooklyn Basin

On a stage in front of Rocky’s Market, you can catch live jazz, salsa, and even Afrobeats bands along the waterfront. Parking is a bit tight but all the more reason to carpool, rideshare, or take public transportation. Order an Artisanal Charcuterie Box or some mac and cheese from Rocky's Market, so you can pair the show with an al fresco picnic.

Children’s Fairyland
Children’s Fairyland

Located on the shores of Lake Merritt and home to the longest-running puppet theater in the US, Fairyland was opened in 1948 with the intention of creating a children’s theme park, which was uncommon at the time. Now the park boasts ten acres with 60 storybook sets, where you can meet the old woman who lives in the shoe, roll down the Jack and Jill hill, and wind through the Alice in Wonderland playing-card tunnel.

chabot space and science center
Flickr/Keith Cuddeback

You’ll feel like you’ve traversed galaxies upon arriving at Chabot Space and Science Center, located on 13 acres of Redwood Regional Park among the largest stand of coastal redwoods in the East Bay. The nonprofit resource features a 241-seat full-dome planetarium, interactive exhibits, space artifacts, and the only research-level telescopes regularly available to the public for weekly live viewing on the West Coast. Check the weather before going, otherwise a foggy night could ruin a free telescope viewing. It’s also worth going before dark to explore the trails at Redwood Regional Park.

Eli’s describes itself as “a garbage bar for losers, babies, twisted jokers, punk foo's, bad boys, bad girls, bad theys, and bad thems”—the epitome of a local’s bar. The sticker-filled booths date back to the ‘70s, though the vegan menu (try the Falafel Burger) is a newer addition. On any given night you’ll be treated to live shows ranging from hip-hop to punk to polka, jazz, and more. The graffiti-tagged patio has picnic tables and umbrellas that make it a popular Sunday Funday spot as well.

The Crucible
The Crucible

With over 56,000-square-feet of space and 19 art departments ranging from welding to blacksmithing to glass-flamework and more, you won’t find another industrial art school like The Crucible. Not only can you refine your woodworking, jewelry-making, and ceramic building skills, the nonprofit organization also offers youth engagement in the form of apprenticeship programs, public art, field trips, and more.

On the first Friday of the month, the streets fill with people and vendors for the signature monthly event that celebrates Oakland’s artist community. The free block party takes place on Telegraph Ave, from West Grand to 27th Street, drawing up to 30,000 people. In just one night, you’re likely to witness dancers, a protest, delicious food, and a domino tournament—basically, a regular Friday night in Oakland.

Grand Lake Theater
Grand Lake Theater

Originally opened as a vaudeville and silent movie theater in the 1920s, Grand Lake Theater is one of the best vintage theaters in the nation, offering vintage ticket prices at just $7.50 for matinees before 5:45 pm and $6 movies on Tuesdays, though general admission is still a steal at $14.50 per person ($11 per child). Book a Friday or Saturday evening movie in the main auditorium and you’ll enjoy 10-30 minutes of the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ courtesy of the Northern California Theater Organ Society.

Take in the views as you stroll the East Span of the Bay Bridge from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island. The 2.2-mile stretch that opened in 2013 is 15.5 feet wide to allow two-way bike and pedestrian traffic. A venting system pulls car exhaust away from the path and the trail is constructed to keep traffic noise at a tolerable level. The path also features seven observation platforms where you can take a break and take in panoramic views of the Bay.

Zachary's Chicago Pizza
Zachary's Chicago Pizza

This East Bay pizza favorite has been our go-to for deep dish pies for over 20 years, offering five locations across the Bay and two employee-owned locations right here in Oakland. These Chicago-style pies feature fillings packed between two layers of dough and are topped with generous heaps of marinara sauce, yielding to an epic cheese pull. Order online to skip the wait.

Located just behind Oakland International Airport, this golf course is a great way to pass the time between a long layover, with views of incoming flights alongside the scenic 18-hole public golf course. The course caters to players across different skill levels, including lessons and twilight tee times.

This city-owned amphitheater began producing shows in the 1950s, offering one-of-a-kind shows surrounded by redwood trees in the historic Joaquin Miller Park. Each summer they produce three Broadway-level plays, with kids given free admission to make live theater affordable for families. The 2022 summer season brings Something Rotten from June 10-12 and 16-19, Man of La Mancha from July 8-10 and 14-17, and On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan from August 5-7 and 11-14.

Old Oakland Farmers Market
Urban Village Farmers' Market Association

Held across the street from Oakland’s Chinatown district every Friday, this long-running farmers market is touted as the most culturally diverse in the East Bay. For 25 years, this market has hosted an array of local vendors and accepts EBT and WIC so that families across income levels have access to fresh foods. Located in Oakland’s historic downtown area within walking distance to the 12th Street BART station, it’s easy to arrive here via public transportation.

Fenton's Ice Creamery

The ice creamery featured in Pixar’s Up is a real place. Founded in 1894, Fenton’s serves up delicious flavors that run the gamut from classic vanilla and cookies and cream to inventive Banana Nut Black Walnut and Butter Pecan Butterfinger. Bring your friends along to share the Banana Special, with huge scoops of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream with a banana cradled underneath; pineapple, chocolate, and strawberry fudge; and topped with almonds, whipped cream, and a cherry. Fenton’s also has a great Tuna Melt (and a Crab Melt!) if you’re feeling more savory than sweet.

Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon
Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon

Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon has been located in Jack London Square since 1884, welcoming seafarers, writers, politicians, and locals who favor strong and cheap drinks served in a historic environment. The outdoor picnic tables also offer a direct view of the incoming ferries.

Once a school for aeronautics opened by Boeing in 1929, the site was transformed into a museum in 1981. Now the museum preserves the history of aeronautics with an outdoor exhibition space, an exhibition room, and a research library. Head to the museum and learn all about what it takes to fly above the clouds.

This multicultural and intergenerational protest has been happening annually since 2016. It takes place on May 10 in honor of Oakland’s 510 area code and brings communities together to celebrate the city’s history and raise awareness about culture erasure and gentrification. Though relatively new, it’s still one of the best celebrations of hometown pride.

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Brandy Collins is a contributor for Thrillist.